Rabbi Sacks on Tzedakah Defined

JInsider (March 2010)

Tzedakah is a fascinating idea and let’s see it immediately. What is the English for tzedakah? There isn’t an English for tzedakah. You ask 100 Jews what is the English for tzedakah, 50 will say charity, 50 will say justice. And that’s exactly right, because tzedakah means both charity and justice.

The only trouble is in English something can’t be charity and justice at the same time. Here’s why. Supposing I give you $1000 and I may do so for two different reasons. Reason, one, I owe it to you. Reason two, I don’t owe it to you. I just think you need $1000. And out of the kindness of my heart, I give it to you. If I give it to you, because I owe it to you, that is justice. If I give it to you not because I owe it, but because you need it, that’s charity. So a thing can be either justice or charity but not both. In English, they cannot live together. They’re like magnets that drive each other apart. In Judaism, they’re bonded with superglue and they are bonded in that one concept tzedakah.

How come the Hebrew language can do something the English language can’t? The answer is very simple. In Judaism what we possess, we don’t ultimately own. Everything we have is ultimately God’s and God merely lends it to us, gives it to us in trust. And one of the conditions of that trust is, that we share it with people who have less than we do. And that is why in Judaism, charity is justice and justice takes the form of charity. So there is a concept so important in this world where some people are unbelievably rich. So many people in the world are incredibly poor, unable almost to have food, shelter, medical facilities. And somehow we want to say to people, yes, that’s charity, but it’s also justice.

And for that, you need the word tzedakah. That is one word that has the power to change the world.