Is There Anything Jewish About Giving to Charity?

Scholar Explores Different Religious Approaches to Tzedakah

Preaching the Gospel of Self-Reliance: Ralph Waldo Emerson criticized the practice of giving.
Getty Images
Preaching the Gospel of Self-Reliance: Ralph Waldo Emerson criticized the practice of giving.

By David Mikics

Published October 08, 2013, issue of October 11, 2013.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

● Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition
by Gary A. Anderson
Yale University Press, 232 pages, $30

Charity, as an old joke puts it, sometimes does begin at home, but it always begins with an annoying phone call.

But Jews, with their high rates of charitable giving, have often been eager to answer that call. The Jewish sages say that tzedakah — charity — is the most important of mitzvot. But why? What kind of payoff does one receive for helping the poor or the sick?

These questions, which arise while reading “Charity: The Place of the Poor in the Biblical Tradition,” by Gary Anderson, a Catholic scholar who teaches at Notre Dame, may seem crude: Isn’t charity supposed to be its own reward? Not in Jewish tradition, which wrestles with the question of whether and how we will be compensated for sustaining the widow and the orphan and for being kind to the stranger.

By addressing this hard problem of the reward for tzedakah, Judaism shows itself to be attuned to a realistic awareness that even the righteous person often suffers, despite his or her good deeds. As the Talmud remarks at one grim-faced moment in Berakhot 7b, in general the wicked cannot swallow the righteous, but when the hour is smiling upon the wicked, things are different.

In Bava Batra 10a, the Talmud cites a famous line from Proverbs 19:17, “Whoever is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and will be repaid in full,” and then adds a comment that makes room for skepticism: “Had it not been written in scripture, it would have been impossible to say it!” It does seem, on the face of it, a little implausible that someone who gives to the poor will be paid back in any literal way, at least in this lifetime. In order to make tzedakah worthwhile, must Judaism resort to the promise of an afterlife where God will finally recognize our good deeds?

Yes, says Anderson who, in “Charity,” sets out to prove that there is a strong continuity between Jewish and Christian teachings on the postmortem reward for doing good. As he puts it, in a passage that will make some Jewish readers a bit nervous, “Jesus does not overturn Jewish teachings on charity; rather, he makes them manifest in his incarnate life.”

Anderson notes that Jewish beggars in rabbinic times called out to possible patrons with the phrase zeki bi — that he translates very loosely as “acquire a merit in heaven through a gift to me” (it literally translates to “be righteous through me”). As Anderson sees it, Jewish gift-giving can only be justified if we know it will be amply repaid in the world to come, the olam haba. The act of charity (which also includes visiting the sick, burying the dead, and dealing justly with others) is a testimonial that will make God respond to the person who performs it, and will ensure a worthy place in the afterlife.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" http://jd.fo/b4ucX What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • "Americans are much more focused on the long term and on the end goal which is ending the violence, and peace. It’s a matter of zooming out rather than debating the day to day.”
  • "I feel great sorrow about the fact that you decided to return the honor and recognition that you so greatly deserve." Rivka Ben-Pazi, who got Dutchman Henk Zanoli recognized as a "Righteous Gentile," has written him an open letter.
  • Is there a right way to criticize Israel?
  • From The Daily Show to Lizzy Caplan, here's your Who's Jew guide to the 2014 #Emmys. Who are you rooting for?
  • “People at archives like Yad Vashem used to consider genealogists old ladies in tennis shoes. But they have been impressed with our work on indexing documents. Now they are lining up to work with us." This year's Jewish Genealogical Societies conference took place in Utah. We got a behind-the-scenes look:
  • What would Maimonides say about Warby Parker's buy-one, give-one charity model?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.