A word derived from the Greek ἐλεημοσύνη (mercifulness), used by Greek-speaking Jews to denote almost exclusively the offering of charity to the needy, from a feeling of both compassion and righteousness (ẓedaḳah). (See LXX. on Prov. xxi. 21, and Dan. iv. 24.) The word "almsgiving," however, is far from expressing the full meaning of the Hebrew ẓedaḳah, which is, charity in the spirit of uprightness or justice. According to the Mosaic conception, wealth is a loan from God, and the poor have a certain claim on the possessions of the rich; while the rich are positively enjoined to share God's bounties with the poor. A systematic mode of relief of the needy was, therefore, provided by the law and by the institutions of the synagogue (see Charity). But all these provisions could not entirely remove want. "The poor shall never cease out of the land," says the lawgiver, and commands: "Thou shalt open thine hand wide unto thy brother, to thy poor, and to thy needy, in thy land" (Deut. xv. 11). In the course of time the giving of Alms out of mere pity and without regard to the permanent relief of the recipient, became a meritorious practise, possessing, like sacrifice, the power of atoning for man's sins, and redeeming him from calamity and death. The verse Prov. xi. 4 (compare xvi. 6, xxi. 3) was expounded in this sense: "Water will quench blazing fire; so doth almsgiving make atonement for sins." "Lay up alms in thy store-house; it shall deliver thee from all affliction" (Ecclus. iii. 30, xxix. 12).

Talmudic Conception.

Accordingly, King Nebuchadnezzar is told by Daniel: "Break off thy sins by righteousness [ẓedaḳah—almsgiving] and thine iniquities by showing mercy to the poor" (Dan. iv. 27), and both Daniel and the king become models of charity (Midr. Zuṭṭa, Cant., ed. Buber, p. 21). (See Altar.) The entire story of Tobit is a lesson on almsgiving and its redeeming powers (Tobit, i. 3, 16; ii. 14; iv. 7-11; xii. 8, 9). "Alms deliver from death and purge away all sin" (compare Prov. xi. 4); whence the custom of giving Alms at funerals (see Ẓedaḳah Box). "Every one who occupies himself with charity shall behold the face of God," as it is written (Ps. xvii. 15, Heb.): "I behold Thy face by almsgiving" (ẓedeḳ; see Midr. Teh. l.c., B. B. 10a). Almsgiving, prayer, and fasting constituted the three cardinal disciplines which the synagogue transmitted to both the Christian church and the Mohammedan mosque (see Tobit, xii. 8; and compare Matt. vi. 1-18; and the Koran, where almsgiving, called zakat (Aramaic zakuta), or sadaḳa (ẓedaḳah), is always mentioned in connection with prayer (sura ii. 40, 104; ix. 54). The Mandæans, too, made almsgiving (zidka) and fasting the means of obtaining eternal life and bliss (see Brand, "Mandäische Schriften," pp. 28 et seq.). According to Rab Assi of the third century, "almsgiving is equal in value to all other commandments" (B. B. 9a; compare Luke, xv.): "It saves man from sudden, unnatural death and the soul from doom" (R. Johanan, B. B. 10a, after Prov. x. 2): "Almsgiving is more than any sacrifice, though personal charity is superior even to almsgiving" (R. Eleazar, Suk. 49b). R. Eleazar states also that it should precede prayer, taking Ps. xvii. 15 also to mean, "After almsgiving I shall behold Thy face," B.B. 10a. Likewise each fast-day was virtually an occasion for almsgiving, as the day's offerings were handed over to the poor (Ber. 6b). Compare Midr. Zuṭṭa, Cant., ed. Buber, p. 21: "The Israelites fast and give their food and that of their children to the poor"—quoted by Origen, "Homilies to Leviticus," x. (see also Aristides, xv. 9).

The Gift of King Monobazos.

"Almsgiving is a powerful paraclete (mediator) between the Israelites and their Father in heaven; it brings the time of redemption nigh" (B. B. 10a). In allusion to the various Biblical passages concerning ẓedeḳ and ẓedaḳah—righteousness in the sense of almsgiving—Tosef., Peah, iv. 20 (also B. B. 12a) narrates a story of King Monobazos, the husband of queen Helena of Adiabene, who lived about the year 18. He is in the legend probably confounded with his son Izates, who, after his father's death, became a convert to Judaism, and sent—in addition to the rich gifts of his mother—large sums to Jerusalem for the relief of the poor (Josephus, "Ant." xx. 2, § 5). "When the generous gifts he had bestowed upon the poor, in the time of great famine, provoked the protests of his brothers, who reproached him for having thus squandered what his royal ancestors had gathered together, he replied:

"My ancestors laid up here on earth; I in heaven (Ps. lxxxv. 12);

My ancestors laid up treasures where the human hand can reach them; I, where no human hand can reach them (Ps. lxxxix. 15);

My ancestors laid up treasures that bear no fruit; I, such as bear fruit (Isa. iii. 10);

My ancestors laid up treasures of Mammon; I, treasures of souls (Prov. xi. 30);

My ancestors gathered and will not reap the benefit; I have gathered and shall reap the benefit (Deut. xxiv. 19-22);

My ancestors laid up treasures for this world; I, for the world to come, as it is said (Isa. lviii. 8): 'Thy righteousness [almsgiving] shall go before thee and the glory of the Lord shall be thy rearward.'"

God and Mammon.

This contrast between the treasures of unrighteous Mammon (Prov. x. 2) and the treasures of righteousness laid up for the world to come (Isa. xxxiii. 6; see the translation in the Septuagint and Shab. 31a) is also alluded to in a similar utterance of Jesus, in Luke, xii. 33, 34; Matt. vi. 19-24: "Sell what ye have and give alms; provide yourselves bags which wax not old, a treasure in the heavens that faileth not, where no thief approacheth, neither moth corrupteth. For where your treasure is [whether of unrighteousness or righteousness] there will your heart be also [your soul—in the world to come]." Here follows in Matthew the passage of the single (sincere) eye and the evil eye, misplaced in Luke, xi. 34-36, which recalls several similar rabbinical utterances: "He that gives a free offering should give with a well-meaning [unbegrudging] eye" (Yer. B. B. iv. 11); whereas the rich man who shows an evil (begrudging) eye to the collectors of Alms, will lose his riches (according to Eccl. v. 12, Ex. R. xxxi.). Compare Paul in II Cor. ix. 7-9: "God loveth the cheerful giver," with B. B. 10b in connection with Ps. cxii. 9, God lavishes his bounty in the same measure as men give. Thus also R. Eleazar referring to Hosea, x. 12: "The kindness displayed in the giving of alms decides the final reward" (Suk. 49b). "Therefore no disciple of the wise should live in a city where there is no alms-box" (Sanh. 17b). Almsgiving should, therefore, be done in secret (Eleazar, B. B. 9a; Derek Ereẓ Zuṭṭa, ix. 4, after Prov. xxi. 14), and not before men, for "he who gives before men is a sinner," as it is said, that God shall bring also "the good deed before his judgment" (Eccl. xii. 14, Ḥag. 5a, Shab. 104a, B. B. 10a). In view of the current exposition (see Sifre on the passage) of Deut. xv. 10, "Let not thine eye be evil against thy poor brother . . . thou shalt surely give him," as meaning "thou shalt surely give him—him directly—and no one shall stand between him and thee," the Essaioi or Essenes ("the secluded ones") had their treasury in a chamber of their own in the Temple, so that both the giving and the taking should remain unobserved (Mishnah SheḲ. v. 6). Such a "chamber of the Essenes" (silent or modest ones) existed in every town in order that the poor of good families should be enabled to receive their support in seclusion (Tosef., SheḲ. ii. 16).

The Alms-Boxes.

In the same spirit Jesus, in the "Sermon on the Mount" (Matt. vi.) says: "Take heed that ye do not your alms [zedaḳah—righteousness] before men to be seen of them, otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven." The Temple "treasury" in the story of the widow's mite (Luke, xxi. 2; Mark, xii. 41; compare Josephus, "Ant." xix. 61, "B. J." v. 2) into which rich and poor cast their gifts, consisted of thirteen trumpet-like receptacles of brass, so shaped to prevent dishonest people from taking out coins while pretending to cast them in (Sheḳ. v. 1 and Yer. 49, 3; 50b. For later times compare 'Er. 32a and Giṭ. 60b). The words of Jesus, "This widow hath cast in all the living that she had," refer to Lev. ii. 1, as interpreted by the rabbis (Lev. R. 3), "The poor widow bringeth her very life [nefesh] in her little 'meat-offering,'" and are an exact parallel to the story of the widow and the priest, or the poor and King Agrippa, given in the Midrash as illustrations. But while the gifts cast into the receivers were intended for Temple use and not for charity, the fact that the term ḳorban (sacrifice for the treasury) was retained for "charity" in Christian communities until the third century ("B. J." ii. 4; Mark, vii. 11, "Apost. Const. " ii. 36; Cyprian, "De Oper." and "Eleemos." xiv.) shows that it was actually treated like the Temple gifts. Even the trumpet-shaped alms-holders seem to have been retained in the Church until the beginning of the fourth century, judging by the term conchœ (conch-shells) applied to the charity treasury (see Mehlhorn, "Aus den Quellen der Kirchen-Gesch." i. 27, note 10; against Ratzinger und Kraus quoted in Uhlhorn, "Christl. Liebesthätigkeit," p. 399). At any rate it is with an allusion to the trumpet-like form of the alms-box that Jesus said (Matt. vi. 2 et seq.): "Therefore when thou doest thine alms do not sound a trumpet before thee, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and [at the public fasts] in the streets, that they may have glory of men. . . . Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth: that thine alms may be in secret; and thy Father, which seeth in secret, himself shall reward thee openly." The latter sentence may refer to Prov. xi. 21 (yad le-yad = "hand to hand") interpreted by the rabbis (Soṭah, 4b, 5a) as alluding to the giving of charity in secret. Compare also the Mandæan teaching (Brand, "Mandäische Schriften," pp. 28, 64):

"If you give alms do not do it before witnesses. If you give with the right hand, do not tell it to your left; if you give with the left, do not tell it to your right. Any one who giveth and has witnesses, it shall not be accounted to him."

Almsgiving is regarded as an offering brought to God.

"They that give alms to the poor, give it to Me," says God, for it is said:, "My korban, My bread" (Num. xxviii. 2). Surely God needs no bread, nevertheless He says: "I count your gifts as though you were My children supporting their father" (Midr. Zuṭṭa, Cant., ed. Buber, p. 23; compare the exact parallel in Matt. xxv. 45, where Jesus speaks simply in the name of God, the Father of all).

On Giving Alms.

The abuse of almsgiving made itself felt occasionally in Talmudic times. "He who takes alms by deception, or without need of the same, will finally go to ruin," says an old Baraita (Ket. 68a). Compare Ecclus. xii. 1-6: "When thou wilt do good, know to whom thou doest it. Give unto the good and not unto the sinner" (compare "Didache," i. 5, 6). Still, says R. Eleazar (Ket. 68a): "Let us be thankful that there are deceivers among the needy, to excuse us somewhat for the guilt which the many uncared-for bring upon us."

To give Alms only to such as are worthy was therefore made an object of special solicitude. "When given to undeserving persons it is not a meritorious act, receiving reward" (B. B. 9b). "Happy he that considereth the poor," says the Psalmist (Ps. xli. 2); not "he that giveth." This is an admonition to us to take personal interest in him and not simply to give him Alms (Lev. R. xxxiv.).

"He hath dispersed, he hath given to the poor; his righteousness [almsgiving] endureth forever" (Ps. cxii. 9). Compare Talmud Kallah: "What shall men do in order to acquire wealth for their children? Let them do the work of heaven by dispensing alms among the poor," in accordance with Ps. cxii. 9, and YalḲ. to Prov. xi. 24: "He that lavisheth bountifully shall increase his wealth, and he that giveth sparingly shall see his fortune decrease."

In the course of time, almsgiving gave way to organized charity. See Charity.

  • D. Cassel, Die Armenverwaltung des Alten Israel, 1887.