In the powerful Unetaneh Tokef prayer, the High Holiday liturgy proclaims, "Repentance, prayer and tzedakah make the decree easier to bear." It seems clear that acknowledging error and connecting to God would bring spiritual strength that eases difficult situations. But why tzedakah? Perhaps it represents a commitment to making the world a better place. But how much tzedakah should we give?
One Jewish tradition suggests that individuals of means should give no more than 20 percent of their assets in any single year. But few of us approach that level of giving. Indeed there is a great deal of room between giving a few dollars a year and that 20-percent mark. How should we think through how much to give?
One criterion that is sometimes helpful is what the people around us are doing. Nobody wants to be seen as a "sucker" for giving a disproportionately large amount. However, people have to learn to give, and unless someone leads the way, no one learns to give appropriately. But people should not simply accept the levels of giving that predominate in their home communities, which are often too low.
It is important to set an example for others to emulate. In marketing-driven economies, people constantly absorb the message that they are not consuming enough, that they will be happier if they spend more on themselves. Generosity and open-heartedness are likelier sources of happiness. Giving sufficient tzedakah often depends upon careful reflection about the message of entitlement being broadcast at us.
One suggestion about how much to give comes from the system of taxation that existed in Israel in biblical times as interpreted by subsequent traditions. There were taxes payable to the king, teruma (a kind of offering) paid to the Temple and consumed in its precincts, a tithe (10 percent of most forms of produce) payable to the Levites, and an additional tithe of the remainder in some years for the poor, including widows and orphans. That amounted to about 27 percent of agricultural income. Contemporary Jews similarly pay sales, income and property taxes.
In addition, it is suggested, they could choose to tithe, setting 10 percent of their income aside for tzedakah. If the biblical model is used for a precedent, that would be 10 percent of income after taxes are subtracted. However, total income should be calculated by adding back in such non-taxable benefits as health insurance, housing allowances and pension payments, as well as such expenses as mortgage interest, which in some countries is tax-deductible but is not tithe-deductible. Of course, a person of greater capability and commitment might choose to give 10 percent of pre-tax income, which would obviously be a larger amount.
There are people with incomes that exceed their net worth; this is typical of young wage earners. There are people whose net worth is many times their income; this is common among retirees. It is therefore not helpful to link giving exclusively to a percentage of income or net worth.
Another idea about how much to give is to give until it feels good. Perhaps that is how we can "make the decree easier to bear." Giving generously can teach people to stop making "me" the center of my universe. That gives us a perspective on our tribulations that cannot come in any other way.
When we are open-hearted and open-handed, our spiritual lives give us a perspective that helps us get through the difficulties that life brings us. Perhaps that is what makes tzedakah transformative in a way similar to prayer and repentance.
In light of that, there is another yardstick that you can use to measure your giving. Giving enough brings a shift in priorities and in how you see the world. You'll recognize that change in yourself when you experience it. And that change not only makes the bad times easier. It will deepen the value of every day your life.
Rabbi David Teutsch is the Wiener Professor of Contemporary Jewish Civilization at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. His most recent book is A Guide to Jewish Practice: Everyday Living, from which this piece is adapted.