The Tzedakah Treasury
An anthology of Torah teachings on the mitzvah of charity - to instruct and inspire
By Rabbi Avrohom Chaim Feuer
Mesorah Publications, Ltd.
Economic Disparity Provides
Opportunities for Charity
God Almighty has no lack of resources. He could easily have created a world of universal wealth, wherein everyone was wealthy and no one was poor. Why did He not do so? This question was posed to God by King David. The Midrash (Shemos Rabbah 31:5) records the following dialogue based on a verse in Psalms 61:8. David said to the Holy One, Blessed is He, Equalize Your world! Why must there be such a huge economic disparity between the rich and the poor? God replied: If I make all men economically equal, who will practice kindness and charity?
R Yerucham Levovitz of Mir explained: God did not create the precept of charity because he saw that there were poor people in the world who needed help. Rather, the exact opposite is true. God purposely created poor people in order to give men of means an opportunity to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah. A world devoid of opportunities to show kindness to others is inconceivable; compassion is the purpose of this world.
The Wealthy Man Is a Treasurer
The Torah introduces the mitzvah of tzedakah in these words: When there shall be in your midst a poor person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities (Deuteronomy 15:7). The Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh notes that the phrase in your midst is superfluous, and attempts to explain its meaning. First of all the phrase teaches us that we should never look down condescendingly at poor people and treat them as inferior neer-do-wells. We must remember that the reason they suffer poverty is for our sake! Since the Almighty wished to provide you with the opportunity to gain the merit of charity, He purposely made some people poor and strategically placed them in your midst so that you could easily perform this mitzvah. Always remember that the charity you give is far more for your own sake than for the paupers. Never forget that as shabby and miserable as the poor man looks he is nevertheless from one of your brothers not merely a plain brother, but from one of your outstanding brethren, who is only suffering poverty for your sake.
A second explanation of the phrase, in your midst, is that the wealthy man should not view the pauper as a stranger who is begging to receive money which is not his. To the contrary, the rich man is the treasurer into whose hands the poor mans portion has been deposited for safekeeping.
Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh (commentary to Exodus 22:24) elaborates on this subject and makes it clear that any extra money which a rich man has beyond his actual needs is definitely not his own and was not given to him to hoard and save. This money belongs to the poor and the Almighty has merely accorded him the privilege to be His agent to disburse the money to those who need it and own it. God did not give the money to the pauper directly because he is being punished for his misconduct; he must suffer the degradation and deprivation which is the lot of the poor. Thus, the concept of charity has two benefits: It brings merits to the rich and effects atonement for the poor.
God Has Made the One
to Parallel the Other
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:5) states: R Tanchum bar Chiya began, Be pleased when things go well, but in a time of misfortune, reflect: God has made the one to parallel the other (Koheles 7:14). When you observe that your friend has fallen upon hard times while you continue to prosper, reflect that there is surely a relationship between the two events and that God is offering you an opportunity to gain merit by supporting your fallen friend. R Tanchum bar Chiya learned this lesson from his mother. Whenever she went out to the marketplace to buy him a pound of meat, she always purchased not one, but two; one pound of meat for her son, and an equal amount for the poor. She fully realized that, God has made the one to parallel the other. He only made some people poor so that others could have the privilege and merit to support them!
It All Belongs to God
The Tur writes in his introduction to the Laws of Tzedakah (Yoreh Deah 247): Never allow your mind to entertain the perverse thought, I cant afford to give charity to others, it will diminish what I have for myself! Because one must never forget that his money does not belong to him in the first place it all belongs to God, Who has temporarily deposited His money with you for safekeeping. When a poor person asks for help it is as if God is requesting you to pay out His money into the hand of this needy representative. Indeed, the most precious part of your wealth is what you give to the poor, as it says (Isaiah 58:8): And your charity shall go before you [to your eternal reward].
Money Is a Divine Gift
The Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 22:7) teaches: This is the absolute rule: Three outstanding gifts were put into this world. If a person is fortunate enough to be endowed with any one of them, he has acquired the most precious treasure in the world. He who is blessed with wisdom, has everything! He who is blessed with extraordinary strength, has everything! He who is blessed with wealth, has everything! When are these gifts a blessing? When they are bestowed by heaven and earned through the merit of Torah. But the strength and wealth acquired by mortals of flesh and blood are worthless. Furthermore, when these gifts do not come from the Holy One, Blessed is He, they will not endure and are destined to be abruptly terminated. There were two fabulously wealthy men one a Jew, Korach; the other, a gentile, Haman and both were utterly destroyed. Why? Because their wealth was not a gift from the hand of God; rather, they grabbed their money for themselves!
The explanation of this Midrash is as follows: Everything that we possess comes to us from the hand of God. What is the difference between the gift-taker and the grabber? The gift-taker humbly and gratefully acknowledges that God bestowed everything he owns, whereas the proud and foolish grabber deludes himself and attributes his prosperity to his own efforts. Vast sums of money pass through the hands of the bank teller every day, yet he is well aware that not a penny of this belongs to him; he is merely part of a distribution system which gives out the money to its rightful owners. Similarly, the humble gift-taker controls large sums of money but fully realizes that God put the money in his hands for him to distribute to the worthy recipients who are its rightful owners. Like the humble bank teller, the gift-taker takes only a modest salary for himself. The grabber, however, credits himself for his success and therefore selfishly hoards his hard-earned wealth. Therefore, his prosperity will be short lived, and others will grab it from his hands.
Learn a Lesson From the Heart
King Solomon wisely noted the relationship between charity and the heart: A tender heart brings healing of the flesh, but envy brings rotting of the bones. One who robs the poor disgraces his Maker, but he who is gracious to the destitute honors Him (Proverbs 14:30,31).
Alshich explains the lesson contained in these verses: The heart is called the king of all organs because it pumps essential, life-giving, blood to every part of the body. Why did the Creator design the body in this fashion that one organ should control the fate of all the others? In order for men to learn the lesson of tzedakah from their own flesh!
The man who possesses wealth resembles the heart. It is clear that the blood which the heart pumps all over the body is not its own it belongs to the entire body. Similarly, the extra money which the rich man has beyond his personal needs is not his at all. His function is to act as a pumping station to circulate and distribute the money to all that need it. Furthermore, just as all the limbs and organs of the body are not ashamed to receive the blood the heart pumps to them because it is rightfully theirs, so too, the poor should not be embarrassed when they receive their rightful portion from the rich.
This is the message of the aforementioned verses: A tender [generous] heart brings healing [blood] of the flesh [all other limbs and organs], but envy [selfishness and stinginess hold back the vital flow of blood and] brings rotting of the bones. [Similarly, the rich man who refuses to circulate his wealth is] One who robs the poor [and] disgraces his Maker [because he repudiates Gods welfare system], but he who is gracious to the destitute honors Him.
When You Have More Than Enough
Chovos Halevovos (Shaar HaBitachon, Chapter 5; The Fourth Advantage of Faith) explains how a man of true faith acts differently with his money: The man who sincerely trusts in Hashem knows that every penny he receives comes directly from the hand of God for a specific purpose. When he finds that he has more money than he needs for his expenses, he knows that God has given him this surplus for a good reason. He does not stash the money away and save it for the proverbial rainy day. Rather, he enthusiastically gives the money away to others who are in need. He divests himself of these extra funds with a generous spirit and a joyous heart, because he knows that this is why God gave him a surplus and that this distribution will be pleasing in the eyes of the Almighty.
However, the man of meager faith never has enough. You could give him the entire world and the fullness thereof and yet he would feel that he does not have enough for all his needs. He fails in fulfilling his obligations to God and to his fellow man because he would rather hoard his money than share it. Ultimately, he will lose his wealth and nothing will remain. All this is summed up in the wise words of King Solomon who said: There is one who scatters [his wealth to charity] yet he gathers more [wealth than he gives away], and there is one who refrains from giving what is proper, only to realize a loss (Proverbs 11:24).
Chovos Halevovos (Shaar Yichud Hamaaseh, Chapter 5) offers a vivid description of how the Evil Inclination makes every effort to discourage a person from giving charity: When you want to give money to the poor, the Evil Inclination will make an all-out effort to convince you that this donation will put you in grave financial danger. He will conjure in your mind images of abject poverty and he will show you how miserable you will look when you yourself are reduced to penury. The Evil Inclination will attempt to convince you that any donation is simply beyond your means. The only way to refute his arguments is to remember the rule: If God has given me extra money which I have no use for right now, then most probably God wants me to give it away to charity.
What Terrified the Chofetz Chaim
R Naftoli Neuberger of Yeshivas Ner Yisroel of Baltimore told me the following story:
Once someone noticed that the Chofetz Chaim was fasting on a regular weekday, which was out of character for him despite his extraordinary piety and holiness. This individual pressured the tzaddik to explain why he was fasting. The Chofetz Chaim explained that it was a taanis chalom, a fast in response to having a bad dream. The man continued to pressure the Chofetz Chaim to reveal more details. Rebbe, what was so bad about your dream that you are doing something so drastic as to fast on account of it? The Chofetz Chaim felt compelled to reveal the dreams content. It was really a shrecklicher cholom, a terrifying nightmare! I actually dreamt that I became a rich man! The curious questioner continued to ask, Nu, Rebbe, what is so terrible about becoming a rich man? Oy vey! cried the Chofetz Chaim, Being rich is an awesome responsibility! If I have a lot of money that means that I must distribute a great deal of tzedakah. Do you have any idea how hard it is to distribute tzedakah properly? And do you realize how much time and effort it takes? It would take me so much time that I would hardly have any time left for Torah study! Believe me, for me, wealth is a nightmare.
The Chofetz Chaim paused for a moment and added, The truth of the matter is that there was something even more terrifying about that dream. The Gemara teaches that we dream at night about the things we think about by day. If I dreamt about money at night that means that Ive been thinking about money all day! Woe unto me that it is money and not Torah that is occupying my thoughts throughout my waking hours!
The Responsibility of the Rich
R Yisroel Salanter considered the possession of money a great responsibility. Therefore, when R Yisroels wife once purchased a lottery ticket, he immediately summoned two men to be witnesses, and he made a formal statement to his wife in their presence: I hereby declare that I have nothing to do with your monetary acquisitions or with any interest which accrues to it forever.
R Yisroel did this because he was concerned lest his wife win the lottery and become wealthy. When Hashem grants riches to someone, explained R Yisroel, it is not exclusively for that mans personal benefit. The wealth makes its owner into a gabbai tzedakah, responsible for sharing it with the poor. Who can accept such a heavy burden? It requires searching every corner of the city to discover whether someplace there is a pauper in distress or a youngster whose family lacks the funds to hire a teacher to teach him Torah. Who can find them all?
Unwilling to face the tremendous challenge and obligation of wealth, R Yisroel hastened to free himself from all rights to his wifes potential lottery winnings! (R Ephraim Zaitchik, Hameoros Hagedolim).
Caring and Sharing With Others
R Yisroel Salanter expressed his wonder that people do not realize what an immense obligation they have to help others. Many people worry about helping their friends do a mitzvah , but do not care about their material well-being. Many times, said R Yisroel, I have seen a person pass a shul, and the people inside call out to him, Kedushah! Kedushah! Please come in and join us! But I have yet to see a person pass by a house where a seudah [a meal] is being served, and the people eating at the table call out to the passerby, Seudah! Seudah! Please come inside and join us! (Hameoros Hagedolim).
Share Everything With the Poor
Charity is not limited to sharing money or material resources with the poor. One must share everything he has with the needy in order to improve their lot.
A pauper once poured his broken heart out to R Yisroel Salanter. His cupboards were bare and there was nothing for his family to eat. He decided that the best way to support himself would be to become an itinerant maggid, a public speaker who travels from town to town inspiring and entertaining people with his clever sermons. The only problem with this plan was that the pauper had absolutely no experience or expertise in public speaking! What did R Yisroel do? He devoted a few hours of his precious time to this man and taught him a number of good sermons for his repertoire. He practiced them over and over again with the pauper until he was satisfied that he could say over these sermons very well (Hameoros Hagedolim).
Please Do Not Make Me Rich!
The famous Maggid of Jerusalem, R Sholom Mordechai HaKohen Schwadron, once related an interesting story about R Yisroel Salanter. On a certain occasion, R Yisroel remarked that he thanked Hashem for not having made him a rich man.
Wealth is a heavy burden, R Yisroel said. I have a neighbor who lives in abject poverty. During the winter he trembles with cold, day and night. His children walk around wearing torn shoes. His wife, after childbirth, requires several glasses of milk every day, but there is nothing. If they will ask me in the heavenly court why I did not help this family enough, I will have a partial excuse: I, too, do not have a penny.
No, it is not a full excuse. But it is a partial one, and even half an excuse is better than none. If I were rich, however, I would undoubtedly get a sharp rebuke: Your neighbor is drowning in anguish, and you are hiding your gold under your floorboards? How would I respond to such a simple accusation?
As he finished relating this story, R Sholom grew emotional. He went on to describe, vividly and at length, the great responsibility that the rich bear. Suddenly, he raised his voice, Ah, ah, R Yisroel Salanter was right! and continued to expound on the truth of R Yisroels words. Then he lifted his eyes heavenward and cried out, Ribbono Shel Olam dont make me rich!
R Sholom was silent for a moment. Then he smiled and said, Youre a smart one. If I were to ask you right here and now, to say what I just said, out loud to ask HaKadosh Baruch Hu in front of this entire group not to make you rich you would refuse to do it. Why? Because you would be afraid that Hashem might actually grant your request. But I, I am not afraid! He raised his voice once again and cried out, Ribbono Shel Olam, dont make me rich! (Voice of Truth, p. 246).
The Rich Are Addicted to Their Money!
The Chofetz Chaim would caution the poor not to judge the rich too harshly when they failed to give charity properly. The kindly Sage of Radin had this to say in their favor: Once I witnessed this scene while I was in Vilna. I saw a man lying dead drunk right in the middle of the street. All the little street urchins were dancing around this pitiful figure and mocking him for his despicable, drunken state. One adult passed by and saw the drunken man sprawled out in the public thoroughfare and addressed him with a smile on his face: Woe unto you, my friend, you have no idea what your intoxication has done to you! If I would get drunk, I would at least attempt to salvage my self-respect! I would make sure not to drop down dead drunk in the middle of the street! The critical passerby fails to realize that once a person is drunk, he has no control over his actions.
Similarly, said the Chofetz Chaim, many people accuse the wealthy of terrible stinginess, and claim that if only they were rich they would certainly donate huge amounts to charity. However, these people forget that they are making these generous claims now, when they are still poor, and their hearts are soft and sensitive. Little do these folks realize that the minute they become rich their hearts undergo a dramatic transformation and they become hard and tough. Their open hands close and they become tight fisted. Why? Because wealth can easily become addictive, just like alcohol! You will never comprehend why rich men act as they do until you become rich yourself!
He Who Makes Him Poor Can Make Him Rich
The Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 34:4) warns: When the poor man stands before the rich and begs, Please give me! and the man of means refuses to give, remember He Who made this man poor can make him rich, and He Who made this man rich can make him poor! Beware, lest the rich man scorn the impoverished man and say, Why dont you go out to work and earn a living? Just look at yourself! What thick thighs you have! What strong feet you have! What a fat belly you have! You are big and strong go to work! Says the Holy One, Blessed is He, Not only didnt you give him anything to live on, you cursed him with your evil eye! Therefore, your punishment shall be two-fold. The money you selfishly hoarded for yourself will be lost, and you will never bequeath it to your children. Moreover, because you begrudged the poor man his good health and strong body, therefore, your health and strength will be sapped from you.
Bad Money Destroys the Good
The Talmud (Kesubos 66b) teaches: Once Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was riding on a donkey leaving the city of Jerusalem and his students were walking behind him. He saw a young woman who was gathering barleycorns from the dung-droppings left by the animals of Arabs. When this impoverished young woman saw the great sage, she respectfully covered her face with her hair and approached him with a plea, O Rabbi, please sustain me! Rabban Yochanan asked her, My daughter, who are you? She replied, I am the daughter of Nakdimon ben Gurion. The Rabbi continued to inquire, My daughter, the wealth of your father where has it gone? She responded, Rabbi, do they not say this proverb in Jerusalem: The only way to salt money is to give it away? The only way to guarantee that you will keep your money is by giving your money to charity! [But Nakdimon ben Gurion did not disburse charity properly and therefore he lost all of his money.] Rabban Yochanan persisted in his questioning: But you had money not only from your rich father, but also from your wealthy father-in-law, what happened to that? Sadly, the young woman replied, Rabbi, the bad money was mixed together with the good money and destroyed it! She continued: Rabbi, do you remember when you signed on my kesubah, my marriage contract? Rabban Yochanan turned to his students and related, Indeed, I remember when I signed on her kesubah and read that her father gave her one million golden dinarim in addition to the enormous sum given by her father-in-law.
The Talmud concludes: How can anyone say that Nakdimon ben Gurion did not give charity? Have we not learnt in a Baraisa: They would say about Nakdimon ben Gurion that when he walked from his residence to the House of Study they would roll out an exquisite silk runner before him and he would allow the poor to walk behind and pick up the expensive material for themselves. The Talmud offers two possible answers as to why Nakdimons charity was wanting. If you wish, you may say that all the charity Nakdimon gave was only for the sake of his own honor; or if you wish, you may say that even if he gave charity with the proper intention, he did not give enough for a person of his tremendous means; as the folk saying goes: According to the camel, the load.
Cursed and Unkosher Money
The Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed, Part II, Chapter 7) says that Nakdimons tragic fall proves that even if a person does perform some charity with his money, but not in accordance with his means, not only will he lose his wealth, but a curse will be attached to it. If other people engage in a business venture with him, their money will also be lost.
R Meir Bergman of Bnei Brak observes that this story teaches us that whenever a person earns any amount of money he should literally consider it as unkosher, unfit for any personal use, until it is properly tithed and the appropriate amount of charity is separated from it. Moreover, untithed money is like treif meat to the point that when untithed money is mixed together with tithed money it actually contaminates the kosher money, deprives it of blessing, and poisons it with a curse! The only way to secure money is to share it.
See Giving Properly for an additional story about Nakdimon regarding giving for glory.
Selfish Money Smells
Meor Einayim (Parshas Matos) writes that anyone who has developed a spiritually sensitive sense of smell can easily discern money which has not been properly tithed. It gives off a most offensive odor like rotten, putrid meat which was not properly salted! How foolish and misguided are those who hoard their money in order to feel secure. They are afraid to give away money for tzedakah lest this loss deplete their nest egg. Without charity their money is like unsalted meat which will surely go to waste. But the more they give away to charity the better preserved and protected their money is.
God Invented Charity in Order
to Save Us From Gehinnom
The wicked Turanus Rufus, the cruel Roman governor of the conquered land of Israel, asked this very same question of R Akiva: If your God is a lover of the poor, for what reason does He not sustain them? To this R Akiva replied: God makes people needy in order that, through our giving them charity, we may be saved from the judgment of Gehinnom.
Turanus Rufus said to R Akiva, On the contrary! This giving of charity is what actually condemns you to be punished in Gehinnom! I shall illustrate this concept for you with a parable. To what is this matter similar? It is analogous to a human king who was angry at his servant. He had the servant incarcerated in a dungeon and ordered that no one feed him or give him drink. Subsequently, one man defied the kings orders and fed the imprisoned servant and gave him to drink. When the king hears about this mans actions, is he not angry at the man? You Jews are called servants of God, as it says, For unto Me the Children of Israel are servants! (Leviticus 25:55). Hence, by giving charity you actually violate the edict of God, your King, and so through charity you incur the judgment of Gehinnom.
R Akiva said to Turanus Rufus: I shall illustrate the situation for you with a different parable. To what is this matter of giving charity similar? It is analogous to the case of a human king who was angry at his son. He had the son incarcerated in a dungeon and ordered that no one feed him or give him drink. Subsequently, one man defied the kings orders and fed the imprisoned son and gave him to drink. When the king hears about this mans actions, does he not send the man a gift? Although the king imprisoned his son, we know that he did not want his son to die, for no normal father ever desires to kill his child. Thus, although the sons misconduct may have compelled the king to imprison his son, he would undoubtedly reward anyone who sustained his child. And we Jews are called sons of God, as it is written, Sons are you to Hashem, your God (Deuteronomy 14:1). Thus, although we are imprisoned in exile, the Jews are still Gods children, and one who sustains the poor among them with gifts of charity earns Gods gratitude and is thus absolved from the judgment of Gehinnom.
Turanus Rufus objected to this explanation and said to R Akiva: You Jews are called Gods children in one verse and are called His servants in another verse. The explanation for this seeming discrepancy is that at the time that you fulfill the Omnipresents will you are called His children and it is appropriate to give charity to the poor among you. But when you do not do the will of the Omnipresent, you are called His servants, and do not merit charity. And now, at this present time, you are obviously not doing the will of the Almighty, for He has subjugated you to the Romans! It is therefore improper for you to give charity to the poor at this time.
R Akiva, however, countered this argument of Turanus Rufus and said to him: Behold, Scripture states: You will break your bread for the hungry, and the wailing poor you will bring to the house (Isaiah 58:7). When does the verse and the wailing poor you will bring to the house apply? Certainly it refers to the present situation when the Roman government impoverishes us and makes us miserable with unbearable taxes. And yet the verse states that even in such difficult times you will break your bread for the hungry! Scripture thus teaches that God desires us to give charity even when we have earned His condemnation because of our transgressions.