Tzedakah – Good for the Soul

Erev Rosh HaShannah Reflections

For The Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC.

Rabbi Rain Zohav


Welcome to the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington DC’s Erev Rosh Hashanah services. I am Rabbi Rain Zohav, the new Rabbi of this interesting and unusual congregation made up of families from both the Jewish and the Christian traditions. No matter what our background, we gather together tonight for a deeply human experience; the beginning of a new year.

The evening of Rosh Hashanah in the Jewish tradition ushers in a ten day period of both joy and introspection. Joy because this time of the year offers in the words of Arnold Eisen, American Judaic scholar who is currently Chancellor of the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York., is “…the grace of new beginnings” (The Jewish Holidays: A Guide and Commentary, by Michael Strassfeld, p. 100). We begin a process of self-reflection that can lead to radically different lives. This is a joyful prospect, although a difficult undertaking.

This search for how to live a good life is as Alan Lew, sometimes called “The Zen Rabbi”, writes, “… a deep dream of human existence”. (This Is Real and You Are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation, p. 5) He continues, “This is a journey from denial to awareness…from isolation to a sense of our intimate connection to all being… This is an essential part of Rosh Hashanah- seeing ourselves not just as discrete ego, but as part of the great flow of being. The very first thing the Talmud has to say about Rosh Hashanah is: ‘On Rosh Hashanah, all the inhabitants of the earth stand before God, as it says in the 33rd Psalm “God fashions their hearts as one.. (Ibid, p. 8, p.71) And there are specific steps we can take to effect this transformation. We learn from the liturgy that Teshuvah,(repentance) Tefillah (prayer) and Tzedakah (righteous giving) “avert the decree.” Or, as more accessibly translated in our Makhzor “How can life’s severity be eased? Through Teshuvah, Tefilah and Tzedkah”.(The New Kehila Makhzor, ed. R. David Shneyer, p. 70).  Or, as I will put it: How can we transform our lives in the coming year for the better?

I will be talking about one of these steps at each service. Tonight, I will speak about tzedakah. I would like to start our exploration of tzedakah with a prayer by Alden Solovy, author of “Jewish Prayers of Hope and Healing”.

Quick Prayer for Compassion
G-d of mercy,
You endowed us with sympathy and compassion,
Giving us moments of rejoicing
And moments of sorrow.
Help me to turn them both into blessings.
Let me remember the joys,
So that I bring them into the world as hope.
Let me remember the pain,
So that I bring it into the world as healing.

Blessed are You, G-d of love,
Let Your gifts fill our days,
Let Your wisdom fills our hearts,
In service to tikkun olam / repairing the world.

© 2015 Alden Solovy and All rights reserved.

Why would I start this discussion of tzedakah with a prayer for compassion? Because, I believe that without compassion, the obligation to give tzedakah feels like a burden, but with compassion tzedakah feels like a blessing – a way to address the pain we feel for others in a concrete way.

Philip Birnbaum, American religious author and translator, best known for his translation and annotation of  the Jewish prayer book, and other Jewish texts, teaches us in his notes to Mishneh Torah (Jewish code of law compiled by Maimonides) that “The Biblical term tzedakah is often used synonymously with justice, truth, kindness, ethical conduct, help and deliverance.” But post-Biblically tzedakah has come to mean specifically taking care of the needs of the poor (p. 156-7). Jewish Liturgist Marcia Falk captures the essence of this in her lines about how tzedakah transforms our lives in the lovely phrase: “giving to the needy, / as justice requires” (The Days Between: Blessings, Poems and Directions of the Heart for the Jewish High Holiday Season, p. 31).

This is a place where American law and Jewish law conflict. Philip Birnbuam writes, “The poor man’s right to food, clothing and shelter, is considered by Judaism as a legal claim which must be honored by the more fortunate…Since the assigned gifts to the poor are legally considered as the property of the poor, the owner is not entitled to decide who should receive them. The field-corner, for example, must be shared by all the poor who happen to come to the fields. So too, the tithe for the poor, the gleanings and the sabbatical year [harvest]” (Ibid. p.158).  This obligation and potential blessing is so important that in one of the most definitive books of Jewish law code, the Shulchan Aruch we read that “Even a poor person who is kept alive by tzedakah funds must give tzedakah from what he receives” (Yoreh De’ah, 251:12).

So, we have established that tzedakah is considered a necessary act. But how much to give? Both Jewish and Christian traditions understand that tithing, or giving 10% of one’s income is ideal. One of the Biblical proof texts for this is Jacob’s promise to G-d in Genesis 28:22, although it is a problematic text as Jacob makes his tithing conditional. So, too, perhaps we need to beware of making our tzedakah giving conditional, in the hopes of “averting” some “decree”- something bad lurking around the corner of the new year. And maybe it is not even a good motivation to give tzedakah because it gives us joy. I leave that question up to you.

Whatever our motivation, as Americans we are not living up to the ideal. Ironically, the poor donate at a higher percentage to charitable institutions than those in the middle. The 2000 Social Capital Community Benchmark Survey shows that households with incomes below $20,000 gave 4.6% to charity, higher than any other income group.  Households earning between $50,000 and $100,000 donated 2.5 percent or less.  Only above income levels of $100,000 does the percentage rise again. ( See more at:

Difficulty in giving is not a new phenomenon.  The Talmud has an interesting story about Rabbi Tarfon and Rabbi Akiba. It is told that once Rabbi Akiba approached Rabbi Tarfon, who was known for not giving sufficiently to the poor and asked him if he would like Rabbi Akiba to purchase a city or two for Rabbi Tarfon. Rabbi Tarfon immediately gave Rabbi Akiba 4,000 gold dinars. Rabbi Akiba took the money and distributed it to the poor. Awhile later, Rabbi Tarfon asked about “his” cities. Rabbi Akiba took him to the study house. There they read through the Psalms until they came to the verse, “If a person gives freely to the poor, his tzedakah deeds will stand him in good stead forever” ( Psalm 112:9). Rabbi Akiba said, “This is the city I bought for you!” Rabbi Tarfon kissed him on the head and gave him more money to distribute to the poor”. (adapted from “Jews, Money and Social Responsibility, p. 114)

Now, I am not suggesting that any of us use duplicitous means to raise tzedakah. And I have no idea where any of you fall on the spectrum of giving. But I can tell you that giving generously will be good for your soul. This year, I found that I needed to fulfill some vows to myself as a first step in my tzedakah giving. I had meant for years to give away some musical instruments my daughters no longer played. So I contacted “Hungry for Music”. This was an easy step to take and gave me great joy. Then, I needed to look at my past year and readjust, giving to organizations that I had pledged to support. Then I found a couple of new ones. And, this year, it seems especially important that we donate to the many Black churches that were burned whether by deliberate arson or lightening over the summer. (Ask for folks to share some favorites). Thanks for all these suggestions. Perhaps we can post on the listserve or our FB page after Rosh Hashanah.

Wishing you all a sweet new year.

Rabbi Rain Zohav

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