Image: A spoon is balanced on a calculator. On one end, it is stuck into a potato. In the bowl of the spoon sit a stack of coins. Photo by stevepb/pixabay.

To those readers for whom the bare necessities take every dollar: I am truly sorry that you are in that situation. For your own dignity I hope you will find a few coins you can set aside for a cause you find worthy, but I also hope that you will feel free to ask for help you need, and that you can connect with someone who says “yes.”

For everyone else: Do you have a budget for giving tzedakah?

Tzedakah are funds for the relief of privation and suffering. They can take many forms:

  • a gift to a nonprofit organization that helps the needy
  • a gift for support of a Torah scholar
  • a gift to keep synagogue doors open
  • a gift to support Jewish education (which will make it more available to those who cannot afford to pay the full cost)
  • money or a gift card handed to a needy person on the street
  • the purchase of a meal for a hungry person on the street
  • financial or in-kind support for anyone who is in need
  • support for a relative who cannot make ends meet

All of these things qualify as tzedakah.

One of the things the sages warn us about is that while all Jews should give to help the needy, it is wrong to give beyond our means. In other words, there is no merit in bankrupting yourself (and thereby putting yourself in need of tzedakah.)

Tzedakah is a sacred duty, a mitzvah. So it makes sense to plan your tzedakah with a budget.

Our income is highly variable, so we tend to base our tzedakah on last year’s income. Linda and I try to give a certain percentage of income every year. We look at last year’s gross income, multiply by the percentage, and there we have our target. We don’t give money away, however, until it actually comes in. That way we don’t get ahead of ourselves in a leaner year. At any given time, we have a figure in mind for what we can spend, should spend, on tzedakah.

How to set the percentage? I like to compare our tzedakah budget to other items in our budget:

  • What percentage of income goes for necessities?
  • What percentage goes for luxuries, like cable, entertainment, or vacation?

Our budget reflects our true priorities. Shelter, food, clothing, health, taxes – those are things we must pay, although we may be able to adjust some of them with our choices. Other things may be optional, but we choose to make them a priority: synagogue membership, for instance. And then there are the true luxuries: cable TV, entertainment, etc.

I look to see where my spending on tzedakah fits in the list. Is it more than I spend on cable? Is it less than we spend on dinners out? That will tell me a lot about my true answer to Hillel’s famous questions:

Hillel says, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?” Pirkei Avot, 1:14

To restate it: are we spending enough on ourselves and our dependents? Are we spending so much on ourselves and our dependents that we cannot share anything? What am we going to do about what we have learned about ourselves?

Our tzedakah budget is always a work in progress, and it changes when our lives hit a bump. That’s as it should be. The main thing, as with most other mitzvot, is to be aware of ourselves and our impact on the world.

 

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