The true meaning of Tzedakah — By Rabbi Malcolm Matitiani, Cape Town Progressive Jewish Congregation and Chair of Cape Town Progressive Beth Din


According to the Unetaneh Tokef poem recited on Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur God’s decree of judgement that decides whether we live or perish in the year ahead can be overturned through the practise of Teshuvah, Tefillah and Tzedakah, ‘Repentance, Prayer and Righteousness’.

True repentance reinstates the status quo of relationships but at the same time assists in the spiritual growth of both the one guilty of wrongdoing and the victim of the offence. Prayer inspires us to better ourselves and behave according to the life affirming values of Jewish teaching. Both teshuvah and tefillah if done with sincerity and true intention (kavanah) will lead to acts of tzedakah.

Tzedakah, often translated as ‘charity’, literally means ‘righteousness’ or ‘justice’. Helping the needy is thought of as a religious obligation to do what is right and just, an essential part of living a spiritual life, as opposed to the western understanding of charity as a spontaneous act of goodwill. Thus the performance of acts of tzedakah is obligatory for all Jews regardless of their financial standing.

It is my view that tzedakah is not just about giving ‘charity’, the concept also includes the pursuit of justice and fairness and upholding the dignity and rights of all members of society. It entails being compassionate and forgiving, accepting and understanding. A Talmudic story (Ketubot 67b) illustrates my point. It relates that Mar Ukba would throw four zuz into the doorway of a poor man’s house on his way to and from the beit midrash. He fulfilled the mitzvah of giving tzedakah by this daily act to avoid embarrassing the recipient. One day the poor man decided that he wanted to see his benefactor but when Mar Ukba saw him coming out of his house he fled and, together with his wife, entered a hot furnace. Mar ‘Ukba’s feet began to burn so his wife told him to stand on hers. Seeing that he was upset that his feet were burning while his wife’s were not, she explained that she was usually at home and her acts of tzedakah were direct. In other words, when Mar Ukba’s wife helped those in need she engaged with the recipient of her kindness. While Mar Ukba was concerned with sparing the poor man’s feelings and therefore simply threw the money into the door way of his house, his wife showed interest in her beneficiaries as human beings, treating them with dignity and kindness.

We live in a harsh world in which many politicians have a very loose relationship with the truth and with moral values. Corruption is rife and totalitarianism in various degrees occurs in many countries of our world. Freedom of speech and the press is under threat. For the world to be healed we, as individuals, need to reassess how we deal with each other. We need to understand the true meaning of tzedakah and follow the example of Mar Ukba’s wife who understood the importance of acceptance and compassion.

L’Shanah Tovah Tikateivu v’Techateimu.


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