Jewish wisdom tells us that giving between 10 and 20% of your net income is an actual obligation, not a charitable or emotional response. There is an imbalance in the world, and it is the Jewish people’s responsibility to correct this imbalance with justice and righteousness.
On my very first date with my husband, we met at a very classy rooftop bar atop one of Toronto’s finest hotels. He rode his bicycle there to meet me. I had come from work and was carrying a briefcase. There was chemistry from the very start, and by the time we had our third martini that chemistry was flaming hot! Never mind that a combo of hormones and alcohol is a nasty combination for deciding whether one has anything in common with their date, or that martinis and moonlight obscure the objectivity and clarity one requires when assessing another’s character. Let’s just say that by the time we decided to walk home together we were like velcro. And both of us were smitten.
As we walked the downtown streets, we were stopped at every corner by homeless people or grifters. Each time they asked for money, my future husband would reach into his pockets and pull out cash to give them, always with a smile. By the time we reached the subway where we were parting ways, he turned to me, and with a bashful grin, asked me if I had any money for the fare. He had given all of his money away!
That was when I fell head over heels in love. What I didn’t know at the time was that his behavior, which I thought was the ultimate expression of generosity and giving was actually pretty far off the Jewish mark, but I knew that he was a mensch. A year later, I married him.
One of the hallmarks of a mensch is that they are givers. Givers are not just happy people, they are beloved people. They are magnetic people. They spend time focusing on what needs fixing around them and less time focusing on themselves. They are mensches (human beings) because they care about other human beings. And just as we teach our kids to share because it is not inherent, but rather a learned and inculcated trait, we must also teach our kids and ourselves that sharing goes beyond their toys or their snacks, and also includes their earnings. Because it doesn’t all belong to them.
The word for charity in Hebrew is tzedakah. It comes from the root word tzedek, which means righteousness, fairness, and justice. It differs profoundly from the word charity, which is derived from the Late Latin word, caritas, which means generous love, and from the Latin word, carus, meaning dear or beloved.
What is the difference between fairness and righteousness versus dear beloved love? Well, charity is driven by emotion. It is the result of being moved and emotionally inspired. Tzedakah is a fundamental obligation on an ethical basis. Tzedakah is a mitzvah, an obligation of connection between humankind and God. It is not left up to our hearts to feel like doing what’s right. It is commanded of us because God wants us to be mensches even when or if we don’t feel like it.
According to Jewish law, between 10 and up to 20% of your after-tax income does not belong to you. You are meant to use this money to correct the imbalance in the world, to help the needy, and to uplift the less fortunate. It is one of the reasons your soul came into this world! But we are not meant to give away 100%, and we are not to impoverish ourselves so that we end up on the community purse, or have no money for the bus!
Maimonides, the great Jewish commentator, dictated the levels of holiness and loftiness one can reach as a giver. Each level is a deepening of one’s sensitivities and compassion. At level 8, one gives, but they are pained by the act of giving. By level 2, neither the donor nor the recipient knows the other. This protects the dignity, privacy, and humility of both the giver and receiver. What a high level of “mensch-iness!”
Here are the levels:
- Level 8 — The donor is pained by the act of giving
- Level 7 — The donor gives less than they should but does so cheerfully
- Level 6 — The donor gives after being solicited
- Level 5 — The donor gives without being solicited
- Level 4 — The recipient knows the donor but the donor does not know the recipient
- Level 3 — The donor knows the recipient but the recipient does not know the donor
- Level 2 — Neither the donor nor the recipient knows the other
- Level 1 — The donor gives the recipient the wherewithal to become self-supporting
Another important component of tzedakah is understanding one’s priorities in giving. First and foremost must be one’s family, which includes all the Jewish nation and the land of Israel. After that come any organizations, institutions, or endeavors that spark your soul and provide Jewish learning and growth. After that, the entire world and every known cause are both encouraged and laudable.
There are many people who have a passionate financial commitment to, for example, saving animals, but fail to notice that their brother can’t make his mortgage payment. Remember, while it is wonderful to be emotionally moved by where your tzedakah goes, it is not a prerequisite.
We are obligated to give. When we take on the mitzvah of tzedakah, our Creator has nachas in us, because we are His children. We become mensches who understand that the only thing we can truly take with us when we leave this earth is that which we have given away!