Ethics Reform Judaism Responsa shabbat

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).


  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


The Making of a Young Fundraiser

It was the summer of headlines.  “6 Year Old Boy Raises Thousands for Cancer Charity Run,” “Young Fundraiser,” “Long Island 6 Year Old Raises Money for Cancer Research.”  But, the story goes so much deeper than those simple words.  It is rooted in a history of kindness, of caring, of friendship and family and loss and love.

It might have begun three years ago at that first race when this boy, my son, saw his father run along with our closest of friends, really not friends at all, more like family.  He sat in the stands, watching the participants run on the field of Yankee Stadium.  Understanding only a little, as much as a three year old can, that this day, this race, was something that mattered.

It may have been the following year, when he was just one year shy of being able to participate, to raise money just like his father, to “help people who were sick,” as he would put it.  Wanting so much to be a part of what he saw.

Or it might have been the day last year when he began raising money as well.  The first time he explained to someone what he was doing and why he was doing it;. He was trying to help in finding a way to make sick people healthy once again.

But, in actuality, I believe the story began so many years before that.IMG_2067

When I was a young girl, I stood at a birthday party confused as to why another little girl had no hair on her head, just a scarf.  While our closest of friends, really more like family, witnessed her best friend dying.  A moment, or really moments in time that would shape the person she would become and would change her family forever.   The loss of a little girl, Jill, who lived for only 11 years, but inspired so many.  Who wrote a poem before her words were silenced.  A poem about a bluebird.  “He sings the story of life,” she wrote.  Wisdom beyond her years.  Words that we hear as the team, Bluebirds In Pinstripes, runs each year.

My son runs because they have never forgotten.

Because years later, this little girl’s best friend decided she wanted not just to remember, but act; to hold onto the memory of who Jill was and to work to shape the future of cancer research so another 11 year old girl would not have to watch her best friend dying.

Because Jill’s best friend’s sister, holding Jill’s memory close, did not just race on her own.  Instead, she came to my son, speaking with him about what it meant to take on this holy act of running and raising money and remembering.  And instead of encouraging her friends and family to give to her, she supported his fundraising efforts, so that little boy would understand the joy of making a difference.

He runs because they live their lives with her memory in their hearts, her voice in their heads, inspiring them to act in the world.

And the story continues from there.  Because his actions in raising money mattered to his family, to his grandparents and cousins and aunts and uncles as they had learned these values and behaviors.  Through their words of encouragement, their phone calls and inquiries, they taught a 6 year old the lesson that he may accomplish so much in his life, but the actions he takes for others, deeds of kindness and love, g’milut chasadim v’ahavah, speak in volumes to the person he is and the person he will become. Caring for others, a core piece of what it means to be Jewish, matters in this life.

4He runs because his family not only understands this value, but loves him enough to help him discover this truth as well.

There are so many key values that can be taught in a classroom, but there are so many that cannot.  Our Torah portion this week speaks to the latter.  We read in Va’et’chanan “But take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously, so that you do not forget the things that you saw with your own eyes and so that they do not fade from your mind as long as you live.” (Deuteronomy 4:9) We are instructed to remember, not just what we have been told, but what we have lived, what we have experienced, what we have seen with our own eyes.  What a significant lesson for our students, our children, our community—providing the space and the opportunity to experience life with its joys and challenges and array of emotions.

That little boy has now raised thousands for research that we hope one day will make a difference in the lives of those battling this awful disease.  What an accomplishment for a boy so young.  But, even so, the truth of his successful fundraising efforts is so evident.

He is in those articles because of what he has seen, what he has experienced.  He is in those articles because of those who race besides him.  He is in those articles because of the people in his life who have the courage to remember and to honor.  He is in those articles because of those who love him enough and care about him enough to show him the importance of loving and caring for others.  He is in those articles because of a little girl named Jill who did not have a chance to live the years she should have lived, but in the years she did, made such an impact on those who knew her and loved her.

The headline is as simple as “Young Fundraiser,” but the story is as deep and rooted as any story of love, of memory, of hope, of life.  “He sings the story of life” Jill wrote.  And she sings the story of life, still whispering in our ears.

Rabbi Debra Bennet  serves Temple Chaverim of Plainview, in Long Island, NY.


Chanukah: The Miracle of Giving (Tuesday)

We each have moments when we step back and take stock. Opportunities afforded to us because the year has turned one full cycle and we, clay touched by holiness, are allowed a glimpse into the essence of our lives.

A significant birthday.
An anniversary.
A Yahrzeit.

2 years of sobriety.
25 years since ordination.
3 years since I came out to my family.

Each of these moments transcends time, allowing us – like Adam HaKadmon “in the beginning” – to see clearly the past and our present. They invite us to imagine the future.

Our Jewish holy days, set in the Torah or by rabbinic decree, invite a similar accounting. These holy days cycle back annually, calling us to recall who we were and who we are becoming now.

Rosh Hashana, as the New Year begins, invites us to count our blessings.
Yom Kippur calls us to balance the accounting of our ma’asim and averot.
Pesach, a new beginning, invites us to recount the freedom which we once had, then lost, then with God’s help, reclaimed anew.

Each of these holy days turn us inward to the essence of our lives, and then subtly force our gaze and focus outward to the needs and concerns of our people.

Even the unique convergence of Chanukah and Thanksgiving – Thanksgivukkah? ChanTHANKSukah? Tur-Lat-Key Day? – moves us through the same eternal cycle.

For many, the beauty of the Chanukah-Thanksgiving pairing is that it moves us away from the popular narcissistic “gimme-gimme” culture (gimme presents, gimme food) instead turns our focus outward. We find ourselves being especially thankful for the food, the family surrounding us and the blessings that uplift our lives. If only we could harness those warm fuzzy feelings and transform them into a force for tikkun.

That’s why I’m particularly excited about the relatively new venture called #GivingTuesday.

You know about Black Friday and Cyber Monday – two days, designated in American retail culture for conspicuous consumption and for getting deals. Giving Tuesday — the Tuesday after Thanksgiving, the Tuesday in the middle of Chanukah — is a day when we are invited to give to others to act to create a better brighter world.

I am pleased that the Central Conference of American Rabbis is inviting you to share your blessings – and tzedakah – on #GivingTuesday. The CCAR strengthens and enriches the entire Jewish community and plays a critical leadership role in the Reform Movement through its work by fostering excellence in Reform Rabbis, unifying the Reform Jewish community through the publication of liturgy, providing essential support to rabbis – professionally and personally, and offering important resources to congregations and community organizations. Services to the Reform Rabbinate, in-turn, enhance connectedness among Reform Jews by applying Jewish values to the world in which we live and help create a compelling and accessible Judaism for today and the future.

We will light the lights of Chanukah. We will offer our thanks on Thanksgiving. Let’s transform our warm feelings into real action by supporting an organization which helps us rabbis bring light into the world.

You can make a donation here.

Happy Tur-Lat-key Day!


Rabbi Paul J. Kipnes is the spiritual leader of Congregation Or Ami in Calabasas, CA.