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A Universal Mitzva

Dear Friends,

One of the 613 mitzvos (precepts) of the Torah is the mitzva to do acts of "tzedakah" - to share our resources with those in need. The Hebrew word "Tzedakah" is derived from the Hebrew word "tzedek" - justice. This word teaches us that the sharing of our resources with those in need is not only an act of love, but also an act of justice. Hashem - the Compassionate One - wants us to realize that the poor and the needy are His children who are "entitled" to our help and concern. The Torah therefore reminds us that the poor person is our brother, as it is written: 

"If your brother becomes impoverished and his means falter in your proximity, you shall strengthen him - including the proselyte or Gentile resident - so that he can live with you" (Leviticus 25:35 - translation of Rashi)

 The Torah calls upon us to "strengthen him."According to Jewish tradition, these words are teaching us that the highest form of tzedakah is to give those in need the means to support themselves, so that they will not have to be dependent on the generosity of others. (Mishneh Torah of Maimonides, Gifts to the Poor 10:7)

From the perspective of Jewish tradition, is tzedakah a mitzva that Gentiles should also fulfill? A 13th century sage, Ramban - also known as Nachmanides - finds a reference to tzedakah and the nations of the world in the following teaching from Proverbs (14:34): "Tzedakah uplifts a nation." He writes: "Tzedakah exalts any individual nation that practices it" (Commentary to Leviticus 17:20). According to Ramban, the classic example of a society which failed to do acts of tzedakah was the city-state of Sodom, which was destroyed by Hashem for their evil deeds during the era of Abraham and Sarah. The story of Sodom appears in the Book of Genesis, and in his commentary on a verse from this section (Genesis 19:5), Ramban points out that the root cause of their destruction is described in the following prophecy of Ezekiel:

"Behold, this was the sin of Sodom, your sister: She and her daughters had pride, surfeit of bread and peaceful serenity, but she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy. And they were haughty, and they committed an abomination before Me, so I removed them in accordance with what I saw." (Ezekiel 16:49,50)

Ramban adds: "The reference (in Genesis 13:13) to their 'being very wicked and sinful towards Hashem exceedingly' is to the fact that they rebelled in their prosperity and persecuted the poor, as Ezekiel states: 'And they were haughty and committed an abomination before Me.' According to our sages, they were notorious for every evil, but their fate was sealed for their persistence in not supporting the poor and the needy. They were continually guilty of this sin, and no nation could be compared to Sodom for cruelty."

Another 13th century sage, Rabbenu Yonah, expresses a similar idea:

"We find concerning the sin of Sodom, that although they sinned with many perverse acts such as robbery, violence, miscarriage of justice, and illicit relations, Scripture attributes their annihilation to their failure to practice tzedakah, as it is stated, "Behold this was the sin of Sodom, your sister...she did not strengthen the hand of the poor and the needy." (Sha'arei Teshuva 3:15).

According to Jewish tradition, there is a universal moral code known as "the Seven Mitzvos of the Children of Noah" which is the spiritual legacy of all humanity. (A copy of Hazon's introduction to the universal code is available upon request.) Tzedakah, however, is not specifically mentioned in this code; thus, why were the inhabitants of Sodom held accountable for their failure to perform acts of tzedakah?  One possible answer can be found in the writings of Rabbi Nissim Gaon, a sage of the 11th century, who wrote in his introduction to the Talmud that human beings in every generation have an obligation to perform any precept of the Torah which is suggested by "reason and the understanding of the heart." Tzedakah can be viewed as a mitzva which is suggested by "the understanding of the heart," and Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th century sage, elaborates on this idea:

" Compassion is the feeling of empathy which the pain of one being of itself awakens in another; and the higher and more human the beings are, the more keenly attuned are they to re-echo the note of suffering which, like a voice from heaven, penetrates the heart, bringing to all creatures a proof of their kinship in the universal God. And as for the human being, whose function it is to show respect and love for God's universe and all its creatures, his heart has been created so tender that it feels with the whole organic that if nothing else, the very nature of his heart must teach him that he is required above everything else to feel himself the brother of all beings, and to recognize the claim of all beings to his love and beneficence." (Horeb, chapter 17).

The human heart was created with the capacity to be compassionate; therefore, when the Torah mentions the mitzva of tzedakah in the Book of Deuteronomy (15:7), the verse states: "You shall not harden your heart." We are not to allow selfish thoughts or desires to suppress our innate capacity for compassion. The Sodomites were therefore held accountable for the sin of suppressing this crucial aspect of their nature. 

The human being has this innate capacity for compassion, as the human being was created in the image of the Compassionate One. In addition, just as the Compassionate One nurtures all creatures, so too the human being has the capacity to nurture others. As Rabbi Hirsch taught, our compassion is to awaken within us the recognition that all beings have a claim to our "love and beneficence." In this spirit, the Chofetz Chaim, a sage of the late 19th and early 20th century, writes:

"Scripture records (Genesis 1:27) that 'God created the human being in His image.' The commentators take the statement to refer to His attributes. He gave the human soul the capacity to emulate the attributes of Hashem, the Blessed One - to do good and act with loving-kindness with others, as Scripture states: 'Hashem is good to all...(Psalm 145:9), and "He gives food to all flesh, for His  loving-kindness endures forever" (Psalm 136:25).  The existence of the entire world then depends on this virtue...Hence whoever follows in this path will bear the Divine image on his person;  while whoever refrains from exercising this virtue and questions himself, 'why should I do good to others?' removes himself completely from Hashem, the Blessed One." 
("Loving Kindness" by the Chafetz Chaim, chapter 2) 

Rabbi Yeruchem Levovitz, a sage of the early 20th century, applies this teaching to Sodom:

"To deserve the title of 'human being,' a person should consider himself a pipeline to help others...The city of Sodom was destroyed because the inhabitants did not do acts of loving-kindness for others. They were guilty of other major crimes, as well, but had they been kind to one another, they would have nevertheless deserved the title 'adam' - human being. Their complete lack of tzedakah and kindness to others brought in its wake their complete destruction." (Cited in "Consulting the Wise" by Rabbi Zelig Pliskin)

Contemporary societies will also be judged for their lack of compassion for the poor and their failure to perform acts of tzedakah. Rabbi Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, a 19th century sage, cites a tradition that before the dawn of the messianic age, Hashem will judge the nations of the world for their oppression of the poor, as it is written (Psalm 12:6): "For the oppression of the poor, for the cry of the needy, I will now arise, says Hashem."  ( This teaching is found in the Beis HaLevi on the Haggadah, "This is the Bread of Affliction")

According to Jewish tradition, Hashem judges all human beings on Rosh Hashana - the New Year. The following excerpt from a Rosh Hashana prayer regarding the Divine judgement and the merit of tzedakah is therefore of universal significance:

"All those who came into the world will pass before You like members of the flock. Like a shepherd pasturing his flock, making sheep pass under his staff, so shall You cause to pass, count, calculate, and consider the soul of all living; and You shall apportion the fixed needs of all Your creatures and inscribe their verdict...But teshuva (returning to Hashem), prayer, and tzedakah remove the severity of the decree!" (Nesaneh Tokef)

In addition to teshuva and prayer, human beings are to engage in acts of tzedakah during this season of Divine judgement and renewal. Why is tzedakah so important during this season? During these days of teshuva, we pray for life, as we say: "Remember us for life, O Sovereign Who desires life, and inscribe us in the Book of Life - for Your sake, O Living God." If we ask for life for ourselves, then it is only right that we should engage in actions which give life to others.

May the Compassionate One inscribe us in "the Book of Life."

A Good and Sweet Year,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen

Hazon -Our Universal Vision