Torah Study > Chapter 4: Tzedek, Tzedakah, & Chesed

We explored two kinds of justice in a previous section. Mishpat is even-handed or retributive justice, that is, justice by the book. Tzedek is situational or distributive justice, that is, justice that is tailored to respond to the particular circumstances of a particular situation, especially those that lead to social, economic and political inequities.

Mishpat is generally about assessing behavior and determining how to treat the aggrieved and the offender equally. Tzedek is more about creating a system for the fair distribution of goods, services and opportunity on this earth. In this section we will further explore the idea of tzedek as we compare it to the more popular concept of tzedakah. The two terms share the same root, tz.d.k., meaning the right thing to do.

Although it is often translated as “charity,” tzedakah is not equivalent to charity. Charity comes from the Latin word caritas, which means “love.” The concept of charity in English is considered voluntary because it comes from the heart. Christianity teaches that charity is something which people should give when their hearts move them to do so.

Thus, even though we emphasize in this chapter the distinction between tzedek and tzedakah, we should not lose sight of the significance of their semantic connection. These two concepts are distinct but they are also closely related in that tzedek and tzedakah both represent modes of responding to injustice in the world.

The framing exercise and five texts presented below expand our understanding
of justice and examine Jewish perspectives on responding to injustice in our world.

TEXT 1: Eight Levels of Tzedakah (Maimonides, “Laws of Gifts to the Poor” 10:7-14) presents a classic formulation of the hierarchy of giving and makes the claim that certain types of giving are valued over others.

Our conversation continues with an examination of the concept of chesed which similarly describes a response to human needs. Chesed, however, is not informed by a clear sense of “the right thing to do” but is an expression of love. As opposed to tzedek and tzedakah, enacting chesed does not necessarily
require a situation of injustice.

TEXT 2–4: Leaving a Portion for the Poor (Leviticus, ch. 19; Deuteronomy, ch. 24 and 19) relates several biblical sources which address the obligation to reserve portions of one’s harvest for the needy.

TEXT 5: Tzedakah and Chesed (Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 49b) introduces
the concept of chesed which represents a larger category that encompasses
tzedekah.

TEXT 6: Tzedakah and Chesed—A Contemporary Interpretation (Rabbi
Jonathan Sacks, To Heal a Fractured World)
articulates an understanding of the difference between tzedakah and chesed, relating them both to the concepts of tzedek and mishpat.

TEXT 7: Mar Ukba and His Wife (Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 67b) is a complex story which examines different modes of giving.


"The Jewish requirement to help repair the world is often interpreted as a call
for tzedakah, or charity. But, a second critical aspect of Jewish tradition and
experience is an emphasis on the need not only for compassion and charity
but also for justice [i.e., tzedek]—for addressing root causes of problems and
inequity.”

(Joel Westheimer, Contact: The Journal of Jewish Life Network, p. 12, Autumn
2001, 4:1)

Read the paragraph above. Take some time to reflect of the following
questions.

> According to Westheimer, what is the difference between tzedek and tzedakah?

> Is this a helpful distinction?

Tzedakah can be defined as a gift given to ameliorate an immediate need while tzedek is a strategy designed to uproot the inequities or obstacles that cause need. Both are necessary in a society that seeks to be fair and just to all. Tzedakah is short-term and tzedek is long-term. Tzedakah gives to the individual directly (or to the organization that serves the individual directly), and tzedek works to redesign the structures of society.

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