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One of the basic principles of Jewish life is charitable giving and behavior. The Mishna in Avot lists charitable behavior and giving as one of the three pillars upon which the world rests. Our father Avraham and his wife Sarah, the founders of the Jewish people, are distinguished not only for their spreading of monotheism in an otherwise pagan world, but for their charitable and hospitable behavior toward all human beings.
The concept and value of charity has thus become ingrained within the Jewish psyche and has always been a distinguishing characteristic of Jewish society and individuality. The Talmud records for us that one should not pray to God without first giving alms to the needy. This is in fulfillment of the verse: "And I will view Your face, so to speak, through righteousness and charity to others."
It is therefore perfectly understandable why the synagogue is always the first address to be visited by those who find themselves in need and financial distress. At Jewish funerals, charity boxes are distributed and filled in confirmation of the verse: "Charity spares one from death." At weddings and other festive occasions, special arrangements are made for the poor and the needy and again the words of the rabbis of Avot ring in our ears: "May the needy be considered as members of your own household."
In short, it is obvious that charity to others is the social basis of Jewish life and society. The Talmud lists it as one of the identifying qualities of a Jew.
The rabbis in the Talmud have detailed to us the exact rules regarding giving charity; a Jew is supposed to spend 10 percent of one's income on charity. One is not to spend so much on charity as to endanger one's own financial stability. Being forced to depend upon others, even (or perhaps especially) on one's children or family is deemed to be a very negative matter in the eyes of the Torah. Thus the rabbis warned against spending more than 20% of one's income and assets on charity at one time.
To a great extent, Judaism believes in the adage that charity begins at home. One is not allowed to ignore the needs of one's own family and relatives in favor of others - "you shall not ignore the needs of your own flesh and blood." Support of the scholars of Torah is a priority in giving charity. Helping to pay for the expenses of the wedding and the fundamental household necessities of a young couple starting out in their new life together is also high on the list of charitable projects. Support of the sick and the bereaved, the orphan and the widow, is mentioned often in the Torah.
Worthy of special charitable consideration is also the support of Jewish settlement in the Land of Israel and the strengthening of the Jewish community there. The giving of charity is seen to increase the likelihood of peace and harmony in the Jewish community. The rabbis felt that those blessed with wealth are therefore specially privileged but also specially obligated to contribute to charity according to the blessed means with which God has endowed them. Thus great individual philanthropy has also always been a staple of Jewish life and society throughout the ages.
The rabbis connected the willingness to give charity without hesitation and reservation to the observance of the laws of kashrut. Just as there exists a physical cholesterol that can block the arteries to one's heart, so too there is a spiritual cholesterol caused by non-kosher foods that eventually stops up the Jewish heart from being charitable. Though exact figures on this matter have not been published, anecdotally it can be said that the proportion and frequency of charity among Jews who observe kashrut is far higher than among those who don't. This generalization naturally has significant exceptions, but in the main it is accurate.
The numbers of people giving to charitable Jewish causes in the United States has declined over the past decades while the amounts raised nevertheless have stabilized or even increased. The decline in numbers is directly traceable to the alarmingly increasing assimilation, intermarriage and rates of non-observance of Torah laws in that society.
Giving charity requires effort, training, habit and belief. Otherwise the muscles of the heart and hand that have to sign the check atrophy and die, at least as far as charitable giving is concerned. And since the Torah guaranteed us that "the poor will never disappear from the face of the earth," it is obvious that the necessity and privilege of giving charity will also always be with us.
The writer is a noted scholar, historian, speaker and educator (rabbiwein.com).