Giving: Not Just for Tuesday

First there was Thanksgiving, a national holiday established by FDR in 1939. (Yes, yes, there was a feast at Plimoth Plantation in 1621, but it wasn’t an annual feast, much less a national holiday until 1939.)

Then there was Black Friday, a day with complicated roots that sometime in the 1980’s came to mean the day consumers began the American frenzy of holiday shopping.

Cyber Monday came into being in 2005, when a marketing team at the National Retail Foundation decided that online retailers needed an advertising hook to kick off the shopping season.

Finally in 2012 the 92nd Street Y in New York City conceived #Giving Tuesday. They wanted to yoke the power of social media to the energy of the “charitable season,”and it seems to be catching on. (“Charitable season” appears to refer to the combination of the approach of the Dec 31 deadline for charitable donation deductions on U.S. income tax and the “spirit of the season.”)

I am not a fan of the annual consumer madness, but “Giving Tuesday” stands my rabbinical hair on end. It is good to remind people to help others, of course, but the message “Giving Tuesday” sends are the antithesis of Jewish teaching on the subject: it’s not Torah.

Jewish concepts of giving have a complex history, but they are rooted in some straightforward mitzvot. The fundamental idea is that giving is not merely charity (the root of which is the Latin caritas, or love) but tzedakah, a form of justice.

Communal Responsibility – The support of the poor is the responsibility of the community. In ancient times through the middle ages, Jews contributed to the kupah, a local fund for the needy. Maimonides wrote in Laws of Gifts to the Poor: “Any fast where the community eats [at the end after sundown], goes to sleep, and did not distribute tzedakah to the poor is like [a community] that sheds blood.”

Give First, not Last – One of the models for Jewish giving is the terumah, the consecration of a portion of the harvest to the upkeep of communal institutions (the Temple priesthood) in ancient Israel. Trumah came “off the top” – it was separated before anything was sold or consumed. Waiting to give until the shopping is done is a mistaken priority and a bad message.

Serving All Comers – Jewish law specifies that communal resources must serve Jews and non-Jews, locals and foreigners. There is no concept of the “deserving poor” – the only qualifier is poverty.

Everyone Contributes – “Communal responsibility” means that everyone contributes something.  The poor give a little bit and the wealthy are expected to give much more. Maimonides teaches: “Even a poor person who lives on tzedakah is obligated to give tzedakah to another.”

Giving Year Round – Giving is not restricted to a single season. Ideally a Jew makes many charitable contributions throughout the year: before the Sabbath, before holy days, in memory of the deceased, in celebration of life cycle events, and in honor of good people.

For Justice, not for Benefit – The Hebrew term for this sort of giving is tzedakah, related to the word for “Justice.” It is a mitzvah, a sacred duty, to relieve suffering. 

Here’s what I’d prefer:

  • I’d like to see tzedakah come before the feast, not after, and certainly before the orgy of gift-shopping and bargains.
  • I’d like to see more teaching about tzedakah as a spiritual discipline, a holy activity, a way of sanctifying our time and treasure.
  • I’d like to see spirited debates about the ethics of tzedakah among adults in our community. Is Maimonides’ ruling that one must give to any person who says he is hungry out of date in a modern urban environment? What do we owe, if anything, to beggars on the street who ask for pocket change?
  • I’d like to see tzedakah taught and observed not as a fundraising ploy, but as part of the structure of mitzvot that sanctify our community, and beyond it, our world.


/end rant



Giving Justly

Food Bank Donations
Food Bank Donations (Photo credit: NJLA: New Jersey Library Association)

After the last long weekend (almost a week, really) of consumption (Thanksgiving aka Turkey Day, Black Friday, Small Business Saturday, Cyber Monday) two clever nonprofit executives have come up with the idea of “Giving Tuesday.” So let’s see:  first give thanks, then consume, then give?

Jewish tradition suggests that giving be part of our budget from the beginning, not an afterthought at the end.  However this new holiday (?) offers is a reminder near the end of the secular year that our lives are not just about us. One measure of a person is the good that he or she manages to do in the world.

How much should we give for tzedakah? That’s the Jewish word for charitable giving. Let me ask you that question another way:  guesstimate the following figures:

  • the cable bill per month
  • amount spent on coffee drinks per month
  • or some other not-necessary-for-survival budget item

Now compare that to “given in tzedakah a month.” Tzedakah includes:

  • money to charities
  • to your temple
  • to Cousin Fred to pay his rent last month
  • in-kind gifts to charities (canned goods to the Food Bank)
  • the dollar to the homeless woman

The idea is that this giving relieves suffering and makes life more livable for people who need help. The question is, how much was it? And how does that compare to your cable bill? Your coffee bill? How does it compare to any other nice-but-not-necessary-for-life item in your budget?

If the numbers appear to be out of balance in favor of tzedakah, good for you! If they are out of balance the other direction, I encourage you to think about writing a check  on Giving Tuesday. It’s another way of keeping life in balance.

(If you’d rather do this by a more traditional method, you can use Maimonides‘ rule of thumb: 5% of income if you have a low income, 10% if you are well-off. I know, those are challenging percentages, but it is the ideal, and there are people who manage to do it, most of them on the lower, not the upper end of the income scale.)

Consider giving for justice’s sake, not just on Tuesday, but on a regular basis.  As Hillel says, “Who is rich? The person who is happy with what he has.” (Avot 4.1) The more we give, the richer we feel.  That’s the miracle.