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Tzedakah, Zakat, Dana: Spiritual Giving

Alms-giving is another universal spiritual practice, observed in all of the world's religious traditions. Atheists and Humanists have their own particular propensities towards charitable giving related to the care and protection of humanity. Giving is known to be good for the soul, however the soul is understood. Alms-giving is a practice of giving to the needy in society, either directly or through specific charities.

Though the names and details of giving practices differ by belief system, the reasons for it and effects of it are the same. Tithing is a Christian practice distinct from alms-giving which asks church members to donate 10% of their income to the Church. The practice of tithing was observed in Judaism and is described in detail in the Old Testament of the Bible, generally related to offering 10% of one's crop yield, food stuffs and other forms of material wealth. It was also applied for those who happened to have fortunes in currency but this was less common. Modern Christians have adapted these Old Testament scriptures to current tithing practices based on certain New Testament scriptures related to upholding Old Testament law.

In Islam, giving to the poor is one of the Five Pillars of the Muslim tradition and is called, Zakat. Zakat is the compulsory giving of 2.5% of one's wealth to the needy. The amounts are predetermined according to a person's wealth to remove all confusion or discrepancy. After the requirement of the five daily prayers, Zakat is considered the most important practice in Islam. Studies in the United Kingdom have shown that as a group, Muslims give the most in charitable donations as compared to other faiths. For details, read this post.  Even though 2.5% may not seem like a lot, in reality it is indeed more than most people from all other faiths, or no faith, give.

In Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism and Sikhism, the word for alms-giving is Dana or Daana, from Pali and Sanskrit. To practice Dana one must give from one's own personal wealth, so the gifts must not be re-gifted from something received from another, or worse, stolen. This rule is very important. Additionally, the gift must be given with pure intention and with no expected reward or recognition. The giving is not to be publicized or in any way associated with ego. If a gift is made begrudgingly, it will not be characterized as Dana. This idea runs all throughout the various Hindu holy texts, the Rig Veda, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita included. A good summation of the idea can also be found in this Christian scripture from the Book of Second Corinthians, chapter 9 verse 7: Each one must give as he has decided in his heart, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. One more important point about Dana, in particular, is that it is to be given from the surplus one has after taking care of oneself and one's family honorably, leaving enough for a healthy yet modest lifestyle. One is neither to overgive nor to hoard. A judicious balance must be respected. I like these quotes from Chapter 101 of the Tirukkural: "Believing wealth is everything, yet giving away nothing, is a miserable state of mind"; "Vast wealth can be a curse to one who neither enjoys it nor gives to the worthy."

In Judaism the closest word for alms-giving, in Hebrew, is Tzedakah. The word literally means justice, or righteousness, from the Hebrew root Tzadei-Dalet-Qof. Philanthropy and charitable giving are considered fundamental to the Torah way of life. Tzedakah can take many forms and certain acts of tzedakah are considered less meritorious, based on the circumstances and intentions motivating the gift, as we have also seen in the aforementioned Asian traditions and in Christianity. Giving anonymously is highly meritorious, addressing the concern of ego-based giving. Also, giving before being asked is more meritorious. Giving less than one should is less meritorious, yet this concern must be balanced with cheerful giving. Hence, if it truly pains a person to give what they can actually afford, they should reduce the amount of the gift until it can be cheerfully given. 

As you can see, the practices surrounding giving in the different faiths discussed are closely tied to the effects they have on the spiritual condition of the giver. Personally I find the teachings about Dana and Tzedakah to be very helpful in clarifying some of the inconsistencies and confusion my family has experienced around the issue of giving. When we feel pressured by a certain organization we tend to give less because it affects our intentions. We do prefer to give across a broad spectrum of different  humanitarian charities. We like to do in-kind donations and cash donations which are anonymous when we feel an inner prompt. Charitable giving is something which has always been important to us yet we want to avoid the sticky ego aspect of it. It's a tricky balance to strike, and working on this issue is something often overlooked in our culture. 

Regardless of your tradition, I hope you can use some of this information to rethink your approach to giving as a spiritual practice, seeing it as a possible way to purify and transform your spiritual heart. 


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