The Sabbath, Money, and Tzedakah

May 19, 2017

The word in Hebrew for Charity is Tzedakah. Actually, Charity isn’t a very good translation of the Hebrew. The root of the Hebrew word is Tzedek which means Justice. In other words, in Hebrew . . . in Judaism . . . charity isn’t something you do if you feel  like it. It’s JUSTICE! It’s a commandment! There’s a routine in “Tradition” – the opening number of fiddler on the roof. Reb Lazer, the wealthy butcher gives Tzedakah to Reb Nachum the beggar.

Lazar Wolf:          Reb Nachum, here’s a kopek.

Reb Nachum:     A kopek? One Kopek? Last week you gave me two kopeks!

Lazar Wolf:          I’m sorry – I’ve had a bad week this week.

Reb Nachum:     Just because YOU had a bad week, why should I suffer?

And so it is – giving charity is a constant. So why is there a tradition to give tzedakah just before the Sabbath? If the Sabbath is a kind of “World to Come,” giving tzedakah creates a kind of world to come. Especially since the Book of Proverbs tells us, Tzedakah Tatzil Mimavet (Tzekakah saves us from death). How are we to understand this? Does it mean if we give tzekakah, we’ll live longer? Rabbi Harold Kushner tells a story about a religious family returning from the hospital where the wife/mother is sick with cancer. As they exit, they see a beggar. The father immediately gives the beggar money. Excited, the son cries out, “Now I know that Mama will bet better because at school, the Rabbi taught us Tzedakah tatzil mimavet!” The father looks at his son and responds, “I truly believe that tzedakah does save people, but maybe not Mama.” “Then who does it save?” asks the son. The father points to the beggar and says, “Him.”

Often (especially in Israel, where I see more beggars than in Milwuakee), when I buy last minute groceries on Friday afternoon, I put extra change in my pocket in case I see a beggar. In addition to whatever charitable donations I give, giving just before Shabbat has always been something that seems particularly appropriate.

More about Tzedakah and Shabbat on June 2.

Shabbat Shalom!