“Why is it that we do not recite a blessing on the giving of tzedakah?” Professor Elie Wiesel asked this question of us in his soft voice, his brown eyes roving the room. We were gathered around a polished oak table in one of the classrooms at his Center for Jewish Studies at Boston University, on the bank of the Charles River. We, his students, pondered.
Tzedakah is a mitzvah d’oraitah, a commandment directly from the Torah, and therefore we would naturally expect a bracha to be recited upon its fulfilment. However, counterintuitively, there is none.
One of the many sources for the mitzvah is from our parsha this week, Re’eh: “If there shall be a destitute person among you, any of your brethren in any of your cities, in your land that HaShem, your G-d, gives you, you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother. Rather, you shall surely open your hand to him; you shall lend him his requirement, enough for his lack that is lacking to him” (Dev. 15:7-8). The poetry and urgency of this passage, underscored by the repetition of key words, is diminished in English translation. Let us look to the original Hebrew: כִּֽי־פָתֹ֧חַ תִּפְתַּ֛ח אֶת־יָדְךָ֖ ל֑וֹ וְהַעֲבֵט֙ תַּעֲבִיטֶ֔נּוּ דֵּ֚י מַחְסֹר֔וֹ אֲשֶׁ֥ר יֶחְסַ֖ר לֽוֹ׃.
Retranslated: “Open, open your hand to him; lend him his lending, enough for the lack that is lacking to him.” (Dev. 15:7-8).
Other verses in the Torah that are composed with word repetition are no less powerful, notably צֶ֥דֶק צֶ֖דֶק תִּרְדֹּ֑ף, “Justice, justice shall you pursue” (Dev. 16:20) that resounds from next week’s parsha, Shofetim. Our verse is set apart in that it is constructed with not one but three sets of doubled words, driving home a theme of generosity, of giving in the face of deficiency and inequality.
Moreover, the phrase פתח תפתח, “open, open your hand”, appears twice. It is repeated just a few psukim later: “Open, open your hand to your brother, to your poor, and to your destitute in your land” (Dev. 15:12). If this reiteration is not enough, when we look to the heart of this mitzvah, we find yet another doubled emphasis hidden within the pasuk. The word פתח, ‘open’ (in the first appearance of the phrase פתח תפתח) is reinforced with the presence of an extraordinary letter known as the Pei Kefulah, the Doubled Pei. This ancient scribal tradition, which the Rambam himself mentions, is an enhanced letter Pei whose mouth is extended into an inner spiral to form a second Pei.
What does the double Pei in פתח תפתח teach us? The Baal HaTurim (Rabbi Yaacov ben Asher, c.1269-c.1343) gives a series of compelling comments on the appearance of the Pei Kefulah in our verse. He writes, “This indicates that you who are giving the loan should open, not only your hand, but also your mouth, and speak reassuring words to the recipient.” Here, the Baal HaTurim is responding to two things: first, the fact that the letter Pei is itself a letter whose name and shape derive from the human mouth, Peh. Second, that the specific context of the extraordinary letter is crucial to its meaning. Because the Pei Kefulah appears as the first letter of the word ‘open’, the Baal HaTurim therefore interprets the doubled meaning of the letter Pei as a requirement to open two things while giving to a fellow in need: one’s hand (to give funds) and one’s mouth (to give good words).
There is great sensitivity in this interpretation. The Baal HaTurim here teaches that the mitzvah of tzedakah extends even farther than merely giving material or nutritional support. Our verse is part of a great speech by Moshe to the children of Israel urging them, and by extension us, to practice imatatio dei: As G-d cares for the poor, so should we. It hearkens back to a well-known verse that we read just last week: “not by bread alone does man live, rather by everything that emanates from the mouth of G-d does man live” (Dev. 8:3). These verses connect body to soul: nutritional and physical sustenance to words that touch and elevate the spirit. Just as G-d’s words comfort, nourish, and support, so should our own. A dollar given in silence is inferior to one given with a kind word and a smile.
Viktor Frankl, psychiatrist, neurologist and Holocaust survivor, wrote that human beings must have meaning in their lives in order to survive; physical sustenance alone is not enough. In contrast to Freud’s “will to pleasure” and Adler’s “will to power,” Frankl’s logotherapy is based on the idea that we are driven by a “will to meaning” or an inner desire to find purpose and meaning in life. A person who is in financial distress is in need not only of physical sustenance, but also of emotional, spiritual, and psychological support from their community.
In his Mishnah Torah 10:7-14, Rambam (Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon, 1138-1204) sets forth eight levels of tzedakah which agree with the Baal HaTurim’s assessment. While all levels are considered a fulfillment of the mitzvah, they are not equal. The lowest level is giving tzedakah grudgingly. Better to give tzedakah with a cheerful demeanor, even if that which is given is less than what is required. Lest we fall into the mindset of tightfistedness, The Baal HaTurim writes in his work Tur, Yoreh Deah, Laws of Tzedakah, 247, “A person should not ask, “How can I spare my money to give to poor people?” Because he should know that the money is not his but rather a deposit with which to do the will of the depositor (G-d) which is to distribute some of it to the poor.”
Yet how to practically overcome one’s natural selfish tendencies? G-d robustly urges us through the phrase פתח תפתח, in its thrice doubled form, to give tzedakah not once, not occasionally, but repeatedly. Habitually. By practicing giving tzedakah on a regular basis, we develop the ability to give selflessly again, and again, and again. Building a tzedakah habit is explained in the Sefer HaChinukh, 66-67 this way: “The root of the commandment [to give to the poor] is that G-d wanted His creations to be trained and habituated to the trait of kindness and of mercy, since it is a praiseworthy trait….And when these traits are fixed within us, we will then be fit to receive the good, and G-d will fulfill His will through us, as He desires [to do good] in this world and in the next world.”
My fellow students and I, responding to Professor Wiesel on that autumn day, offered various answers to explain the lack of a bracha over tzedakah. Once our answers had been given, our thoughts explored, Professor Wiesel gave us his. “Think of it from the recipient’s point of view. He is hungry. He is tired. You come along and decide to give him something. How would he feel if he had to wait there while you stood, money in hand, and took time to say a blessing to G-d?” Professor Wiesel gazed at us, leaning forward to emphasize his point. “We do not say a blessing because we do not want to make the poor man wait, not even a moment longer than necessary. G-d does not want us to embarrass him.”
The beauty of the lesson of the double Pei of פתח תפתח ידך, the open hand that speaks wholeheartedly, is that it represents a synthesis of the material and the divine, the letter and the spirit of the law. When one gives in this mindset, one gives not only out of obligation but also out of love. True tzedakah thus represents tiferet: the unity of gevurah (strict justice and limitation) with chesed (compassion and unlimited generosity).
Professor Wiesel z”l teaches that tzedakah, at its core, is not only about the mitzvah of the financial gift; it is about recognizing humanity in the other. That is the bracha of tzedakah.
We are obliged to give to our fellow in need. No less crucial is the manner in which that aid is given. Tzedakah is not charity, it is justice — the correct way to behave according to Torah law. Each Jew must give according to his or her means, normally 10% of one’s income. Extremes in tzedakah giving should be avoided: give too little, and one transgresses the mitzvah through stinginess. Give too much, too open-heartedly, and one risks becoming dependent upon tzedakah oneself. The goal is to take the median path by giving enough to elevate both the circumstance and spirit of the recipient, which in turn, elevates the giver.
This Shabbat, we read the third Haftorah of Consolation after Tisha B’Av, leading up to the Yamim Noraim, the Days of Awe. In our Haftorah, Isaiah foresees a time when all children of Israel are instructed in the ways of HaShem, when all Israel is “established in Tzedakah”. Isaiah imagines all those who are thirsty and hungry finding water and food, whether they have money to spend or not, “And he that has no money, come, buy, and yea: come buy wine and milk without money and without price” (Is. 54:1). The road to this reality is paved with tzedakah. In truth, our thrice doubled passage speaks not of a one-time gift of tzedakah, but specifically of granting a loan. Rambam’s highest level of Tzedakah is giving the needy a loan, or better yet an occupation, in order to lift him or her out of the cycle of poverty entirely. That is the vision of this mitzvah.
Until that day of Isaiah’s vision comes, and may it arrive with haste, it is up to each of us to soften our tight fists, practice openhandedness, and care for those in need. Not begrudgingly, but lovingly. Without delay. Openly, openly. Pragmatically, sustainably, and with kind words on our lips.
 Frankl, Viktor E. Man’s Search for Meaning. Beacon Press, 2006.
 Amelis, M., & Dattilio, F. M. (2013). Enhancing cognitive behavior therapy with logotherapy: Techniques for clinical practice. Psychotherapy, 50(3), 387–391.
 The Sefer HaChinukh (Book of Education) is an anonymous work written in 13th-century Spain that details the 613 commandments and explains the reasons behind them.