Judaism includes an ideology and a code of law and ethics affirming that it is an obligation of both the individual and the community to care for the poor and, if possible, to help them earn a living, which we describe as tzedakah.
The tradition does not view the poor as mere passive recipients of others’ largesse: they too have duties incumbent upon them. Additionally, Jewish law requires that Jews provide for communal needs by building and maintaining synagogues, schools, and healthcare institutions of various sorts.
One concept fundamental to the matrix of laws and traditions relating to tzedakah concerns the nature of the relationship between the community and the individual.
Although Judaism affirms that we are all unique individuals created in the image of God, it also asserts that we are fundamentally and inextricably part of a community.
Furthermore, when we Jews stood at Sinai as a community, we did not receive rights at all, but rather 613 obligations. This Jewish understanding of community, integrating the concept of membership and obligation is intrinsic.
Jewish tradition does not see contributions to the community’s welfare as mere charity (that English word derives from the Latin for “love”) or philanthropy (which derives from the Greek for “love of humanity”), but rather as tzedakah, literally “acts of justice.”
That is, donating to the poor and to other social needs is not a superfluous act of especially generous people, but rather an expected act of each and every Jew and of every Jewish community. Maimonides went so far as to say:
“We have never seen nor heard of an Israelite community that does not have a charity fund” (MT Hilkhot Matt’not Aniyyim 9:3).
Furthermore, tzedakah is demanded of us not only because we are all part of a thick community that can legitimately make demands on its members, but also because all our assets ultimately belong to God (Leviticus 25:23; Deuteronomy 10:14; Mishnah Avot 3:8; Ketubot 67b). Indeed, the ancient rabbis saw refusal to assist the poor as outright idolatry precisely because such behavior demonstrates that the person does not recognize God’s sovereignty and ownership of the world (JT Peah 4:20).
In addition to these two general concepts that serve as the foundation for all acts of tzedakah, support of the poor is also motivated by a series of other Jewish concepts and values. Among these are the concept of pikuach nefesh (saving or guarding human life), compassion, God’s commandment to donate to the poor, the dignity of human beings created in God’s image, membership in God’s covenanted people, and our aspirations for holiness.
Adapted with permission from The Observant Life.