Charity vs. Tzedakah: Restoring Justice to Giving
By Daniel Kieval
The “season of giving,” for better and for worse, is upon us. The bestowing of gifts upon friends and family for Hanukkah and Christmas pervades the current month, and soon non-profit organizations will begin drives for end-of-the-year donations. It is good that we remember to be generous not only toward those we know and care about but also–or especially–toward those whose very survival may depend on our gifts and the goods and services they fund. Tzedakah, often translated as “charity” but literally meaning “justice,” has always been part of Jewish tradition. Its origin, though, lies not in the donation of money, which is most common and practical today, but in something more primal and immediate: food.
In ancient society, when most people were farmers and marketplaces were not open 24 hours on every block, it was crops, more than money, that people needed to survive. Even before they entered the land of Israel, the Israelites were given a variety of instructions about how to distribute food to the needy of their future society. The bulk of these instructions are expounded in the section of the Mishnah entitled Peah, which includes several topics relating to food justice.
One of these topics is tithing; in addition to tithes for the priests of the Temple, Israelite farmers were commanded to give a tenth of their harvest in certain years to the poor, orphan, widow, and stranger–the custom of donating 10% of one’s income to charity derives from this practice. The other laws concern behavior during the actual harvest itself. The law of leket, famously dramatized in the book of Ruth, says that any produce dropped during harvesting may not be picked up but is to be left for the needy to retrieve. Similarly, shichecha says the same about sheaves harvested but then forgotten in the field. Unlike tithing or modern charity, leket and shichecha require the recipient of tzedakah to take an active role in the process. Rather than waiting to receive the donations (and perhaps pity) of others, the needy are given the dignity and the responsibility of going out to the field and collecting their own food.
Most interesting, though, is the namesake of this section of the Mishnah, the law of peah (corner) itself: the corners of one’s fields are to be left growing until the needy come to take from them. Peah is not satisfied by harvesting the corners of the field and donating the harvest to the poor; it is only if the poor are able to come and perform the harvesting that the mitzvah is fulfilled. It is then that they may be truly equal to the farmer, neither receiving his handouts nor retrieving his fallen food from the ground, but harvesting, like the farmer, directly from the field.
Trying to implement these practices in today’s society is not easy, nor is it necessarily even sensible. The majority of needy people in the U.S. live in urban areas. Even if farmers left food in the fields for them, would they know it? Would they be able to get there? Would they have the knowledge or supplies to, say, make flour from the wheat they acquired?
Clearly, our society functions differently than that of ancient Israel, and we must adapt our giving practices accordingly. But we can still learn from the spectrum of tzedakah practices present in Jewish law, from the passive recipient to the active harvester. Tithing shows us that simple donations are important but are not our only obligation. We must also ensure that we foster a sense of dignity and responsibility in those who need our help, and that we give them the opportunity to help themselves.
In the U.S., working to bring affordable healthy food into urban food deserts is a perfect embodiment of these principles. So is supporting food and nutrition education to ensure that people know how to acquire and cook healthy food. Globally, the American Jewish World Service is doing fantastic work promoting self-sustaining food systems in many locations. These are just a few of many ways to put ancient visions of tzedakah into practice.
Mishnah Peah begins by telling us that, unlike most aspects of Jewish law, the amount of one’s crop to reserve for the needy has no set legal measure; there are no limits placed on generosity. It ends, eight chapters later, by quoting the Torah: “Justice (tzedek), justice shall you pursue.” Today, these bookends remain our beacons for creating a just world. When the structure of society makes the original tzedakah guidelines impractical, it is up to us to fill the space between the bookends with our actions.