Q. Why is tz’dakah the Hebrew word for charity?
A. “Charity” itself comes from Latin and conveys the idea of loving benevolence to the needy. An alternative word is “philanthropy”, from a Greek term which indicates love of mankind. The Hebrew tz’dakah means “righteousness” or “justice”. It is the Jewish way of building a righteous and just society.
Among the laws of tz’dakah there is a remarkable piece of advice that urges a person to give anonymously, so that donor and beneficiary are unaware of each other’s identity. In the Temple there was a lishkat chasha’im, a chamber of secret charity, where the generous left their contributions secretly and the poor took what they needed in similar secrecy.
Tz’dakah also insists that the way you give is as important as the gift. Avot d’Rabbi Nathan tells us, “If one gives his fellow all the good things in the world but with a sullen face, it is as if he has given nothing; but he who receives his fellow man with a pleasant countenance, even if he gives him nothing, it is as if he has given him all the good things in the world.”
A Russian writer tells of a beggar who comes up to a man in the street and asks for money. The man replies, “I’m sorry, brother, but I have nothing myself and cannot help you.” “I am quite content,” says the beggar, “for you called me ‘brother’.”