Shiur #20:Tzedaka The Heart of the Mitzva

  • Rav Binyamin Zimmerman


Bein Adam Le-chavero: Ethics of Interpersonal Conduct

By Rav Binyamin Zimmerman



Shiur #20: Tzedaka – The Heart of the Mitzva



Coercion to Give Tzedaka


In last week’s lesson we arrived at an understanding of the unique nature of the mitzva of tzedaka through an initial analysis of relevant verses in Parashat Re’eh. We considered several answers given to the question of why the Gemara allows courts to coerce individuals to give tzedaka, despite the fact that the verses explicitly promise a reward to one who gives tzedaka, and as the Gemara states elsewhere (Chullin 110b), the courts may not compel observance of a mitzva for which the Torah promises a reward.


The explanations we cited last week satisfyingly describe what makes tzedaka very different from what would normally be called charity. Yet they still accept the assumption that tzedaka is indeed a mitzva for which the Torah promises a reward.


In this lesson we will take a new look at the extensive description of tzedaka in Parashat Re’eh. We will try to prove that these verses present a whole new element of the mitzva, possibly the core of what makes tzedaka so unique and powerful, and one that gives the lie to the assumptions on which our question was based.


When there is a destitute person among you, any of your brothers, in one of your settlements in your land that the Lord, your God, is giving to you, you shall not harden your heart and you shall not shut your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall generously open your hand to him, and extend to him any credit necessary for providing that which he lacks.… Beware lest there be a lawless thought in your heart saying, “The seventh year, the year of remission, is approaching,” and you treat your destitute brother with miserliness and refuse to give to him.… You shall surely give to him, and let your heart not feel bad when you give to him, because for this the Lord, your God, will bless you in all of your deeds and in all of your endeavors. (Devarim 15:7–10)


The verses reference two parts of the body that are involved in tzedaka: the hand and the heart. Reference to the hand is very understandable, as it is obviously plays a role in the act of giving. However, the repeated mention of the heart – three times in four verses – requires an explanation. If tzedaka consists mainly of providing money to the poor, then what role does the heart play?


Focus on the Heart


The Torah seems to be impressing upon us that the mitzva of tzedaka involves not only the act of giving, but the heartfelt desire to do so. Notably, in one instance here the Torah attributes lawlessness to a heart that fears to provide a loan to the poor prior to the sabbatical year.[1] Yet what is so lawless about fearing that a loan will not be repaid?


The Torah’s choice of wording is even more surprising if we take into account that it uses this word only one other time: regarding idolaters. This leads the Tosefta (Ketubot 68a) to draw a connection between a person who avoids giving tzedaka and an idolater.


Whoever averts his eyes from tzedaka is like an idolater, for it states here [regarding tzedaka], “Beware lest there be a lawless thought in your heart,” and it states there [regarding idolatry], “Lawless people went out from among you and corrupted the members of their city” (Devarim 13:14).


If tzedaka were merely a monetary debt to the poor, as suggested last lesson, it would be hard to deem withholding it an act of rebellion against God. Evidently, the Torah is concerned not only with the giving of money, but with the attitude of the giver.


Significantly, the Torah’s instruction not to harden one’s heart against giving tzedaka is understood by Ramban[2] as a negative commandment. He writes:


We should not feel pained by giving tzedaka, nor should we give without generosity, nor think of it as a financial burden. (addenda to Sefer Ha-mitzvot, no. 17)


The Ramban emphasizes that the Torah is not concerned only with the giving of the hand, but also with the mindset of the heart. Hardening one’s heart, even if one were to give a generous amount, would be a violation of a mitzva: a generous attitude is as essential as a generous gift.


Rav Hirsch (Devarim 15:7) observes that the Torah’s warning against hardening one’s heart, rather than commanding to open one’s heart, indicates that heartfelt concern for the needy is the natural reaction to a request for tzedaka. He explains that the Jew’s hand and heart are naturally open, but subject to the sway of the evil inclination, which might convince him not to give:


Lo te’ameitz …” literally means, “do not forcefully impose upon your heart.” The implied assumption of this expression is that if Jewish hearts are permitted to give free rein to their natural impulses, they will do good, and that only cold, calculating, selfish considerations can suppress these impulses.


Jewish hands also are by nature open to the poor, and also can be closed up only by such unnatural selfishness. Hence: “you shall not shut your hand.”


The Torah, then, instructs the Jew not only to give, but to find his inner kindness and give with a genuine desire to help.


A Natural Continuation of Avraham’s Kindness


What is the source of this natural inner urge to help? Why is it so essential for tzedaka?


A fascinating comment of Rambam may answer our question. In discussing the importance of tzedaka, he associates the mitzva with the legacy of our forefather Avraham:


We must be more meticulous about the mitzvah of tzedaka than about any of the other positive commandments. Tzedaka is the trademark of the righteous descendants of our forefather Avraham, as it is written, “For I [God] have known him to the end that he will command his children and household after him to keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness [tzedaka] and justice [mishpat]” (Bereishit 18:19). The throne of Israel can be established and the true faith can stand only through the merit of tzedaka … (Hilkhot Mattenot Aniyyim 10:1–2)


Avraham’s commitment to tzedaka and mishpat is the reason God chose him, and the reason God informs him of the impending destruction of Sodom:


The Lord had said, “Am I to hide from Avraham what I am doing, seeing that Avraham shall surely become a great nation and all the nations of the earth shall be blessed through him? For I have known him to the end that he will command his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice, to the end that God will bring upon Avraham that which He spoke to him. (Bereishit 18:17–19)


Earlier in this series (Year 1, Shiur #3) we showed how this is not merely a description of the values with which Avraham would educate his children, but the essential spiritual DNA of the Jewish people, who inherited from Avraham the inner nature of compassion and the practice of kindness (Yevamot 79a).


Avraham not only removed the orla, the blockage, of his body upon entering a covenant with God,[3] but also recognized the danger of the heart’s orla, which often prevents individuals from fulfilling their duties to God and their fellow men, and can corrupt their character. Thus the Torah commands us to follow in our forefathers’ footsteps and remove the orla of our heart:


Only in your forefathers did the Lord delight, loving them, and He chose their seed after them, you, of all the nations, as it is this day. You shall remove the blockage of your heart and no longer be stiff-necked. (Devarim 10:15–16)


The Gemara (Berakhot 7b) states that Avraham was the first person to refer to God with the title “Master.” Because he recognized God’s mastery, or control, of the world, it was easy for Avraham to be committed to kindness, rather than ask what he would lose by assisting others.


The mitzva of tzedaka is a responsibility and opportunity to get in touch with our natural core, to express our nature as descendants of Avraham, and not only to give, but to give with delight and excitement. As Rav Hirsch notes, the natural state of the Jewish heart is generosity – it is for this reason that the Jewish ancestry of a person who is cruel and uncompassionate is in doubt (Yevamot 79a). Therefore Parashat Re’eh is more concerned with the compassionate heart than with the giving hand.


The Nature of Coerced Tzedaka


This perspective solves two of the difficulties that we encountered in our previous shiur, where we asked why the mitzva of tzedaka appears twice in the Torah and how a court can compel a person to give tzedaka.


Based on our analysis of the verses in Parashat Re’eh, we can appreciate that while the verses in Vayikra discuss the actual giving of money to support the needy, Parashat Re’eh focuses on the manner in which one gives and one’s attitude to the plight of the destitute.


We also can understand the two separate discussions of tzedaka from a different vantage point. In an earlier lesson (Year 1, Shiur #8) we mentioned that every interpersonal mitzva includes three essential elements: an interpersonal (bein adam le-chavero) element, which is rooted in the result; an element reflecting one’s relationship with God (bein adam la-Makom), characterized by the intent to fulfill a mitzva; and an intrapersonal (bein adam le-atzmo) element, with which one develops compassionate and considerate character.


The verses in Vayikra express the interpersonal element of tzedaka – the need to support others – while Parashat Re’eh adds the two additional elements: seeing God’s hand in one’s wealth and ability to give, and the character-building of expressing the heart’s natural concern for others.


The verses in Devarim also clarify that there is no room to question why a court may compel a person to give tzedaka: a careful reading of the verses shows that a reward is promised not for giving tzedaka to the needy, but for doing so willingly:


You shall surely give to him, and let your heart not feel bad when you give to him, because for this the Lord, your God, will bless you in all of your deeds and in all of your endeavors.


It is clear that the reward is for one who does not feel bad when giving tzedaka, not for one who gives because he is forced to do so. The essence of the mitzva and the blessing is the manner of giving, rather than giving per se. A person who gives under coercion does not fulfill the mitzva in Parashat Re’eh and therefore is not worthy of any blessing. On the contrary, one who is coerced to give tzedaka has violated the prohibition against hardening his heart.


This idea is beautifully expressed in the Sefer Ha-chinukh, in which the section discussing this mitzva (no. 479) is entitled to reflect the inner experience of the giver: “To Perform Tzedaka Toward Those Who Need It with Joy and Gladness.” Feeling is the essence of the mitzva.


This idea is further expressed by Rabbeinu Yona, who writes:


“You shall surely give to him, and let your heart not feel bad when you give to him.” This verse requires us to distance ourselves from the trait of miserliness, and instead to be generous. It therefore is not sufficient simply to give money: one must implant within himself a spirit of generosity. Therefore it is written, “and let your heart not feel bad when you give to him.”


“You shall not harden your heart and you shall not shut your hand against your destitute brother.” We are hereby instructed to remove from ourselves the negative trait of cruelty and instead to plant the seeds of compassion and kindness, as it says, “and you shall walk in His ways” (Devarim 28:9). Were the Torah only to say, “you shall not shut your hand,” one could satisfy that by opening his hand and giving a gift, even resentfully. Therefore the Torah added the stipulation of “you shall not harden your heart … against your destitute brother.” (Sha’arei Teshuva 3:35–36)


Rabbeinu Yona goes on to discuss a mishna in Avot (5:10) that cites a difference of opinion as to whether one who says, “What is mine is mine and what is yours is yours,” is an average person or is exhibiting character traits typical of Sodom. Rabbeinu Yona explains that the mishna surely does not discuss a person who refuses to give to the poor, as no one could consider such behavior average. Rather, it discusses a person who gives to the poor when asked to do so due to his fear of God, but is not naturally inclined to give. Such behavior may be viewed as typical of Sodom,


for the root of his actions is very evil, as in his nature he is unconcerned with others.


Rav Soloveitchik is known for seeing certain mitzvot as containing a dual obligation, a physical act of compliance and the adoption of an inner mindset when performing the action. Based on the sources above, it is not hard to understand why Rav Soloveitchik is quoted as applying this model to tzedaka: though the act of tzedaka certainly involves giving money to a poor person, the mitzva is ultimately fulfilled by inwardly relating to the poor in a certain way.


With this insight that the hallmark of tzedaka is not simply giving money, but relishing the opportunity to unleash one’s heartfelt desire to assist others, we shall see that a number of halakhot become much more understandable.


The Way to Give


In explaining the dictum that one should greet every person “with a pleasant countenance” (Avot 1:15), Avot De-Rabbi Natan (Chapter 13) states that giving nothing but a smile is greater than giving much with a frown:


What does this mean? It teaches us that even if a person gives his fellow all of the most precious gifts in the world but does so while his face is pointing downwards, the Torah considers it as if he had given nothing. But one who greets his friend with a pleasant countenance is considered to have given the best gifts in the world, even if he did not actually give any physical gifts at all.


These are not just nice sentiments, but actually codified in the laws of tzedaka:


One must give tzedaka with a pleasant countenance, with joy and with gladness, empathizing with the plight of the poor person and offering words of comfort. If one gives with a sad or demeaning face, then he loses the benefit of giving. (Shulchan Arukh YD 249:3)


Seeing the mitzva of tzedaka as an opportunity to express concern for the poor also explains why even the poor must give, even though this does not solve any societal problems and indeed makes the poor needier:


Every man is obligated to give charity. Even a poor man who himself lives off charity is obligated to give from what he is given. (Shulchan Arukh YD 248:1)


Every member of society must take part in the mitzva of opening his heart and exhibiting his care and concern for others.




This idea is further expressed by Rambam’s explanation of the Mishna’s words “All is according to the majority of the deed” (Avot 3:15). He understands this mishna as commenting on the question of whether it is preferable to perform many small positive actions, such as giving small amounts of money to many needy individuals, or large positive action, such as giving a very large donation to a needy institution. Rambam’s explanation underscores the element of tzedaka we have been discussing:


Good character traits do not come to a person by virtue of the greatness of a deed, but rather by the frequency with which he performs it. To acquire good character traits, one must perform good deeds again and again: doing one great act will not inculcate good character traits. For example, one who gives one poor person a thousand golden coins at one time and nothing to another poor man will not acquire the trait of generosity to the same extent as one who willingly gives one golden coin a thousand times. The reason is that the latter did a thousand acts of generosity, thereby acquiring the trait of generosity, whereas the former’s soul experienced a one-time inspiration to perform a tremendous act of generosity, and this inspiration subsequently departed.


Rambam explains that every act of tzedaka has an impact on one’s heart and character. Therefore what is significant is not so much the size of a donation as the repeated act of opening up one’s heart and extending one’s hand to others in need.


This perspective also explains the Gemara’s perplexing statement (Bava Batra 9a) that “greater is one who causes others to give than one who gives.” How can influencing others to give be greater than giving personally?


Maharsha (s.v. gadol) explains that one who influences others to give is greater than one who gives only due to the influence of others:


… the proper service of wholehearted tzedaka is when one gives out of a sense of desire without being forced to do so … which also recognizes a sense of reliance on God, knowing that there is One who will repay him for his efforts.


The Levels of Tzedaka


If the most important element of tzedaka is the manner in which one gives, then we also can better understand the following gemara, another part of which we quoted in our previous lesson:


Rabbi Elazar said, “Tzedaka is measured only according to the kindness by which is performed, as the verse states, “Plant for them with tzedaka and reap according to kindness.” (Sukka 49b)


Rashi explains that “kindness” refers to the effort of giving tzedaka:


The giving is the actual tzedaka, while the effort involved is the kindness, e.g. bringing it to his house or otherwise exerting oneself: giving baked bread, appropriate clothes to wear, or money when produce is readily accessible, so that the pauper does not have to waste his money. In all these cases one takes note of what will most benefit the pauper.


Finally, we now can better understand Rambam’s well-known eight levels of tzedaka (Hilkhot Mattenot Aniyyim 10:7–14), a hierarchy based on the values of protecting the dignity of the recipient, enabling him to become self-sufficient, and generosity expressed by the giver:


There are eight levels of tzedaka, each greater than the next. The highest level, above which there is no other, is to strengthen the name of another Jew by giving him a present or loan, or forming a partnership with him, or finding him a job in order to fortify him until he no longer must rely on tzedaka


The second level is where one gives tzedaka to the poor, but does not know to whom he gives, nor does the recipient know his benefactor, for this is performing a mitzvah for the sake of heaven. This was the manner of giving in the Beit Ha-mikdash, where the righteous gave secretly and the virtuous poor drew sustenance anonymously.


The third level is where one knows to whom he gives, but the recipient does not know his benefactor …


The fourth level is where one does not know to whom he gives, but the poor person does know his benefactor … and is not ashamed.


The fifth level is where one gives before being asked [when contact is unavoidable].


The sixth level is where one gives after being asked.


The seventh level is where one gives to the poor less than is required, but gladly and with a smile.


The eighth level is where one gives to the poor person begrudgingly.


Rambam’s final two levels indicate a preference for one who gives less than is needed in a generous manner over one who provides the required amount without the proper attitude. He nevertheless seems to view a begrudging gift as tzedaka, unlike the Shulchan Arukh (cited above) and Maharil Diskin, who states that one who gives begrudgingly is worse than one who gives nothing at all.


Regarding no other mitzva, it seems, is a heartfelt desire to help others so paramount. Tzedaka is not merely an interpersonal mitzva in which giving expresses a debt to the poor rather than a deep desire to give (see previous lesson), but the essence of tzedaka is the intrapersonal element of identifying within oneself the desire to express our spiritual DNA and the legacy of Avraham, through heartfelt concern that permeates our inner heart and hopefully expresses itself in our outward actions.


[1] For further discussion of the sabbatical (shemitta) year, see the next lesson.

[2] See also Smak.

[3] Orla, literally, means “that which blocks,” or “stands in the way.” The term typically is used for the foreskin, but as we note here, also can refer to a psychological or other impediment.