Jesus said unto him, If thou wilt be perfect, go and sell that thou hast, and give to the poor, and thou shalt have treasure in heaven: and come and follow me. But when the young man heard that saying, he went away sorrowful: for he had great possessions. Then said Jesus unto his disciples, Verily I say unto you, That a rich man shall hardly enter into the kingdom of heaven. And again I say unto you, It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God. . [Matthew 19:21-24]
Charity is the mirror image of fasting. When you fast, you prevent physical and mental intrusions from blotting your spirit. When you give, you cast off excess impurities congesting your soul.
When we engage in charity, we purify our soul by discarding that which restricts our growth and impedes our path to God. Accumulated riches and hoarded wealth produce a crippling rust on our character that clogs our inner thoughts and stains our outward actions.
Fasting promotes a certain indifference to materiality, which often translates into charity. We feel more inclined to dispose of excess wealth while disposing of excess food.
Charity diminishes the obsession to indulge. It transforms self-gratification into generosity and kindness toward others. Thus, we elevate our spirit above carnal excesses and appetites of the flesh.
The word tzedakah is the Hebrew for “charity” and describes the giving of assistance and money to poor and needy persons and to worthy causes. Tzedakah is not only generosity by wealthy individuals, but includes a sense of justice and righteousness. It is considered a duty to give to the poor their due share. Even those who are in need must themselves perform tzedakah. Having sinned, one can perform tzedakah to regain G-d’s favor, when unable to fast.
Rabbi Johanan said, “The Israelites are compared to an olive tree, because as the olive yields its oil only by hard pressure, so the Israelites do not return to righteousness except through suffering.” [Talmud, Menahot 53b]
In Judaism, it is said that tzedakah is one of the three acts that gain us forgiveness from our sins, along with teshuvah (repentance), tefilah (prayer). Fasting endears the sinner to G-d. The loss of flesh caused by the fast is, in itself, a sacrifice.
When R. Shesheth kept a fast, on concluding his prayer he added the following: Sovereign of the Universe, Thou knowest full well that in the time when the Temple was standing, if a man sinned he used to bring a sacrifice, and though all that was offered of it was its fat and blood, atonement was made for him therewith. Now I have kept a fast and my fat and blood have diminished. May it be Thy will to account my fat and blood which have been diminished as if I had offered them before Thee on the altar, and do Thou favour me. [Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Berakoth, Folio 17a]
Caritas in Latin refers to something of great worth, priceless. Early Christian theologians used caritas to translate the Greek word agape, referring to the precious loving-kindness of God. Thus, we read “faith, hope and charity” in the King James translation of St Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians.
However, agape is the Divine love instilled into the soul and necessary for salvation. It does not mean almsgiving, tithing, or giving to the poor. Today, the preferred word for agape is love. However, confusing “love” and “charity” was easy, and our modern usage of charity goes back to the 12th century. Even then, it was associated with fasting.
This fasting. . . is very good, provided the commandments of the Lord be observed . . . First of all, be on your guard against every evil word, and every evil desire, and purify your heart from all the vanities of this world. If you guard against these things, your fasting will be perfect. And you will do also as follows.
Having fulfilled what is written, in the day on which you fast you will taste nothing but bread and water; and having reckoned up the price of the dishes of that day which you intended to have eaten, you will give it to a widow, or an orphan, or to some person in want, and thus you will exhibit humility of mind, so that he who has received benefit from your humility may fill his own soul, and pray for you to the Lord.
If you observe fasting, as I have commanded you, your sacrifice will be acceptable to God, and this fasting will be written down; and the service thus performed is noble, and sacred, and acceptable to the Lord.”[The Pastor of Hermas, Bk. III, The Writings of the Fathers down to A.D. 325, Rev. A. Roberts, D.D., and J. Donaldson, LL.D.]
Zakat and Sadaqah
In Islam, zakat-ul-fitr is a special charity of Ramadan, the Muslim month of fasting. Its purpose is to purify from indecent acts and to help the poor.
The arabic word zakat, often translated as charity, means “to grow” (in goodness) and “to purify.” Zakat is offered to purify the soul from avarice, miserliness and adoration of property and to purify property from the stain of unlawful earnings.
The Messenger of Allah [God], upon whom be peace, enjoined zakat-ul-fitr on those who fast to shield them from any indecent act or speech, and for the purpose of providing food for the needy. [Abû Dâwûd, Sunan Abî Dâwûd]
While zakah is a measured obligation on every Muslim, sadaqah is voluntary almsgiving that encompasses any act of generosity. Even a smile, removal of obstacles from a path and guiding a lost person are considered sadaqah.
A Muslim does not plant, or sow anything from which a person, animal or anything eats but it is considered as sadaqah from him. [Bukhari]
Charity and Fasting
One cannot be sincerely charitable while being a sensuous glutton. We reveal our gluttony and sensuality in hoarding and greed, both of which separate us from the Creator. Charity requires that we share the superfluous, and fasting facilitates the process. In both situations, excessive burdens on the spirit are being discarded.
As we fast, we burn away impurities and remove secular debris clogging our connection to the Divine. Through charity we can continue cultivating our inner purification to produce enduring peace and equanimity.
Those who (in charity) spend of their goods by night and by day, in secret and in public, have their reward with their Lord: on them shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve [Quran 2:274].