How Tzedakah Became Charity

“Tzedakah” in the sense of communal charity, civic benefaction, and an individual form of giving came into being during the tannaitic period, with the help of the Greeks and a little-known king named Munbaz.

A tzedakah-charity box in a wall. Old City of Jerusalem. JHistory -Wikimedia

Tzedakah as Charity – a Rabbinic Invention

Care for the poor is one of the most important obligations in Jewish tradition. While the roots of support for the needy are found in the Torah, the concept of charity – whereby individuals surrender their own property to a person in need – is nowhere to be found in the Hebrew Bible.[1]

The agricultural laws for leaving a portion of the harvest for the poor (Leviticus 19:9–10; Deuteronomy 24:19–21) are framed as an allocation of food by God directly to the poor; the landowner or farmer is commanded merely to refrain from interfering with the divine distribution.[2] This explains why in the Hebrew Bible the word tzedakah denotes many things, especially “righteousness” – but never “charity.”[3]

The concept of charity and its identification with the term tzedakah developed later, and is first reflected in Hellenistic Jewish texts of the Second Temple era.[4] Tzedakah  only became fully coherent as “charity” during the time of the tannaim (70–220 C.E.) – the earliest wave of rabbis who compiled the first rabbinic texts, such as the Mishnah, Tosefta, and Tannaitic or halakhic midrashim.

Part 1

The Tosefta’s System of Communal Charity

The earliest discussion of charity in classical rabbinic literature is found in the Tosefta.5 As the title suggests, the Tosefta’s tractate Pe’ah (“corner”) focuses primarily on expanding the biblical laws of passively leaving the “corner” of a field unharvested for the poor, as well as “gleanings” and other laws on care for the poor based on Leviticus 19 and Deuteronomy 24.

However, the final portion of Tosefta Pe’ah (particularly, t. Pe’ah 4:8–21) outlines a more active way to care for the poor – charity. The text conceptualizes charity as both a communal and individual endeavor, within the framework of Greco-Roman civic norms.

תוספתא פאה ד:ח היה מסביב על הפתחים אין נזקקין לו לכל דבר
t. Peah 4:8 [If a poor man] used to go around from door to door [begging, then] they are not obligated to him in any way.

The Tosefta opens by ruling that one does not need to give anything to a beggar who knocks at the door requesting alms. On the face of it, this seems like an odd way to begin a discussion of charity, and indeed the passage troubled traditional commentators.[6] The solution, however, is to read the passage as continuous with the one that follows: Instead of giving directly to a beggar, the Tosefta rules that one should give through two charitable institutions, known as the soup kitchen (תמחוי) and the communal fund [7] (קופה). These institutions are previously unknown from Jewish sources,[8] so the tannaim lay out exactly what they have in mind:

תוספתא פאה ד:ט [א] תמחוי כל היום קופה מערב שבת לערב שבת
Tosefta Pe’ah 4.9 [A] The soup kitchen [provides for] the entire day. The charity fund [provides] from Sabbath eve to Sabbath eve.
[ב] תמחוי לכל אדם קופה לעניי אותה העיר…
[B] The soup kitchen [provides] for every man. The charity fund [provides] for poor individuals of the same town…

According to the Tosefta, the purpose of a soup kitchen is to provide immediate sustenance to anyone in need. The communal charity fund, on the other hand, provides long-term support for locals.

In this vein, the Tosefta goes on to identify those who are obligated to contribute to the charity fund.

תוספתא פאה ד:ט [ג] …אם שהא שם שלשים יום הרי הוא כאנשי העיר לקופה ולכסות ששה חדשים לפסי[9] העיר שנים עשר חדש
Tosefta Pe’ah 4:9 [C] …If one stays for thirty days, then he is considered a resident of the town with regard to the charity fund. And for clothing – six months. For the town’s taxes – twelve months.

According to this passage, if someone is poor and resides in the town for thirty days, then they may take from the charity fund. By the same token, someone who is not poor after thirty days is obligated to give to the charity fund; privileges for some, obligations for others. After six months, a poor individual is eligible to receive clothing, while one who is not poor is obligated to help provide it. And after twelve months, the rabbis note, one is subject to the town’s municipal taxes.

Communal Tzedakah and Greco-Roman Civic Culture

In its emphasis on communal responsibility, the rabbinic system of charity appears to be influenced by Greco-Roman civic culture, where one’s identity and actions are defined by one’s city or polis. In this system, one’s primary responsibility is to one’s fellow citizens of the polis.

From this perspective, tzedakah can be appreciated as a way to live a righteous life in the eyes of God as well as a civic duty. The Tannaim envision the charity fund as a civic and communal institution, overseen by special officials, in this case, charity supervisors, who are modeled after municipal officials in Greek cities. One of the Hebrew terms for the charity supervisor, parnas, was a loan word from the Greek pronoetes, meaning “supervisor,” “executor,” or “administrator,” an official who was often responsible for supervising a town’s finances.[9]

Indeed, in later rabbinic tradition, organized charity would become firmly embedded in the rabbinic understanding of an ideal community:

בבלי סנהדרין יז ע”ב [10] ותניא: כל עיר שאין בה עשרה דברים הללו אין תלמיד חכם רשאי לדור בתוכה: בית דין מכין ועונשין, וקופה של צדקה נגבית בשנים ומתחלקת בשלשה, ובית הכנסת, ובית המרחץ, ובית הכסא, רופא, ואומן, ולבלר, (וטבח), ומלמד תינוקות.
b. Sanhedrin 17b [11] It has been taught: A scholar should not reside in a town where the following ten things are not found: A court of justice that imposes flagellation and decrees penalties; a charity fund collected by two and distributed by three; a synagogue; public baths; a lavatory; a circumciser; a surgeon, a notary; a slaughterer; and a school-master.

The centrality of the charity fund to Jewish communal life would be emphasized later by no less than Maimonides.[12]

Part 2 

King Munbaz’s Charity: Individual Tzedakah and Civic Culture

In Jerusalem, just north of the Old City, nestled amongst some of the world’s most prestigious archaeological research centers, are the impressive ruins of the “Tomb of the Kings.” Once believed to house the remains of the great kings of Ancient Judah, it is now recognized as the final resting place of a more obscure royal dynasty – the House of Adiabene.

This family, which ruled a small kingdom in modern-day Iraq and famously converted to Judaism, built a burial complex so impressive that one ancient writer compared it to the legendary Mausoleum at Halicarnassus – one of the famous seven wonders of the ancient world. The tomb may have held the remains of a number of members of this family, such as Queen Helena and her sons Izatus and Monobazus.[13]

Monobazus was in many ways a relatively minor figure in the Adiabene dynasty. However, due to his family’s timely generosity and, as we shall see, his remarkable name Munbaz (the Hebrew form of the Greek name), would play a key role in how the early rabbis formulated that cardinal commandment of Judaism, tzedakah.[14]

תוספתא פאה ד:יח [א] מעשה במונבז המלך שעמד וביזבז אוצרותיו בשני בצרות שלחו לו (אבותיו) אחיו אבותיך גנזו אוצרות והוסיפו על של אבותם ואתה עמדת ובזבזת את כל אוצרותיך שלך ושל אבותיך אמ’ להם
Tosefta Pe’ah 4:18 [A]  An event in which Munbaz the king went and squandered (bzbz – בזבז) his treasures during years of distress. His brothers sent [a letter] to him, “Your ancestors saved (gnz – גנז) treasures and added to those of their ancestors. But you went and gave away all of your treasures – [both] yours and those of your ancestors!” He [Munbaz] said to them:
[ב] אבותי גנזו אוצרו’ למטה ואני גנזתי למעלה שנ’ אמת מארץ תצמח
[B] “My ancestors saved treasures below, but I saved [treasures] above, as it is said: Faithfulness will spring up from the ground (Psalms 85:12).
[ג] אבותי גנזו אוצרות מקום שהיד שולטת בו ואני גנזתי מקום שאין היד שולטת בו שנ’ צדק ומשפט מכון כסאך וגו’
[C]  “My ancestors saved treasures in a place in which a [human] hand rules, but I saved [treasures] in a place in which a [human] hand does not rule, as it is said: Righteousness (צדק) and justice are the base of Your throne; [steadfast love and faithfulness stand before You] (Psalms 89:15).
[ד] אבותי גנזו אוצרות שאין עושין פירות ואני גנזתי אוצרות שעושין פירות שנ’ אמרו צדיק כי טוב וגו’
[D] “My ancestors saved treasures that do not yield interest, but I saved treasures that yield interest, as it is said: Hail the just man (צדיק), for he shall fare well; [He shall eat the fruit of his works] (Isaiah 3:10).
[ה] אבותי גנזו אוצרות ממון ואני גנזתי אוצרות על נפשות שנ’ פרי צדיק עץ חיים ולוקח נפש’ וגו’
[E] “My ancestors saved treasures of money, but I saved treasures of lives/souls, as it is said: The fruit of the righteous (צדיק) is a tree of life; a [wise man] captivates people (Proverbs 11:30).
[ו] אבותי גנזו אוצרות לאחרים ואני גנזתי לעצמי שנ’ ולך תהי הצדקה וגו’
[F] “My ancestors saved treasures for others, but I saved treasures for myself, as it is said: and it will be to your credit (צדקה) [before the Lord your God] (Deuteronomy 24:13).
[ז] אבותי גנזו אוצרות בעולם הזה ואני גנזתי לעצמי לעולם הבא שנ’ והלך לפניך צדקיך
[G] “My ancestors saved treasures in this world, but I saved treasures for myself in the world-to-come, as it is said: Your Vindicator (צדקיך) shall march before you (Isaiah 58:8).”

According to the Tosefta, Munbaz’s main argument was that his actions are similar in kind to those of his ancestors – they both save (gnz) their treasures. As such, he distances himself from the charges that he has squandered the family fortune. Munbaz then shows, in six ways, how his act of saving surpasses that of his ancestors – whereas the ancestors store barren treasures of material goods in this world below, Munbaz stores treasures that yield profits for himself in the immaterial world-to-come above.

“Treasures” and “Saving” as Multivalent Terms

The text employs a number of key terms. In early rabbinic literature, “treasure” or “treasury” primarily refer to stores of grain or other staples, which is consistent with what would have been distributed during a famine – the setting of the story. In addition, “treasure” can denote stores of intangible and otherworldly items, such as souls and grace, as well as punishments for the wicked and rewards for the righteous in the afterlife.[15] In our passage, the rabbis play on both meanings of the word, crafting a narrative in worldly and otherworldly terms.

Another key term is the main verb of the passage, namely, “saved” / גנז. As there are numerous terms for “save” in rabbinic literature, the choice of גנז is significant. Against his brothers’ accusations that he squandered the family’s fortune, Munbaz asserts that by giving it away he actually saved (גנז) it. Moreover, like the word for “treasure,” “saved” is also used in otherworldly and apocalyptic contexts. For example, in Sifre Deuteronomy 305 Moses’s body is “saved” or secreted away (גנז) for life in the world-to-come and no one on earth knows its whereabouts. When one “saves” something in this sense, one transfers something from this world to the next.

Munbaz’s Charity and Greco-Roman Ways of Giving

Since a main goal of this passage is to offer motivations to give charity, the absence of altruism as a motivating factor is conspicuous. This can be partially explained when we examine this Tosefta passage within a civic discourse.

Inscription honoring Aristoxenos, son of Demophon probably benefactor of the gymnasium in Athens, late third or second century BC., Musée du Louvre.

One important mode of giving in the Greco-Roman world has been dubbed by scholars as euergetism – a term based on the Greek word for “benefactor” (euergetes).  Euergetism was a form of benefaction in which one gives a gift to a city and the city returns the favor by giving the benefactor rewards with symbolic value.

This informal institution existed from the fifth century B.C.E. onwards throughout the Greek-speaking world. It had a remarkably consistent set of features. A benefactor would finance construction projects, public games, fortifications or other forms of defense, athletic competitions, municipal services, or provisions for the local cult. In return, the benefactor would be recognized for his or her contribution with symbolic rewards – a crown, a statue, and/or a decree passed by the local body politic that bestowed honors on the benefactor.

These honors were recorded in stone and displayed in public locations – thousands of these inscriptions have survived to this day, and they provide the basis of our knowledge of euergetism.[16] In many respects, these inscriptions can be thought of as precursors to the bronze plaques honoring donors that adorn the walls of communal and religious institutions today.

The Charity of the House of Adiabene

The House of Adiabene distinguished itself as benefactors.[17] The first-century C.E. Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus, recounts the family’s munificence in the year 46 C.E., when Jerusalem was struck by a famine. Queen Helena arranged for grain to be brought from Egypt and dried figs from Cyprus, and her son Izatus sent money.

It would seem that a memory of these events is echoed in t. Pe’ah 4:18. In the Tosefta’s re-telling, however, the lead benefactor is Monobazus/Munbaz.[18] The reason for this change may lie in his fitting name: “Munbaz” shares letters with the roots of “squander” (bzbz – Munbaz) and “store” (gnz – Munbaz) – creating an irresistible opportunity for word play.

In Josephus’s account, Adiabene’s munificence is rewarded with a physical memorial of the benefaction – wholly in keeping with the norms of euergetism. In the Tosefta, however, physical, earthly rewards are conspicuously absent. Modeling ideal behavior, Munbaz instead seeks intangible treasures that are accessible only in otherworldly realms. Note, again, that the Tosefta does not argue for altruism, rather, the tannaim embrace the idea that a benefactor ought to receive personal rewards of one sort or another.

From Greco-Roman Civic Benefaction to Individual Tzedakah

Alongside these rabbinic innovations in the history of Adiabenian charity, the redactors of the Tosefta were also creative in the way they placed six reasons for public benefaction into Munbaz’s mouth. These reasons depict a thoroughly rabbinized figure, as we find each reason backed by a scriptural prooftext.

Notably, five of the six biblical verses include the Hebrew root צדק, whose derivative words denote an array of meanings including justice and righteousness. Through this subtle choice of prooftexts, the rabbis identify public, Greek-style benefactions to the needy with acts of righteousness, and identify the benefactor as a righteous individual.[19]

In sum, the rabbinic narrative about Munbaz offers the rabbis an opportunity to equate Greek euergetism with charity and righteousness, setting up a systematic definition of tzedakah as classical charity, and using Munbaz to model ideal behavior. Along the way, they develop the greater significance of such charity. While benefactions are typically motivated by the promise of material rewards that broadcast one’s social status (crowns, honorary inscriptions, etc.), our text promises intangible rewards only accessible in otherworldly realms. [20]

This blending of biblical and Hellenic concepts, brought together in ways that serve rabbinic ideals, is prevalent throughout the discussion of charity in t. Pe’ah 4:8–21. Here, the rabbis draw upon Hellenistic civic ideals, reshape Greek and Roman practices, and pair them with the biblical concept of righteousness to create a new vision of charity. That is, the early rabbis created our concept of tzedakah with the help of the Greeks – and a little-known king.[21]