Social Action and Responsibility 3

  • 60 minutes
  • Grades: 9-12
  • Lesson Plan

by: Mark Rosenberg

This lesson explores the concept of Tzedakah.


This lesson will begin to explore the concept of Tzedakah. In the first lesson, we acknowledged that the world was “broken”. Then we looked at standing up for those who have no advocates (i.e. refugees). Now we will look at the poor and learn how we can help.

Lesson objectives

By the end of the lesson students will:

1. Know the definition of Tzedakah and how it is different from the term charity.

2. Understand that Judaism views giving tzedakah is an obligation.

3. Comprehends that how you give tzedakah is as important as what you give.

4. Read Biblical and rabbinic passages in Hebrew/English.

5. Comprehend a translated Tanach or rabbinic text.


Tzedakah ­– charity; the obligation of social justice

Kol Yisrael Aravim zeh b’zeh – Jews are responsible for one another

Mensch – literally, a human being, but used to describe a person with admirable characteristics

Resources & Equipment needed

Computer/s with online access (to view video)

Projector (optional)



1. Trigger: Show video of “Mensch of Malden Mills” from 60 Minutes (see or similar – the video listed here runs for approximately 6 minutes). After watching this video, the teacher should lead a short discussion with students.

Some suggestions follow:

What does the Mill owner identify as his inspiration for paying his workers? Torah and Judaism formed the basis for Aaron Feuerstein’s sense of obligation to his workers.

What is so extraordinary about his actions? Does anyone know of a similar story of kindness of this magnitude? What makes this story special is that in a time of general prosperity (and some financial scandal, like the Enron case), this businessman put his workers’ interests first. He could have pocketed the insurance and closed the factory without looking back, but instead reached out to help the innocent lives effected by the fire.

Tell students that we will define the term Tzedakah shortly. Optional: note that his decision to pay his workers was an act of Tzedakah more than Chesed. He gave them money and medical insurance, and made sure their financial situations were almost the same as they were before the fire. Why do we have to reach out to help those who are needy? The teacher should present the interviewer’s question as a transition to our first source: Why not take the $300 million and let the factory workers find a new job or go on welfare? Let’s find out what tzedakah really means.

2. Definition of Tzedakah: Work with students to define the term Tzedakah. (Optional: focus on differentiating between Chesed and Tzedakah). Suggestions should be listed on the blackboard until a consensus is agreed. “Tzedakah” is the Hebrew word for “charity” -giving aid, assistance and money to the poor and needy. However, the nature of Tzedakah goes beyond the idea of charity. The word “charity” suggests benevolence and generosity, a magnanimous act by the wealthy and powerful for the benefit of the poor and needy, i.e. going beyond the call of duty. The word “Tzedakah” is derived from the Hebrew root Tzadei-Dalet-Qof, meaning righteousness, justice or fairness. In Judaism, giving to the poor is not viewed as a generous, magnanimous act; it is an obligation, an act of justice and righteousness, giving the poor their due.

3. Text study: Devarim 15:17-11: Hand out student worksheets (see appendix). Students should meet in havruta to read and answer these questions. Then survey the class for answers. What is the Torah commanding us to do? To give generously to the poor and needy. What does the Torah mean by the term “hard hearted”? A heart usually symbolizes the source of our emotions and love. If we have a heart heart that means that we are refusing to care or feel the need to help others. How does the gesture of an open or closed hand express the process of giving Tzedakah? An open hand is an invitation and gives an expression of welcome and help (think about how we shake hands as an expression of friendship and put out our hand to help pull up someone who has fallen down). A closed hand symbolizes greed and selfishness. Why do you think the Torah states that “there will always be poor people”? There are many possible responses. One can argue that physical disasters will always be a source of unexpected poverty and neediness. Another approach is that if there are always be poor people, we have to constantly care about others and not stop when it is comfortable for us. Another explanation is that needy remind us of the human search for satisfaction, a search that is never ending. The key conclusion from this text is that Jews are responsible to help those in need, especially each other (“one of your brothers”). Introduce the next concept of –Jews have a responsibility for each other

כל ישראל ערבים זה בזה . 4. How do we give Tzedakah? Text Study: Mishneh Torah We learn that we have to help the poor from the Bible. However, the details of fulfilling this obligation were outlined by rabbinical scholars through the ages. Maimonides’ (or the Rambam), a medieval Jewish philosopher, outlined his approach in his famous book, the Mishneh Torah. This became the standard Jewish approach to tzedakah. To learn more about Maimonides, go to Discuss the text with the class.

Some suggestions for Q&A:

What is the greatest act of Tzedakah according to the Rambam and why? Getting a person a livelihood is the greatest because you are helping the person learn to become independent and no longer need Tzedakah.

What do you think would cause someone to give tzedakah on the eighth level? Someone people might give because of social pressures only. Perhaps the case of the eighth level is someone who thinks they are better than the needy and who don’t feel that they have to be nice to someone so lowly. The Chofetz Chaim (see said that Tzedakah does not have to be monetary. If you do not have money, you can say kind things to people and that is a fulfillment of the mitzvah of Tzedakah.

Which is more important, what you give to the needy or how you give? From the Rambam’s scale we can see that how you give is just as important as what you give. Someone who donates 10 million dollars to charity but says, ‘I hope these pathetic nobodies appreciate this….’ is on the lowest level of this scale. Giving Tzedakah means bringing justice to the world – if this is true, how can you create justice if there is offence and hatred?

5. Conclusion You may want to link the trigger video to the last source. According to Maimonides what level of Tzedakah did Aaron Feurstein fulfill? Alternatively, you may want to return to the definition of Tzedakah, something we do to rectify an injustice. In an earlier lesson, we saw that Avraham and Rivka did chesed – deeds of kindness that were spontaneous, generous, and sought to relieve a stressful situation that otherwise could have been resolved without their help.

6. Challenge – Class Project Reflect on the sources studied and research the concept of Tzedakah more, using the sources outlined below. Then every student should suggest one idea for a class tzedakah project. Students will vote on the best project and come up with a practical plan to implement it. Involve parents and families if possible. To think about: should the project aim to help people in your city? State? Country? Israel? Elsewhere? Why? To think about: What level of charitable should the chosen tzedakah project reflect?

Extra Resources The obligation to first give to local charities is derived from Devarim 15:7: “If there be among you a needy man, one of thy brethren, within any of thy gates, in thy land which the LORD thy God giveth thee, thou shalt not harden thy heart, nor shut thy hand from thy needy brother.” Rashi notes that the local poor come first. (See Rashi, Devarim 15:7 ,“in your land” .) MyJewishLearning has an online module to help teach about Tzedakah The Areyvut “Make A Difference Day” 2007 Educational Materials focuses on feeding the hungry and visiting the sick. If your class project deals with these topics, visit for guidelines, ideas and charitable organizations looking for volunteers.


The Lookstein Center