Tzedakah is a Hebrew word commonly translated as charity, however the word is more closely connected to the English word justice. Tzedakah refers to a Jewish obligation to contribute to the creation of a just world. It is important to note that tzedakah is not only money, but refers to any act that creates a more just world. Giving tzedakah is so
important that is considered one of three acts – along with repentance and prayer – that can save a person from death.
The iron tzedakah box pictured above was installed within the wall at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. Its unique 6-slotted design allows us to explore how people gave tzedakah in the late 19th century. The choice of six slots for coins or dollar bills correlates to the six days of the week an Orthodox Jew can give money, since handling money is forbidden
on the Sabbath. Each slot also represents six different charities. Listed in Hebrew on the boxes from left to right, they are explained below:
- Rabbi Meir Ba’al HaNes: Supports the poor of Palestine (today Israel). Giving to this charity is rumored to help you find lost objects.
- Tzedakah Gedolah: Supports a group of local Jewish charities.
- Tikkun Seforim: Supports the repair and care of Jewish books.
- Yeshivas Etz Chaim: Supports a Jewish religious school located on the Lower East Side. Over time, this institution grew into the modern day institution Yeshiva University.
- Hazkaras Neshomos: Supports the upkeep of cemeteries.
- Bedek Haboyis: Supports the building maintenance of the synagogue.
- What does charity mean to you?
- What could we learn about the congregants of the Eldridge Street Synagogue based on the six organizations they supported?
- If you only had one dollar, which of the causes included in the Eldridge Street Synagogue’s Tzedakah Box would you donate your money to? Why?
- The Jewish concept of charity includes acts that contribute to a just world. What are some other ways to help someone in need aside from financial assistance?
- Have students create their own tzedakah box for their school or classroom. Students should decide on six causes they are interested in supporting. This activity can be purely theoretical or can be followed with an actually collection drive. If money is collected, students should track which charities are most and least popular and consider what that says about their community.