The Giving (P)ALMS: Religions and Almsgiving

By Janelle Uy (Class 2023) and Mark Teo (Class 2023)

While not the central aspect of religion, money is still needed to help religions function towards their goal of helping those who are in need. The exact term for this is almsgiving, and different religions have different teachings on how one should be charitable. Looking at 3 Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — here are some teachings and historical facts about almsgiving.

Judaism

  • In Judaism, the term for almsgiving is coined as tzedakah, the Hebrew word for righteousness.
  • Rather than the voluntary notion of charity as commonly known in other religions, the Jews view tzedakah as an obligation to God and to their community.
  • Through a number of institutions, such as the tithe, almsgiving and charity are considered mitzvah (commandment) as prescribed by Jewish Law (Levenson et al.) Tithing is known as the practice of giving a tenth of one’s money or possessions.
  • Tithing in Judaism can be traced as early as the book of Genesis when Abraham met Melchizedek, the king of Salem and priest of God. After he blessed Abraham, he gave Melchizedek “one-tenth” of his possessions.
  • The practice was solidified into the Jewish culture when it was written in the books of Numbers and Deuteronomy as part of God’s commandments to the Israelites conveyed by Moses. Despite this, there seems to be an inconsistency on the definition of the tithe in the two books
  • In the Book of Numbers, every tithe in Israel is given to the Levites and they shall have no inheritance in the land. The Levites will then give a tenth of the tithe to the priests, also known as the tithe of the tithe.
  • On the other hand in the Book of Deuteronomy, an annual tithe of all the crops of an Israelite is mentioned. In addition to this, one must bring out the full tithe of his produce for a year and store it within the towns for every three years
  • Almsgiving and charity in the Jewish culture is not just limited to tithing.
  • Loaning or employing a Jew in need is considered one of the highest forms of charity. The Jewish philosopher Maimonides lists eight levels of charity, with the least being giving unwillingly and the highest by supporting a fellow Jew in such a way that he can be independent.
  • Additionally, there are temple boxes located at Jewish temples where both the rich and the poor can drop their alms. It is shaped like thirteen trumpet-like receptacles of brass to prevent dishonest people from getting coins. (Kaufmann)

Christianity

  • Almsgiving in Christianity is of the voluntary kind. One donates money out of kindness to the less fortunate.
  • The roots of almsgiving in Christianity takes obvious hints from the Old Testament wherein it is referenced numerous times by Jesus and the Apostles.
  • In addition to this, they also come from the teachings and parables of Jesus mentioned in the Gospels
  • Aside from that, there are other social factors that came into play during the 1st Century Roman Empire which contributed to the origins of Christian charity. There are three factors that came into play: cultural exchange, the right of Roman citizenship to free people in Europe, and the radical difference between ancient and Christian charity (Bykov 610, 614)
  • The ease of cultural exchange in Rome was realized in the presence of peace and order through the protection of its borders. Additionally, the empire enveloped of various nations in the west, making it a boiling pot of different cultures.
  • Meanwhile, the right of Roman citizenship to free people was granted during the reign of Emperor Caracalla for financial purposes because citizens have to pay taxes mandatorily. Despite this, Christians became equals with other citizens were able to integrate into society. They were also able to increase their finances and easily provide charity to the community.
  • Lastly, there seems to be a radical difference between ancient charity and Christian charity. According to some historians, the pagans did not have a notion for the love of one’s neighbor whereas Christian charity had opposing characteristics – the rejection of individualism and zeal towards Christ’s ideals. This resonated well with the Roman slaves and the masses and soon, Christianity became popular.
  • In modern times, Christian denominations have different practices with regards to almsgiving
  • The Roman Catholic Church often uses offertory bags and baskets to collect alms during the offertory part of the Mass. Some churches may also have a coin box near the entrance. What is an offertory bag, you ask?
I was today years old when i learned the name of this thing
  • Iglesia Ni Cristo follows the same pattern of voluntary almsgiving as with the Roman Catholic Church. There is a part in their worship service wherein they collect voluntary contributions. Contrary to popular belief, INC does not practice tithing (Geronimo)
  • On the other hand, Seventh-day Adventists and Latter-day Saints require tithing in their churches as financial support (Tithe)

Islam

  • Two main kinds of almsgiving exist in Islam, one compulsory and the other voluntary.
  • The compulsory zakat (which means “purity” in Aramaic) is one of the pillars of Islam that obligates one to give a part of one’s earnings annually if one has the capacity to do so (O’Toole). This wealth will then be given to not only the poor, but to several other parties such as pilgrims, people in debt, and people in slavery, to name a few.
  • Zakat refers to the principle of giving and is done during Ramadan.
  • In some nations, the state is in charge of making sure zakat is done by its people. Other places leave it up the individual to comply with zakat. Non-government Organizations (NGOs) also exist to assist people in fulfilling their zakat (“Zakat”).  
  • Interestingly, the percentage of wealth given may differ based on the kind of wealth one has. Categories of wealth include food grains, fruit, livestock, gold/silver, and movable goods. (Augustyn et al.). The usual percentage, however, is around 2.5%.(“Religions – Islam: Zakat: Charity”)
  • This obligatory giving of around 2.5% of one’s wealth is actually referred to more specifically as zakat al-Mal. (“Zakat al-Mal)  Zakat al-fitr is another charitable obligation of Islamic faith that requires breadwinners who have a surplus of wealth to give to the poor so that they too may celebrate Eid-al-Fitr. Zakat al-Fitr amounts to around $7 or around Php 370 and the breadwinner must pay for the dependents in the household.(“Zakat Al Fitr”)
  • The non-compulsory sadaqah (which means “honesty” in Hebrew), while not required, is highly encouraged to be done by every person who can do it (Sadaqah”). It is best done without anyone seeing as it says in the Qur’an. Sadaqah must be done sincerely to please Allah only and not out of gaining praise or recognition from others. (Lambarraa and Riener 2)


While there are variations with regards to how it’s done  among and within the faiths, it is apparent that the principle of helping others remains a constant among the three Abrahamic religions.

Sources:

Levenson, Jon D. “Why Give? Religious Roots of Charity.” […]. Harvard Divinity School, 26 Nov. 2018, https://hds.harvard.edu/news/2013/12/13/why-give-religious-roots-charity#, Accessed 23 Dec. 2018

The Bible. New Revised Standard Version Bible, St. Pauls, 2006

Kohler, Kaufmann. “ALMS.” Jewish Encyclopedia.com, http://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/1295-alms, Accessed 23 Dec. 2018

“Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Charity – Mishneh Torah, Laws of Charity, 10:7–14”. Chabad.org. https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/45907/jewish/Eight-Levels-of-Charity.htm. Accessed 23 Dec 2018.

Bykov, A.A. “The origin of Christian charity.” Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences vol. 166, 2015, pp. 609 – 615.

Geronimo, Jee Y. “Faith in action: The practices of Iglesia Ni Cristo.” Rappler, 24 July 2014, https://www.rappler.com/nation/64248-iglesia-ni-cristo-practices, Accessed 26 Dec 2018

“Tithe.” Encyclopædia Brittanica, 9 Feb 2016, https://www.britannica.com/topic/tithe, Accessed 26 Dec 2018

“Religions – Islam: Zakat: Charity.” BBC, BBC, 8 Sept. 2009, www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/practices/zakat.shtml.

O’Toole, Gavin. “UK Muslim Charities Shift Focus to Local Aid.” GCC News | Al Jazeera, Al Jazeera, 23 July 2014, www.aljazeera.com

Augustyn, A. et al. “Zakat.” ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA, www.britannica.com.

“Zakat.” Muslim Aid, www.muslimaid.org/zakat-charity/.

“Zakat Al-Mal.” IslamicMarkets.com, www.islamicmarkets.com/education/zakat-al-mal.

“Zakat Al Fitr.” Islamic Relief, www.islamic-relief.org/zakat/zakat-al-fitr/.

“Sadaqah” Islamic Aid, www.islamicaid.com/sadaqah/.

Lambarraa, F., and G. Riener. “On the Norms of Charitable Giving in Islam: A Field Experiment.” ageconsearch.umn.edu/bitstream/126795/2/Lambarraa 15073.pdf.

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