Religion & charity

Interestingly enough, for those in need, it was very important that others took initiative in order to provide for them. Though charity was emphasized in religious texts as a righteous duty to be fulfilled by Jews, receiving charity was less glorified. Some Jews might have needed assistance, since poverty was so widespread, but it would have been humiliating for them to ever approach someone to essentially “beg” for help. Yet the variety in how money was raised, and mindfulness of the people to the community’s needs shows that in general, people were taken care of and saved from soliciting help.

It was important that Jews supported each other simply due to their situation; if they were made to feel like outsiders, banding together was a crucial way to help one another remain united. Yet they were also encouraged by their religion to be charitable and provide for the community.

  • Maasim Tovim, meaning good deed, was a term affiliated with the Torah that obligated Jews to help the less fortunate
    • A principle of Maasim Tovim that guided how Jews helped each other within the shtetl was tzedakah
    • Tzedakah is essentially charity, but in Hebrew it is derived from the word justice which shows that charity, for Jews, is significant and related to morals
    • Jews were obligated to give charity without resentment; if they were giving to a fellow Jew it was essentially helping an extension of themselves – this was an appropriate¬†mentality in the shtetl, where people felt closely tied to the people around them
    • In contrast, the word for charity in English comes from the word caritas, which in Latin means “heart” – this shows that for some charity happens when we are emotionally motivated, but for Jews it implies more of a responsibility

There were “levels” to tzedakah, identified by Moses, that indicated, based on how tzedakah was given, received and the attitude of the giver, how a person was esteemed by their actions.

8 stages of tzedakah:

  1. The person who gives a gift or a loan or gives a job, or goes into a business partnership, so that the recipient becomes self-supporting, and no longer needs tzedakah
  2. The person who gives completely anonymously: neither giver or recipient knows the other
  3. The person who gives knowing the recipient, but without the recipient knowing the identity of the giver
  4. The person who gives without knowing the recipient, but the recipient knows the giver
  5. The person who gives before being asked
  6. The person who gives what he or she should, but only after being asked
  7. The person who gives less than he or she should, but gives graciously
  8. The person who gives reluctantly

These are arranged so that 1 is the ultimate demonstration of tzedakah, and that the higher numbers are more common, and less impressive.

Jews living in the shtetl wanted to be charitable; it was fulfilling to give to others, but more importantly it meant meeting biblical expectations. Within the scheme of the Jewish culture, tzedakah was critical and thus incorporated in the shtetl lifesytle. Ordinarily money was collected so that wealth could be dispersed throughout the community. If people had a certain cause in mind, ensuring that a woman had a dowry or raising money to send an orphaned boy to the yeshiva, they might raise the money themselves, but ordinarily charity was affiliated with the synagogue.


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