Jewish Philanthropy: The Concept of Tzedakah

Grade Level: 
6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12
Religious Perspectives
Tzedakah is the Hebrew word for philanthropy and charity. It is a form of social justice in which donors benefit from giving as much or more than the recipients. So much more than a financial transaction, tzedakah builds trusting relationships and includes contributions of time, effort, and insight.



In the Hebrew language the closest word to philanthropy is tzedakah.  While the word is used interchangeably for charity, tzedakah is seen as a form of social justice provided by the donor as well as those who utilize the support to do their work and those who allow the support into their lives.  As is the case with justice, this critical social responsibility cannot be done to someone – rather, it must be done with someone. In Hebrew, the word meaning "to give" is Natan. In Hebrew and in English, the word can be read forward and backward, so when we think about philanthropy and idea of “to give” it is also about “to receive.”

So much more than a financial transaction, philanthropy in the spirit of tzedakah builds trusting relationships and recognizes contributions of time, effort, and insight. 

A mitzvah is any of the 613 commandments that Jews are obligated to observe and more generally refers to any good deed. The 'mitzvah of tzedakah' is one of the most important.

Great scholars are often quoted in many writings regarding tzedakah. A famous medieval Jewish scholar was Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon; his writings are called the Maimonidies.

Many writings refer to the pushke . Most Jewish homes had a blue and white tin box for the deposit of tzedakah coins for charity. From early childhood, Jewish children learned their responsibility was to care for other Jews in need. Though the methods are now more complex, the motivation for tzedakah endures through the centuries: to sustain the Jewish people, to enhance the Jewish life and to strengthen the Jewish community for today and the future. During daily prayer services, a pushke (or charity box) is commonly passed as part of the service, meaning prayer and charity go together ( Jewish Community Foundation of Central New York, Inc. ).

"The word federation is used in the Jewish community to denote a central Jewish communal organization which carried out the function of recruiting and maintaining volunteers, collecting tzedakah dollars, coordinating budgets, setting priorities, allocating funds and interacting with other communal institutions" (Raphael 1979, xiii).

Historic Roots

At the end of every Jewish worship service, the Aleinu prayer states a goal of the Jewish people to "perfect the world under the sovereignty of God." The term "perfect the world" in Hebrew is tikkun olam , which also means to fix or repair the world. The Torah claims "there will never cease to be needy ones in your land" (Deuteronomy 15:11) (United Jewish Communities 2004).

In ancient times, the Hebrew Torah was intended for a primarily agricultural economy and addressed the tzedakah in agrarian terms. For example, at harvest time, the Torah instructs believers to leave crops standing in the corners of fields to allow the poor to reap needed food for survival.

However, as the economy of the Near East diversified, rabbis addressed the tzedakah in financial terms. Public and private funds were created to help support people in need. Food banks and soup kitchens were developed at a time of no governmental assistance.

The sages shaped post-biblical Judaism and used the word tzedakah for charitable activity. The root word of tzedakah means "justice" and implies the rabbis viewed social welfare as an economic and social justice matter.

Later, the rabbis of medieval times clarified and codified the disparate laws of tzedakah . Rabbi Moses Maimonides developed an eight-stage approach to tzedakah giving that asked, "How much should one give? Should giving be done anonymously? What is the ideal form, or amount, of tzedakah ?" He taught the most virtuous assistance allows the recipient to become self-sufficient (United Jewish Communities). The obligations and questions involved in giving tzedakah are relevant today and offer a variety ways to give contributions.


Tzedakah is more than giving money to the poor. Done properly, tzedakah requires the donor share his or her compassion and empathy along with the money. In the writings of Maimonides, "whoever gives tzedakah to the poor with a sour expression and in a surly manner, even if he gives a thousand gold pieces, loses his merit. One should instead give cheerfully and joyfully, and emphasize with him in his sorrow" (Just Tzedakah 1998).

Tzedakah has two aspects: one with the hand and one with the heart. Judaism teaches the belief that donors benefit from tzedakah as much or more than the poor recipients and the belief remains a common theme in Jewish tradition. Whereas the poor receive money or other material assistance, the donor receives the merit of sharing the Almighty's work. Accordingly, tzedakah involves giving assistance with the hand and consolation with the mouth so the heart is without embitterment. The donor should give with a pleasant expression and with a full heart and the beggar should not hear rebuke (ibid.).

Ties to the Philanthropic Sector

The Boston Federation was founded in 1895. The Jewish cultural tradition of 'taking care of one's own' shaped the created institutions by addressing immigrant needs at the beginning of the 20 th century. Individual support of synagogues and welfare agencies grew into a Jewish federated philanthropy of pooled individual contributions that supported a defined institutional infrastructure. Federations are actually grant-making public charities which raise funds allocated annually from a large number of donors (Mendelson).

However, foundations are dramatically different than the federated form of charity. The foundation funds are donor-directed, a practice not followed by the federated form of giving (Schneider 2002).

Landsmanshaften were mutual aid societies organized by immigrants on the basis of communities of origin. "As early as 1892 there were eighty-seven eastern European Landsmanshaften in New York. By 1910, there were more than two thousand, representing over nine hundred European cities and towns, embracing every Jewish family in New York. The success of the mutual aid societies was due to the fact that most of the members had gone through similar immigration and resettlement experiences" (Mayer 2001, 19).

The Jewish tradition of giving is strong, especially with tzedakah as an important part of the culture and religious identity. In the United States, a large fundraising network was created to help support Jewish organizations, individuals in need, the State of Israel and other Jewish communities around the world. The Jewish fundraising system has been heralded as a model of efficiency and effectiveness, particularly relating to organizational planning (Wuthnow 1990).

Key Related Ideas

An abundance of information is available on the practice of tzedakah and the importance in the Jewish culture. The guidelines for giving are very clear. There are four stages of giving: minimum, good, better and best.

The minimum annual contribution of tzedakah is an amount under $2.00. However, that amount is unacceptably low from a person who eats decent food and wears decent clothes.

A good contribution of the mitzvah of tzedakah from a person of adequate means is the amount of 10 percent of net income.

The better contribution of the mitzvah of tzedakah is 20 percent of net income. The rabbis limited tzedakah to giving no more than one-fifth of income; extreme generosity may eventually cause a person to become needy. There are exceptions to the one-fifth upper limit. One may give more than one-fifth in circumstances relating to ransoming a slave, saving a life, supporting Torah scholars and atonement for sin.

The best contribution of the mitzvah of tzedakah is the community, comprised of many advantaged people and few poor people, providing whatever is lacking to the poor. Each person of adequate means must give his or her fair share as decided voluntarily or by the community. The obligation to provide for the poor with whatever is lacking does not fall on the individual, but on the community. The individual is obligated to make known the needs of a poor person discovered in the community. However, if is the community is comprised of a single wealthy person, no community effort and a few poor people, the wealthy person does have the obligation to provide the poor with whatever is lacking, even if the wealthy person can afford it. The mitzvah is to fulfill the needs of the poor person but not to bestow riches.

Unlike the traditional Jewish view of tzedakah, it is now popular for the mitzvah of tzedakah to be practiced as a private matter with individuals deciding the amount of contribution. . "In other times, the community assessed the individuals' tzedakah obligation. When individuals did not donate an appropriate amount, the court could force the reluctant donor to give or even confiscate an appropriate amount of his assets." (Just Tzedakah 1998)

Important People Related to the Topic

  • Eli and Edythe Broad : The Broads have donated millions of dollars through The Broad Foundation for improvement of urban public education. Eli Broad credits his Detroit Public Schools education for giving him the tools for success.

  • Dora Donner Ide: Ide was the daughter of philanthropist William H. Donner and bequeathed $111 million to more than two dozen national arts, academic and health charities.

  • Rabbi Moses Maimonides: Rabbi Maimonides was a famous legal scholar and physician who developed an eight-stage approach of the various degrees of giving tzedakah.

  • Edmond Safra: Safra, described by Forbes as one of the top 200 richest men, died at age 67. He donated large sums to the Hebrew University in Baltimore, Maryland and to Parkinson's disease research.

  • Laurence Tisch: Tisch, a self-made billionaire, built a sprawling business conglomerate with his brother, Preston; the conglomerate included hotels, movie theaters, insurance, tobacco, oil tankers, and at one point, CBS television network. Tisch was known in the Jewish Philanthropic world as a champion of the federated system of giving. (Forward 2003).

  • Judah Touro (1775-1854): Touro made a fortune in steamships and real estate. His famous will left bequests to Jewish and non-Jewish institutions. He once told Rabbi Isaac Leeser that he "made a fortune by strict economy while others had spent one by their liberal expenditures" (Florida Atlantic University Libraries 2002).

Related Nonprofit Organizations

  • The ASSOCIATED: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore preserves and enhances Jewish life by addressing educational religious, humanitarian, health and cultural programs locally, nationally, in Israel and throughout the world. The Federation supports such programs and organizations as Hebrew University, Jewish Big Brother and Big Sister League, Jewish Community Center, Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, Levindale Hebrew Geriatric Center and Hospital, Jewish Legal Services and Operation Homecoming ( ).
  • UJA Federation of New York cares for people in need in New York, Israel and around the world in hopes of renewing and strengthening the Jewish people. The Federation fulfills mission goals through a network of more than 100 local, national and international agencies ( ).

  • United Jewish Communities represents and serves 156 Jewish federations and 400 independent Jewish communities across North America. United Jewish Communities is the merger of the Council of Jewish Federation, United Israel Appeal and United Jewish Appeal; UJC was organized to represent and serve the North American federation system and put forth a new model of community and philanthropy. The organization works to build the framework for new opportunities and new partnerships that will challenge the Jewish people to continue the traditions of education, leadership, advocacy and responsibility. ( )


Bibliography and Internet Sources

  • Cattan, Nacha. "Billionaire Philanthropist Laurence Tisch Dies at 80." November (2003). Forward .
  • Florida Atlantic University Libraries. "Jewish Heroes and Heroines in American History." (2002).
  • Jewish Community Foundation of Central New York, Inc. "Home Page."
  • Just Tzedakah: Guidelines for Giving: How Much Should I Give? (1998).
  • Kosmin, Barry and Paul Ritterband. Contemporary Jewish Philanthropy in America. Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 1991. ISBN: 0-8476-7647-1.
  • Mayer, Egon. The Production of Philanthropy: A Case Study of the Imagery and Methodology of Jewish Fundraising. Center for the Study of Philanthropy, New York, 2001.
  • Mendelson, Evan. The History of Jewish Giving in America . Jewish Virtual Library.
  • Raphael, Marc. Understanding American Jewish Philanthropy. New York: KTVA Publishing House, 1979. ISBN 0-87068-689.
  • Schneider, Susan. "From Puske to Power Suit." Lillith 27 (2002).
  • United Jewish Communities. "History and Development of the Tzedakah." (2004).
  • Wuthnow, Robert and Virginia Hodgkinson. Faith and Philanthropy in America. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1990. ISBN: 1-55542-252-7.

This paper was developed by a student taking a Philanthropic Studies course taught at the Grand Valley State University.