Money & Careers

Tzedakah — The Gift of Giving

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Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Charity, also known as Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity offers new thoughts about giving in the future. (Photo by Vinayak Shankar Rao via Flickr, Creative Commons License)

Two strong memories of giving are still vivid in my mind’s eye. The first is the image of my father, sitting at the dining room table at the end of the year and making out $1 checks to each of his favorite charities. This was the 1950s, when $1 meant something. And since he was a hard-working owner of a gas station and garage, supporting five children and a wife, $1 per charity was all he could afford. The other memory is my mother’s role as a volunteer for our synagogue, packing our one-car garage with other people’s stuff—much to my father’s chagrin—to be saved for the annual rummage sale, the money collected going for needy causes. The garage was always stuffed with stuff!

Both of my parents’ actions could be labeled under the Hebrew word tzedakah, an obligation to give to those less fortunate than ourselves. Some also define this word as “charity,” but the meaning of tzedakah goes beyond “charity,” and, for me, is linked with another Jewish tradition, tikkun olam, which means “repair of the world.” Helping others is also considered a “mitzvah,” a good deed—all of which dovetails into the whole concept of expressing compassion for others through giving.

I grew up with the idea of tzedakah, and as an adult, continued to emulate my parents, who were following Judaic traditions. This idea of giving can be found in other religions and belief systems; Jews don’t have a monopoly on this concept. Then, a couple of years ago, I was introduced to Maimonides’ Eight Degrees of Charity, also known as Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity. Maimonides was a well-known and revered 18th-century Jewish philosopher, astronomer, Torah scholar, and physician whose influence Jews still feel today. This ladder was a revelation to me, and the brief description below may give you, as it has me, new thoughts about giving in the future. (Note: I used several sources, each of which had some variances in language or interpretation. T0 learn more about the several shades of meaning embodied in the word tzedakah, see the bibliography below.)

  • The lowest rung on this hypothetical ladder is achieved when one gives help or money unwillingly, or gives a small donation grudgingly after being asked.
  • The next-to-the lowest rung on the ladder is a direct donation—smaller than s/he is able to give, but given with a smile, after being asked.
  • The next rung up the ladder is a direct donation of sufficient size after being asked, or only when asked by the poor.
  • The rung fourth from the bottom (now halfway) is giving a direct donation to the needy, with the giver and receiver knowing each other, and without being asked.
  • The fifth rung from the bottom (or third one down) is charity in which the giver does know the receiver, but the person receiving help does know the giver and may feel indebted.
  • The next rung, directly under the top rung, is when a donation is made anonymously to a charity fund that benefits the poor, and the person receiving the help does not know to whom s/he is indebted.
  • The top rung of Maimonides’ ladder is the highest rung. This is when money is donated to prevent a person from becoming poor and helps this person (or persons) to become self-sufficient. This could be in the form of a loan or a job. It is the highest form of charity because it prevents poverty.

With this new information, I am much more aware of how and why I am giving. The next time I am ready to contribute, I want to keep in mind these eight levels of tzedakah and give anonymously, without expecting , to help another more needy than myself. I believe that this top rung of the ladder is probably the greatest gift you can give to another, as well as a gift to yourself.

How will you give this season? What rung of the ladder are you aiming for? What will your own contribution (mitzvah) be to the repair of the world? How you give is as important as what you give. If you make wise choices from your heart, I can think of no better gift to yourself and to those in need at this time of year and throughout the next year. Give anonymously, with joy, and reap the benefits all year long!

Sources

www.chabad.org  “Maimonides’ Eight levels of Charity,” Mishneh Torah, Laws of Charity, 10:7–14, retrieved 12/16/2015

WIckiedia’s definition: Tzedakah [tsedaˈka] or Ṣ’daqah [sˤəðaːˈqaː] in Classical Hebrew (Hebrew: צדקה‎; Arabic: صدقة‎), is a Hebrew word literally meaning justice or righteousness but commonly used to signify charity,[1] though it is a different concept from charity because tzedakah is an obligation and charity is typically understood as a spontaneous act of goodwill and a marker of generosity. It is based on the Hebrew word (צדק, Tzedek) meaning righteousness, fairness or justice, and it is related to the Hebrew word Tzadik meaning righteous as an adjective (or righteous individual as a noun in the form of a substantive). In Judaism, tzedakah refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just, which Judaism emphasizes are important parts of living a spiritual life.

Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity, from Mishneh Torah: Hilcot Matnot Aniyim 10:7-12.

 

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  • joyce fonash January 8, 2016 at 2:50 pm

    EllenSue,

    Thank you for a thought provoking essay that made me stop and examine how and why I give. I really enjoyed the concept behind the Ladder of Charity and it has made me much more mindful of a very important part of my life.

    Reply
  • Toni Myers January 1, 2016 at 1:08 pm

    Ellen Sue,
    I am grateful for your beautiful essay. I rarely give anonymously, telling myself it encourages others to donate.
    The perspective of the Maimonides Ladder of Charity will influence me in future. Many thanks for this.

    Reply
  • Diane Cervone December 31, 2015 at 12:23 am

    Dear Ellen Sue,
    Really enjoyed your essay, Growing up as a Catholic, charity has always been one our faiths practices. Working with the elderly I hear quite often that I have done a “Mitzvah”. I feel compelled to help any of my customers with any personal problems or tasks. I also have my favorite charities and do the best that I can. Love hearing the old stories. k.eep up the good works

    Reply
  • Cassandra Krivy Hirsch December 28, 2015 at 10:20 pm

    Ellensue, I learned much from your descriptions, and enjoyed your description of your parents’ tzedakah practices. Many years ago, in another life, I was on rare occasions a guest at a dinner honoring generous donors to the community (I was never one of those donors, I confess). It stuck me at the time as a contradiction that not only were they named, the amount of their donations was named, too. I may have misunderstood the importance of that disclosure…

    I’d love to get my hands on one of your cookbooks, so let me know if you have any in paperback I can buy (and that you can sign)!

    Reply
  • Rhoda Goldstein December 28, 2015 at 10:00 pm

    How timely! I’m about to sit down and write some checks for my year-end giving. This will certainly give me some added perspective.
    Also, my aunt and mother also gave one dollar to any charity that sent them a request for a donation.

    Reply
  • Suza Francina December 28, 2015 at 7:26 am

    Thank you, Ellen Sue, for this essay on what could be called “conscious giving.”

    Great points!

    While reading this, I drank my early morning coffee out of the wonderful
    sturdy purple cup you gave me!

    Reply