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Obsessed with Giving

by Rabbi Dov Greenberg


Library » Jewish Identity » Who/What is a Jew? | Subscribe | What is RSS?


One of the most striking characteristics of the Jewish people was that, whenever they were asked, they gave. In the wilderness, when asked to contribute to the Golden Calf, they gave without delay.  When asked to make a donation to the building of the Sanctuary they did likewise. The Golden Calf was a pagan idol. The Sanctuary was a home for the Divine presence. There was nothing in common between them except that they both came into being through voluntary donations. The Jerusalem Talmud expresses amazement: “One cannot understand the nature of this people: if appealed to for the Calf they give; if appealed to for the Sanctuary they give.”  Go, figure! It seems Jews are obsessed with giving. But it is incumbent upon us to make sure our giving is directed to a good cause.

The late Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, an outstanding rabbinic thinker of the twentieth century, recounts an occasion when his grandfather, the great Jewish scholar Rabbi Chaim of Brisk, was asked what the function of a rabbi is. He replied, "To redress the grievances of those who are aban­doned and alone, to protect the dignity of the poor, and to save the oppressed from the hands of his oppressor."

Rabbi Chaim’s father, Rabbi Joseph Dovber Soloveichik, known as the “Beis Halevi”  was once sitting with his students when a man approached him with a strange question:  "Is it permitted for me to drink milk instead of wine at the Passover Seder?"

"Are you forbidden to drink wine for health reasons?" the Rabbi asked. "No, it's just that wine is too expensive. I can't afford it."

The Talmud expresses amazement: "One cannot understand the nature of this people: if appealed to for the Golden Calf they give; if appealed to for the Sanctuary they give."
Instead of answering the man's question, the Rabbi gave him twenty-five rubles. "Now you can have wine at your Seder," he said. After the man left, a student asked the Rabbi, "Why did you have to give him twenty-five rubles? Five would be more than enough to purchase the required amount of wine."

Rabbi Soloveichik answered, "If he intended to use milk at the Seder, that means he also doesn't have money for meat [Jewish law for­bids having milk and meat at the same meal], and he probably also doesn't have money for the other items served at the Seder. I wanted to give him enough so that he could have a complete Seder."

Tzedakah, the Hebrew term meaning both charity and justice, is one of Judaism's most majestic and powerful pillars. The Talmud states:  "Tzedakah is equal to all the other commandments combined." Rabbi Judah bar Ilai in the Talmud put it dramatically:

Iron is strong, but fire melts it.

Fire is strong, but water extinguishes it.

Water is strong, but the clouds carry it.

The clouds are strong, but the wind drives them.

The wind is strong, but man withstands it.

Man is strong, but fear weakens him.

Fear is strong, but wine removes it.

Wine is strong, but sleep overcomes it.

Sleep is strong, but death stands over it.

What is stronger than death?

Acts of generosity, for it is written “Tzedakah delivers from death”.

The word tzedakah derives from the Hebrew word tzedek, "justice." From a Jewish perspective, to give to the needy is not only an act of kindness; it is an act of justice. Jewish tradition teaches that part of the wealth we own does not really belong to us; it is money that G-d entrusted to us that we are required to pass on to those in need. Thus, to withhold charity is considered a subtle form of theft.

Two forms of charity

There are two components of tzedakah. The first is offering financial assistance to someone in need. The second is ensuring that each person is granted the ability to enjoy a dignified existence.

This explains a rather strange law in Judaism. A community must provide a poor person not only with the means to live, but also with enough money to be able to give to others. Rationally this is difficult to comprehend. The money will be given to the poor anyway. Why give it to one poor man to give to another? Psychologically, however, it makes very good sense. Giving is an essential part of dignity. Judaism sees it as no less than a human need. That is why even those who have to receive also have to be able to give. The rabbinic insistence that the community provide the poor with enough money so that they themselves can give is a profound insight into the human condition: we each need to feel that we are needed. It is a desire to satisfy a transcendent yearning, to be like G-d who is not only a “receiver,” but also a “giver.” It is a craving that emanates from the depths of our souls.


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Obsessed with Giving

Posted by: Anonymous on Mar 06, 2005

Rabbi Dov Greenberg,

You have great insight and I believe this article is one of the most invaluable rebukes I have ever read. Every act of giving should be directed toward those suffering by injustice and oppression. Only then can we create a better life for generations to come. I will never forget.

Yet I also believe financial assistance may not be enough for the poor. How does one on the recieving end build a stable life when money comes and goes by generous donations? In most simplest terms, a society is built by what it has and what it can offer to another. A poor person may need further assistance after his basic necessities are taken care of. For example, I couldn't see myself giving an orphan quick money to know he/she has to continually work in an unstable environment. Therefore, I can direct an orphan to the care he/she should really have. I may be getting ahead of myself. In all respects, the Jewish community has risen above itself time and time again.


Posted by: Anonymous on Mar 28, 2005

How can I overcome the "not giving " fear that the person on the receiving end is not worthy of it or that the charity receiving it will not actualy give the money to the person in need but will instead keep my hard earned money.

I read almost every day how so many charities are corrupt and steal people's money. All religions and charities have been caught doing this.


Editor's Comment

If you have done your research and determined that a certain individual or organization is truly in need of your donation, then you have done what is required of you. In such an instance, you are credited with the mitzvah of charity even if the money is misused.


Posted by: Anonymous, Los Angeles, CA, USA on Jun 03, 2005

I love the 2 extreme examples of tzedaka you mention in your article (the golden calf and the Temple). Does that mean that a jew is obligated to do research on the charity before giving? You mentioned that we get credit for the mitzva no matter what, but is the credit different if it is for the golden calf or the Temple?

Editor's Comment

1. Yes, you have the right to do research before giving charity to any individual or organization. Indeed, if you are suspicious that perhaps the recipient is unscrupulous, you have a moral obligation to ensure that your money does not finance unethical activities.

2. The reward is certainly greater when the money actually served a positive purpose.


Mitzvot » Charity

"Tzedakah," commonly translated as charity, literally means righteousness, or the right thing to do. Giving to those in need is one of the most important of G-d's commandments.
Usually referring to the Babylonian edition, it is a compilation of Rabbinic law, commentary and analysis compiled over a 600 year period (200 BCE - 427 CE). Talmudic verse serves as the bedrock of all classic and modern-day Torah-Jewish literature.
A Biblically mandated early-spring festival celebrating the Jewish exodus from Egypt in the year 1312 BCE.
Chabad, an acronym for Wisdom, Knowledge, and Understanding, is the name of a Chassidic Group founded in the 1770s. Two of the most fundamental teachings of Chabad are the intellectual pursuit of understanding the divine and the willingness to help every Jew who has a spiritual or material need.
A Chassidic master. A saintly person who inspires followers to increase their spiritual awareness.
One who follows the teachings of the Chassidic group which was formerly based in the Belarus village of Lubavitch. Today, the movement is based in Brooklyn, New York with branches worldwide. The Lubavitch movement is also widely known as "Chabad."
Festive meal eaten on the first two nights of the holiday of Passover (In Israel, the Seder is observed only the first night of the holiday). Seder highlights include: reading the story of the Exodus, eating Matzah and bitter herbs, and drinking four cups of wine.
Lubavitcher Rebbe
Rabbi Menachem M. Schneersohn, spiritual leader of the worldwide Chabad movement.
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
1. The fourth son of Jacob and Leah. He was blessed by Jacob to be the leader of the tribes. Consequently, the Davidic royal dynasty is from the tribe of Judah. 2. The southern part of Israel which was occupied by the Tribes of Judah and Benjamin, and always remained under the reign of the kings from the tribe of Judah.
Firstborn son of Rachel and Jacob. Because he was Jacob's favorite son, his brothers conspired against him and sold him into slavery He ended up in Egypt where he became viceroy of the land, and eventually brought his entire family to Egypt. Died in 1451 BCE.
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.