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What Is Tzedakah?

The word tzedakah (Hebrew: צדקה) comes from the Hebrew word tzedek, meaning righteousness or justice. It refers to the Jewish practice of giving money in order to help those less fortunate—using our financial resources to create a more just and righteous world. Practices similar to tzedakah can be found in many other cultures and religions, such as zakat in the Muslim tradition or tithing in Christianity. Tzedakah is different from the idea of “charity” or “philanthropy” in that it is not understood as a nice thing to do when you feel moved, but rather as an obligation of every community member to give to those in need. In fact, Jewish law requires giving 10% of one's income to tzedakah, and even one who receives financial assistance is required to give to others.

How would you design a new way to think about tzedakah?

The Tzedakah Box

The tzedakah box is an iconic object. How can the tzedakah box be brought into active dialogue with contemporary thinking about philanthropy and social change?

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As our giving shifts from coins to credit card transactions and from dollar bills to digital donation buttons, how can we harness technology to reflect and influence the way we give?

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Out of the Box

Think outside of the box. What statement do you want to make—using sculpture, a conceptual installation or another medium—about tzedakah in the 21st century?

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Tzedakah is considered very important religiously, as rabbinic writings teach us that through giving tzedakah, we emulate God and can also atone for wrongdoing. Many Jewish holidays include a component of giving tzedakah, and it is traditional to give tzedakah at important life cycle events such as births, bar/bat mitzvahs and weddings and to honor the memory of someone who has passed away.

Giving tzedakah can take many forms—from giving money directly to those in need to donating to an organization that fights poverty. For generations, Judaism’s traditional vehicle for giving has been the tzedakah box. The tzedakah box, known in Yiddish as a pushke, originated as a large public collection box that was placed in a synagogue or town square. Community members would deposit within it money for the town’s welfare fund, burial society or other collections. In 1904 the Jewish National Fund revolutionized this model by developing small tins designed for the family home that were used to collect spare change. Moving the locus of giving from the public square into private homes revolutionized how Jews gave. Similarly, today, in the face of new technology—ranging from credit cards to apps to the internet—as well as expanding understanding of where we are obligated to give—beyond local, ethnic and religious parameters—we have entered a new revolution about how, where, to whom and why we give.

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