Yom Kippur 5778

The power of tzedakah[1]

ותשובה ותפלה וצדקה מעבירין את רע הגזרה
Repentance, prayer, and tzedakah can remove the evil of the decree[2]

Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur share the famous Unesaneh Tokef prayer. It is one of the most moving and powerful prayers in the High Holiday liturgy. What makes it so memorable is not only the chilling tune, but the intense words themselves. It reminds us that during these days we are like sheep being assessed by their shepherd[3]. On Rosh Hashanah, it is written who will live and who will perish, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed. What gives the Unesaneh Tokef prayer the power it has undoubtedly comes from its origins. It was written by Rabbi Amnon of Mainz about 1,000 years ago. The Church insisted that he convert to Christianity, and after refusing, they brutally amputated his body. Before he died, he requested to be carried to the Ark during the Rosh Hashanah prayers. He recited the words of Unesaneh Tokef, and died[4].

The prayers are concluded with the congregation announcing out loud that “repentance, prayer, and tzedakah can remove the evil of the decree”. If a person was, G-d forbid, written for death, they can remove the decree by doing one of these three things. Repentance makes sense, as a person who realizes the immorality of their behavior and commits themselves to change should be given a second chance. Prayer also makes sense.  By turning to Hashem, they are in effect returning to their Maker, similar to repentance. The odd one out is tzedakah. How can that remove an evil decree? What makes it different than any other mitzvah?

A possible approach is based on a gemarra[5] that discusses all the lofty qualities of the mitzvah of tzedakah and those who give it. There’s a verse[6] that says: מלוה יקוק חונן דל, someone who gives graciously to a poor person, lends to Hashem. Rabbi Yochanan says that if the verse didn’t explicitly say so, it would have been inappropriate to make such a comment about G-d. This is because when someone lends to someone else, the borrower becomes like a servant to the lender[7]. The verse is in effect saying that when we give money to the poor, we become in charge of Hashem. What does this mean?

There is a halacha, a Jewish law[8], regarding a disagreement about which beis din, Jewish court, to use. The lender wants to use a beis din in one city, and the borrower wants to use a beis din in a different city. Which of the two gets the final say? The halacha is the lender can force the borrower to accompany him to the beis din of his choice. This is what the verse6 means that the borrower becomes like a servant to the lender. The borrower is compelled to the choice of beis din of the lender.

The same is true for Hashem[9]. During the yomim nora’im, the season of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, Hashem is sitting on His throne in the beis din of Judgement. When we give tzedakah, we have the power to annul any harsh decree. When we give tzedakah, Hashem so to speak becomes our borrower. He considers it as if we lent him money. Therefore, we have the option to remove Him from the beis din of strict Justice, and bring Him to the beis din of rachamim, Mercy. Once there, there is no doubt we’ll be sealed for life.

Tzedakah is often understood as donating money to charitable organizations. A universal custom[10] amongst Orthodox Jews is to donate ten percent of their earnings. However, tzedakah doesn’t have to be exclusively giving money. Giving one’s time is also considered an act of tzedakah[11]. Some[12] even say one should give a tenth of their time to helping others, just like they give a tenth of their earnings. Regardless, there are always opportunities to give tzedakah. In some ways, it might be easier to fulfill than complete repentance or proper prayers. Yet, it’s a guaranteed way to remove harsh decrees.

Gemar Chasima Tovah.


[1] Adapted from a shmuez given Rav Simcha Cook, Menahel of Mechinas Ner Yisroel on Rosh Hashanah 5778

[2] From the Unesaneh Tokef prayer in the Mussaf section of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur prayers

[3] Rosh Hashanah 18a. See http://parshaponders.com/rosh-hashanah-5779 for an explanation of this simile and the other comparisons that are given

[4] ArtScroll Machzor, citing Ohr Zaruah

[5] Bava Basra 10a

[6] Proverbs 19:17

[7] ibid 22:7

[8] Sanhedrin 31b

[9] Leket Yosher Orach Chaim, end of Hilchos Yemei HaSelichos, brought from the writings of the Maharam Mintz, in the name of the Terumas HaDeshen. Also found at the end of the Derashos of Ohr Zaruah in the name of Mahari MiPorak

[10] The idea of ma’aser kesafim doesn’t appear in the Talmud Bavli, and many authorities hold there is no biblical or even rabbinic obligation (see Bach Yoreh De’ah § 345 s.v. ומ”ש ואין נותנים, cf. Taz ad. loc. 331:32 who says it’s a real obligation). They understand it to simply be a very early custom (see Sheilas Yaavetz I § 6, Chavos Yair § 224, Shevus Yaakov II § 85). According to them, the verses the Rishonim bring as sources (Daas Zekeinim to Genesis 28:22 that it’s from Yaakov, Sefer Chasidim § 144 that it’s from the verse about ma’aser in Malachi) are merely asmachtos. (These sources were derived from a source sheet provided by Rav Yitzchok Berkowitz found online at www.thejerusalemkollel.com/online_classes.php)

[11] This is inferred from the fact that the concept of ma’aser is understood as related to tzedakah, so the idea of ma’aser zman would then be as well

[12] Rav Moshe Feinstein in an article published in the Jewish Observer, June 1973. The idea also appears in Igros Moshe Even HaEzer IV 26:4