The Jewish value of Tzedakah

In Judaism, giving tzedakah (translated as charity, justice or righteousness) is an obligation on each person — including those who are themselves in need. Why should a person who depends on tzedakah be obligated to give tzedakah to others? Giving tzedakah not only provides for someone else’s physical needs; it also confers dignity on the person giving. In other words, giving tzedakah benefits the giver as well as the recipient. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks wrote, “The paradox of giving is that when we…give to another, it is we ourselves who are lifted. I believe that what elevates us in life is not what we receive but what we give.”

An expanded curriculum is available for this topic.

  • Review
  • Discussion
  • Activities
  • Reflection
  • Further Learning
  1. Read Devarim (Deuteronomy) 15: 7-10 which describes the act of giving tzedakah. What roles do the hand and heart each play in giving tzedakah? Why do you think the Torah repeatedly mentions the heart in how it describes giving tzedakah?
  2. In the Mishneh Torah, Matanot Aniyim (Gifts to the Poor) 10:4, Rambam writes, “Anyone who gives tzedakah to a poor person with a scowl and causes him to be embarrassed, even if he gave him a thousand zuz, has destroyed and lost any merit thereby. Rather, one should give cheerfully, with happiness [to do so] and empathy for his plight.” According to Rambam, what is the “way” to give tzedakah? Why do you think that exhibiting care and concern for others is included in the mitzvah of tzedakah?
  3. In his commentary on the Mishnah (Pirkei Avot 3:15), Rambam explains how repeated acts of giving tzedakah impact a person’s heart and character:“Good character traits do not come to a person by virtue of the greatness of a deed, but rather by the frequency with which he performs it. To acquire good character traits, one must perform good deeds again and again: doing one great act will not inculcate good character traits. For example, one who gives one poor person a thousand golden coins at one time — and nothing to another poor man — will not acquire the trait of generosity to the same extent as one who willingly gives one golden coin a thousand times.
    • According to Rambam, why is giving one coin a thousand times preferable to giving a thousand coins all at once? In Rambam’s thinking, how does giving benefit the giver? Do you agree that doing repeated acts of generosity makes a person more generous?
  1. In the Mishneh Torah, Matanot Aniyim (Gifts to the Poor) 10: 7-14, Rambam ranked eight different ways of giving tzedakah, ranging from the highest level of giving to the lowest level. Lead your students in the following activity created by Learning to Give. In the activity, students will explore the meaning of each level of giving, predict the order of the levels as written by Rambam, and then discuss Rambam’s list and why he ranked them that way. Discuss Rambam’s values of protecting the recipient’s dignity, enabling the recipient to become self-sufficient, and giving willingly and with kindness.
  2. Charitywatch.org lists the following 10 top-rated Jewish and Israel charities. ​​(Note: You might disagree with the missions of some of these organizations. However, this is a helpful list, and you can add additional organizations as well.) Research each charitable organization to learn more about it (their websites are below). Then, rank the list of charities in order of importance to you. After completing the exercise, reflect on the question, what is most important to you when choosing between different charities? After everyone has completed the exercise, share your list and the values that informed your ranking with your classmates.
    • American Jewish Committee (website)
    • American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (website)
    • American Jewish World Service (website)
    • Anti-Defamation League & Foundation (website)
    • Bend the Arc – A Jewish Partnership for Justice (website)
    • Friends of the Israel Defense Forces (website)
    • Hadassah (website)
    • MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger (website)
    • New Israel Fund (website)
    • Simon Wiesenthal Center (website)
  3. Working with a classmate, lead a 60-day tzedakah project. Students can create an online fundraising page, design and distribute tzedakah boxes, hold a bake sale or craft fair, or offer services (e.g., babysitting, dog-walking, cooking) and donate part of the proceeds to charity. Students can research one or two charities to donate to on charitynavigator.org. If possible, each group should get a small amount of money to fund and execute their project. Afterward, host a “tzedakah fair” in which students present to their classmates about what their project entailed, what charity or charities they chose to donate to, how the experience impacted them, and what they learned.
  4. Watch this TED Talk by social psychologist Elizabeth Dunn, “Helping others makes us happier — but it matters how we do it.” In the talk, Dunn argued, “Let’s stop thinking about giving as just this moral obligation and start thinking of it as a source of pleasure.” What conclusions did Dunn draw from her research and experiences about the connection between giving money to charity and boosting our own happiness as well?
  1. Watch the video about how one family donated over 10,000 meals to those in need during the pandemic, and how this impacted them. Then answer the following questions:
    • What’s an experience you have had giving to others?
    • How did this impact the people you were helping? How did it impact you personally?
    • Can you think of a time when someone gave to you? How did this impact you?
    • How do you think your life would be different if you more frequently gave to others?
    • What has held you back from giving more to others?
    • Do you incorporate tzedakah into your own life? What’s a practical way you can do this?
  2. The Talmud (Bava Batra 9a) states: “Rav Asi said: Tzedakah is equivalent to all of the other commandments combined.” Why do you think Judaism considers the mitzvah of tzedakah to be so important? What experiences or people have shaped how you think about tzedakah? How did this experience or person impact you?
  3. If you could choose one issue that is important to you that you wanted to fix, improve or even solve, which one would it be and why?

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