The following is related concerning Benjamin the Righteous, who was appointed supervisor of the charity fund. Once a woman came to him during a time of scarcity and said to him, “My master, sustain me!” He said, “I swear by the Holy Temple Service that the charity fund is empty.” She said, “My master, if you do not sustain me, a woman and her seven children will die.” He rose and sustained her from his own funds. Sometime afterward, he became deathly ill. The angels addressed the Holy Blessed One, saying, “Master of the Universe, You have said that one who preserves a single life among Israel is considered to have preserved the entire world. Should Benjamin the Righteous, who preserved a woman and her seven children, die at so early an age?” They immediately tore up [Benjamin’s] decree. [A sage] taught: They added twenty-two years to his life. (BT Bava Batra 11a)
The terms tzedek, tzedakah, and tzaddik/tzaddeket all derive from the same three-letter root, צ-ד-ק, whose fundamental meaning is “right.” Its usage is always related to this notion in the sense of justice. Torah commands us to pursue justice (Deuteronomy 16:20). In the Hebrew Bible, Mishnah, Talmud, and midrash, all three terms inhabit a range of meanings. Tzedek connotes the abstract noun “justice;” tzedakah connotes acts of justice in a variety of venues; a tzaddik or tzaddeket is a person who is a purveyor of justice. The term tzedakah is most often used to connote acts of generosity that correct injustice by providing people deprived of the necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing—with what they need. Hence, tzedakah is designated for the poor.
The biblical social-agricultural institutions of the ma’aser oni (poor tithe), shemittah (sabbatical year), leket (gleanings), and pe’ah (corners) addressed and attempted to rectify the needs of the poor. They are mitzvot (“commandments”) and hence obligatory.
Post-biblically, the Rabbis established communal charities—a kupah, in Hebrew—and assigned a trustworthy administrator to attend to the needs of the poor. In the account above, the supervisor of the communal fund is known as Benjamin ha-Tzaddik, Benjamin the Righteous. Such funds continued through the Middle Ages, blossoming into a sophisticated array of funds for a wide variety of needs, lasting well into the modern period. With them grew a cadre of trusted people to solicit and distribute contributions.
Tzedakah is a mitzvah, though the quantity one donates is not specified by halakhah. Hence, tzedakah lies on the boundary between a specific commanded act, and an act of generosity. We respond to both our sense of obligation and our inspiration to be generous.
Justice, justice shall you pursue,
that you may thrive and occupy the land that
Adonai your God is giving you. —Deuteronomy 16:20
The Talmud recounts a story in two scenes about Benjamin the Righteous, who appears only in this story. He is not a sage, but the rabbis must have held him in high regard because they entrusted communal funds to him to distribute to the poor, and he is known as Benjamin “the Righteous.”
In Scene One, a widow, the mother of seven children, approaches Benjamin to request funds to feed her family during a time of scarcity. This information lends greater urgency and credibility to her request, so we are unsurprised when Benjamin responds that the community tzedakah fund is empty, going so far as to swear by the Holy Temple he is telling her the truth. In times of scarcity, Benjamin must receive many requests for help. With seven hungry children to feed, the woman is desperate and persists in her request. Benjamin is moved by her plea and supplies her with money from his own wallet to sustain her family, demonstrating why he is called Benjamin “the Righteous.”
Scene Two takes place in heaven many years later as Benjamin’s decreed life-span draws to a close. The angels, having observed Benjamin’s generosity, approach God to plead on his behalf. They argue that God taught that one who saves a single life is credited with having saved an entire world. This teaching, from Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5, is spun out of a creative interpretation of God’s words to Cain, “What have you done? Hark, your brother [Abel’s] bloods cry out to Me from the ground!” (Genesis 4:10) The plural here signifies both Abel’s blood (i.e., life), as well as the lives (i.e., blood) of his descendants: all those who will never be born because Cain killed Abel. By sustaining the widow and her children, the angels claim, Benjamin saved their lives, and thereby the lives of their progeny. The heavenly decree concerning the end of his life is immediately torn up and, according to an anonymous sage, he is allotted an additional twenty-two years of life, a reward for his generosity.
QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER AND DISCUSS
- If you were interviewing someone to be the administrator of a communal tzedakah fund, what attributes would you look for? What questions would you ask?
- The story illustrates a popular rabbinic understanding of Proverbs 10:2 and 11:4, וּצְדָקָה, תַּצִּיל מִמָּוֶת “tzedakah saves from death,” that giving tzedakah rewards the giver by protecting them from death. In what ways is this interpretation true (or not true) for you?
- Does Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog’s description of the role of tzedakah in Eastern European Jewish life (from Life is With People, see box) sound familiar? Should this be our communal goal today? How should it be administered?
“Life in the shtetl [the small villages of Eastern Europe] begins and ends with tzedaka. When a child is born, the father pledges a certain amount of money for distribution to the poor. At a funeral the mourners distribute coins to the beggars who swarm the cemetery, chanting, “Tzedaka saves from death.” At every turn during one's life, the reminder to give is present... If something good or bad happens, one puts a coin into a box. Before lighting the Sabbath candles, the housewife drops a coin into one of the boxes… Children are trained to the habit of giving. A father will have his son give alms to the beggar instead of handing them over directly…” (Life Is With People)