Maimonides, the great codifier of Jewish Law, opens the tenth chapter of his ‘Laws of Gifts to the Poor’ with a strong statement:
We are obligated to take greater care with the commandment of tzedakah than with any other positive commandment.
Tzedakah - most often translated as ‘charity’ - is unique among all the commandments in requiring our attention and precision. And Maimonides then proceeds to demonstrate this precision by giving us his famous list of Eight Levels of Tzedakah.
On the bottom of that list, the lowest form of charity, is the case of one “who gives begrudgingly.” Above that is the one who gives “less than he should, but gladly, and with a smile.” And then we work our way up, considering various factors. Did we have to be asked first? Are we giving to an individual or contributing to a general fund? And - especially important - did we give anonymously?
The second-highest level of charity, says Maimonides, is “one who gives tzedakah to the poor, but does not know to whom he gives, nor does the recipient know his benefactor. For this is performing a mitzvah just for its own sake.” Anonymity tells us that the giver isn’t doing it for her reputation, just so everyone knows she’s generous and admires her. No, she simply wants to give because it’s the right thing to do.
That’s the second highest level of tzedakah. But there is still one level greater than that.
A loan? The greatest form of charity is not a free gift of money, but a loan which must be paid back? That doesn’t sound right. Sure, it may be good of you to lend money when someone needs it. But wouldn’t it be even nicer to tell them, “Don’t worry about it! You can keep it!”
Rabbeinu Bachya, writing two centuries later, notices this strange top ranking in Maimonides’ list. He first reaffirms the greatness of giving anonymously, with support from a line in the book of Proverbs: “A gift in secret subdues anger; a present in private, fierce rage.” (21:14) Even King Solomon knew the profound virtues of anonymous giving! So then why does Maimonides save the number one spot on his list for lending? Bachya answers:
Because the loan is greater than the gift, for it strengthens the recipient, and he need not be ashamed of it. And that is why we are given a positive commandment in the Torah obligating us to lend to the poor. As it says, “When you lend money to my people, to the poor among you…” (Exodus 22:24)
Rabbeinu Bachya is right. Whenever the Torah commands tzedakah, it uses the language of loaning. The verse he quotes, which is taken from our parsha, and the other major discussion of tzedakah, in Deuteronomy (Ch. 15) - neither of these speak of pure donations, but of loans which are expected to be paid back.
Now it isn’t as if gifts are discouraged. They too, count as tzedakah, and this sort of free giving is also celebrated in Jewish tradition. Yet the loan, even in the wording of the Torah, seems to be the standard-bearer for tzedakah. And why? Bachya says it saves the borrower from embarrassment. He doesn’t have to feel like a lowly beggar. He’s simply engaged in a common business transaction. Sooner or later he’ll be back on his feet and then he’ll make it good.
Okay, we can see how this arrangement might save some dignity. But it still might be critiqued when placed as a supreme ideal. For isn’t it nobler to make an unconditional sacrifice, to be willing to simply give away all that one has to help one’s fellow? The lender, on the other hand, might be doing someone a favor; but she doesn’t really lose anything in the end. Is this really such an incredible act of charity?
In fact, the very word, “charity” is a poor translation for tzedakah. For the English “charity” derives from the Latin, “caritas,” which is the most common translation in the New Testament for the Greek word, “agape.” Agape itself is difficult to translate, but it refers to a kind of unconditional love which is voluntary and self-sacrificing. This, in Christian theology, is the love that God has for humanity. It is therefore considered the ultimate virtue, one which we can carry out in our love for other people and, particularly, in the act of giving charity - as an act of voluntary sacrifice.
Tzedakah, on the other hand, means “righteousness,” or “justice.” When we give tzedakah, we are not doing it as a response to the love we feel for someone, but because it is the right thing to do. Tzedakah is not optional, therefore, subject to the inner feelings of the heart; it is mandatory, and takes the form of a commandment, rather than a virtue.
This is a critical distinction between Jewish and Christian attitudes toward giving. Christian charity is fundamentally an act of love, and it is therefore best expressed as an unconditional gift. Jewish tzedakah is meant to bring about justice, and in a truly just society, no one person would be dependent on any other. Everyone would have the capacity to support themselves, and the dignity that comes with self-sufficiency. Of course, this is not always possible, so we must sometimes give to those less fortunate than us. And yes, that can simply take the form of a free gift. But the ideal form of giving is the one which allows the recipient, eventually, to regain their own status as an equal. For a just society is one in which all are equal.
This difference in Jewish and Christian ideals stem from differences in their respective theologies. We have already noted that Christian charity is an attempt to replicate the unconditional self-sacrifice which characterizes the Christian understanding of God’s love. What, then, is the Jewish theology that underlays the principle oftzedakah?
We can tease it out from a beautiful piece of midrash with which Rabbeinu Bachya ends his comments:
“When you lend money to my people, to the poor among you…” All the creations of the Holy borrow from one another. The day borrows [time] from the night and the night borrows [time] from the day… The moon borrows [light] from the stars and the stars borrow [light] from the moon… Wisdom borrows from Understanding and Understanding borrows from Wisdom.. The Heavens borrow from the Earth and the Earth borrows from the Heavens. (Shemot Rabbah 31:15)
Everything in creation is sometimes a borrower and sometimes a lender. Everyone will have their times of fullness and fortune, and other times when they are poorer, diminished. And so all creatures will have to take care of one another, trading riches back and forth, lending today knowing that tomorrow we may need to borrow.
No one is always the giver, because only God can play that role. For any person or thing to assume the role of a perennial lender is to upend the just order of creation, in which we are all equal under God. We all have our part to play, our time to give, and our time to receive. A constant donor has too much power over his fellows; a constant recipient is rendered too lowly in the social order. No one of us should be like a god to another - forever bestowing gifts with no need for repayment - for there is only one God, who gave us everything we have, and has commanded us to share it.
Questions for Further Discussion:
1. One important feature of the commandment to loan money, is that the lender cannot charge interest. How does that fit into our description of tzedakah?
2. What do you think of the difference between Christian charity and Jewish tzedakah? What are the merits and challenges of each ideal?
3. Have you ever given or received a donation? Have you ever borrowed or lent money? Which of these experiences was preferable and why?