New Responsum: Collecting for Tzedakah in the Synagogue on Shabbat

Jan 16, 2020 by

New Responsum: Collecting for Tzedakah in the Synagogue on Shabbat

The CCAR is pleased to present this Responsum on collecting money for tzedakah in the synagogue on Shabbat (5780.1), the newest addition to our historic collection of  questions and answers about Jewish living. 

Question: The question has arisen in our congregation as to whether it is permissible to collect money for tzedakah on Shabbat. I am aware of a few congregations who do announce the tzedakah cause for the week and have ushers accept donations on the way out of services, without pressure of course.  I am well aware of the prohibition of carrying money and engaging in commercial activities on Shabbat in the halacha. But, as Reform Jews, we pay little heed to most of these rules. Also, we have no reservations about other traditional prohibitions, e.g. driving on Shabbat, turning on electric lights, cooking food, etc. Most Reform Jews carry money in their wallets and purses on Shabbat without the sense that they are violating the Shabbat. No doubt, many also engage in other activities that are not traditionally permissible. These activities, I realize, are considered violations of Shabbat, whether the practices are widespread or not. However, it seems to me that tzedakah may fall into a different category for us. After all, the individual who gives tzedakah is not benefitting in any material way. Given Reform Judaism’s deeply held convictions about the importance of tzedakah, could this mitzvah override the traditional prohibition in the view of our movement?


– Rabbi Michael Sternfield, Bradenton, FL

Answer: As we have seen, not using money – even for the most worthy of purposes – was a distinguishing feature of Shabbat observance, whose symbolic significance only grew over time.  Our evolving Shabbat observance, in a Reform context, has digressed from that consensus by recognizing a limited number of ways in which using money may enhance an individual’s Shabbat, by deepening their experience of it as a day of spiritual renewal, e.g., paying admission to a museum.  But in that case, the use of money is an incidental means to a central purpose of Shabbat.  It is not intended to grant unrestricted approval for spending money on Shabbat.  Indeed, our Reform precedents are unanimous in insisting that giving tzedakah is a financial transaction that should not be done on Shabbat, however praiseworthy it is to link it to Shabbat.  (By way of analogy, we might consider the Conservative movement’s decision to allow driving to synagogue.  That takkanah was made to enable Jews to attend public worship on Shabbat when 1950s suburbanization meant that synagogues were increasingly not within walking distance.  It did not give Conservative Jews blanket permission to grab keys and a full tank of gas to go out and “see the USA in their Chevrolet” on Shabbat.)

It is one thing to allow an individual to make a personal decision to use money as an incidental means to enhance their Shabbat renewal.  It is quite another to declare that the mitzvah of giving tzedakah – a commercial transaction – is so important that we may, or that we should, make it a regular, i.e., essential, part of our Shabbat observance.  We would be making a  fundamental alteration in the character of Shabbat.  If we are to do that, there must be a compelling reason to do so, a matter of overriding necessity.  We do not see any such  compelling reason or overriding necessity in the question before us.

As we have seen, our tradition has long accepted that it is perfectly acceptable to discuss communal affairs, including deciding tzedakah allocations (but not actually disbursing the funds), on Shabbat, and making pledges to give tzedakah.  Nothing is stopping the congregation from including a formal tzedakah appeal in the Shabbat service.  But why is it so crucial for the actual funds to be collected then?  And how are they to be collected?  Are the ushers passing a plate for cash, as in churches?  Handing out pens for people to write checks?  Carrying around credit card readers?  Encouraging congregants to take out their smart phones and make a donation via PayPal?  How can this be done as part of a Friday night (or Saturday morning) synagogue service without fundamentally altering the character of Shabbat in a way that destroys its sanctity?

We especially do not see a compelling reason, given that a congregation can still take advantage of the larger Shabbat attendance – as did our ancestors – without actually collecting money on Shabbat.  We therefore recommend the following solution to the matter.

Our congregations tend to hold services at the same hour on Friday nights throughout the year, regardless of when the sun actually sets.  For many Reform Jews, the start of the service is for all intents and purposes the start of Shabbat, when they feel that the Sabbath has come upon us ritually, emotionally, and intellectually.  Given that established practice, we suggest that you collect tzedakah before candle lighting and the beginning of worship.  In this way, carrying out the mitzvah of giving tzedakah immediately before entering into Shabbat heightens people’s awareness of the transition from ḥol to kodesh, and the difference between the two.  We note the existing custom of putting coins in a pushke (tzedakah box) before lighting the Shabbat candles, which is mentioned in our Reform guides; just as we have brought candle lighting into the synagogue, why not bring the pre-Shabbat tzedakah contribution as well?

(One of our committee members offers an additional pragmatic solution:  Add PayPal and other donation links to the synagogue webpage, and in the weekly Shabbat brochure, remind the kahal to donate to whatever tzedakah you choose for that week’s support.)

We believe very strongly that the synagogue, as the central public institution of Jewish life, embodies our covenant community, and therefore it must be the exemplar of Jewish life.  The standards we set for it may well differ from what we countenance on an individual level.  This is particularly true in a Reform context  precisely because we allow a great deal of latitude to individuals to determine their own Shabbat observance.  In essence, therefore, it falls upon the synagogue to provide an appropriate model.  As a movement we have made great strides since the 1960s in teaching our people how to observe Shabbat; bringing financial transactions into the synagogue on Shabbat would constitute an enormous step backward.

However, even if you do make a formal tzedakah collection your last weekday act before beginning Shabbat, we have additional reservations if it is done as a public activity.  Collecting money when the congregation is assembled for the service can make people uncomfortable for any one of several reasons: perhaps they did not bring money with them; perhaps they do not use money on Shabbat; or perhaps the appeal is for a cause they prefer not to support.  It can be very uncomfortable to refrain from giving in the presence of others.  It can also be awkward for guests and non-members:  We do not want people to feel that we are soliciting them when they enter the community to explore Judaism, check out our congregation, or attend a friend or family member’s simchah.  We therefore advise you to think carefully about how to do this, so that no one is embarrassed.

In addition, though we have not based our response on this consideration, we cannot discount the issue of ḥukkot ha-goy (imitating Gentile practices).  In our society, where Christianity is still the dominant religious tradition, collecting tzedakah during the Shabbat service cannot help but resonate with echoes of passing the collection plate in church.  Our concern is not merely the imitative element, but also the implicit lesson.  In calling to mind the dominant cultural paradigm of “charity,” it will teach a very un-Jewish lesson, that tzedakah is charity, i.e., something one does voluntarily, out of the goodness of one’s heart, rather than a mitzvah, a religious obligation, as Mishkan Moeid points out (see above).

Summary:

  1. The essence of Shabbat, in our tradition, is to be a holy day of rest and spiritual renewal, marked by cessation from labor and weekday occupations. Over centuries of Jewish life, refraining from the use of money – the ultimate transactional substance, and the essence of commercial activity – has been a key signifier of the distinction between kodesh and ḥol. This has been true in the Reform context despite our implicit rejection of rabbinic notions of melakhahsh’vut, and muktzeh.
  2. Giving tzedakah is a financial transaction. Despite its stated importance in Reform Judaism, adding it to the mitzvot that ought to be performed on Shabbat would be a fundamental redefinition of Shabbat, and therefore should not be done unless there is an overriding need and compelling reason to do so.
  3. We find no overriding need and compelling reason to approve of giving tzedakah on Shabbat, since the sho’el’s stated purpose can be met in another way, even on erev Shabbat.

Read the complete responsum, including the classical halakhah and Reform precedents here, and find the CCAR’s collection of Reform responsa here. And to learn more about Jewish perspectives on money, read The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic, published by CCAR Press.

The Sacred Exchange: Creating a Jewish Money Ethic

Related Posts

Tags

Share This

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.