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The Meaning of ‘Tzedakah’ In the Phrase ‘U-Teshuvah U-Tefillah U-Tzedakah’

A critical sentence in Unetaneh Tokef“ (“UT”) is: “u-teshuvah u-tefillah u-tzedakah ma’avirin et ro’a ha-gezeirah.” A typical translation is: “Repentance, prayer and charity remove the evil of the decree.”

But that word “tzedakah” has two different meanings. Once in Tanach, in an Aramaic section at Dan. 4:24, we have a word with this root meaning “charity,” and “charity” is a common meaning of the word in rabbinic Hebrew. But elsewhere in Tanach the meaning of the word “tzedakah” is always “righteousness” or “justice” or something similar. See, e.g., F. Rosenthal, HUCA 23, pp. 411-430, and Daat Mikra to Prov. 10:2 and Dan. 4:24.

So what does “tzedakah” mean in UT? Does it have its later meaning of “charity”? Or does it have its original meaning of “righteousness”? If the meaning is its original meaning, the implication would be that it is “righteous acts” in general that affect the decree, not the specific monetary righteous act of “charity.”

If we look at UT itself, we cannot determine the meaning of “tzedakah” there. But we can analyze the passage in the Jerusalem Talmud on which our line in UT was based and suggest the proper interpretation of “tzedakah” in this passage.

UT is a piyyut authored in Israel in the early post-Talmudic period. The author of UT was not R. Amnon of Mainz (c. 1000), but most likely the paytan Yannai. (Yannai was earlier than the paytan Elazar Kallir who lived around c. 600 C.E.). I discussed the authorship of UT in a previous column in September of 2019.

The source for UT was almost certainly a passage in the second chapter of Tractate Taanit in the Jerusalem Talmud. Here we have the following: “R. Lazar says: Three things cancel (mevatlin) a harsh decree (ha-gezeirah kasheh). These are: tefillah, tzedakah and teshuvah.” The passage goes on to cite a verse, asserting that all three of these items are included in this verse. Let us look at the verse it cites: 2 Chronicles 7:14. (“R. Lazar” is the way the Jerusalem Talmud spells the name “R. Elazar.”)

The context is that Shlomo has just finished building the Temple. God appears to him and gives him an instruction in verse 13: “If I shut up heaven that there be no rain, or if I command the locust to devour the land, or if I send pestilence among the people,” what should be done? Verse 14 is the answer: “If My people…shall humble themselves, and pray (ויתפללו), and seek My face (פני ויבקשו), and turn from their evil ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

So we do not have to rely on UT or on R. Elazar’s statement for the method of getting God to cancel decrees! We have an explicit statement from God Himself as to the method!

But what about that middle term “seek my face”? On a plain-sense level it does not mean either “charity” or “acts of righteousness.” It seems to have a meaning close to “pray.” The Tanach often includes such duplicative terms for emphasis.

But R. Elazar continues that this phrase alludes to “tzedakah” based on Psalms 17:15: “ani be-tzedek echezeh fanecha.” This verse literally means something like: I shall behold your face in righteousness. But on a homiletic level, R. Elazar’s logic is perhaps as follows. The term “face” with regard to God refers to God’s attribute of mercy. By showing mercy to others, one makes oneself worthy of seeing God’s face.

But even with this logic we cannot deduce what meaning of “tzedakah” R. Elazar had in mind. Both “charity” and “acts of righteousness” are acts of mercy to others.

But there is a clue elsewhere to understanding R. Elazar’s statement. At Bava Batra 10a we have a statement that R. Elazar would give a “perutah le-ani” before praying and that he did this based on this same verse: Psalms 17:15. Let us make the reasonable assumption that this is the same R. Elazar as the one in the Jerusalem Talmud passage. If it is, then we see that R. Elazar in Bava Batra is connecting the verse with the “charity” meaning! So even though we cannot prove the meaning of “tzedakah” in UT, we now understand its probable meaning in the Jerusalem Talmud passage. (The ArtScroll Jerusalem Talmud, in a note on the Taanit passage, pointed me to this critical passage in Bava Batra.)


Further Thoughts

1. Of course it is interesting that in 2 Chr. 7:14, the method for getting Divine cancelation is essentially prayer and teshuvah, while R. Elazar added a third activity! But the truth is that the tradition regarding these three items was probably pre-existing and R. Elazar was merely attempting to attach it to a verse (and he found one where he could attempt to squeeze in all three!).

2. The well-known gematria (“צום, קול and ממון each have a value of 136”) is consistent with the “charity” meaning. But one should not use this later gematria to make the determination of the meaning of the word “tzedakah” in UT.

3. A later source for the statement of R. Elazar, Yalkut ha-Mechiri (17:5, ed. Buber, p. 95), reads: “teshuvah maasim tovim u-tefilah.” (Similar is Yalkut Shimoni 2:669, p. 893b: “teshuvah u-maasim tovim.”) But most likely “tzedakah” was the original reading in the passage, as it parallels the other two words with their initial “t” sound.

Yalkut ha-Mechiri is a source that often records reliable early traditions. So perhaps one can use this source to argue for the “righteous acts” meaning (as an early interpretation of “tzedakah”) and combine it with a rejection of the identification with the R. Elazar of Bava Batra 10a. (But I do not want to be the person taking this position and endangering all High Holiday fundraising!)

4. Parallels to the Jerusalem Talmud passage are found at Tanchuma Noach 8, Gen. Rabbah 44:12, Pesikta De-Rav Kahana 28:3, and Kohelet Rabbah 5:6 and 7:14. There is also a parallel in the Jerusalem Talmud at San. 10:2.

5. A passage in the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16b), in the name of a R. Yitzchak, refers to four items that cancel decrees: tzedakah, tza’akah, shinui ha-shem, and shinui maaseh. Regarding tzedakah, the verse cited is Proverbs 10:2. Even though “tzedakah” means “righteousness” in this verse, this does not mean that R. Yitzchak meant that “tzedakah” was “righteousness” in his statement. Our Sages often use verses homiletically. (Presumably R. Yitzchak and R. Elazar made their statements based on some common older tradition, so the meaning of “tzedakah” in R. Elazar’s statement can be used to shed light on its meaning in the statement of R. Yitzchak.)

6. UT made three changes from the passage in the Jerusalem Talmud. The order of the three items (which followed the verse in 2 Chron.) was changed, “ma’avirin” was used instead of “mevatlin,” and “ro’a he-gezeirah” (=the evil of the decree) was used instead of “ha-gezeirah kasheh.” For suggestions to explain these changes, see R. Kimelman, “Unetaneh Tokef as a Midrashic Poem,” in The Experience of Jewish Liturgy, ed. D. Blank (2011).

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. He would like to thank Barry Lichtenberg for inspiring him to write this article. He got the idea from reading the synagogue speech Barry gave on Yom Kippur of 2020 on “Unetaneh Tokef.“

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