Most people think that tzedakah should be translated as charity. It should not. Tzedakah comes from the Hebrew word for justice, tzedek. Charity comes from the Latin meaning precious. In Christian theology the term charity became synonymous with the Greek word agape, unconditional love. Thus a gift of charity is more about the giver’s heart than the recipient’s needs. This is not the Jewish notion of tzedakah.
Tzedakah is about the attempt to rebalance the scales of justice. How is this accomplished? By our giving. Tzedakah is also a commandment. Whether or not a person is inspired to give is secondary to the idea of mitzvah and needs of the recipient. I therefore prefer to translate tzedakah as righteous giving.
We are commanded to give because there are people in need. There are people who need food and clothes. There are people who need heat and shelter. How such people arrived at their desperate situation is immaterial to their present need. It is not for us to feel the spirit of giving, or for that matter whether or not the person’s need is worthy of our tzedakah gift. We are commanded to give.
There are therefore extensive laws about giving tzedakah to the poor. Even the person dependent on tzedakah is commanded to give. We are to give ten percent of our income to tzedakah. That is certainly a worthy goal to which we might aspire.
One would think that we are supposed to show deference to the poor. Their needs should supersede all else. They are hungry. They are cold. The Torah retorts: “You shall neither side with the mighty to do wrong…nor shall you show deference to the poor in his dispute.” (Exodus 23) Justice is the paramount concern.
The Talmud offers an illustration. A judge might be tempted to say, “The poor claimant standing in my court has no case, but he needs the money more than the rich defendant does. I should therefore rule in the poor person’s favor.” Judges are forbidden to rule in his favor. Instead they are instructed to rule on the merits of the case and if the law requires it, to rule against the poor and in favor of the rich. The rabbis feared that if judges allowed emotional reasons to sway their decisions people would lose faith in the entire judicial system. The integrity of the system is a judge’s most important responsibility.
But what about the poor person? He might go hungry. The rabbis offer this advice. If the law forces a judge to rule against him then the judge should give the poor person money out of his own pocket. The courts are about the laws that bind the community together. They are not about the needs of the solitary individual.
Still, judges must still not look away from the needs of the poor. If they become aware of this need then they must give. Judges are commanded to give tzedakah. They must be scrupulous with regard to the law but also menschen.
Compassion and justice must always be balanced. Judges must rule according to the strictures of the law. They must also give tzedakah because people in need must be cared for.
The scales are made even.
Everyone is commanded to give.
Justice is achieved.