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!
  • "What I didn’t realize before my trip was that I would leave Uganda with a powerful mandate on my shoulders — almost as if I had personally left Egypt."
  • Is it better to have a young, fresh rabbi, or a rabbi who stays with the same congregation for a long time? What do you think?
  • Why does the leader of Israel's social protest movement now work in a beauty parlor instead of the Knesset?
  • What's it like to be Chagall's granddaughter?
  • Is pot kosher for Passover. The rabbis say no, especially for Ashkenazi Jews. And it doesn't matter if its the unofficial Pot Day of April 20.
  • A Ukrainian rabbi says he thinks the leaflets ordering Jews in restive Donetsk to 'register' were a hoax. But the disturbing story still won't die.
  • Some snacks to help you get through the second half of Passover.
  • You wouldn't think that a Soviet-Jewish immigrant would find much in common with Gabriel Garcia Marquez. But the famed novelist once helped one man find his first love. http://jd.fo/f3JiS
  • Can you relate?
  • The Forverts' "Bintel Brief" advice column ran for more than 65 years. Now it's getting a second life — as a cartoon.
  • Half of this Hillel's members believe Jesus was the Messiah.
  • Vinyl isn't just for hipsters and hippies. Israeli photographer Eilan Paz documents the most astonishing record collections from around the world:http://jd.fo/g3IyM
  • Could Spider-Man be Jewish? Andrew Garfield thinks so.
  • Most tasteless video ever? A new video shows Jesus Christ dying at Auschwitz.
  • "It’s the smell that hits me first — musty, almost sweet, emanating from the green felt that cradles each piece of silver cutlery in its own place." Only one week left to submit! Tell us the story of your family's Jewish heirloom.
  • 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.