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Tzedakah, Chanukah and Shabbat

After posting about Shabbat Katrina, I’ve received questions about the money jar mentioned in that essay. Here is more about that Shabbat tradition:

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“Is that your swear jar?”

A friend was over my house, and noticed the oversized pickle jar on the dining room table. At the time it was about half-filled with bills and change.

“My what?!?”

“You know, your swear jar. The jar you put money into when you swear.”

I looked at the giant economy size vessel, designed to hold a gallon of pickles. I can’t imagine swearing that much. Ever. Even when I have to fix the plumbing. And I’m a little disturbed that my friend thinks I might. But that’s not really the point.

I told my friend (who wasn’t Jewish) that it’s a tzedakah jar and explained a little bit about the concept of tzedakah – how it means “justice” and how “charitable giving” is a close approximate definition.

My friend still wanted to believe it was a swear jar. But the real explanation is a little more involved than that.

Several years ago our friend Naomi began hosting Shabbat for families and friends. The Shabbat around Chanukah was challenging because of the number of kids. Everyone felt a certain sense of obligation toward the children they saw week after week, and the kids themselves clearly had expectations as well. Naomi wanted to diffuse the materialistic urges of the children and the awkwardly confused desire of the adults to provide presents for every child. As she is able to do with everything, Naomi found a simple Jewish way to accomplish both goals: Tzedakah.

On the Chanukah during Shabbat, envelopes were passed around, and each family could put in whatever money they thought was appropriate. Then any person so moved could talk to the group about causes, charities and organizations that they thought could most use the money. After everyone had their say, the kids would take the money, count it, and decide how it should be distributed. The lesson (for both adults and children) was clear and precise. The focus was on our actions in the world, and served as a welcome counterpoint to the rampant consumerism of the season.

The only hitch we found was that our families had relatively little spare cash during that time of year. In fact, money was tightest at that point, so it was a challenge to give what we would have liked. Again, Naomi had the obvious solution, which brings us back to the giant pickle jar on the table.

Rather than once a year, we began observing the tradition of “putting something in the pushke” before Shabbat. Every week, each family adds whatever they are moved to give into the jar. The money sits, growing in size but uncounted throughout the year. Finally, on the Shabbat during Chanukah it is counted, people bring forward the causes and charities that move them, and the children deliberate on how the money should be disbursed.

The lesson of the jar has exceeded even Naomi’s hopes. It serves as a reminder year-round of our goals and hopes. Despite our weekly additions, it never has seemed so full that it couldn’t hold more – testimony to the need in the world. Even so, the quantity of bills and coins in the clear glass jar seems significant. The pressure to come up with cash on a single Shabbat in November or December is gone, replaced by pride at the amount we’ve been able to collect across ALL the Shabbatot, mingled with hope that our contributions will make a real difference in the world.

Meanwhile, the tzedakah jar seems to embody the phrase from Pirkeh Avot: “It is not for us to complete the work, but neither are we free to desist from it.”

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