What is Tzedakah?
“Tzedakah” is charity—charity of money, charity of words, charity of right things. Actually, Tzedakah is much more than “Charity.” Charity just means checks, cash or change, but “Tzedakah” is so much more. “Tzedakah” literally means “righteousness.” It means the right response for the situation. If you have a couple of coins for a beggar, that’s charity. But if you don’t, and you give him a smile and a boost instead… now, that’s Tzedakah.
According to Maimonides, the rabbi of 12th-Century Egypt, there are eight levels of Tzedakah :
1. Giving financial stability to someone who’s down and almost out: a loan, or a job, so that he doesn’t need to rely on others.
2. Giving where neither the donor nor the recipient know each other’s identity.
3. Giving where the donor knows who the recipient is, but the recipient doesn’t know who the donor is.
4. Giving where the donor doesn’t know who the recipient is, but the recipient knows who the donor is.
5. Giving before the poor guy says, “Please give me!”
6. Giving after the poor guy says, “Please give me!”
7. Giving less than needed… but with a pleasant, all-smiles attitude.
8. Giving begrudgingly or with a scowling attitude.
Tzedakah is an attitude of giving. Look for situations where you can give whatever is needed… because often, too often, giving is more than money.
How do I give Tzedakah?
Well, now, we would start with your checkbook, or with that change in your pocket. See that fundraising letter for that Kids with Cancer or other that came in the mail? Send them a check—they could use it. See that guy on the sidewalk begging for handouts? He may not be mentally equipped for society right now, but until he gets some serious help, he needs to eat, just like you— put a few coins in his cup.
More spiritual, very kind and wonderful giving of your resources
Use your cables to give a guy’s dead battery a jump. Use your connections to get a man a job. Listen with a sympathetic ear. Help an old lady across the street. Give directions to a lost tourist, or direction to a lost soul.
Loan your friend a few thousand when she really, really needs it (don’t make a point of asking for it back—she won’t forget, believe me). Help a widow put her kids through school, that sort of totally amazing, angelic stuff.
What is the minimum amount one must give to charity?
Ten percent of a person’s income must be given to charitable causes. A generous person (who can afford it…) can give away up to 20%.
These ten percent is calculated after deducting business expenses and income tax from the total income. Household expenses, sales tax and property tax cannot be deducted.
It is permitted to give this charity to non-Jewish charitable causes.
What is Maaser?
Maaser means “a tenth.” It’s based on the Hebrew word eser (pronounced EH-sehr), or ten. As a rule, it refers to donating ten percent of whatever to whomever. While Maaser may seem like a lot of giving, it’s actually all about receiving. Just like sacrifices, which primarily benefit those who bring them, giving Maaser whips you into spiritual shape by forcing you to extend yourself.
Additionaly, every person is obligated to give a tenth of his earnings to charity. We already find this custom by our patriarchs. Before Jacob went to his uncle Laban he pledged to G-d that “everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.”
Why is there no blessing for giving charity?
Well if you’re putting charity into a charity box, you wouldn’t say a blessing because the Mitzvah is not complete until the poor person gets the money. And you only say a blessing on an act that fulfills the mitzvah right then. (That’s why you don’t say a blessing on building the Sukkah, since the mitzvah is completed only once you sit in it.)
But even if you’re giving money straight to the poor person, you still don’t say a blessing. Some have suggested that this is because of the possibility that the poor person will not accept the money, in which case, you would have said the blessing in vain.
Sources: Orchot Chaim 92, Aishel Avraham citing the Jewish codifiers.
How do I become a giving person?
Giving starts with truly caring about others. When you truly care about another, then automatically you will find yourself giving; both practically and emotionally.
The Tanya explains that in order to care about another in a meaningful way, one must first be a spiritual person. For if one’s priorities in life are material – gaining material wealth, comforts and honor – then he/she will never be able to truly empathize with another because physically we are all individual beings with independent agendas.
If, however, one’s main concerns are spiritual, concentrating on the soul and achieving a closer connection to G-d, then one does not view another as a separate being, for on the spiritual level we are all one. Our souls are all of one source and are, in fact, one.
That is why Ahavat Yisrael (Loving a fellow Jew) is considered a foundation of the Torah. For one of the main purposes of Torah is to make us more aware and connected to our soul.
On the other hand, it is important to give even if the deed is being done with selfish motivations.
The following inspiring story illustrates this point:
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, Founder of the Chabad Chasidic movement (1745-1812) had a disciple who was renowned for his tremendous kindness and legendary hospitality.
Once, this man came to Rabbi Schneur Zalman and cried to him “I feel that I am not giving with truth!”
Rabbi Schneur Zalman responded “But the poor man is becoming truly satiated!”