The global financial crisis has made itself felt in almost every corner of the world.And though it seems to be coming to a conclusion, we have by no means seen the end.So many people have been affected and they are feeling the pressure in different ways.We are faced with choices with which we thought we would never be confronted.
One of them naturally affects our own personal giving.We have contributed generously to others in the past.While always being judicious in where and how much we give, now we have to be much more so.Thus the question we’re being asked, “Am I still required to give tzedakah when I’m having tough times of my own?”
To answer this question, we need go no further than the texts of our tradition.Unfortunately, our ancestors were all too familiar with periods of serious economic hardship and their responses can help guide us during our own challenging times.For example, “One who gives even a perutah (the smallest coin of that time) to the poor, is privileged to sense God’s presence.”(Talmud, Baba Batra 10a).And we also learn, “Even a poor person who receives tzedakah must give from what he or she receives.”(Talmud, Gittin 7b).
Though we may not be able to give to the same extent we had done previously, we are obligated to give something.And why?There are always others in need and regardless of how much we might be hurting, we must never forget those who are suffering even more. To do so also requires an honest evaluation of our finances.For example, do we really need that extra cup of coffee, must we see the movie that just came out, how badly do we need that item of clothing we saw in the store? Only when we have weighed our finances against the needs of others can we determine an amount that we can honestly give to others.
The word tzedakah comes from the Hebrew tzedek which means righteousness, an obligation to be of help to others in spite of the financial challenges we are facing.For that reason, we must never think of ourselves as being in such dire straights that we can’t be of help to others, even in the most modest of ways.And in making a connection to those in need, we are asserting the belief that God’s spirit resides in all human beings regardless of their finances.We are all God’s creations in spite of the circumstances in which we find ourselves.It’s a valuable lesson we should never forget.
The question of the requirement to give tsedakah is a complicated one: while the Shulchan Aruch requires all Jews, even those subsisting on charity, to give a minimal amount of charity, the idea of tithing, giving at least 10% and as much as 20% (with the goal being to cover as much of the local poor as possible), is, it would seem, more of a longstanding custom than an actual halachah. That would suggest that tight financial times allow for some reduction. In addition, the Talmud tells us that it sees full charity as restoring a person to the standard of living to which that person had been accustomed; that would suggest that the donors themselves also have the right to their standard of living.
On the other hand,if people have allowed themselves a bloated standard of living and, in tight financial times, tighten their belts to be able to continue to afford that standard, I am not sure that that allows for cutting the poor along with all else. To pick an excessive example, if someone was spending $150,000 a month on vacations ( I once read of a celebrity who was doing that, and it stuck in my head) and needed to "tighten their belt," I'm not sure I'd feel comfortable ratifying that person's desire to cut back on charitable donations along with cutting the vacations to "only" $75K a month.
So, to summarize: there is no need to bankrupt oneself to give charity, but it is also worth remembering that the poor are, generally, much poorer than we are. Those richer than us might be expected to also do their part, but, to the extent we can, it would seem highly preferable to struggle to maintain the standard of charity we have achieved for ourselves, just like we would struggle to maintain our standards in other areas.
Do I have to give tzedakah even in difficult economic times?
When the recession hit, the Central Conference of American Rabbis (the professional organization for Reform rabbis) asked its Committee on Justice and Peace to pose questions to the Responsa Committee about issues around the economy and tzedakah. One of the questions posed was whether an individual was still obligated to give tzedakah, even in these difficult times.The answer was an unequivocal Yes. (http://ccarnet.org/_kd/Items/actions.cfm?action=Show&item_id=1890&destination=ShowItem)
Giving tzedakah is a mitzvah, both in the literal sense of a commandment, and in the colloquial sense of a good deed.The CCAR Responsum says it best:
Tzedakah is a Mitzvah. As we have indicated, Jewish tradition defines tzedakah as a mitzvah, a religious duty. As the Shulchan Arukh, the most authoritative compilation of the traditional halakhah, formulates the rule: “Every person is obligated (chayav) to donate tzedakah.(Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 248:1) This applies even to the poor person who himself is supported by tzedakah; he is obligated to donate from the amount that is provided to him.”…..The word chayav, “obligation,” places tzedakah in the category of actions that the individual has no choice but to undertake. It is a chovah, a duty, and not a free-will gift of the heart. Although it is certainly better to give tzedakah willingly and happily (as befits the fulfillment of a mitzvah) than in an attitude of reluctance (that would testify that we are helping the poor against our will),5 we frequently remind ourselves that the Hebrew word tzedakah means “justice” and not “charity”: if justice is an obligation that demands our compliance, whether we like it or not, then so is tzedakah.
The responsum further elaborates that a vow to give tzedakah is a promise made to Heaven, and cannot be retracted.(B. Rosh Hashanah 6a (based upon Deuteronomy 23:24); Yad, Matanot Aniyim 8:1; Shulchan Arukh Yoreh De`ah 257:3.)On the other hand, one is not expected to impoverish himself in giving tzedakah. Each must give according to his or her means.If a person is himself so impoverished that he cannot support himself, he is not obligated to give. (B. Ketuboth 50a and Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 249.1)
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