Tzedakah

April 28, 2021

by: Nathan Williams, Director of Marketing and Communications

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In the book of Deuteronomy, there is a forewarning that there will always be poor people among us, a notion which is repeated in the Gospels. Christianity and Judaism share a common thread of generosity towards those who are less fortunate—and also a desire to see the world repaired through acts of justice, generosity and love.

Pursue Justice

The Hebrew word most often used for charity is tzedakah, a very literal translation meaning righteous behavior, rooted in the biblical word for justice and righteousness, tzedek. The connection is very revealing about the nature of what tzedakah is. It is a duty which entails doing justice and being fair to those who are less fortunate than you. When done correctly, the act of tzedakah requires that the giver not only shares of his or her wealth or personal belongings with the poor, but also has an attitude of empathy and compassion towards those less fortunate. The righteous and just act of giving not only speaks of your physical possessions but of something deeper: giving of yourself to others. This is the important aspect of tzedakah.

While the pursuit of justice should be focused outwardly, there is a spiritual reward for righteous and just acts. During the Days of Awe between the Feast of Trumpets (Rosh HaShanah) and the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), God is said to be ascribing judgment to all who have sinned. The Jewish liturgy on these Holy Days declares that repentance (teshuvah), prayer (tefillah) and tzedakah can lift the decree of judgment. We find this same concept in the book of Acts when Peter says to the Roman centurion: “Cornelius, your prayer has been heard and your charitable gifts have been remembered before God” (Acts 10:31 NASB). The centurion’s righteous and just action of tzedakah secured favor and remembrance before God.

Teach Your Children

One of the first encounters a Jewish child might have with charitable giving is through the tzedakah box, which is kept in the home. The Yiddish word for this box is a pushke (pronounced PUSH-kee). Similar to a tithe or offering box, the pushke is a container used for collecting money that will be donated to charity. Tzedakah boxes come in many different designs and styles. From simple wooden boxes to those ornately decorated, a tzedakah box is a work of art which is meant to remind the giver that whenever possible, they should seek to carry out the commandment of tzedakah in joyful and beautiful ways.

Just prior to the start of Shabbat (Sabbath) or other holy days and special occasions, the family will place contributions into the collection box. Once the box is full, the funds will be donated to a recipient. The habitual action of collecting money for a charitable cause in one’s home is an important step in developing a habit of giving regularly, regardless of the amount. Children are taught the practice and value of charitable giving through this simple addition to a Jewish home. The use of a tzedakah box is meant to further the spirit of philanthropy and righteousness, both in the home and by extension into the community.

The Blue Box

The most iconic tzedakah box is the blue and white collection boxes issued by the Jewish National Fund (JNF) or Keren Kayemet LeIsrael. According to the JNF website, the first Blue Box was actually Theodore Herzl’s upturned hat as he went around the Fifth Zionist Congress and asked for donations to purchase land to rebuild the Jewish homeland. Soon afterwards, the Blue Box pushke was born. It has served as a fundraising tool in the Diaspora (the Jewish population outside Israel) to support the work of the JNF to develop the Land of Israel by planting forests, creating parks and preparing soil for agriculture and settlement. By the start of World War II, there were over one million JNF tzedakah boxes issued.

It is said that the State of Israel was built on these boxes, meaning that the funds collected by placing these charity boxes in almost every Jewish home and institution around the world were instrumental in establishing the modern State of Israel. Connecting the biblical ideals of philanthropy with the Zionist ideals of redeeming the land and establishing a Jewish homeland was a perfect match.

The Blue Box also served as a conscious reminder to the Jewish people outside the Land of Israel of the establishment and rebuilding of their ancient homeland—and their obligation to bring it into reality. The action of regularly giving toward rebuilding the ancient homeland was etched into the childhood memories of many Jewish children, forging a lifelong bond with the people and land of Israel. While the JNF has since migrated to more modern fundraising initiatives, it was the foundation laid by these simple collection boxes that raised it up to be one of the most significant organizations in the history of modern Israel, owning 13% of the land and raising almost US $3 billion each year.

In a Jewish prayer service, there is a concluding prayer calling for perfecting the world under the sovereignty of God, a concept which is known in Judaism as tikkun olam (perfect the world). Each Jewish person is tasked with repairing the world through their lives, actions and words. One of the many ways to achieve tikkun olam is through charitable giving or tzedakah. Whether putting coins into the collection box, volunteering your time at a local soup kitchen or raising funds for your favorite charity, we all have a part to play in repairing the world.

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