The Importance of Tzedakah

Rabbi Aron Moss contributes regular Q&A commentaries to Gather the Jews.  Rabbi Moss is the proprietor of Nefesh and can be reached at rabbimoss@nefesh.com.au.  The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Rabbi Moss.

Question of the Week:

I am a strong believer in the value of charity. But I can’t see how it is important to give money to a shul. There are homeless people and starving children, so why should I give money so people can just gather together to pray and hear a rabbi’s speech? Isn’t that a luxury in comparison?

Answer:

Why do you care that there are homeless people? What’s it your business? Are they members of your own family that you should be concerned about them? And who’s children are starving? Yours? If not, why is it your problem? Why should you feel responsible for someone else’s child? What is it that makes you care for the needs of others?

It is certainly not logic that drives you to help others. If anything it is illogical to just give away hard earned money to someone who you don’t even know. Neither is it human nature that demands we care for a stranger. And there is no legal obligation to share your wealth with others. So what pushes you to do it?

The answer: values. You have values, principles of right and wrong, good and bad that direct your life and demand that you behave a certain way. You don’t give charity because it makes sense, or because you instinctively feel the urge to give, or because the law demands you to. You give charity because it is moral, it is right, it is good to help those who are in need.

But where do your morals come from? What is the source of the value of charity? The Torah. It was the Hebrew Bible that proclaimed that our income is only partly ours. A tenth of it doesn’t belong to us at all, but is given us on loan, to distribute to worthy causes. The Hebrew word for charity is Tzedakah, meaning justice. The Jewish tradition saw charity not as a noble act of generosity, but as a moral act of justice. To give is simply the right thing to do.

You have a wonderful sense of values. But values do not live in a vacuum. To survive and spread, values need institutions in which they can be fostered and taught. That is the function of a shul. A shul is where values are taught and lived. By joining a community we become sensitized to the needs of others, as we come into contact with people outside of our immediate circle of family and friends. By hearing the Torah reading and studying its messages, values are shared and passed down.

You need to give Tzedakah to feed the poor and shelter the homeless. But you also need to ensure that the very value of Tzedakah itself is not homeless, and that your children should never suffer from moral poverty. That’s why we need shuls. Because values need a home too.

All the best,

Rabbi Moss

1 reply
  1. Stephen Richer
    Stephen Richer says:

    Thanks, as always, for your post Rabbi Moss.

    A few remarks:

    1)
    “If anything it is illogical to just give away hard earned money to someone who you don’t even know.”

    False. Giving charity has been strongly scientifically linked to personal happiness (see, e.g. “Gross National Happiness” by Arthur Brooks). And if giving charity makes one happier, then it is very rational to give. In this sense, giving charity is just as rational as planting flowers (you lose money, lose time, get no material return, but gain happiness/pleasure).

    2)
    “But where do your morals come from? What is the source of the value of charity? The Torah.”

    Perhaps the Torah is sufficient. But it’s certainly not necessary. Lots of people who have never read the Torah or gone to synagogue or church are very generous. These values have become part of American culture — not particular to religious text.

    3)
    “A shul is where values are taught and lived.”

    Really? This once again ignores that the vast majority of Jews don’t go to shul regularly, and yet we are very charitable. (Only 16 percent of American Jews go to synagogue at least once a month. 42 percent don’t go to synagogue at all during a year).

    It also ignores those people called gentiles… I don’t think they go to shul… They still donate…

    It is also an awfully synagogue-centric view of Judaism. It assumes that Jewish values can’t be taught through Jewish learning groups that meet over coffee or from Jewish books. There is a waxing body of literature suggesting that the age of synagogue is waning. Do we really need a Rabbi to teach us morals? Maybe some people prefer it that way, but an increasingly large part of the community feels that parents, friends, and books are pretty good at providing a moral foundation…

    4)
    “To give [to Shul] is simply the right thing to do.”

    I certainly hope you don’t think that a person is more “right” or “moral” if he gives 5% of his income to shul and 5% to homeless shelter than the person who gives 0% of his money to shul and 10% to a homeless shelter because he hated his experience at synagogue. Is this what you’re arguing?

    5)
    “A tenth of it doesn’t belong to us at all, but is given us on loan, to distribute to worthy causes.”

    Is charity charity if you’re forced to give it?

    Also, the notion that what we earn isn’t ours, but on loan to us, is highly bothersome to me, but it’s not terribly material to this conversation… But it is to political economy.

    6)
    “… And that your children should never suffer from moral poverty. That’s why we need shuls.”

    So are you suggesting that the 42 percent of we Jews who don’t go to synagogue are “morally impoverished”? Interesting…

    Reply

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