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How to translate the Hebrew word ‘tzedakah’

An important part of Jewishness is the Hebrew language. It is the original language of Judaism and the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the “Old” Testament). We read our sacred texts in the Hebrew, and we pray in Hebrew. We often also pray in English (or whichever modern language Jews speak), but there is something essentially authentic and spiritual about the use of this ancient language in our religion. One of my friends, Rabbi Bahir Davis, speaks of Hebrew as our spirit language. It is more than just a way for communicating thoughts. It also communicates the ancestral spirit and the connection we Jews have felt with the Holy One for some 4,000 years.

Of course, as a language with words and grammar, it also needs to be translated, and this can present some interesting challenges. A case in point is how best to translate the Hebrew word “tzedakah.” Tzedakah is the word Jews use in regard to giving charity, but some think that “charity” is not a good translation — that the two words have significant spiritual and psychological differences. Charity comes from the Latin “charitas,” a word that means “love.” Thus, philosophically, charity should be given as a result of love — the love one human should feel for another. Tzedakah, on the other hand, is from the Hebrew word “tzedek,” which means righteousness or justice. Some having plenty while others starve is a cosmic injustice. Regardless of our feelings of love for the poor, justice and righteousness demand that we help them.

There is some truth to this analysis — especially when one considers the spiritual perspective that all of our wealth comes from and belongs to God. In the “shefa” (flow of Divine Energy), some of us get more than we need, and others get less. It is our duty to participate in God’s work and spread the blessings around. If God is concerned for the poor person — as the Torah so tells us continually — then it seems divinely compelling for us to use our relative wealth to help those in need.

On the other hand, I think it is a mistake to think that the Latin “charitas” refers only to a fleeting emotional feeling. Charitas is generally understood as “love for God,” and the love of/for God (and all of its attendant demands) is not something to be taken capriciously. If God commands one to love God (Deuteronomy 6) and God commands us to love each other (Leviticus 19), then charity is not exactly optional. Generosity to the poor is clearly something God demands.

On the other hand, encouraging people of means to feel empathy for others is not an un-Jewish thing to do. The Holy Scriptures and Rabbinical literature are full of this kind of importuning. Listen to the cries of the poor. See the plight of the downtrodden. Feel the heart of the stranger. The bond of empathy is both Jewish and a potentially good motivator.

So, I have concluded, this “tzedakah” versus “charity” question is a false dichotomy. We are commanded to feel empathy for and to love the poor, and we are commanded to act justly toward them. Whether we call it charity or tzedakah, God wants us to share the plenty we enjoy.

Rabbi David E. Ostrich is a spiritual leader at Congregation Brit Shalom.