The Real Meaning of Tzedakah

What is the difference between a respectable religion and some of the nicer cults which also preach kindness and study of religious literature?

Many cults place an emphasis on the study of their religious literature, ethics, morality, giving money to their church, and being nice to each other. So, what makes truly religious people better or different from them?

The key difference is the attitude to parents. In a cult, parents are a burden. Cults advise their followers to disconnect from their non-member parents, let alone help them. Giving money to others without receiving an immediate fair exchange is also discouraged by the cults. The only ones worthy of receiving charity are the leaders and their organizations.

We have all been educated about the importance of Tzedakah (charity). Little children learn how to place a penny in a pushka before they learn how to talk. As adults we are constantly bombarded with requests for Tzedakah. Unfortunately, very few of us have learned the Halachot and the real meaning of Tzedakah.

The number one priority of giving Tzedakah is taking care of older parents who need help. Other family members come next. Those who are not family members also have to be helped, but, only after the needs of all family members have been satisfied. Most Rabbanim today do not teach that Tzedakah money should be spent, first and foremost, on the needs of older parents or family members who cannot support or care for themselves.

The Tanaim and Amoraim - the scholars of the Mishnah and Gemara - had their own businesses. The Rambam worked as a doctor. The Radomske Rebbe had real-estate investments. They did not depend on Tzedakah for their livelihood. Today, on the other hand, very few practicing Rabbanim have independent businesses or jobs.

In the Rambam and in the Shulchan Aruch we find the rules of giving Tzedakah only to needy INDIVIDUALS. The concept of giving Tzedakah to support organizations and to pay salaries has not been invented yet. It seems to be a modern invention. More than that, giving Tzedakah money to those who get paid for collecting it - also known as fund raising expenses - is PROHIBITED! (If it sounds hard to believe, you are not alone. See Hilchot Tzedakah in the Shulchan Aruch.)  It is nice to support certain organizations, but, Tzedakah it is not. Not only that, but, very few people know how harsh the Rambam is against those who expect to be paid with Tzedakah money to learn Torah. (See Rambam, Hilchot Talmud Torah, Ch.3:10-11).

Another aberration is the prevalence of organizations which pay high salaries to their leaders, yet, collect donations from low-income people. Why should a low-income person be asked to donate money to fund somebody else's higher income? Such practice should be prohibited.

In Asseret HaDibrot, there is only one that is connected with long life - "Kabbed et Avicha ve-et Imecha". What exactly is the meaning of the word "Kabbed"?

In addition to giving honor, the word "Kibbud" in Hebrew also means giving food to others. The word "Kabbed", as a commandment, appears in the Bible only three times. Twice in Asseret HaDibrot, and the third is in Mishlei 3:9 - "Kabbed Hashem with your money, and from the first fruits of all your produce."  Not just "fruits", but, "first fruits". So, now, there is no more room for mistakes or misunderstandings. "Kabbed" does not mean only verbal or ceremonial honor. It also means: "First, take care of the needs of your father and mother in a way that costs you money and effort."

Now, that we understand the real meaning of giving Tzedakah, it is also easier to understand the promise in Asseret HaDibrot. Those who make life better for their parents are blessed with long and happy life for themselves.