by Michael Gros
Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim Meisel was known for his overwhelming generosity, and for giving an enormous portion of his income to tzedakah (charity). His friends chided him, for though a person should give away at least ten percent of his earnings, he should not give more than twenty percent.
“You’re absolutely right,” Rabbi Eliyahu Chaim would tell them. “I’m in a terrible predicament and I can’t find a way out. I once violated the commandment against giving more than a fifth of one’s income to tzedakah. To atone, I gave tzedakah, as is recommended for atonement from sin. But then I was again guilty of giving more than a fifth of my income, and again I had to give tzedakah as an atonement. I’m caught in a vicious cycle and don’t know how to get out of it!” (from Words of Wisdom, Words of Wit by Shmuel Himelstein)
This story reflects the lengths people will go through to fulfill the beloved commandment of tzedakah. Jews have always been known for their philanthropy, making indelible marks through their gifts to religious and cultural institutions, and in providing for the needs of the larger society. Jewish business magnates such as Guggenheim, Montefiore, and Touro are remembered not for the fortunes they accumulated, but for the gifts they gave away.
The commandment of tzedakah is given in this week’s Torah portion, and from the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, we can learn the proper procedure for giving tzedakah. The Talmud (Shabbat 104a) explains that the Gimmel and Dalet were placed next to each other to remind us of the commandment of Gemilut Dalim – be kind to the poor.
The Gemorrah asks, “Why is the foot of the gimmel stretched out toward the dalet? Because it is proper for those who do kindness to run after the needy. And why is the foot of the dalet stretched toward the gimmel? Because the poor person should make himself available to him. And why is the dalet’s face turned away from the gimmel? Because [the rich] should give [the poor] discreetly, in order that he not feel ashamed before him.” From the shape and direction of the letters, we learn that both parties should be eager to fulfill the commandment of tzedakah, and that the benefactor must give without embarrassing the receiver.
The significance of giving tzedakah is indicated by its appearance twice in the Talmud’s elucidation of the letters. The Rabbis point out that the letters Samech and Ayin stand for Semuch Ani’im, that one should support the poor.
God promises to reward us exceedingly for giving tzedakah, as the Torah says, “Hashem your G-d will bless you in all your actions and in all your activities” (Devarim 15:10). The Baal HaTurim, a 14th century commentator, explains that if we open our hands to the poor, God will reward us by opening the gates of the heavens to shower rain onto our land. Rabbeinu Bachya, a contemporary of the Baal HaTurim, mentions an even greater reward for giving tzedakah: “See the power of Tezedakah, that a single pruta [coin of trivial value] that a man gives to a poor person, merits for the giver to receive the face of the Shechinah [the divine presence].”
Fulfilling the commandment of tzedakah brings great physical and spiritual rewards, but like any commandment, the Sages teach us that God will give us even greater rewards in the World to Come.
A support for this idea can be seen in the beginning of the Torah portion, where Moses says, “See, I give before you today a blessing and a curse” (11:26). When Moses says “Today a bracha,” he is referring to the simple reward that a person receives today, in this world. When Moses says “a curse,” one view says that he is in reality referring to the tremendous reward that awaits a person in the world to come. The word VeKlalah, “and a curse” is an abbreviation for the phrase, “Vehakeren kayamet lo l’olam haba”- “the full reward is his in the world to come.” (Niflaot Chadashot, quoted in Mayina Shel Torah)
The commandment of tzedakah is precious, perhaps because of its impact. Not only does it help the obvious party, the pauper, but if done properly, it brings great reward to the benefactor in this world and in the world to come.
History, especially Jewish history, is noted for its irony. Charles Lindbergh made history by being the first man to fly across the Atlantic, but he was known also for being virulently anti-Semitic. As fate would have it, the prize that inspired his famous flight was given by the Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics, founded by the Jewish merchant Meyer Guggenheim.
This column presents general principles for approaching business ethics topics. For specific guidelines, please refer to a halachic authority.
Michael Gros is a researcher for the Center for Business Ethics, and the Center’s webmaster.