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This is the second article in a series on Jewish values.
One of the most enduring values of Judaism is the concept of tzedakah, giving charity. Actually the word “tzedakah” means righteousness, so when we help our neighbor in need, we are doing the right thing — an act which, as Jews, we are commanded to do.
In Judaism, giving charity is an entitlement. A person in need is entitled to be able to live and the recipients of help are supposed to help those in even direr straights. Since Biblical times, Jews were to give (tithe) 10 percent of their income to charity, and today many indeed continue to do so.
During the time of the Temple, animal sacrifice was often used as a form of charity, because the donor was giving something of value to God in gratefulness, in supplication for a favor or for forgiveness of sin. Giving tzedakah is also one of those obligations that can alleviate a severe judgment decree made by God during the High Holiday season, and for this reason, many Jews contribute to their favorite charities at that time of the year.
There are many ways Jews fulfill the mitzvah (commandment) of tzedakah. In almost every Jewish home is a pushke, a tzedakah box where coins are tossed traditionally before the Sabbath, when carrying money is forbidden. I like to keep one in my laundry room so I can toss those extra coins that end up in my washer from my husband’s pants!
People can make outright donations to synagogues, Jewish organizations such as Hadassah, or to Jewish social service groups. While Jews do take care of their own, we also contribute heavily to the communities we live in with donations to Goodwill, food banks, the Salvation Army, Red Cross and the like. We also give our time and volunteer for the United Way and other organizations that help in the community. Be doing these acts of tzedakah, we are practicing tikun olam, repairing the world and making it a better place to live.
There are also specific times when giving charity is advisable. Instead of sending flowers, a charitable contribution in memory of the deceased is performed. And on the yarzheit, or anniversary of the death of the loved one, a contribution is made. When one recovers from a serious illness, a contribution in gratefulness to God is made to a worthy cause. For weddings, bar/bat mitzvahs, baby namings and the like, gifts of tzedakah are always acceptable.
According to the great sage Maimonides, there are eight levels of charity. Starting with the lowest level, they are:
* Giving begrudgingly.
* Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
* Giving after being asked.
* Giving before being asked.
* Giving when you do not know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient knows your identity.
* Giving when you the know the recipient’s identity, but the recipient doesn’t know your identity.
* Giving when neither party knows the other’s identity.
* Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant.
Keeping these principles in mind, many Jews have organized their wealth into foundations in order to better serve their communities. One local Lecanto couple, Bob and Carol Spector, have formed the Bob and Carol Spector Foundation for Animal Welfare and Judaic Studies. This philanthropic couple has combined their two passions, humane treatment of dogs and their rescue from harm and their love of Judaism and pursuit of Jewish knowledge into their foundation’s purpose. Through their efforts, dog shelters and Jewish groups in the area have benefited from their generosity.
Another foundation is the Florence and Lawrence Spungen Foundation, which focuses on the northern suburbs of their local communities of Chicago, Ill., and Santa Barbara, Calif. This foundation is concerned with cancer research and Jewish educational causes. A hallmark of this organization is it provides grandchildren with the opportunity to give tzedakah to a charity of their choice. This is a wonderful way to promote the Jewish value of tzedakah to ensuing generations.
As part of its aim to promote Jewish educational causes, the Florence and Lawrence Spungen Foundation is sponsoring a special exhibit on the Holocaust, which will be coming to On Top of the World Cultural Center in Ocala from 11 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 12. The exhibit will feature letters, postcards and memorabilia not ordinarily seen in museums due to their rarity. The exhibit is free and open to the public, so all can come and learn about the Holocaust before many of its survivors have faded into history. This is a not-to-be-missed event and an outstanding example of tzedakah.
In these difficult ecomonic times, may we all take note of the Jewish expression of tzedakah and may we all do our part in helping those in need.
Judi Siegal is a retired teacher and Jewish educator. She lives in Ocala with her husband, Phil. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.