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Tzedakah and Charity

Putting money in a pushka, or charity donation box

Eighteen is considered a special number in Jewish culture because it is the numerical value of the Hebrew word chai, meaning “life.” In Hebrew, each letter has a numerical equivalent. For example, the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet, aleph, is equal to one. The second letter, bet, has the value of two, and so on until we reach 10, 20…100, 200 and so on. The Hebrew word chai comprises the letter chet, which has a numerical value of eight, and the letter yud, which has a value of 10.

As a result, it is common for Jews to give gifts in multiples of 18, especially for a Jewish lifecycle event such as a bar or bat mitzvah or a wedding, or when donating to charitable organizations, especially to Jewish charities.

Star of David on a pew bench

How wonderful that you will be experiencing the Jewish High Holidays at a synagogue this year! (And if you’re reading this but haven’t yet found a synagogue to call home, check out our Find a Congregation tool before the High Holidays arrive.)

You will not be expected to give money during the Rosh HaShanah or Yom Kippur services. In fact, it is customary to not exchange money on Shabbat or major Jewish holidays.

However, if you would like to make a donation to the synagogue in the days before or following the service, the congregation would surely be grateful, as most synagogues support themselves with membership dues and donations. 

Prior to visiting, you might want to check with the congregation you will be visiting to see if they will be collecting non-perishable foods for the community food pantry during the time you’ll be there. Because Yom Kippur is a fast day, many congregations either encourage worshiper to donate the equivalent dollar amount of what they would have spent on groceries for that day, and they organize a non-perishable food collection to stock the local food pantries. 

Finally, please also note that many North American Reform synagogues require tickets for High Holidays services – even for members – to ensure that there are enough seats for everyone who wishes to worship. There may be a fee for these tickets, or not, depending on the congregation; your local synagogue will be happy to outline for you its ticket policies.

May you find the High Holiday services to be meaningful. 

Answer By: 
Rabbi Victor Appell

In Jewish tradition, tzedakah is a mitzvah, a religious obligation. The word is derived from the Hebrew root meaning “justice” and “righteousness.” Tzedakah, conceived as justice, means that the needs of the recipient lie at the heart of our concern. Many passages in the Torah instruct us in the value of tzedakah. In Deuteronomy 15:7-8 we are instructed, “If there is a needy person among you…do not harden your heart…Rather, you must open your hand and lend whatever is sufficient to meet the need.”

Maimonides (1135-1204), one of the greatest Torah scholars, wrote extensively about tzedakah. He identified eight levels of giving, from doing so grudgingly to the highest form, helping a person with a loan or gift or employment that will allow the person to become self-supporting and no longer be dependent on others.

One of the traditions associated with Shabbat is giving tzedakah. Many people have a special tzedakah box and prior to lighting the Shabbat candles, they deposit money in the box. After a specified amount of money is collected, or at certain times of the year, such as Hanukkah, a donation is made to a worthy cause. Involving children in this process is a great way to teach the importance of this mitzvah.

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