How Can I Give When Money is Tight?

Image: A person pulls their jeans’ pockets out, empty. (shuldnerhilfe/pixabay)

What is the responsibility of the low-income person in giving tzedakah (money contributions for the relief of suffering)? What are the tzedakah requirements for the person who may have income, but whose responsibilities are so numerous that they are “cash-poor”?

Jewish tradition is adamant that the commandment of tzedakah applies to all of us, from the wealthiest Jew to the poorest. For the wealthy, Maimonides prescribes a minimum of 5% of income after taxes with a maximum of 20%. That prescription may seem a mockery for anyone struggling to pay the rent. The Shulchan Aruch, an influential code of Jewish law, is adamant that even the poorest person is required to give something.

What is a low-income person supposed to give, if they have no money? Why require such giving from the poor? What are some strategies for giving when we simply don’t have the cash?

  1. What are the poor required to give? Most sources cite Exodus 30: 12-16, which states that “the poor will not give less than half a shekel.” A biblical shekel is estimated to be $2 or $2.50. The poorest person has fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah if they contribute at least $1 annually to the relief of other sufferers. The recipients  may be relatives of the giver. (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Dei-ah 7:13) Those who can give more than that absolute minimum should do so, but not at such a level that their own subsistence is threatened.
  2. Why require such giving from the needy? Our tradition puts a high value on the dignity of every individual. The person who has to receive tzedakah may feel embarrassed at being the recipient of aid, but their dignity is bolstered by the knowledge that they, too, contribute to the support of the poor.
  3. Can a person not contribute instead by volunteering their time? Volunteer work is a different mitzvah: it is gimilut hasidim, deeds of lovingkindness. It cannot substitute for giving tzedakah.

Some strategies for giving when money is tight

I’m speaking here not to “the poorest of the poor” but to the average person who has limited income.

Take stock of the tzedakah one is already giving. If a person is in the habit of “helping out” friends or relatives with the rent or roceries, that’s tzedakah. If a person hands loose change to people on the street, that’s tzedakah. If a person is supporting an adult child or relative with a mental or physical illness, whatever they spend on that is tzedakah. Money one spends on groceries that are cooked into a meal for a needy person is tzedakah.

One may give tzedakah as a gift. If one is a member of any community, there are times when we are expected to give gifts, something that can become quite a burden. Where a gift of a very small amount might be all one can afford, one can give a donation of $5 to a charitable organization in honor of the wedding or the bar mitzvah. The organization does not report the amount given, they just send a card reporting the gift with thanks.

One may make a micro-loan through an organization such as Kiva brokers loans of $25 to create opportunities for people to become self-sufficient. While the money will be tied up during the period of the loan, it is exactly that: a loan. At the end of the repayment period, one can get the entire $25 back. Kiva loans are not risk free, but they are fairly safe, with a repayment rate of 96.9% or a failure rate of 3.1%. Such loans qualify as tzedakah because they allow the borrower to move from a situation in which they need aid to real independence. (According to Maimonides, this is the highest form of giving.)

Keep a pushke or tzedakah box. Collect small coins over time in a little box, and when it fills up, give the contents to any charitable organization or to a needy person. This little box can be a “penalty box” for sin (e.g. a swear jar)  or a “blessing box” for happy moments.

By the way, our tradition includes all money given for relief of suffering to be tzedakah, whether the recipient is Jewish or not. Giving money to the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents people suffering from injustice or those unjustly imprisoned, is a perfectly acceptable form of tzedakah. It is good to “take care of our own” but the sages also point out that giving that goes beyond the borders of our community promotes peace.

Reading the Chanukiah

Image: Pewter Menorah. Photo via

One of the things I enjoy doing is “reading” objects as if they are texts. The first time I did it was back in 1981, when I wrote a master’s thesis with the fancy title Anamnesis in the Baptistery of the Orthodox. The orthodoxy in this case was Christian orthodoxy in about the year 500 CE, and without getting too far down the rabbit hole, I will just say that the Emperor Neon decided to redecorate a building built for Christian baptism, and I studied (“read”) the building to see what his redecoration could tell us about baptismal theology at the time.

That’s a very long intro to explain why I suddenly have the urge to read my chanukiah. Some things I’ve noticed in my reading:

A model of the Temple Menorah. Public Domain.

1. A chanukiah may be reminiscent of the menorah in the Temple, but it has important differences. We know from Exodus 25:31-40 that the Temple Menorah had six branches and a center post. It was made of pure gold, and it was made with oil-holders like almond blossoms and knobs. The oil-holders carried linen wicks for the flames. The branches held seven lamps. Besides this description, we have a picture of the Temple Menorah in the Arch of Titus, a work of art the Romans made to celebrate their destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Now, it makes sense that many chanukiot resemble the Temple Menorah, because the Menorah is at the center of the story in the Talmud, in Shabbat 21b, about the cruze of pure oil that kept the Temple Menorah burning for eight days. However, there is no requirement that our chanukiot look like the Temple Menorah. Some chanukiot look quite different.

2. The Temple Menorah burned only a certain purified olive oil. The Shulchan Aruch, a 16th century compilation of Jewish law, says that while olive oil is the best, any light that burns “cleanly”is suitable. It mentions the use of wax candles as common in the 16th c. Today there are circumstances in which electric lights are used, when safety is a consideration.

3. On a kosher menorah, all the candles are on the same level and the shamash (the candle with which we light the others) is on a slightly different level or is set apart. The reason for this (again according to the Shulchan Aruch) is that we are not allowed to have benefit from the eight candles – we must not use their light to do anything other than the commandment for which they are intended, to advertise the miracle. Therefore we have the shamash nearby, but set apart, so that we have its light to cover any benefit from the others. One thing I see here is a very practical thing: the shamash is there to make sure we perform the mitzvah correctly. But I also see in it a lesson about the Jewish community. All of us are equal before God – just as the candles are on the same level – but the shamash, the servant candle, is slightly set apart. It is not better, in fact, it does not participate in the mitzvah, but it is important because it serves. Sometimes leaders in the community may feel set apart – lonely even! – precisely because we serve. We have to have appropriate boundaries with those we serve. We have to keep confidences. All this I see in the shamash candle.

4. We place the candles in the chanukiah from right to left, in the same direction as we read Hebrew. That seems appropriate, since the chanukiah is a text from which we learn the story of Chanukah again every year. However, we light the candles from left to right, since the newest candle is the one farthest to the left. Why would that be? Again, I think about our communities: it is natural to honor those who have been in the community longest. But it is essential that we honor our newest members as well, because they need to feel welcome if they are going to become truly a part of things. Then we all stand together and shine.

5. Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel disputed about the way to light candles. The dispute went on a long time – from Shabbat 21b I get the impression that there may have been a long time when some Jews lit one way and some the other. It eventually was settled that Beit Hillel was correct: we light one candle on the first night and then increase because we always must increase in holiness. I suggest that there is also another thing going on here: we are increasing joy. In winter in Israel it is often cold and wet, and Chanukah comes at the darkest time of the year. It would be depressing to see the light decrease, but it is exciting and joyful to see it increase. Yet again, the rabbis are good psychologists!

6. Not all chanukiot are perfectly kosher. Some Jews prefer a kosher chanukiah. Some prefer one that perhaps breaks one rule but enhances the holiday with its beauty.

Tree of Life, by Scott Nelles.

Using something beautiful to fulfill a mitzvah is actually a mitzvah in itself. We call it hiddur mitzvah, an enhancement of the commandment. For instance, here is a chanukiah  in the shape of a tree, suggesting to us the Tree of Life. Torah is often called the Etz Chaim, the Tree of Life, and ultimately the point of Chanukah is our faithful adherence to Torah, despite fashion or convenience. We remember the Maccabees and rededicate ourselves to the Tree of Life.

Another example is the Menorasaurus Rex, a chanukiah that looks like a dinosaur.

Menorasaurus Rex, by thevanillastudio

It certainly isn’t kosher, and it doesn’t look like  the Temple Menorah, but I can imagine a child who loves dinosaurs being enchanted by it. If it gives pleasure, if it raises questions, that can only be good.  I can imagine the dinosaur representing the awesome rage of Judah Maccabee, as he fights with the Syrian Greeks! The Book of Maccabees tells us that he and his sons were fearsome fighters, so perhaps the dinosaur is more appropriate than it first appears!

Try “reading” the text of your chanukiah. Why did you acquire that particular one? Was it a gift from someone dear to you? Did it catch your eye in a store? What about it appeals to you? How does it speak of the holiday? I look forward to your comments!