Dear Rabbi Fried,
I have a number of questions about tzedakah. Please explain its importance, obligation, priorities and the optimal way to fulfill the mitzvah.
Joseph L., Plano
Since your question is asked by so many people and tzedakah is such an important mitzvah, I will dedicate the next few columns to explain the Torah’s guidelines for tzedakah. I hope this will benefit you and the many readers who desire to uphold this holy mitzvah.
Maimonides writes: “We are obligated to be more meticulous with regard to fulfilling the mitzvah of tzedakah than we are with fulfilling any other positive Torah commandment” (Hilchos Matnos Aniyim 10:1).
Rambam teaches us that of all the mitzvos of the Torah, tzedakah is the one we must exert ourselves to the most. He makes it clear that there is a singular obligation to be scrupulous with the distribution of charity.
When we contemplate this mitzvah, we begin to realize why the proper performance of tzedakah is unique. No two acts of charity are alike. Not so with other mitzvos. Once a scribe has mastered the detailed halachos of writing a sefer Torah, he may duplicate his accomplishment many times and produce scroll after scroll without change. Once a person has learned how to blow the shofar, he may blow in the exact same way for the rest of his life. The woman who properly kindles the Shabbos candles once may repeat the very same act in the very same manner for many years.
Not so with tzedakah. There is no such thing as a “standard donation.” Every poor person or worthy cause that cries out for help presents us with a new challenge. Every request for assistance demands individualized research and analysis. To give properly, the donor must make a comprehensive evaluation of the supplicant’s situation. The serious donor should take into consideration a vast array of financial, social, medical and emotional factors, which may impact the case.
Moreover, the circumstances of every person are in flux. The facts that made him a prime candidate for assistance a week ago may have changed, and now another may need the funds more. Additionally, the personal obligation of the donor for this needy individual is a critical factor in deciding how much to give. Nothing is static, everything is subject to change.
The very term, “tzedakah,” which literally means “justice,” suggests its deeper meaning. Tzedakah means equity and balance. It is a reapportionment of resources that realigns the scales of society so that the distance between the “haves” and the “have-nots” is not divided by such a wide chasm.
The donor of tzedakah cannot view himself as a private citizen who is merely dropping a few coins into the needy person’s hands. Instead, the donor is a public personage invested with the responsibility of caring for the lives of the poor whom he now supports. The donor becomes a person of tzedakah, of justice, a magistrate charged with the role of affecting G d’s world and His creations.
Rabbi Yerachmiel Fried is the dean of Dallas Area Torah Association.