Chevre WoWs – The Mitzvah of Giving

Every week, Chevre prepare Words of Wisdom to talk to the group over Shabbat. Here, Adam Yasinow from Cleveland, Ohio discusses the subject of charity.

Shabbat Shalom everyone. For my words of wisdom, I will be talking about the role of tzedakah, philanthropy, and living generously in Judaism. As you all know, Jews make up a fraction of a fraction of a percentage of the world’s population, but despite being few in number, we influence a disproportionate percentage of the global economy.

Adam Yasinow, Galilee Fellowship #262 from Cleveland Ohio

Adam Yasinow, Galilee Fellowship #262 from Cleveland

Of the many things that personally appeal to me about Judaism, the one thing that resonates the most with me Jewish concept of “living generously.” Simply put, the Jewish community cares, and it takes care of its own. But it doesn’t stop there – time after time Israel and Jewry across the world are the first to respond to international humanitarian crises. Hurricane Katrina, The 2004 Tsunami in Indonesia, and the recent earthquake and tsunami in Japan are clear cut examples in which Israel and the Jewish led fundraising efforts and sent much needed resources and supplies to communities in need.

No doubt acts of loving kindness like this curries international favor, but we as a community do this not looking for reciprocation. We do this because it, Tzedakah, is the backbone of Judaism. It is the DNA that makes up the amino-acids on our Etz Chaim, or cultural and spiritual tree of life. The mitzvah of tzedakah is splattered all over the Torah, the Talmud, and other Jewish texts.

Leviticus 19 tells us that “When your brother will become poor, you will extend your hand to him.” Deuteronomy 15 states that “If a needy person is among you… do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy kinsman, rather you must open your hand and lend him sufficient resources for what he needs.” Perhaps a clearer example is the amazing tradition of the Passover Seder, which the Jewish people, in celebrating their exodus from Egypt extend their homes and seder to those who are hungry and in need of a meal – we cannot celebrate our freedom while others around us are under the slavery of homelessness and poverty.

Acts of tzedakah or charity are revered in Judaism, as per Proverbs, “Doing charity and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.” Our commitment to international humanitarian causes can be found in many places, including Talmud Gitten, which states that we shall “Support the non-Jewish poor along with the poor of Israel.”

I am honored to share with you the story of Yossele (Joseph) the Holy Miser. As you are all hungry and awaiting our lovely Shabbat feast, I will not read the story in its entirety, but instead give you a shortened and sweetened version of my favorite Jewish story.

“The year was 1550 in Krakow, Poland. The Jews of Krakow all lived crowded together in a miserable ghetto. Most of them were so broken, so oppressed, so poor. Only one Yid in the entire ghetto had any wealth, and his name was Yossele, who was dubbed by his peers “Yossele the miser” because he and his heart of stone refused to help out his less fortunate neighbors.


Adam (far left) with fellow Galilee Fellowship chevre

In the Jewish community, charity is kind of a big deal, and the fact that Yoselle never gave to the poor made him an outcast. Not a single fellow Jew wished Yossele a “Shabbat Shalom” or a “Chag Sameach” – in fact nobody at all spoke to Yossele. And so he died; a lonely, sad hermit, with all of his fortunes.

Upon his passing many people were upset yet not surprised to find out Yossele had not listed any charities as a beneficiary. What a cheapskate! People said as they spit on newly dug grave. His body was not even cold and people slandered and cursed him and his fortune.

The next Shabbat, the village Rabbi, Rabbi Kalman, was shocked by the number of poor villagers that came to his door to ask for money to make ends meet. The line seemed endless. The rabbi would welcome the villager into his home and they would ask for money. The Rabbi was shocked to see so many proud men come to him door, ashamed to ask him for money. Rabbi Kalman asked each and every man, “I would love to help you, but I cannot do so at this moment. Why have you never asked me before?”

To the rabbis surprise, every man responded with the same answer “Rabbi, to tell you the truth, Every Thursday morning for the last ten years, I’ve found an envelope with 2, 10, etc. rubles under my door. But not today, not today.”

On each envelope was the same message: Lekoved Shabbos or Good Shabbos. The rabbi was perplexed. How could so many people be receiving exactly the amount they needed each week? Never a ruble too much, never a ruble short…. What could it be?

Suddenly, everything was clear. It had been Yossele, Yossele the holy miser had been the anonymous benefactor for the Krakow Jews. The rabbi asked each towns-person if they were ever invited into the Yossele’s home. Each responded with an identical story. They all at one point in their life shared a meal with Yossele, where Yossele would ask his less fortunate peers about their job and their families. Yossele asked if they were having financial trouble, and the townsfolk would say:

“If I only had 15 more rubles each week, I would be able to provide for my family… may I have some money, Yosselle?” Yossele would go to the other room, come back with some wine and cake, share a meal with his neighbor, and then Yossele would rudely evict his house guest, yelling that at him and not giving him a cent for his troubles. The evictee would then receive an anonymous envelope every Thursday morning thereafter.

The townspeople were struck with guilt and shame! How could they be so blind?! The rabbi, consumed with guilt fasted for three days until he had a vision. A vision of Yossele the holy miser in Heaven, sitting next to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the Holy Mothers.  In this vision Yossele spoke to Rabbi Kalman and said “Rabbi, please tell my people that despite all the wonders of heaven, there is one thing that I miss dearly. In heaven there are no poor people, no way to give, no one to help. I’d give up all of Paradise if I could have just one more Thursday morning to slip envelopes, Lekoved Shabbos, under those broken doors. Tell the people I miss them.”

Adam Yasinow Galilee Fellowship #262

Nick Henderson
[email protected]

Before making Aliyah from Scotland, Nick ran an international NGO called Youth End Poverty and worked with a number of non-profits and social change organisations, including the British Council, Oxfam and Save the Children. Nick was previously Social Media Manager / Alumni Relations Manager at Livnot. Now he lives in Jerusalem and is passionate about public health issues, and represents Israel at various international conferences on health policy.