Of the 613 mitzvah-commandments in Judaism, Tzedaka-charity is unique in certain of its attributes, Jewish law, and other anomalies connected with it. This makes Tzedaka the most unusual of all the commandments. Three of the remarkable aspects of Tzedaka will be examined in this chapter.
PERFORMING A MITZVAH-COMMANDMENT FOR AN ULTERIOR MOTIVE
In describing the verse instructing the Jew to give ten percent of produce to the poor, the Torah repeats in the verse the verb for tithing: “Aser Ta-aser.” The Talmud often gives a deeper explanation when any “unnecessary” addition or repetition of a word occurs in a verse. On this verse, the Talmud states that one should tithe to the poor for the purpose of becoming rich. Since the letters of tithing and wealth are identical (Ayin, Shin-Sin, Resh), the verse can then be read “tithe so that you can attain wealth.” This seems to imply that one’s motivation in giving charity in Judaism is not to please G-d or follow His commands, but, rather, in order that G-d reward monetarily the person fulfilling this commandment, and he receive back from G-d much more than was donated. This notion seems to contradict the overarching attitude to serving G-d and performing commandments: a person should act as a servant (of G-d) without expectation of reward. And yet, the Talmud clearly says that one’s motivation in giving Tzedaka-charity can be for material gain and expected wealth.
The idea of ulterior motives in giving Tzedaka becomes even more pronounced in G-d’s own words to the people through the prophet Malachi. G-d tells the Jews that if they bring the tithe, they can test G-d through this act and G-d promises that great wealth will follow. Thus, the verse actually encourages Jews to test G-d in performing this mitzvah. Based on this unusual verse, the Talmud in several places states that if a person conditions his Tzedaka-charity donation upon G-d’s response that his son will be cured of serious sickness and live, or upon his achieving the World to Come, then this person is considered a fully righteous individual.
This implies that a person can withhold giving the promised charity until one’s son is healed and if the son’s health does not improve, a person’s promise to give Tzedaka is no longer obligatory. If a person were to condition performance of any other mitzvah based on this kind of “deal” with G-d, it would be considered improper, blasphemous and contrary to Jewish law. For example, if a man were to say “I will only put on Tefillin after G-d makes me a rich man” or a woman were to say “I will keep the Shabbat only once G-d gives me five healthy children,” that would be considered heretical! And yet, with regard to the singular commandment of Tzedaka, that is not only acceptable, but the person is considered wholly righteous! It is totally legitimate, for example, to condition giving Tzedaka to an institution only if the building will be named in memory of one’s parents. Why should this be so? The very notion of “commandment” is based on the notion that G-d commands and Jews obey, without questioning, without demanding and without making any contract or exchange. How can we then understand this unusual notion in the case of Tzedaka? What makes giving charity so different from all other commandments that allows its performance to be conditional and violate the general principle of “serving the Master without expecting reward?”
The rabbis and commentaries have struggled to try to explain why conditional charity in Judaism is permitted and even welcomed, but conditional performance of any other mitzvah is forbidden. But before any explanations are attempted, it is important to point out that the power of Tzedaka is a stronger cosmic and spiritual force than any other mitzvah.
Rabbi Dr. Nachum Amsel currently works with Rabbi Berel Wein and the Destiny Foundation as the Director of Education, whose mission is “to bring Jewish history to life in an exciting, entertaining and interactive way.” Rabbi Amsel has also served as a teacher, a school principal, and an adjunct professor. He has also taught over 2000 educators how to teach more effectively. Rabbi Amsel has worked in all areas of formal and informal Jewish education and has developed numerous curricula including a methodology how to teach Jewish Values using mass media. Recently, he founded the STARS Program (Student Torah Alliance for Russian Speakers), where more than 3000 students in 12 Russian speaking countries learn about their Jewish heritage for five hours weekly. Rabbi Amsel previously served as the Educational Director of Hillel in the Former Soviet Union. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and has four children and four grandchildren.
This essay is reprinted from the book, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values” published by Urim, or the upcoming books, “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to Man” or “The Encyclopedia of Jewish Values: Man to G-d” to be published in the future. This essay is not intended as a source of practical halachic (legal) rulings. For matters of halachah, please consult a qualified posek (rabbi).