Although commonly translated as "charity", tzedakah is actually derived from the root word "tzedek", which means justice. The implication is that while charity is voluntary, something you do out of the goodness of your heart, tzedakah is nothing less than what every person owes to the poor, simple justice.
According to Jewish law, each person must give a minimum of 10% of his salary to tzedakah.
Maimonides explains that there are 8 levels of tzedakah. Ranked from least preferrable to most preferrable, they are:
- Giving grudgingly
- Giving cheerfully, but less than one should
- Giving only after being asked
- Giving without being asked
- Giving where the recipient, but not the donor, is anonymous
- Giving where the donor, but not the recipient, is anonymous
- Giving where both the donor and the recipient are anonymous
- Giving in a way that allows the recipient to provide for himself (i.e. giving him a job)
Some of the positions in this ranking are not immediately clear. For instance, why is it preferrable to give less, but cheerfully, than to give as much as one should, but grudgingly? Maimonides explains this by saying that it is a worse sin to humiliate someone than to not give them what they deserve.
Along the same vein, a higher level of tzedakah is reached when the donor is anonymous, because this shows that he gave with no regard for the esteem that it would give him. Ideally, both the donor and the recipient should be anonymous, so that the donor is not prideful and the recipient is not embarrassed for needing charity.