“The Highest Form of Jewish Giving” might be a surprise.

If you bring up the subject of tzedakah, money given for charity, many Jews will tell you two things:

1. Tzedakah is from the same Hebrew root as “justice.”  and

2. Maimonides taught a ladder of tzedakah, with making a loan as the highest form of tzedakah.

The first is true, the second is missing some bits.

1. Tzedakah is indeed from the Hebrew root associated with justice: tzadee, dalet, kuf.   The Hebrew for justice is tzedek.

2. Maimonides teaches us a hierarchy of virtue in giving tzedakah, from least to greatest:

  1. Giving begrudgingly
  2. Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully.
  3. Giving after being asked
  4. Giving before being asked
  5. Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity
  6. Giving when you know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient does not know your identity
  7. Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity
  8. Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

Adapted from Maimonides’ Mishneh Torah, Laws of Gifts to the Poor 10:7-14

“Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant” is a far cry from “the highest form of charity is a loan.” Maimonides specifies, first of all, that he refers to an interest-free loan or a money gift to enable a person to start a business. Providing an interest-free loan or a gift for education or training might also qualify. The Talmud (Shabbat 63) suggests that an interest-free loan is preferable because it is more sensitive to the dignity of the recipient. However, the highest form of tzedakah, according to Maimonides, is to form a business partnership with the intended recipient, which means taking on risks and serving as an ongoing partner in the venture. It isn’t for the faint of heart, and should not be undertaken lightly. We are forbidden to give tzedakah beyond our means.

There’s a third point about tzedakah that gets less press. Maimonides teaches that when we select a recipient for a share from our limited resources, we should look first nearby and for the most in distress. “Nearness” might mean physical nearness (give to the food bank in your own county before you give to the one far away) or it might mean familial nearness, so help for the cousin who can’t make rent takes precedence over a non-relative, or an organization that will survive without our gift. (I can imagine development directors groaning at this one, but that’s what the Rambam says, folks.)

Maimonides warns, like a good investment advisor, against putting all of one’s tzedakah funds in one place: figure out how much is possible, then divide the funds between two or more recipients. So even if hapless Cousin Susie could absorb all one’s tzedakah, at least a bit should go elsewhere. Also (returning to that principle of helping people be self-sufficient) it may be best to help Cousin Susie get out of her current situation by assisting her in making terms with creditors, or moving into more affordable housing, or whatever will contribute to a long term fix.

For a more complete explanation of Maimonides on giving, I recommend this article online or the book from which it is excerpted, The Challenge of Wealth: A Jewish Perspective on Earning and Spending Money, by Dr. Meir Tamari. Dr. Tamari is both a rabbi and an economist, serving for many years as the Chief Economist of the Bank of Israel.

In an era of growing income inequality it can be overwhelming to make decisions about tzedakah. I appreciate that our forebears thought a lot about this question and left us a framework for decision making.

The Corners of My Field

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not completely reap the corners of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest; you shall leave them for the poor and the stranger: I the Eternal am your God. – Leviticus 23:22 (Parashat Emor)

It looks so simple, on the surface: when you gather the harvest, leave some for the poor. Why, then, do we need an entire tractate of the Talmud to talk about it, and why does Maimonides devote an entire volume of the Mishneh Torah to it?

The commandment may be simple, but human nature is not. The minute people heard “leave the corners, leave the gleanings” the questions began: how much of the corners? On every field of any size? And what exactly are gleanings? What if a worker drops an entire basket of produce? What if you don’t have a field, but a silver smithy? What if the harvest is really bad that year? What about… on and on.

There are also questions about the recipients: who gets the gleanings? Who are the poor? Who is the stranger? Why do they deserve free stuff?

Actually, that last question is a ringer. The rabbis addressed the question of fraud but they don’t question that a poor person deserves food to eat. Indeed, Maimonides says that while we can question a beggar’s request for money, if a person asks for food, if they say they are hungry, the observant Jew has to give, or at the very least, speak kindly when they say a regretful “no.”

I live in a part of the country where I am asked for money on the street on a regular basis. I have a son who trained as a social worker who feels very strongly that one should not give street people money. I have a colleague who has made a very cogent argument for giving money to people who ask for it on the street. And I hear Maimonides’ words scolding me when I pass someone and say, “No, I’m sorry, not today.”

I resolve my dilemma by giving as much cash as I can to my local food bank. Canned goods are nice, but the truth is they can do a lot more with cash. They can buy what people actually need as opposed to our fantasies of what they need. They can buy at steep discounts, too. My “harvest” doesn’t involve corners of fields or gleanings, it is in my checkbook, and so I give what I can.

There are a growing number of poor families and individuals in the United States. The recovery from the Great Recession has left many behind.  We live in a cruel economy at the moment, and funds for food stamps have been cut again and again. It is up to us to dig deep and give to organizations that feed hungry people. Our tradition demands no less.

Don’t Forget this Purim Mitzvah!

will_work_for_food3gPurim’s coming! Don’t forget: one of the four main mitzvot of Purim is a gift to feed the poor.

In its strictest interpretation, that’s a gift to make sure that poor Jews can celebrate the holiday. You can fulfill that mitzvah, feeding Jews, by a couple of routes:

MAZON is a Jewish organization that feeds people in both North America and in Israel. They do not turn anyone away, but they are primarily focused on Jewish food insecurity.

Alternatively, you can give money to your rabbi’s discretionary fund. Every congregation has members who are living with food insecurity, usually silently. The rabbi sometimes becomes aware of these situations and the discretionary fund can help buy groceries. A rabbi’s discretionary fund is not a private slush fund for expenses. Those funds have to be spent on things that preserve the deductible status of the original gift (in the USA.)

However, we are taught by our tradition to feed ALL hungry people, not just Jews. Some other options:

  • Donate cash or goods to your local food pantry or food bank.
  • Persuade others to give to your local food bank.

This is different from the usual “tzedakah before a holiday” thing, although that’s certainly good on its own. This is a particular part of Purim observance.  Partly this makes sure all can celebrate the holiday, but also look at the calendar: this holiday comes at what can be a brutal time of year for people with food insecurity. It’s cold and wet in many locations, and has been for months. Nutrition affects people’s resistance to colds and flu. Many kinds of produce are more expensive because of the season, too.

The Hebrew name for these Purim gifts is Matanot L’Evyonim (mah-ta-NOTE l’ev-yon-EEM): Gifts to the Poor. Purim is actually the traditional Jewish gift-giving holiday: we give gifts to the poor, and food gifts to friends.

The root of tzedakah (charity) is tzedek, justice. It is unfair that so many are hungry. In my own home state of California, 15% of households – that’s over 2 million people! – are currently suffering with food insecurity. There are parents going hungry to feed their children and children going hungry because there isn’t enough to go around. This is a shanda (scandal.)

Before we put on our festive masks, let’s each choose a place to send what we can!

Giving Tuesday, Giving Tzedakah

There are many opportunities to give tzedakah.
There are many opportunities to give tzedakah.

“Giving Tuesday:” It’s a new tradition, started recently, and while I am glad that people are giving charity, it seems to me that the timing is backwards. We have the banquet on Thanksgiving, the shopping on “Black” Friday, the sales over the weekend, and “Cyber” Monday. The message seems to be that after we’ve had our dinner and done our shopping sprees, then we will give to the needy from what’s left.

It is a Jewish tradition to give tzedakah (money to relieve suffering – a form of the word for justice, tzedek) before every holiday. That means giving tzedakah on Friday, before Shabbat, and before sundown brings in any other holiday or celebration.

You may be thinking, “Ouch! that’s a lot of tzedakah!” but the amount isn’t specified, just the timing. We give before we celebrate. It helps us better appreciate the good things in our lives. For someone on a very limited budget, the amount would be extremely small, since Jewish law forbids us giving more than we can afford, but for the poor person it gives the dignity of knowing that he or she contributed, too. For someone extremely wealthy, giving regularly from a budget for giving is a way to keep wealth in perspective.

Disciplined giving keeps us awake and aware of the world around us. We cannot ignore the needy, if we give so regularly (after all, we have to choose where to give!) Since Jewish holidays come at least once a week (think Shabbat,) ideally we give small amounts so regularly that giving becomes a habit, part of our nature. Over a lifetime of tzedakah, the greatest benefit accrues to the giver, because he or she becomes a better person.

Shabbat arrives  every Friday night. Whether or not you give on Giving Tuesday, I invite you to join me in this ancient spiritual practice of regular tzedakah.

Suffering in Paradise

Pahoa
US Geological Survey photo shows the lava crossing Cemetery Rd and Apa’a St in Pahoa.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the plight of the people of the Lower Puna district in Hawai’i in Suffering is Not a Show. Kilauea volcano’s most recent eruption took an unexpected turn this past summer when lava began oozing toward the homes of the small town of Pahoa.

Real estate in Lower Puna is among the cheapest in the Hawaiian islands because of the nearness of Kilauea. It is a gamble to buy land there, because the volcano is so close. On the other hand, if a person of ordinary means and no inheritance wants to own land, that is the only affordable property; much of the rest of the Island belongs to land trusts or owners with very deep pockets. Until June, the village of Pahoa was one of the fortunate places. Then the lava began moving their way, just before the brunt of Hurricane Iselle hit that part of the island.

Now these people of modest means are scrambling to get out of the way of the lava before it takes their property and burns their homes. If you would like to help them, the Hawaii Emergency Management Agency recommends cash donations to any of these organizations:

American Red Cross, Hawaii Chapter

Aloha United Way

Hawaii Food Bank

Helping Hands Hawaii

Tzedakah is the Jewish word for money given for the relief of suffering. It is a mitzvah to assist someone in such a situation.

The Hawaiian people speak of Madame Pele, the deity of the volcano. They regard her with reverence and awe. As a Jew, I see the awesome power of the volcano. God in nature can indeed be fearful, but as a human being I can perform mitzvot, extending the mercy of God with my helping hand.

 

Purim for Grownups?

What's behind your mask?
What’s behind your mask?

Never underestimate the spiritual possibilities of fun!

But let’s say you are in a communal situation where it seems that Purim is solely a children’s holiday, and you want “more.” Here are some possibilities:

1. READ THE MEGILLAH. If you don’t have access to a formal megillah reading, that’s OK. Break out the Book of Esther (it’s in your Bible) and read it, preferably out loud.  Read it with other adults, or read it to yourself. The rabbis of the Talmud felt so strongly about the annual reading of the Book of Esther that they designated the proper time to do it (Erev Purim) and then several alternate times, should it be impossible that evening. Read all of it: not just the familiar early chapters, but the last two chapters, which are bloody and rather unnerving on the first reading. 

2. OBSERVE THE MITZVOT. Purim has four commandments, and they are all suitable for adults. (1) Read the megillah. (2) Eat a festive meal. (3) Give food to the poor, either directly or through an agency. (4) Give small gifts of prepared food (mishloach manot) to friends.

3. CONTEMPLATE MASKS. Masks and disguises are a major theme of the holiday. Take time to think about the masks you wear every day, and what is hidden by those masks. Is there some part of yourself that you disguise? Why? What would happen if you dropped the mask? What is your disguise? What does it cost you to wear that disguise, day after day?

4. WORK FOR JUSTICE FOR WOMEN. While the original writer of Esther probably intended it primarily as a story about anti-Semitism, a 21st century reading of the book reveals a feminist message as well. The king mistreats and then banishes Vashti, but over the length of the story those acts bring chaos upon the kingdom of Persia. Rabbi Arthur Waskow points out in Season of Our Joy that when Haman speaks of the Jews in Chapter 3, “There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people,” his anti-Semitic words could just as easily have been describing the situation of women in the kingdom. Consider giving tzedakah to a women’s shelter, or take some action for justice for women.

5. WORK FOR SOCIAL JUSTICE. Megillat Esther is the story of a vulnerable minority who survive an attempt at genocide. Learn about and support organizations that watch out for hate in our society today, such as the Anti Defamation League or the Southern Poverty Law Center. Support or volunteer for organizations that work for social justice in your community.

6. GATHER WITH FRIENDS. Remember the “festive meal” listed among the mitzvot of Purim? Purim is a great opportunity for hospitality: invite some friends to join you in a nice dinner (maybe potluck?) and invite people to wear costumes or have a collection of costume pieces for them to make into costumes when they arrive. Have a silly party and play silly games.  Purim is a holiday against pomposity – if you can find a way to be silly and have fun, then you will be in the spirit of the holiday.

7. UPSIDE-DOWN DAY. Vacation is down time, but Purim is upside-down time. The scroll tells a story about reversals. Make your festive meal silly by reversing things: dessert first, then the meal.  Do things backward. (If there are children in your household, they can be very inventive with this.) Wear silly hats. Reverse roles! You may find out all sorts of interesting things about your family when you start switching things up – you may find new appreciation for someone.

Whatever you do for Purim this year, I wish you a day of laughter and insight!

Image: AttributionNoncommercial Some rights reserved by Cayusa

The Ethics and Politics of Street Tzedakah – Part II

rabbiadar:

I “reblog” Rabbi Rosove’s post about Street Tzedakah because I wish I’d written it. He grounds powerful words in solid texts. Enjoy.

Originally posted on Rabbi John Rosove's Blog:

When I lived in Berkeley in the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, walking along Telegraph Avenue could be expensive if you gave to every panhandler who asked for spare change. Not that much has changed in all these years. The number of people asking for hand-outs is at least as great as it was, and perhaps more so. Given the nagging high national unemployment rate of 7% and the large numbers of long-term unemployed who have been unable to find work, the high number of under-employed, the historically low minimum wage, the federal cuts to food stamps for the working poor, and the threat that Congress will not extend unemployment insurance, it is no surprise that people asking for help on the street is so ever-present.

What to do? Democrats in Congress who believe that the federal government should extend a helping hand, especially in difficult times, are slogging it…

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