Just in time for “God’s Work Our Hands Sunday” in the ELCA Lutheran churches —
Excerpts from Saturday’s column by Rabbi Barry Marks in the State Journal-Register on a related Jewish concept — tzedakah, or obligatory acts of charity.
“When we respond generously to the needs of our fellow persons, we are acting as God’s agents,” says Rabbi Marks. “Giving is not a burden but an opportunity to serve. And after two and a half millennia, Deuteronomy’s call to “open your hand to your poor and needy kinsman” still resonates with us.”
And this: “Our young people are also required during their time of preparation for bar or bat mitzvah to engage in a Tzedakah project, be it volunteering at the breadline, the homeless shelter or the Habitat store or raising money for a charity. This linkage of ritual and faith to charity is not unique to Judaism but is shared by other religious traditions as well.”
Rabbi Barry Marks, “Righteousness, not charity,” State Journal-Register, Springfield, Illinois, Sept. 5, 2020 https://www.sj-r.com/lifestyle/20200905/rabbi-barry-marks-righteousness-not-charity.
Those of us who grew up closer in proximity to our East European immigrant and Yiddish-speaking roots, call the charity box a pushke. Most Jews today, however, use the Hebrew term and refer to it as a tzedakah box. And therein is an important lesson, because, while tzedakah entails providing money and the necessities of life to those in need, acts that we think of as “charity,” that is not at all what the word means in Hebrew. A more accurate translation would be “righteousness,” doing that which is just and right. When we share our blessings with others, when we enable them to enjoy a decent and stable life, we are affirming the bonds of our common humanity and doing what is just, what is right, and what is obligatory for one who claims to love and to worship God.
The practice of tzedakah has roots in the Torah, which mandates leaving the corner of the field for the poor and including the stranger, the fatherless and the widow in the celebration of the festivals. “Do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman,” Deuteronomy admonishes. “Give to him readily and have no regrets when you do so, for in return the Lord your God will bless you.” Later Jewish tradition expounds on the laws of tzedakah and establishes priorities for the allocation of charitable funds. …
Our faith tradition links the performance of ritual acts to the obligation to care for the needy and vulnerable in our society. When my mother lit the Shabbat candles just before sunset on Friday evening, she would always put some coins in the pushke. And, when a young man or woman in their teens demonstrates by leading prayers and chanting the Scriptures in Hebrew that they have the necessary skills to be an adult member of the congregation, we use the opportunity to initiate them into the practice of tzedakah. Our young people are also required during their time of preparation for bar or bat mitzvah to engage in a Tzedakah project, be it volunteering at the breadline, the homeless shelter or the Habitat store or raising money for a charity. This linkage of ritual and faith to charity is not unique to Judaism but is shared by other religious traditions as well.
We live in very trying times that have adversely affected our economy and heightened the need for charitable giving in our communities. Food insecurity, homelessness, and access to health care are now more than ever urgent concerns. When we respond generously to the needs of our fellow persons, we are acting as God’s agents. Giving is not a burden but an opportunity to serve. And after two and a half millennia, Deuteronomy’s call to “open your hand to your poor and needy kinsman” still resonates with us.
Rabbi Barry Marks is rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel in Springfield.
Some background from Wikipedia:
“Tzedakah,” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tzedakah.
Tzedakah [ts(e)daˈka] (Hebrew: צדקה) is a Hebrew word meaning “righteousness”, but commonly used to signify charity. This concept of “charity” differs from the modern Western understanding of “charity.” The latter is typically understood as a spontaneous act of goodwill and a marker of generosity; tzedakah is an ethical obligation.
Tzedakah refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, which Judaism emphasizes as an important part of living a spiritual life. Unlike voluntary philanthropy, tzedakah is seen as a religious obligation that must be performed regardless of one’s financial standing, and so is mandatory even for those of limited financial means. Tzedakah is considered to be one of the three main acts that can positively influence an unfavorable heavenly decree.
The word tzedakah is based on the Hebrew (צדק, Tzedek), meaning righteousness, fairness, or justice, and is related to the Hebrew word Tzadik, meaning righteous as an adjective (or righteous individual as a noun in the form of a substantive). Although the word appears 157 times in the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible, typically in relation to “righteousness” per se, its use as a term for “charity” in the above sense is an adaptation of Rabbinic Judaism in Talmudic times.