Our Special Strength


Dear Friends,


During our long exile, Jewish communities have stressed the mitzvah of tzedakah – the sharing of our resources with those in need. For example, Jewish communities all over the world followed the practice described by the noted 12th century sage, Maimonides, in his Mishneh Torah (Zeraim, Gifts to the Poor 9:1):


“Every city which has Jews is obligated to appoint officials who are well known and trustworthy, who will go among the people during the weekdays and collect from each one what is appropriate for him to give and what has been assessed of him (by the officials of the community).”


Maimonides then adds the following sociological observation: “We have never seen or heard of a Jewish community which does not have such a fund for tzedakah!”


In addition to the official tzedakah fund which was collected by the officials of the local community, there were also voluntary tzedakah organizations and groups which met various needs. The book “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages” by Israel Abrahams describes some of the various tzedakah organizations of one typical Jewish community in Smyrna (Asia Minor) which provided the needy with clothing, funds for medicine and doctors, tuition payments for their children, funds for legal expenses, funds for burial expenses, and funds for other diverse needs. Jewish communities all over the world also had interest-free loan societies, as well as societies which would loan books and various other items. (Cited in "Permission to Receive" by Lawrence Keleman)


In the book about Jewish giving titled “With All Your Possessions,” Dr. Meir Tamari describes how Jewish communities would help needy travelers:


“There was a long tradition of providing inns or other forms of lodging for travelers at the expense of the community. Sometimes there was a suitable building adjacent to the synagogue; sometimes the community financed private lodgings.”


During the Middle Ages, the compassion of the Jews to needy travelers contrasted sharply with the attitude of many of their non-Jewish neighbors. For example, the book, “Social Administration, Including the Poor Laws: by John Clarke, describes how the “Poor Law” of 16th century England punished poor travelers by branding them with the letter ‘V’, and assigning them as slaves to others. (Cited in “Permission to Receive” by Professor Lawrence Kelemen)


As we explored in a previous series on tzedakah, we are also obligated to give tzedakah to our needy non-Jewish neighbors. Professor Israel Abrahams of Cambridge University, in his book “Jewish Life in the Middle Ages,” describes the traditional universalism of Jewish tzedakah:


“While the Jews of the middle ages were strongly averse to accepting alms or other charitable services from any but their co-religionists, they felt no similar scruples in rendering such help (to non-Jews) - on the contrary, Jewish charity knew no bounds of creed.” (Cited in “Permission to Receive”)


Throughout the ages, the Jewish devotion to tzedekah gained the admiration of good people in other societies. For example, George Cooper Pardee, a progressive governor of California in the early 20th century, once said, “The Jew takes care of his own poor and helps to care for other peoples' poor.” (From “The Jew and Civilization” by Ada Sterling, page 121 - cited in “Permission to Receive”)


Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, a leading Torah sage of the 20th century who immigrated to the United States, was very involved with the tzedakah needs of the Jewish people. He also gave tzedakah to non-Jews, and the biography of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein cites the following example:


“Often he would sit with a pile of charity envelopes that had come in the mail and place a specific amount in each...Among the organizations Reb Moshe sent to were American institutions for the physically handicapped and mentally ill. He felt it an obligation to respond to such requests to show that religious Jews - and rabbis in particular - respected the work of these causes.” (“Reb Moshe” by Rabbi Shimon Finkelman - courtesy of the copyright holder, ArtScroll/Mesorah. )


There is a tradition that at the dawn of the messianic age, our people will serve as a social model of tzedekah in the Land of Israel. In this age, proclaimed the Compassionate One, “Nations will walk by your light” (Isaiah 60:3). And what is the light that will attract the nations? The Midrash answers:


“It is the light of tzedakah, as it is written (Malachi 3:20), ‘But to you who are in awe of My Name, the sun of tzedakah will shine.’ ” (Yalkut Shimoni, Numbers, B'ha'aloscha 8)


An allusion to this deep idea is found in the following words from a Shabbos song, where we pray that this “light” of our people be renewed:


“May their tzedakah shine forth like the original light of the seven days of creation.”  (Kol Mekadesh)



Have a Good and Sweet Shabbos,

Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen  (See below)


A Related Teaching:


On Shabbos, we express our yearning for the messianic age, which the Talmud describes as “the day that will be entirely Shabbos and contentment for life everlasting” (Mishnah, Tamid 7:4). In this spirit, we chant a verse about tzedakah towards the end of the Shabbos afternoon service, and this verse reminds us that tzedekah is an expression of "tzedek" - the Divine plan whereby each creature is entitled to receive the caring it needs in order to fulfill its purpose within creation:


“Your tzedakah is eternal tzedek, and Your Torah is true.” (Psalm 119:142)


According to the commentary of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, this verse is praising the tzedakah that the Compassionate One has taught us to do through the Torah - the Teaching of Truth. Rabbi Hirsch explains that we chant this verse towards the close of Shabbos - before we begin our weekday activities - in order to rededicate ourselves to “the wondrous ways of the loving tzedakah of God in which He trains humankind.”

Hazon - Our Universal Vision