Tzedaka (Almsgiving)

About ten years ago at a UMJC Conference morning minyan (gathering for prayer), I remember being puzzled by a box that was put out for those participating to make donations to charity. Someone said this was an aid to prayer, giving to charity as a way of enhancing the sincerity and power of our prayers.

At the time, I was sure this was not right. What, does God take bribes now?

A few years later, in Israel, as I approached the Kotel (Western Wall), I encountered a large number of beggars. Many walking to the wall would place a few shekels in their hands as they came to say the morning prayers.

In my recent readings in the gospels, especially in Luke at the moment, I find an emphasis on almsgiving and being wise with mammon to make friends who will invite me into eternal tents.

Of course, there is plenty in Torah about various forms of almsgiving: leaving the corners of the field unharvested so the poor can take what they need, leaving the gleanings, forgiving debts and loaning money without taking vital items for security, and so on.

My favorite comes from the wisdom literature: He who is kind to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed (Proverbs 19:17).

But isn’t that theology of divine reward, or God hearing our prayers differently if we give alms, a bit primitive and unworthy of mature theology?

Luke tells the story of a centurion named Cornelius, “a devout man who feared God with all his household, gave alms liberally to the people, and prayed constantly to God.” When an angel appears to him and grants him a request he had made in prayer, the angel says, “Your prayers and your alms have ascended as a memorial before God” (Acts 10:4).

Yesterday, when researching the parable of the unrighteous steward (or shrewd manager, Luke 16:1-9), I was struck by the comment from Luke Timothy Johnson’s commentary that the righteous use their mammon now to make eternal friends. And the parable of Lazarus and the rich man questions whether people who are not regularly practicing tzedaka can even hear the Torah of Moses at all (Luke 16:19-31).

And, of course, Yeshua said, When you give alms, sound no trumpet before you (Matthew 6:2).


About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
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2 Responses to Tzedaka (Almsgiving)

  1. The chasidim are especially pious in this area, teaching that one should always put a few coins back for tzedikah before prayer. Why? Because of this passage in the Torah which states,

    Three times in a year all your males shall appear before the LORD your God in the place which He chooses, at the Feast of Unleavened Bread and at the Feast of Weeks and at the Feast of Booths, and they shall not appear before the LORD empty-handed. -Deuteronomy 16:16

    Even though this is referring to coming to the festivals, it is applied to approaching Hashem. I think this is especially true for us today, as we have no ability to offer a korban of any sort, other than that which we can offer to our fellowman and from our hearts in prayer. Just a thought…

  2. Good post on the subject. We have use a tzedaka box in our Tefillin Club at our shul for men to put money in before we start davening. Also, my wife has a tzedaka box where she and our daughter put some coins in before lighting the candles on Shabbat. I think it’s an excellent practice with significant spiritual implications which may not be apparent to those outside of the traditional Jewish environment or those who have overlooked scriptural precedents because of theological bias.

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