How Much Tzedakah Should We Give?

Among the characteristics of repentance is for the repentant individual to constantly call out before Hashem tearfully and with petitions. One should give charity according to one’s capacity. One should distance oneself from one’s sinful behavior… (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance 2:4)

1. Behaviors associated with teshuvah
Maimonides explains that the process of teshuvah – repentance – should be accompanied by other activities. Among the behaviors that he enumerates are petitional prayer and tzedakah – giving charity. Maimonides’ position is reflected in the comments of the Talmud. The Talmud explains that three activities have the capacity to cancel a negative decree. These activities are prayer, teshuvah and tzedakah.[1] According to the Talmud, these activities do not only impact Hashem’s judgment of us. They also have the power to reverse a negative verdict. In other words, even if as a consequence of our misdeeds we are judged as deserving punishment, these activities have the capacity to reverse the decree of punishment.

My people, upon whom My name is called, humble themselves and pray and seek My presence and repent of their evil ways, I shall hear from heaven and forgive their sin and heal their land. (Devrai HaYamim II 7:14)

2. The Talmud’s textual source for tzedakah’s role in the teshuvah process
The Talmud cites the above passage as the source for its comments. This passage is part of a prophecy received by King Shlomo upon his completion of the construction of the Bait HaMikdash. Hashem tells Shlomo that when the people sin and are punished, they should call out to Him from the Bait HaMikdash and He will listen to their prayers. However, the pasuk identifies three activities that can rescue the nation – prayer, repentance, and seeking Hashem’s presence. The Talmud explains that “seeking Hashem’s presence” is a reference to tzedakah.[2]

And Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to Bnai Yisrael and they should take for Me an offering. From every person, that which his heart moves him to give, you should take as My offering. (Sefer Shemot 25:1-2)

3. Teshuvah and Tzedakah in the Torah
Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik Zt”l suggests that the Torah itself provides a source for the role of tzedakah in the teshuvah process and in moderating negative decrees. In order to understand his comments, a brief introduction is necessary. In Sefer Shemot, the incident of the Egel – the Golden Calf – interrupts the Torah’s discussion of the building of the Mishcan – the Tabernacle. The discussion of the Mishcan begins with the above passages. In these passages, Hashem commands Moshe to initiate the process of collecting the materials from which the Mishcan and its contents will be fabricated. These materials are to be collected through freely contributed donations. The Torah’s account continues with a description of the design of the Mishcan and its contents, and related issues. Then, suddenly the incident of the Egel and its aftermath are described. Upon completion of its discussion of the Egel, the Torah resumes its narrative regarding the Mishcan. This order suggests that the incident of the Egel occurred at some point after Hashem commanded the nation to create the Mishcan and before the completion of the project. However, the Sages’ analysis of the texts led them to a different conclusion. The Sages explained that the commandment to create the Mishcan was revealed to Moshe after the incident of the Egel. Moshe ascended Mount Sinai and petitioned Hashem to forgive Bnai Yisrael. On Yom Kippur he descended having secured Hashem’s pardon and immediately received the command to create the Mishcan.[3]

Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno and others suggest that the commandment to create the Mishcan was a response to the incident of the Egel.[4] Sforno seems to maintain that the sin of the Egel demonstrated that the people remained vulnerable to the familiar attractions of idolatry. In order to assure that service to Hashem would not become tainted with idolatrous practices, this service was relegated to the tightly supervised environment of the Mishcan.

Rav Soloveitchik suggests that there is another element of the command to create the Mishcan that responded to the sin of the Egel. The Mishcan was created primarily through voluntary offerings. In other words, in response to the sin of the Egel the people were commended to give tzedakah.[5]

In summary: Maimonides identifies tzedakah as an element of the teshuvah process. The Talmud asserts that tzedakah can even nullify a negative decree. Rav Soloveitchik explains that the relevance of tzedakah to teshuvah and forgiveness is demonstrated by the incident of the Egel. Hashem responded to this horrible sin by commanding the nation to engage in tzedakah.

Why is specifically the mitzvah of tzedakah associated with the teshuvah process? The Torah has many other commandments that seem to have the potential to restore the repentant sinner’s relationship with Hashem. Observance of Shabbat and Torah study are powerful experiences of encounter with Hashem. Why are not these mitzvot associated with the teshuvah process? Furthermore, according to the Talmud, tzedakah has even the power to moderate a decree of punishment. From where does tzedakah derive its powerful efficacy?

4. Giving tzedakah to the extent of one’s capacity
Maimonides makes an interesting comment that provides an important insight. He explains that the repentant individual should give tzedakah according to his capacity. The implication of this comment is that it is not the mere giving of charity that is associated with teshuvah. The repentant individual should give tzedakah to an extent that is personally substantial.

In order to understand the significance of this distinction, some explanation is necessary. All of us give tzedakah. How much do most of us give? The amount differs widely. So, does the proportion of income that one gives. Some give the requisite ten percent. Some give more and others less. In short, from a quantitative perspective, there is enormous diversity in giving habits. However, from a qualitative perspective, there is overwhelming consistency. Most people will give up to the point that requires personal sacrifice. When we reach the point at which further giving will require giving up something of significance, we stop giving. For example, if a person realizes by making a further or larger contribution to charity, he will have to postpone the anticipated purchase of a new car, he will not make the additional or larger donation. We each have our limit. However, the limit is generally determined by the same factor. Development professionals refer to it as the “ouch factor”. Giving ends at the “ouch”.

Maimonides’ position is that the tzedakah is associated with teshuvah only when it evokes the “ouch”. The contributor can afford it but he feels it. He is making a sacrifice. Why is this important?

What is repentance? It is the sinner abandoning his sinful behavior. He removes it from his thoughts. He commits in his heart to not repeat it (the behavior)… Also, he regrets the past (behavior)… (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Repentance, 2:2)

5. Teshuvah is a behavioral and internal change
Maimonides describes the elements of teshuvah. Repentance is not only a commitment to reform one’s behavior. It is also an analysis of one’s past behavior. In fact, according to Maimonides, this honest reflection, assessment, and understanding of one’s past behavior is an essential element of repentance. This seems odd. If a person reforms his behavior – for whatever reason – is he not repentant? He has embarked upon a new, more appropriate path. He is committed to turn his life around. Why must he return to his past, painfully recall his wrongdoings, dwell upon his errors and declare his regrets? The past cannot be changed! Why not focus on the future before us?

Apparently, teshuvah requires more than behavioral change. It demands that we reform our attitudes and refine our values. Introspection, value clarification, and reshaping of our attitudes and beliefs are as essential as the behavioral change. The process of teshuvah only achieves its full meaning when it is predicated upon purification of one inner-self.

When this process takes place in its entirety, the repentant individual changes his behavior because he understands that they were misguided. He sees his previous behavior as predicated upon false values, flawed beliefs, and erroneous notions. He is moved to change by a sincere sense of regret. He has emerged from darkness and confusion into the light of true understanding. He is a transformed individual.

6. Tzedakah and value clarification
Now, the association between tzedakah – as described by Maimonides – as teshuvah is obvious. A person who gives up to the “ouch” but no further has weighed the spiritual value of supporting a cause or need that he understands as compelling against his relatively trivial material desires. After weighing one against the other, he has decided his material desires are the more important. This person is struggling to embrace the reality of spiritual values. However, he cannot fully incorporate into his decision making process a cognizance of the spiritual as imperative. His material desires and experiences remain more real and more compelling than spiritual values. He can give tzedakah up to the “ouch” but no further.

In overcoming the “ouch”, a transformation takes place. A threshold is passed over. The spiritual asserts itself as more real and compelling than the fleeting gratification of material experiences and the meaningless pursuit of material desires.

This is the special significance and power of the tzedakah associated with teshuvah. It is predicated upon a process of value clarification. It is an extension and expression of the internal transformation that is essential to teshuvah. Through his tzedakah, the repentant individual reaffirms, demonstrates and implements his sincere transformation. The person who was condemned to be punished no longer exists. He has departed and been replaced by a new enlightened individual. The decree is nullified because the emergent individual is innocent of his predecessor’s sins.

1. Talmud Yerushalmi, Mesechet Ta’anit 2:1.

2. This is based upon Tehilim 17:16 which the Talmud understands to associate tzedakah with being in Hashem’s presence.

3. Rabbaynu Shlomo ben Yitzchak (Rashi), Commentary on Sefer Shemot 31:18.

4. Rabbaynu Ovadia Sforno, Commentary on Sefer Shemot 31:18.

5. Rav Soloveitchik explained that in the wilderness the implementation of a command to give tzedakah presented a unique challenge. Generally, tzedakah is given in order to provide for a less fortunate person’s needs. In the wilderness, tzedakah could not be given for this purpose. Hashem provided miraculously for all of the needs of the people. He provided manna, water, and all other necessities. In order to implement a commandment to give tzedakah, some project was required to which the people would contribute. The Mishcan was the project that Hashem selected for this purpose. (Recorded lecture. See also Harerai Kedem, vol 1, p 76)