Why charity is not a Jewish word

Rosh Hashanah Message from Chief Rabbi Dr Warren Goldstein

Some words are impossible to translate. For good reason – language expresses the worldview, values and culture of its birthplace. The Hebrew word “tzedaka” is commonly translated as “charity”. But this English word doesn’t convey the meaning and spirit of the Hebrew. The two words reflect two dramatically different worldviews.

The word “charity” implies that the act of donating money to the poor or to worthy causes is something praiseworthy and noteworthy; that giving to those in need is an act of graciousness and compassion. But the word “tzedaka” tells a completely different story.

Its root is the word “tzedek”, which means justice. This implies that the act of giving to the needy is not merely a charitable act. Justice demands that those who have should help those who do not – and that a person who does not give what they can afford is committing an injustice.

Here we have two contrasting worldviews. Not giving to the needy – is that uncharitable or unjust? Is it a lack of generosity or is it immoral?

Hebrew is the language of the Torah, composed by G-d. It gives us a Divine window on the world. Tzedaka is one such glimpse of G-d’s perspective. It shows us that money – and all our blessings – ultimately come from our Creator. When G-d gives us wealth, we should see ourselves as trustees of the money to use as He instructs us, through His mitzvah of tzedaka. Not using the money for the purpose it was given to us is unjust and immoral – like a government official using taxpayer money for personal enrichment.

Because it is a question of justice, the quantum we give to tzedaka is critical. Unlike charity, tzedaka is not discretionary. When it comes to charity, whatever you give is worthy because you don’t have to give anything. But when it comes to tzedaka, the minimum definition of acceptable giving is 10% of our income. Less than that is considered by Jewish law – the halacha – as miserly.

As the South African Jewish community, let us all focus on this mitzvah of giving 10% to tzedaka. To do this, we need to take our giving seriously. There are many practical questions to consider. Do we calculate our 10% before or after tax? What expenses can be included? What if we can’t afford it? What constitutes a worthy cause and which should we prioritise? How do we weigh up competing needs?

We are blessed to have Divine wisdom, applied by generations of our greatest sages over thousands of years, to guide us to do this mitzvah properly. To help our community with this, I have written an essay outlining the vision of this mitzvah as well as a practical guide of how to calculate and allocate your 10%. It will be available at your shul over Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Look out for it. And get started with this great mitzvah.

Let’s all make 5784 the year of giving our 10%. Doing so will unleash overflowing generosity to pump vitality and energy into every corner of our precious Cape Town Jewish community. 

And in this merit, may we all be inscribed for a good and sweet new year.

The Chief Rabbi’s new year’s message, with all the details about tzedaka and the 10% principle, will be available at your shul or for download at chiefrabbi.co.za

• Published in the September 2023 issue – Click here to start reading.

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