In this chapter, Rambam is defining three terms, Chesed, Tzedakah and Mishpat which are going to be the central theme of the next chapter based on a verse in Yirmyahu 9:22-23. In this post, I will only address Rambam’s definition of Tzedakah.
הביטוי צדקה גזור מן צדק, והוא "אלעדל
צדק הוא לספק לכל מי שיש לו זכות את מה שמגיע לו, ולתת לכל נמצא מן הנמצאים בהתאם למה שהוא ראוי לו
“The term Tzedakah is derived from Tzeddek, which means justice. Justice denotes the act of granting to every one who has a right to something, that which he has a right to and giving to every being that which corresponds to his merits.”
Rambam is giving two definitions for the word Tzedakah. Justice can mean giving something that one owes someone such as repaying an obligation. It also could mean giving someone what is due him not because he did something for you but because he deserves it.
אך בספרי הנבואה, החובות המוטלות עליך כלפי זולתך - כאשר קיימת אותן –
אינן קרויות צדקה בהתאם למשמעות הראשונה, מפני שאם אתה משלם לשׂכיר את
שׂכרו או פורע את חובך אין זה נקרא צדקה
“But in the books of the prophets, fulfilling the duties imposed upon you with regard to others is not called Tzedakah in conformity with the first sense. When we therefore give the hired laborer his wages, or pay a debt, this is not called Tzedakah”.
The word Tzeddek, which is the root of Tzedakah, means justice and is used generally in the first sense. The word Tzedakah however is only used by the prophets in the second sense where there is no interpersonal obligation to pay or make good.
אבל החובות המוטלות עליך כלפי זולתך בגלל מידת אופי טובה, כגון איחוי
שִברו של כל בעל שבר, הן קרויות צדקה. לכן אמר על החזרת הפיקדון: ולך תהיה
צדקה (דברים כ"ד, 13), מפני שכאשר אתה נוהג מנהג מידות האופי הטובות, אתה
נוהג בצדק כלפי נפשך המדברת7,
מפני שאתה נותן לה את המגיע לה
“On the other hand, the fulfilling of duties with regard to others imposed upon you on account of moral virtue, such as remedying the injuries of all those who are injured, is called Tzedakah. Therefore, it says with reference to the returning of a pledge: And it shall be Tzedakah unto you. For when you walk in the way of moral virtue, you do justice unto your rational soul [nefesh], giving her the due that is her right.”
The verses Rambam is referring to in Devarim 24:12-13 are –
יב וְאִם-אִישׁ עָנִי, הוּא--לֹא תִשְׁכַּב, בַּעֲבֹטוֹ.
12 And if he be a poor man, you shall not sleep with his pledge;
יג הָשֵׁב תָּשִׁיב לוֹ אֶת-הַעֲבוֹט כְּבוֹא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ
, וְשָׁכַב בְּשַׂלְמָתוֹ וּבֵרְכֶךָּ; וּלְךָ תִּהְיֶה צְדָקָה, לִפְנֵי
13 You shall surely restore to him the pledge when the sun goes down, that he may sleep in his garment, and bless you; and it shall be Tzedakah unto you before the LORD thy God.
One has a debt to collect from a poor man and receives from him a household object to hold until payment is made. One must make sure, by law, that if it is an object that the poor man requires at night, for example a pillow, it must be returned to him before nightfall. The same would apply for an object that he needs for his work during the day, for example, a tool. It being an obligatory law, it is surprising that it is referred to as Tzedakah when Rambam has just told us that in the books of the prophets it is not used when there is an interpersonal obligation. Furthermore, the way it is presented, “and it shall be Tzedakah unto you”, rather than doing what is right unto the poor man, is puzzling.
Rambam explains that this Mitzvah, besides the interpersonal and obligatory component, has an additional purpose namely self-improvement. Developing our altruistic traits and suppressing our narcissistic tendencies affects our rational soul letting it see clearly how God’s ways are with His creation and allows us to emulate them. Our personal tendencies affect the way we think and cloud our perception of reality. That is also the meaning of “before the LORD thy God”. In the preceding chapter, MN 3:52 Rambam writes:
“If we therefore desire to attain human perfection, and to be truly men of God, we must awake from our sleep, and bear in mind that the great king that is over us, and is always joined to us, is greater than any earthly king, greater than David and Solomon. The king that cleaves to us and embraces us is the Intellect that influences us, and forms the link between God and us.”
When we “walk in the way of moral virtue” and “do justice unto your rational soul”, we are standing before HKBH and give our nefesh “the due that is her right”.
Rambam addresses another two verses in the same context. I will address that later in this series of posts, as I develop the theme further. I also plan to develop further altruism in the context of emulating God.