Tzedakah (roughly translated as “charity”) has, by definition, two sides: that of the giver and that of the receiver. For the receiver, tzedakah is a simple matter: an individual, an institution or a community needs certain things which they cannot afford, and tzedakah is the answer to that problem; it provides a solution in the form of a grant from the outside which is neither a loan nor a form of subjucation, but a free gift. As for the givers, there is a number of reasons why people give charity: some people do so because they are kind-hearted and wish to assist others in distress; others give charity because thus they will get esteem and respect from society; some donate for religious reasons – namely, so as to enjoy the rewards, be it in this world or in the next. But charity has an additional aspect. In some languages the term for charity is “merit,” which means that the very act of giving charity is a merit to the giver. Only few outstanding individuals are capable of creating or changing reality, while ordinary people, even if affluent, go through life without having any impact whatsoever. A modest gift to the poor may be a life-save; charity to creative individuals or to constructive institutions may change the course of events; and people who can establish a school, or create an industry that provides people with sustenance, make the world a somewhat better place. In places where there are no needy people who should be given charity (if such places exist at all), people have no way of transcending the limitations of their own personality, and those who rely on the government or the establishment to take care of the needy lose the ability to become more whole. Therefore, whenever the opportunity arises to give charity, it is a merit: the merit to become partners (sometimes significant ones) in things that are bigger than oneself. This is why tzedaka is considered one of the foundations of Jewish existence throughout history. Maimonides (in the Laws of the Gifts of the Poor, 9:3) says that there has never been a Jewish community without a tzedaka box. Surely, in all generations there was a need to assist certain people, and often there were situations of genuine want; but beyond that, the very act of giving is an advantage and a gain to the giver. Indeed, Jewish law establishes (Ibid., 7:5) that every person, even the very poor, is obligated to give a certain amount of charity. Thus, each and every individual can become one of those who have been granted this merit, the merit to
Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz is a teacher, philosopher, social critic and prolific author who has been hailed by Time magazine as a “once-in-a-millennium scholar.” His lifelong work in Jewish education earned him the Israel Prize, his country’s highest honor.
Born in Jerusalem in 1937 to secular parents, Rabbi Steinsaltz studied physics and chemistry at the Hebrew University. He established several experimental schools and, at the age of 24, became Israel’s youngest school principal.
In 1965, he began his monumental Hebrew translation and commentary on the Talmud. To date, he has published 45 of the anticipated 46 volumes and is due to publish the last book in the series in November, 2010. The Rabbi’s classic work of Kabbalah, The Thirteen Petalled Rose, was first published in 1980 and now appears in eight languages. In all, Rabbi Steinsaltz has authored some 60 books and hundreds of articles on subjects ranging from zoology to theology to social commentary.
Continuing his work as a teacher and spiritual mentor, Rabbi Steinsaltz established a network of schools and educational institutions in Israeland the former Soviet Union. He has served as scholar in residence at the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Studies in Washington, D.C. and the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton University. His honorary degrees include doctorates from Yeshiva University, Ben Gurion University of the Negev, Bar Ilan University, Brandeis University, and Florida International University.
Rabbi Steinsaltz lives in Jerusalem. He and his wife have three children and 15 grandchildren.