Rivka and Moshe Ulmer summarize rabbinic teaching about charitable giving in Righteous Giving to the Poor. The book includes an overview of rabbinic literature in general before it gets to its main topic. Rich in quotation, the section on tzedakah examines the theological underpinnings of charity, the this- and next-worldly rewards of giving, and some of the rules governing charitable giving and receiving. 

Like the tithe to the landless priests, the tzedakah was considered “a sort of sacred tax” (46). It was modeled on God’s own charitable acts for His people, His doing of righteous charity for His downcast people. Poverty was, the rabbis thought, ineradicable, not because God wants the poor to remain poor but because He is “constantly testing people to see how they respond to the needs of the poor” (52).

Giving charity is a perennial demand, and should be done without delay, since no one knows whether he will be around to do good tomorrow. Charity brings the donor into close contact with God Himself (71), and offers rewards in both this life and in the life to come. In the very act of giving, the giver receives, and this mutuality was designed to keep the giver from becoming proud or patronizing (73). Rabbis often told stories of miracles that reinforced the promise of rewards for the generous.

Receiving charity, however, is humiliating, and the rabbis urged the poor to find any sort of productive work rather than suffer the humiliation of “onerous” situation of relying on other human beings (63).

Charity was seen as a communal action: It was extended above all to those who were members of the same community, and the rabbis speculated on the qualifications for counting someone as a member. Donors were supposed to give discretely to avoid humiliating the poor, and they were supposed to give priority of their parents and family members. Motivation didn’t matter a great deal; the act of charity was more important than the reasons.

This brief study of rabbinic teaching on charity holds potentially significant theological implications. If tzedakah means charitable righteousness, performed in imitation of God, then God’s own tzedakah, His dikaiosune, would presumably manifest itself in charitable action to the poor. That usage of “righteousness” language, rooted in the Hebrew Bible, might shed some light on Paul’s use of righteousness language in His proclamation of the Christian gospel.

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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