The Jewish commitment to provide care for the needy reflects the connection between tzedakah, often translated as “charity,” andtzedek— “justice” or “righteousness.”* Rooted in the concept of justice, the requirement to give tzedakah has nothing to do with how you may or may not feel about the recipient. Maimonides said that “the obligation of tzedakah requires more scrupulousness than any other positive commandment because it is the sign of righteousness, as God says of Abraham, ‘For I have singled him out that he may instruct his children . . . to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness, tzedakah . . .’” (Genesis 18:19).*
Care for the needy, a fundamental dimension of our humanity, lies at the heart of religious traditions. In the Old Testament the abstraction “needy” is made concrete in the command to care for the widow and the orphan (e.g., Exodus 22:22; Deuteronomy 10:18 and 24:17). In the New Testament, James urges his readers to be “doers of the word, and not merely hearers…. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress…” (Letter of James 1:22a and 27a).
In the parable of the so-called “Good” Samaritan (Luke 10: 25-37), Jesus tells a story of reversal. Many of Jesus’ hearers did not think of Samaritans—an aberrant Jewish group with their own temple, priesthood, calendar and edition of the Torah—as “good.” Rather, they would have expected that the “good” folks—the priest and Levite—would have responded to the wounded man. Amazingly, it was not they but the despised Samaritan who showed compassion. Real religiosity is manifest in care for the needy.
Zakat , helping the poor and needy, is one of the pillars of Islam. In the Qur’an, Salat – daily worship – and Zakat are often mentioned together, making it clear that in Islam, assisting the poor and needy is as essential as worshiping God. In addition to Zakat, the Qur’an emphasizes giving Sadaqah, or charity. The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) instituted Zakat al Fitr ( charity given at the end of Ramadan fasting) that required the rich to help the poor in the neighborhood celebrate Eid al Fitr, the festivity at the end of Ramadan fasting.* The head of the household is responsible for paying the equivalent of $10 in U.S. currency on behalf of each member of his/her family. Further, the Qur’an asks those who cannot fast because of old age or sickness to feed one poor person for everyday he/she could not fast during Ramadan (2:184).
When the Prophet was asked: “What [sort of] deeds does Islam consider good?” he replied, “To feed [the poor] and greet those whom you know and those whom you don’t know.”*