Tzedakah With Words

The Journey to Unity - 65

Tzedakah With Words:

"And draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul" (Isaiah 58:10).

Rashi explains: "You shall draw out your soul to the hungry with consolations of good words."

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains: "You will not be satisfied by giving bread to the hungry; you also bring your heart to him, and your soul comes personally near to his, for you know how to receive and refresh the soul that is starving for comfort and encouragement, or for instruction and advice."

Dear Friends,

In this letter, we will discuss another form of tzedakah which we can do. It is the sharing of our emotional and spiritual resources with those in need. This too is an expression of tzedakah, and this teaching can be found in one of the classical texts of Jewish ethics, "The Ways of the Tzadikim." In the following quote from this work, we are reminded that kind words are also a form of tzedakah:

"And a human being receives great reward in speaking words of compassion to the heart of a poor person...Therefore in speaking, one must clothe himself in tzedakah to speak to a poor person's heart. His words must be gentle to the destitute; he must console him in his adversity and in his ill fortune, and he must honor and uplift him." (The Gate of Compassion)

A similar teaching is found in the "Sefer Ha-Chinuch," a classical work on the 613 mitzvos of the Torah. In its discussion of tzedakah, it states:

"The principle of the matter is that whoever benefits his fellow - whether with goods, food, or any needs of his, or even with good words, words of comfort - it is all included in the mitzvah of tzedakah, and his reward will be very great." (Mitzvah 479)

The "Shulchan Aruch" - the classical compendium of Torah law - therefore states:

"One needs to give tzedakah with a happy face, with joy, and with the goodness of his heart; moreover, he should empathize with the poor person in his suffering and speak to him words of comfort. And if he gave (tzedakah) with an angry and scornful face, he loses his merit." (Yoreh Deah 249:3).

A noted commentator on the Shulchan Aruch, the Sifsei Kohen, reminds us that if someone gives tzedakah with an angry and scornful face, he is violating the prohibition, "Let your heart not feel bad when you give to him" (Deuteronomy 15:10). For the unfriendly face reveals what is in the heart; in fact, the Hebrew word for "face" is panim, a word which is derived from p'nim - the inside of a person or object. Most of us do not think of ourselves as the kind of people who feel bad inside when they help others and who show it on their faces or through their tone of voice; however, the true test of our character is when someone approaches us for help when we are under pressure, rushed, or simply very busy. Do we respond in a warm and friendly manner, or do we respond in an annoyed manner? It may be natural to feel annoyed when we are interrupted in the middle of an important project, but we can overcome this tendency by remembering that we are only the custodians of the resources that the Compassionate One has blessed us with. The person who approaches us for help is therefore a Divine messenger who remind us of our purpose within creation: to serve and to give.

The Talmud teaches that one who gives even a small coin to a poor person is blessed with six blessings, but one who soothes him with words is blessed with eleven blessings (Baba Basra 9b). This teaching is based on a prophecy in the Book of Isaiah. In this prophecy, Isaiah first outlines six blessings to those who feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and shelter the homeless (58:7-9). He then outlines the following eleven blessings to those who speak with compassion to the needy:
"And draw out your soul to the hungry, and satisfy the afflicted soul; then even in darkness will your light shine forth, and your deepest gloom will be like the noon. Then the Compassionate One will guide you always, satisfy your soul during a period of drought, and strengthen your bones. And you shall be as a watered garden, like a spring of waters whose waters do not run dry. Ancient ruins will be rebuilt through you, and you will restore generation-old foundations; and they will call you, 'repairer of the breech' and 'restorer of paths for habitation.' " (58:10-12)

The giving of tzedakah should therefore be accompanied by loving, uplifting, and comforting words. But what if a poor person comes to us, and we have nothing to give? The Midrash states that Rabbi Levi found an answer to this question in the above words of the Prophet Isaiah: "Draw out your soul to the hungry" (Isaiah 58:10). This teaches us, says Rabbi Levi, that if we do not have what to give him, then we should at least comfort him with words. Instead of sending him away in a cold and abrupt manner, we should let him know that our soul empathizes with his plight (Leviticus Rabbah 34:15).

This teaching is also codified in the Shulchan Aruch:

"If a poor person asks him for tzedakah, and he has nothing to give him, he should not be harsh with him and raise his voice; rather, he should soothe him with words and demonstrate through his good heart that he would like to give, but that he lacks the means." (Yorah Deah 249:4)

Tzedakah with words is not only for those who are poor in material goods. There are periods in a person's life when he or she may be in a state of emotional and/or spiritual poverty. To such an individual, loving and uplifting words can be a form of emotional and spiritual nourishment which revive the spirit and the soul. And when we revive someone through words of compassion, comfort, and hope, we are also emulating the compassionate ways of our Creator:

"For thus said the High and Exalted One, Who abides forever and Whose Name is Holy: I abide in exaltedness and holiness, but I am with the despondent and lowly of spirit - to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the despondent." (Isaiah 57:15)


Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen (See below)

Related Teachings:

1. The Mussar movement, which began in the 19th century, was dedicated to renewing the inner spirit of Torah through the study of Torah teachings related to ethics and character development. The following story is told about Rav Yisrael Salanter, the founder of this movement:

A disciple once saw Rav Salanter conversing about mundane matters with a man on the street. Later, during a Torah discussion on the importance of minimizing idle conversation, the disciple asked his teacher about the light and seemingly idle conversation that he had with the man on the street. In his humility, Rav Salanter was not offended by the question. He explained that the man with whom he was speaking was depressed, and it was a great chesed - act of lovingkindness - to cheer him up. "Now," said Rav Salanter, "how could I cheer him up? With talk about self-discipline and fear of God? The only way was with light, pleasant conversation about worldly matters." (From "Sparks of Mussar" by Rabbi Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik - Feldheim:  )

2. Each human being is created in the image of the Ultimate Giver, and each human being has something unique and special to give to the world. We therefore need each other, and we should therefore honor and cherish each other. This is why the Talmud teaches in the name of Shamai:

"Greet every human being with a "sever panim yafos" - a warm, cheerful, and pleasant countenance" (Pirkei Avos 1:15).

When we greet someone with a warm, pleasant, and cheerful countenance, we are demonstrating to them that we are glad they are in this world! This is one of the most precious gifts of love that we can give to another human being. It is a life-giving gift, for a warm and cheerful countenance can lift the spirits of the person we are greeting. In this spirit, our sages give the following commentary on the above teaching about greeting every human being with a "sever panim yafos": This teaches us that if one gives his fellow human being all of the gifts in the world but with a downcast face, it is considered as if he gave him nothing at all. But if one welcomes his fellow human being with a warm and cheerful face, even though he unable to give him anything, it is considered as if he gave him all of the most valuable gifts in the world. (Avos D'Rabbi Nosson 13)

3. One of the best ways of giving tzedakah with words to those in need of emotional and spiritual nourishment is helping them become fully aware that they were created in the image of the Ultimate Giver; thus, they too have something special to give to the world. A source for this idea can be found in the following teaching of Rabbi Akiva in the Mishnah (Pirkei Avos 3:18):

"Beloved is the human being who was created in the Divine image; it is indicative of a greater love that it was made known to him that he was created in the Divine image, as it is said (Genesis 9:6): 'For in the image of God He made the human being.' "

It is not enough to have great potential if one is unaware of this potential. This is why Torah - the Divine Teaching - makes us aware that we were created in the Divine image, with the capacity to love and to give. We should therefore emulate our Creator by helping others to become aware that they were created in the Divine image, with the capacity to love and to give.

Hazon - Our Universal Vision: