Tzedakah: a study in giving

Case Study:

A bag lady approaches me on a street and asks for a quarter. Should I ask why she doesn’t go out and get a job? … I enter my local drug store/supermarket and see a coin canister on the counter. Should I automatically put a quarter in each or should I read the fine print and investigate each charity’s legitamacy? ***

(***case study written by Rabbi David Golinkin,  edited slightly to be pertinent to 1000 Mitzvah readers)

Last night, I attended a preview of an Ethics class, part of the core curriculum  of the Melton Adult Education program. This lesson was on the principles of tzedakah. We looked at both ancient Jewish text and modern responsa and discussed as a class the decisions each of us makes every day about giving money both to individuals or to charities. I have discussed the idea of tzedakah in other posts, but essentially in Judaism, we use the word tzedakah when we refer to giving money to charity, though the word tzedakah literally translates to “righteousness” or “justice”.  Jews are taught that we have a moral and religious obligation to give tzedakah.

I loved having the opportunity to engage with other thoughtful folks around what are we obligated/commanded to give. We questioned whether the principals set out by some of our middle aged sages (12th century) philosophers like Maimonides still have relevancy in a modern time.

One of the discussions ensued around the text, “A poor relative takes precedence to all others, a poor member of one’s household takes precedence over the poor of one’s city, the poor of one’s city takes precedence over the poor of another city, as it is said, unto thy poor and needy borther, in thy land” Devarim 15:11)” One of the attendees told a story of a friend who chooses to donate $1000 to a charity in India that helps poor men and women get eye surgery to help them see again. His friend feels that in India his money buys him more. That same $1000 can buy 10 people the surgery – since the surgery is roughly $100 per person there.  In the United States, that same $1000 wouldn’t even help  one person receive the surgery, since the cost of the surgery is thousands of dollars here.

This spurred a very interesting conversation about giving locally versus giving globally, especially now when we have access to world wide causes. This is remarkably different than in ancient times when these texts were written and helping someone beyond perhaps the next community or two would have been much more difficult, let alone someone on the other side of the globe.  Now the needs and requests come from every part of the globe, so in recent times the question of local giving versus global giving has become more complicated to address.

Another very interesting responsa was from Rabbi David Golinkin’s entitled Investigating the Charities to Which We Contribute. We read a few passages that I found really informative. l especially like when he says, ” it is better to give often and spontaneously, even if one is not sure about the credentials of the recipients because, if we stop to think about every contribution, we will get out of the tzedahah habit.”

Of course, we discussed several more texts and having an opportunity to ponder and question how to give and what to give and using sources for this discussion, was definitely enlightening. I was grateful for the invitation to attend this program.

For more information about the Melton Adult Education program in your area visit their website:



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