David has responded to questions 2-4 together. So his response is repeated for these questions.
Tzedakah rejects the notion that the body’s well-being is less important than that of the soul or spirit. A medieval midrash put it this way: “There is nothing in the world more grievous than poverty. All sufferings are on one side, and poverty is on the other.”* That may explain why the Haggadah first offers an invitation to “those who hungry” and only then invites those in need of celebrating the festival. The prophets repeatedly inveighed against those who worried about ritual, but ignored caring for the needy. On Yom Kippur, a day when Jews fast — and “afflict” our souls, as the Bible says — we read the words of Isaiah:
“Is such the fast I desire, a day for people to starve their bodies? No, this is the fast I desire: . . . to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke. It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home; when you see the naked, to clothe him and not to ignore your own kin” (Isaiah 58:5-7).
Maimonides (1135-1204) described eight levels of tzedakah, the lowest ranging from giving reluctantly, to giving when asked, to knowing the recipient, to giving anonymously, etc. The highest level involves providing an individual with a gift, a loan, a position in a partnership or helping an individual find employment so he or she will become independent. For scriptural proof of this last point he brought a verse from Leviticus (25:35): You shall strengthen him, be he a stranger or a settler, he shall live with you. “Which means,” said Maimonides, “strengthen him in such a manner that prevents him from falling into want.”* An authoritative 16th century code sets forth the norms of giving: Ideally 20 percent of one’s wealth with 10 percent being average and less being stingy.*
Care for the needy rests on twin foundations: charity and justice. Charity is a response to a loving God, whom we are to love, Jesus says in echoing the Shema (see Deuteronomy 6:4-8), with “all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.” While Jesus teaches that this is “the greatest and first commandment, he adds a second: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Matthew 22:37-40). If, however, we are to love God and neighbor, then we need to engage in the work of justice, fostering the common good of societies and of various communities within these societies so as to properly distribute benefits and burdens and enhance human rights. In 1971, the Catholic Bishops, meeting in a worldwide synod, expressed the inextricable connection between the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the work for justice: “Action on behalf of justice and participation in the transformation of the world fully appear to us as a constitutive dimension of the preaching of the Gospel, or in other words, of the Church’s mission for the redemption of the human race and its liberation from every oppressive situation.” (Justice in the World, Synod of Catholic Bishops, 1971).
Zakat is the third pillar of Islam and like worship or fasting is an obligation. Zakat is mentioned in the Qur’an almost as often as the Salat, or worship. Most of the time they are mentioned together. Islam asserts that meeting the needs of other human beings is as important as praying to God. The Qur’an says, “True piety does not consist in turning your faces towards the east or the west – but truly pious is he who believes in God, and the Last Day; and the angels, and revelation, and the prophets; and spends his substance, however much he himself may cherish it, upon his near of kin, and the orphans, and the needy, and the wayfarer, and the beggars, and for the freeing of human beings from bondage; and is constant in prayer, and renders the purifying dues [Zakat]; and [truly pious are] they who keep their promises whenever they promise, and are patient in misfortune and hardship and in time of peril: it is they that have proved themselves true, and it is they, who are conscious of G” (2:177). With regard to righteous people, the Qur’an says that they “[would assign] in all that they possessed a due share unto such as might ask [for help] and such as might suffer privation” (51:19).
Besides Zakat, the Qur’an encourages believers to give Sadaqah – charity. The Qur’an describes helping the needy as giving to a friendly loan to God: “Who is it that will offer up unto God a goodly loan, which He will amply repay, with manifold increase? For, God takes away, and He gives abundantly; and it is unto Him that you shall be brought back (2:245). Another verse says: “Verily, as for the men and women who accept the truth as true and who [thus] offer up unto God a goodly loan, they will be amply repaid, and shall have a noble reward [in the life to come]” (57:18).
The rewards for those who give in the interests of others are countless. The Qur’an states, “Those who spend their possessions for the sake of God is that of a grain out of which grow seven ears, in every ear a hundred grains: for God grants manifold increase unto whom He wills; and God is infinite, all-knowing” (2:261). The Qur’an prefers contributions made in secret so there is no showing off. It says: “If you do deeds of charity openly, it is well; but if you bestow it upon the needy in secret, it will be even better for you, and it will atone for some of your bad deeds. And God is aware of all that you do” (2:271). The Qur’an stresses upholding the pride of the needy when giving them financial aid: [They] “who spend their possessions for the sake of God and do not thereafter mar their spending by stressing their own benevolence and hurting [the feelings of the needy] shall have their reward with their Sustainer, and no fear need they have, and neither shall they grieve” (2:262). The Qur’an warns that spending to show off or to hurt the feelings of the needy after helping them will invalidate the donor’s reward. “O you who have attained to faith! Do not deprive your charitable deeds of all worth by stressing your own benevolence and hurting [the feelings of the needy], as does he who spends his wealth only to be seen and praised by men, and believes not in God and the Last Day: for he is like a smooth rock with [a little] earth upon it – and then a rainstorm smites it and leaves it hard and bare. Such as these shall have no gain whatever from all their [good] works: for God does not guide people who refuse to acknowledge the truth (2:264).