What is the difference between charity and tzedakah?
Table for Five: Shemini Atzeret
In partnership with the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
For the Lord, your God, has blessed you, as He spoke to you, and you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; and you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you.
Deut. 15:6, from Shemini Atzeret Torah reading
Gilla Nissan, Teacher, Poet, Essayist, Author at TheHebrewLetter.com
“For the Lord, your God, has blessed you as He spoke to you, and you will lend to many nations, but you will not borrow; and you will rule over many nations, but they will not rule over you.”
This verb, Ve’haavateta translated here as lending, is a peculiar and rarely-used verb in Torah and not at all in spoken Hebrew. It raises questions; does it mean to loan? To borrow? Both of them? Or is it a form of collateral? One of the concealed levels of this mitzvah Moses mentions, which calls us to always be a giver not a borrower, is interesting. It’s another spiritual exercise grooming us to become a nation of holy people in this world.
The Creator of the world “lends” us a spark from Himself, a soul, that will be returning one day to Him. Until then, he keeps us alive and in existence moment by moment, year by year, so we can do the holy work intended for us. HaShem is in a constant state of bestowing life and its blessings over us. He is a self-generating fountain of light, He generates Shefa/abundance from nobody but Himself–His own Being. And while we His People, created in His image and character, cannot possibly God forbid be Him, yet, we are called according to Ramak and other sages, to emulate His deeds. He rules over the world, shines His light but doesn’t borrow, we are destined to rule over nations and not borrow. He holds the vision over his people, we hold the vision over the world. This mission given to the soul of our people, as complex as it is, merits protection and love for eternal life.
Dr. Sheila Tuller Keiter, Judaic Studies Faculty, Shalhevet High School
“Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” counsels Polonius in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. While borrowing money has obvious financial disadvantages, lending also has its drawbacks. Lenders must enforce repayment or face possibly never recouping their money. Indeed, the word used for “lend” here, v’ha’avat’ta, really means to seize collateral for failure to repay a loan. Thus, lending money can strain and destroy relationships. While this verse assures Israel they will dominate other nations, it also carries some negative connotations. It is hard not to think of another Shakespeare play, The Merchant of Venice, its portrayal of the usurious Shylock, and historical stereotypes about Jews demanding payment and seizing collateral from non-Jewish borrowers. Is this really a blessing?
Our verse, however, does not address individual loans, but lending on an international level – Israel will lend to other nations. Loans to individuals are another matter entirely. The very next verse warns not to withhold aid from the poor. While one can help the poor with benevolent gifts, flexible interest-free loans are another form of charity. A charitable lender extends the funds knowing that the impoverished borrower may never be able to repay.
The blessing of dominating other nations and the duty to care for the poor are directly related. God’s blessing of national financial security is contingent on our supporting the vulnerable members of society. Or as the bard wrote: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d… it is twice blest; It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
Kari Gila Bookbinder Sacks, LCSW, MA, Mindfulness/Grief Therapist, mentor for Partners in Torah
Call me crazy, but Yom Kippur is my favorite day of the year. I love praying in spiritual solitude, as I remember singing with my mom in shul, sitting between my father and Papa, twirling their tallis strings and glancing at their machzors to see how many more pages were left. Shemini Atzeret was a lesser-known observance in our lives, but now I truly cherish this pause – at the end of the yearly festivals (starting with Pesach) – when G-d lovingly holds us, before launching us on our mission as renewed souls. The Sefer Hachinuch stunningly depicts G-d saying: ‘My Children, please, stay with me one more day. Your parting is difficult for me…”. When I think about this, I am blown away every time! This theme of the special unity between Hashem and the Jewish people is found in the mitzva of releasing the debtor from his burdens. Just like tzedakah or visiting the sick, Judaism urges us to promote our fellow’s welfare in the matter of debts. Isn’t it true nachas when parents see their children being there for each other? It is fitting at this brotherly time of year to see how Hashem placed His trust in the released debtor to repay his debts from a more free and uplifted place. Similarly, this last “send-off hug” of Shemini Atzeret gives us the confidence to springboard from the spiritual ascension we have achieved and make something great of our lives and the lives of others.
Benjamin Elterman, Screenwriter, Essayist, Speechwriter at Mitzvahspeeches.com
It’s no wonder there’s a stereotype about the Jewish banker and tax collector. Not only is it historically accurate, it’s in the Torah! But not all of us are wealthy enough to be money lenders. So is this verse only partly true? The reading for Shemini Atzeres has two sections, one concerns the holidays while the other, where this verse is found, seems to have a theme regarding property. It commands tithing, forgiving of debts, remission of other property during the shmittah year, and of course, tzedaka. According to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, there’s a big difference between charity and tzedaka.
Quoting the Rebbe, “Charity implies that the recipient has no right to the gift and that the donor is under no obligation to give it. His act is a virtue rather than a duty. Tzedakah, on the other hand, implies that the donor gives because it is his duty. For everything in the world belongs ultimately to G-d. A man’s possessions are not his by right. They are entrusted to him by G-d.”
The point is that our property is not our own. When we view our money and belongings as something borrowed to improve the world with, then we’ll see that we have plenty. It’s when we live life with that perspective that we are gifted the money to lend to others and the unity of love necessary to lead the world.
Chani Heyman, Parenting coach
What a bracha! If I take a moment and close my eyes, the vivid tapestry of this dream comes to life. Join me in my fantasy:
There is a bais Hamikdash, standing in all its glory. A huge, beautiful, most magnificent, awe-inspiring structure. Its grandeur is unparalleled, fashioned with pristine white marble and shimmering gold. A continuous pillar of smoke seen at all times from the heavens themselves down to the mizbeach (altar), burning the karbanos (offerings). Representatives from nations all over the world come, bearing their most exquisite gifts to present to Hashem in the Bais Hamikdash.
As everyone stands in attendance, Jews as well as people from all corners of the world, our leader, perhaps a king, adorned in regal attire, stands on a grand podium in the courtyard and addresses all assembled. The crowd will bow in acquiesce as they accept his ruling.
Ah, indeed, what a truly remarkable image! But don’t let it slip away; this vision doesn’t have to remain locked in the realm of imagination. It has the potential to become our reality! The pasuk before says that if we follow in Hashem’s ways and keep His mitzvos, this splendid vision can swiftly turn into a tangible and vibrant reality, our reality. It is not merely a dream but a bracha waiting to be fulfilled. May this splendid vision swiftly transform into a tangible reality within our time!
Get the best of Accidental Talmudist in your inbox: sign up for our weekly newsletter.