The mitzva of tzedaka (charity) is certainly not one that is lacking in sources. Unlike many other commandments, which receive only passing mention in the Torah, tzedaka is mentioned in at least three out of the five books of the Torah. Our goal at the outset of this series will be to look at these sources and the determine how they are going to influence and orient our view of this all-important commandment.

There are two main sections that deal with this commandment. Going in order, the first is in Vayikra 25:35, where the Torah states "And when your brother will become poor and you will extend your hand to him, and you will strengthen him - the convert and the settler - and he will live with you." The following verses proceed to elaborate the point that in such situations one should not charge interest to another Jew, giving again the reason that they should live with us, i.e. our actions should be aimed at benefiting other Jews and not harming them financially. At first glance, these verses seem to not actually command one to give tzedaka, but rather they assume that such a command already exists - "you will extend your hand." This raises an interesting question as to whether or not tzedaka is a commandment. Perhaps the Torah at this point is concerned mainly with the laws of usury (as seems to be the case), and happens to mention the notion of charity in the same breath. This is not so strange, as Chapter 25 speaks about various cases where one Jew has to come to the financial aid of another, related or otherwise. However, perhaps we can suggest that Jews had always been charitable by nature, and thus this verse functions not as a directive for charity, but rather for rules governing a pre-existing practice.

Keeping that in mind, we move to the other main section of the Torah that discusses tzedaka. In Devarim 15:7, the Torah states: "When there will be a poor person among you from one of your brothers in one of your gates, in your land that Hashem your God has given you, do not harden your heart and do not pull back your hand from your brother the poor person. Rather, open your hand to him, and lend him with that which he is lacking." The Torah the continues to stress the positive aspects of giving charity and the negative aspects of refraining to do so. While this looks clearly to be a direct injunction to give to those who are needy, we must subject these verses to an analysis as well. The preceding verses in this chapter discuss the laws of shemitta, the Sabbatical year, specifically with regard to the fact that any outstanding debts are canceled when shemitta ends. Thus, the Torah is worried that people would refrain from loaning money as the seventh year approached, as they would run the risk of having their loan canceled and thus of never seeing their money again. As such, the Torah follows with a series of verses that make it incumbent on every Jew to continue to lend money, promising prosperity in return. Viewing the verses in their context, there is room to say once again that what we are dealing with is not a clear-cut mitzva of tzedaka. First of all, the verses refer to loaning money, not to giving it away. Second, these verses speak specifically of the years that precede the shemitta ("lest you say the shemitta year is approaching..."). Taken in this context, there is once again room to postulate that charity per se was a common practice that did not require a commandment, and that the Torah is coming merely to provide certain details about the practice under certain sets of conditions.


Given our analysis, we must now ask whether or not tzedaka is counted as one of the 613 commandments. Among the Rishonim, the issue seems to be not whether or not there is a commandment here, but rather how many commandments there are. Semag (Positive Commandment #162) counts two positive commandments. The first is that of "opening your hand," i.e. the basic commandment to give charity to those in need. The second one is based on the part of the verse that tells us to "lend him that which he is lacking," namely a commandment to give charity even to one who does not want to accept it. How are we to force someone to receive our donation? By presenting it to him as a loan, and only after the fact refusing to accept payment in return (Several Acharonim note that his refusal to accept is not necessarily out of shame, but rather it may be that he does not want to deny other poor people the money. Thus, by giving him a loan, he can be assured that this money is not coming from the charity funds, and thus he may be more likely to accept it).

Rambam also has two mitzvot involved here, but one of them is positive and one is negative. In Positive Commandment #195 as well as in Hilchot Matnot Aniyim chapter 7, he lists the mitzva of giving charity and supporting the weak and destitute. He adduces as proof verses from both Vayikra and Devarim ("open your hand", "strengthen him", and "he shall live with you"). In Negative Commandment #232 he claims that the verse telling us not to pull back our hands is also a commandment, and thus failure to give tzedaka entails both the negation of a positive mitzva as well as the violation of a negative one (the exact nature of these commandments will be seen in future weeks).

Finally, for now, is the view of Ramban. He disagrees in several instances with Rambam's designation of what is considered to be one of the mitzvot, and this is one of those cases. He claims that Rambam blurred two positive commandments together, although not those given by Semag. In addition to the commandment to give tzedaka, Ramban claims that there is a separate commandment of strengthening and supporting (i.e. moral support) the convert and the settler that dwell among the Jews. As we will see further, this is not an unfounded idea. The gemara in Bava Batra 10a states that one who soothes and comforts a poor person is blessed more than one who only gives him money.


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