Gem of the Week from Rav Hirsch zt”l: Attitudes Towards Tzedakah


Ki yihyeh becha evyon” is not something you say to an individual, because the duty of caring for the poor falls equally upon everyone. There is no other mitzvah that requires so much activity from both the klal and the individual. Its requirements cannot be met by the individual alone, nor by the community alone. Both must work side by side.

The pasuk’s next order, lo se’ameitz es levavcha, literally means “do not harden your heart.” The implication is that when Jewish hearts are given free rein, they naturally do good, that only calculated selfishness can suppress that impulse. Jewish hands are open to the poor.

Again and again, the needy man is referred to as achicha. Every needy person, even if you don’t know him, is your brother, a child of your Father in heaven. The duty to provide everything for the needs of the poor means that the poor are the concern of every Jewish community.  A community is even allowed to force its members to donate. But the cultivation of Jewish benevolence depends on two factors.

In Jewish thought, gemilus chasadim is considered tzedakah. One who does not help the poor to the extent of his ability commits a sin. This approach makes “doing good” independent of the donor’s mood, and instead classes it as an obligation. The recipient is thus spared humiliation, since he does not receive “alms,” gifts of mercy.

Additionally, Chazal set the minimum amount of tzedakah: one must give to tzedakah one tenth of all yearly income. As a result, every Jew finds himself the administrator of a charity fund entrusted to him by Hashem. These assets are no longer his; hence, he is pleased when he finds an opportunity to do a good deed with them.

Under Jewish law, support is assured to every poor person, and tzedakah does not shame the recipient who needs it. Moreover, one who is unable to work, but out of misplaced pride refuses the tzedakah to which he is entitled, is called a shofech damim.

However, the same law attaches great value to self-sufficiency. A person should be prepared to live on bare necessities and work menial jobs to avoid charity. Some of our heroes—Hillel, Rabbi Yehoshua, Rabbi Chanina, Rav Sheishes, Rav Oshiya, Rav Huna—eked out a living as woodcutters, blacksmiths, water carriers. “Skin a dead animal in the marketplace and be paid,” Chazal tell us. “Do not say, ‘I am a priest and a scholar; such work is beneath me.’”

Chazal tell us that one who does not need tzedakah but takes it anyway will not leave this world without having to resort to it—but one who is entitled to charity and yet manages to live without it will not leave this world without having supported others.

With tzedakah, the community can rest assured that no one will be driven to crime. Through the joint efforts of the community and the individual, everyone can earn an honest living, saving society from the degeneration of the masses into crime.

Have a wonderful Shabbos,

Moshe Pogrow, Director, Ani Maamin Foundation

Please note: The “Gem of the Week,” is based on excerpts from Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l’s commentary on Chumash, with permission from the publisher.



  1. So does this mean that someone learning full time is not fulfilling ChZ”L’s law “Skin a dead animal in the marketplace and be paid,” and “Do not say, ‘I am a priest and a scholar; such work is beneath me.’”?