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Talmudic Treasures by Rabbi Ziona Zelazo is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

Spiritual charity and the Tales of two Seas; Baba Batra 10a and Sukka 49b

     This post emerged during this summer’s stay in Israel. I heard the story from my friend Dalia, about her nephew, who got killed in a terrorist attack. In his death he donated his organs to save lives. And so he already enabled a man to regain his vision with the donated retina. I was thinking how amazing it is to be able to give to others. But in particular, I was thinking that there is no one way to give to others. People can choose to be givers in many shapes and forms.

     And here is another Israeli hint for the idea of giving;

     There are two lakes in Israel. One is the Dead Sea, the other is the Sea of Galilee. Both are not really seas, both receive their waters from the Jordan river. And yet, they are very, very different. The Dead Sea in the south is very high in salt. You can float and read a book at the same time! Thus, there is no life at all; no vegetation and no marine life. Hence the name: Dead Sea. The Sea of Galilee is north of the Dead Sea. It is surrounded by the rich and colorful vegetation. It is the home to over twenty different types of fishes.

Sea of Galilee
The Dead Sea
     Same source of the Jordan river’s water, and yet one sea is full of life, the other is dead. How come? The Jordan river flows into the Sea of Galilee and then flows out so it keeps the sea healthy and vibrant, allowing marine life to exist. But the Dead Sea is below the mean sea level, and has no outlet for its water. The water flows in from the Jordan river, but does not flow out. Thus, unfit for any marine life.

     There are the Givers and the Takers. And in Judaism, giving charity is an obligation. In the Bavli Talmud we fine dozens of texts about this obligation. They say that charity, or in Hebrew - Tzedakah, is the most important commandment to fulfill. For example, we read in Baba Batra 10a the following:

"R. Yehudah says: Ten strong things have been created in the world. The rock is hard, but the iron cleaves it. The iron is hard, but the fire softens it. The fire is hard, but the water quenches it. The water is strong, but the clouds bear it. The clouds are strong, but the wind scatters them. The wind is strong, but the body bears it. The body is strong, but fear crushes it. Fear is strong, but wine banishes it. Wine is strong, but sleep works it off. Death is stronger than all, but charity saves from death, as it is written, Righteousness [tzedakah] delivers from death (Proverbs 10:2; 11:4)." 
     If you are like me, who was taught that “Tzaddaka” is giving money to the poor or to other worthy causes, we are missing the point. Most often we think that giving relates to how much money one gives away. That if we donate to charity with a check, we are Givers. And if we do not have the means of money, we are out of the box of Giving. However, being generous is far more than a money issue. It is a code of behavior that requires generosity from the heart, the sharing of personal time, energy, talent, wisdom, love, compassion and many other resources. The act of charity also includes visiting the sick, burying the dead, and dealing justly with others.

     The classic ethical work of Orchot Tzadikim – [Ways of the Righteous], written in Germany in the 15th century, liberates us from this conditional relationship between charity and money. Three categories of giving with generosity are listed: giving of one's wealth, giving of oneself physically by being present to others in need, and giving of one's wisdom. The last two are types of giving that money cannot buy.

     The giving from our spirit of compassion and love, is the emotional quality of giving which is commonly referred to as Gemilut hasadim- deeds of loving-kindness. Investing from your own energy builds relationship, which does not depends on giving money to the poor. In Sukka 49b we read:

"R. Elazar further stated: Acts of loving-kindness (Gemilut hasadim) are greater than charity (Tzedakah), for it is said, “Sow to yourselves according to your charity (Tzedakah), but reap according to your hesed (kindness)” (Hosea 10:12); when one sows, it is doubtful whether he will eat [the harvest] or not, but when one reaps, he will certainly eat.

Our rabbis taught: In three respects Gemilut hasadim is superior to charity: charity can be done only with one’s money, but Gemilut hasadim can be done with one’s person and one’s money. Charity can be given only to the poor, but Gemilut hasadim both to the rich and the poor. Charity can be given to the living only, Gemilut hasadim can be done both to the living and to the dead."  

     Have you considered visiting the sick as giving? Or, supporting someone by just listening to them without trying to fix them? Could we imagine that a smile, a recognition of someone with words could also be acts of giving? Bava Batra 9b affirms that our presence could lift one’s spirits at times of despair and sustains the recipient at least as much as any donation;

"Someone who gives a coin to the poor will be blessed with six blessings, whereas the one who addresses him with words of comfort will be blessed with eleven blessings (even if he does not give him a donation)."

     Ketubos 111b also mentions that even a smile alone could be as important as a physical donation:

"The congregation of Israel says to the Almighty: 'Master of the Universe, wink to me with Your eyes for that exhilarates me more than wine and smile at me with Your teeth for that is sweeter to me than milk."
The Talmud continues and says this is proof to what Rabbi Yochanan said, "Better is the one who shows the white of his teeth (in a smile) to his friend, than the one who gives him milk to drink."

     I think that each one of us were, one time or another, the Giver of many versions, like the Sea of Galilee, where it enriched our lives with the sense of a moral fulfillment. And also being the Taker, where it left us spiritually empty. How do you see yourself today? Are you the Sea of Galilee or the Dead Sea?

     Let’s not be like the Dead Sea. May we recall the joy we get when giving and what healing it can provide because the act giving from the heart makes a difference in people’s life.


  1. Beautiful Ziona. Thank you for your teaching. May elevenfold blessings be with you and your loved ones.

  2. I don't think Maimonides ladder of charity lists a kind smile as a form of charity. There is a definite degree of difficulty in giving different kinds of charity: It's easiest to write a check to an anonymous umbrella group - much more difficult to hand money to a beggar - even more difficult to bring the beggar a sandwich, and infinitely more difficult to teach him a skill or offer him a job.
    In my mind - a kind smile is nice, but far from the mark of true charity.

  3. Reb Steven: Thank you for your spiritual giving. It means a lot.

  4. Bernie: What constitutes a true charity is a personal choice. What you feel when you give is yours to keep. I was not trying to qualify what a True Charity is or what it should be. I was even trying to get away from the Rambam. This was my point. A kind smile to a homeless person goes way beyond what you could imagine. Showing someone that he/she is noticed is a BIG thing in bringing dignity to humanity. I invite you here to think beyond the classic way of defining Charity. Thanks a lot for your input.

  5. Ziona if you notice someone and don't notice that they are hungry - you haven't really noticed them. If you do notice that they are hungry and you do nothing to help feed them you are not being charitable. If you notice someone and just smile and you walk away feeling good because you smiled and he or she remains hungry than you are not only not charitable but you have gained while he or she has not.

  6. Mr. Simon: There is no question that you are correct with what you mentioned here. I just wonder how you understood what the rabbis were teaching us in the resources that I provided? Why do you think they needed to say that words of comfort are as important as a donation of a coin? The rabbis never implied that there should be a smile replacing doing other good deeds like feeding the hungry. We just must do what is necessary with mindfulness. And know that there are many out there who are starving for human relationship as well. Hunger is not always physical. Thanks for your comment.

  7. R' Ziona, this is a beautiful post. I believe that the Salt Sea has much to give, as well: potash-fertilizer, and remarkable natural sculptures. There are other things, as well. I am not one of those who muddied themselves in its "produce," but I recall, 'way back in 1972, after "bathing" in it, that a small cut I had on one finger was completely healed the next day. Rock on, Dead Sea!
    As for Tsedaka, we never know what a smile or a check or a kind word in the right place or time will accomplish. God gives us the hizdamnute, the opportunity (which stems from the word z'man, timing or time), and we must be cognizant, ready, and alert. This becomes all the more important, with the Yamim Nora'im approaching.
    Back to grading papers-- my students are taking their English Comp I Final Exams....

  8. Many thanks for your remarks, Reb David. You have pointed out something I did not think about, and that is the healing remedies that the Dead Sea holds within itself. This actually turns my metaphor to an academic challenge...
    I also like your take on the idea that all we need to do is act. The impact of our deeds are not always known to the giver. And that is what requires mindfulness from us.
    Good luck with the grading. I remember those days... Kol tuv!

  9. Thanks you for presenting so many pertinent sources on this topic. I smiled to read the words of Orchot Tzadikim because I had heard a paraphrase of them and didn't realize the source. With respect to sitting on a certain board of trustees, I was reassured that it wasn't going to cost more than I could afford. "Some people serve through wealth; others through work; others through wisdom." As the non-rabbinic group MeatLoaf said, Two Outa Three Ain't Bad.

    1. Thank you, Rabbi Peg. I am glad that are inspired by Orchot Tzadikim. You applied what I said to your own experience. May you keep giving so others that will benefit from your holy work, amazing wisdom and open hand.