Monday, 22 March 2021

From Hebrew ‘Tzedakah’ to Arabic ‘Sadaqah’: A Linguistic Tale of Origin of Charity and Righteous Giving in Judaism and Islam

‘Tzedakah’ and ‘Sadaqah’, One Lucky Soul

I happened to be watching an easy-going movie called Wish I Was Here. At some point, the lead character who’s also the director, Zach Braff, mentioned the Hebrew or “Judaic” word: Tzedakah. The word instantly rang a bell and sounded highly familiar. Like the Arabic or “Muslim” word ‘Sadakah’ (صدقة), meaning righteousness as well as charity and benevolence; from the three-letter root ‘Sedk’ ( صدق ), honesty. The same root gives us ‘sadeek’ ( صديق ), friend. 


Before going further, the context began making even more sense. So in the movie, the struggling actor’s father gets ill and cannot pay for his grandchildren’s school as he had been doing, so his son begins to wonder if he could convince the Rabbi to keep his kids in school as an act of Tzedakah. Aha. It began to seem that they are almost the same word, even concept, in both Hebrew and Arabic as in Judaism and Islam.

Tzedakah (n.) [/tsɛˈdɒka/] on one hand means charitable giving among Jewish people, typically seen as a moral obligation. One common form of tzedakah was to allocate a portion of the harvest for the poor.

On the other hand, the Arabic Sadaqah in the modern context has come to signify “voluntary charity”. According to the Quran, the word means voluntary offering, whose amount is at the will of the ‘benefactor’.

Taken from an article titled Tzedakah 101: The Jewish Law of Philanthropy:

Tzedakah (pronounced suh-dack-uh) is the Hebrew word for righteousness or justice — also “fairness”. The word relates to tzaddik,” the name for a righteous Chasidic spiritual leader. Both words come from the Hebrew root word tzedek’, meaning justice. Tzedakah is an ethical obligation that the Torah mandates, also known as a mitzvah or law. Many Jews give tzedakah before Shabbat (the sabbath) and festivals such as Purim and Shavuot. Its intention is to show the Jewish people’s determination to improve the world.

Though many Jews typically perform tzedakah by giving money, many do volunteer work to pay their dues. Examples include volunteering at a soup kitchen, participating as a school field trip chaperone or visiting the elderly or sick. The Jewish sages of the Mishnah taught that every Jew has something to contribute, whether it be money, time, or attention.

Perhaps Mr. Tzaddik was a great friend. 
In actual fact, Tzadik (צַדִּיק) [tsaˈdik], as in “righteous or holy one” — also zadik, ṣaddîq or sadiq — is a title in Judaism, rather than name, given to people considered righteous, such as biblical figures and later spiritual masters. The root of the word ṣadiq, is ṣ-d-q (צדק tsedek), which means ‘justice’ or ‘righteousness’. When applied to a righteous woman, the term is inflected as tzadeikes/tzaddeket.

Tzadik/Sadik is equally defined as a servant of God and of other people as well as someone who loves people, as explained in this 6-minute YouTube video titled TZADIK - Secrets of the Hebrew Letters, kindly sent by a reader.

Parallelly, Sadaqah in Arabic literally means righteousness and refers to the voluntary giving of alms or charity. In Islamic terminology, sadaqah has been defined as an act of Giving something without seeking a substitute in return and with the intention of pleasing Allah”. Meanwhile, according to Ar-Rageeb al-Asfahaani, sadaqah is what the person gives from what he possesses, like Zakah, hoping to get closer to Allah.

Just as
Tzedakah is not solely about giving money, Sadaqah also can include other acts such as administering justice between two people, removing harm from a road/removing thorns, bones and stones from paths. A good word. Guiding the blind. Supporting the weak with the strength of your arms. Cooking for and even smiling at others.

The following is taken from Wikipedia:
The term 'sadaqah' stems from the Arabic root word ‘sidq’ (s-d-q) ص د ق, meaning honesty, truthfulness, and sincerity and it is considered as a sign of sincere faith. The three-letter root of this word, S-D-Q, also means, “to speak the truth”, “to be sincere”, and “to fullfill one's promise”. All of these aspects of honourable behaviour indicate the links between generosity and a healthy society. Some modern researchers also try to etymologically link the word sadaqah to the Hebrew צדקה‎ sedāḳā (almsgiving). Some experts hence conclude that sadaqah is a loanword.

Aha. Knowing that charity and giving is spread throughout most religions and even philosophies, perhaps the very concept has been borrowed as well and not just the word.

Sadaqah in Quran
Taken from the Quran
By then throughout my search, another Arabic “Muslim” word came into play: ‘Zakah/Zakat’ (زكاة). 

Apart from their similarities as words [just visually remove the middle ‘da’], ‘Zakah’ is likewise one of the cornerstone foundations of Islam as well as an ethical obligation — one of its five pillars, actually. 
Then I was left with a mix and match between these three uncannily similar words: ‘Tzedakah’, ‘Sadaqah’, and ‘Zakah/Zakat’. 

Zakah (Arabic: زكاة zakāh translates as “that which purifies”. There is a more specific form that is Zakat al-mal ( زكاة المال ), “Zakah on wealth/money”, is a form of almsgiving treated in Islam as a religious obligation or tax, which, by Quranic ranking, is next after prayer (salat) in importance. As the second of the five pillars of Islam, zakah is a religious duty for all Muslims who meet the necessary criteria of wealth. It is a mandatory charitable contribution, often considered to be a tax.

You see, charitable gifts or givings to relieve the poor is common with the teachings of most other faiths and more particularly the biblical traditions, the Quran repeatedly emphasises the moral value of giving. While the term ‘almsgiving’ may suggest a somewhat simple and unfocused act of charity directed at the poor and needy, the Quran articulates through a variety of terms, especially Sadaqah and Zakah.

Wooden tzedakah box from Amazon and sadaqah/zakah jar, One Lucky Soul
Wooden tzedakah box from Amazon and sadaqah/zakah jar

ersonally, however, as a human being, I’ve always regarded Zakah as The number one priority. Ever since our school at Les Jésuites in Cairo used to teach us through Cours de Vie/Cours Spirituelles to habitually give to the poor, to the sick and elderly we used to visit at nearby hospitals or hospices, or to the leprosy populations. It made more sense to my developing mind as it does today three decades later. Simply because the act of sharing goes beyond the me-trip encapsulated in praying — namely the number one pillar in Islam — or even meditating, to actually doing something constructive and useful for others; be it on a personal level, or on the level of the community, or society, or humanity as a whole. Beyond the wishful “Thoughts & Prayers”. You feel you really are making a difference. In fact, I would argue that giving to someone who can probably never pay you back is the best source of fulfilment and gratitude. There is also a spiritual empathetic angle in the equation. 

While born Muslim in a liberal family, at some point during my early life I fortunately freed myself from the musts and the rules and the dogmas. You can read more about my spiritual experience in My Journey Towards Self-Transcendence.

But giving to others remained with me to this very day. Be it money, food, clothes donations, even organising free Full Lunacy drum circles part of the One Lucky Soul community, of which goers vary between 8 and 92 years old. Giving becomes a way of life. Giving, I might add, without expecting anything in return, neither blessings nor damnations. Because let us be honest, if one is doing it because they’re expecting to be rewarded or due to fears from some deistic retribution — or simply to be seen — then their ego is just trying to make a deal to benefit itself. This is actually the case of countless number of religulous folks, for whom fear becomes the name of the game. In Islam, however, this behaviour has a name, Reyaa ( رياء ), which is worshipping just so that people see them. It is, in fact, one way to ruin any Sadaqah or Zakah one gives.

Fear, as you know, breeds hate, fanaticism, xenophobia among many other ailments of our times. Thanks, but no thanks. If your religion is teaching you fear and absolute submission, well, good luck trying to decondition yourself from such a mindset. Some spend years and years trying to unshackle themselves.   

While religion tends to be fear-based, spirituality tends to be love-based. One of the most liberating experiences one can go through in life is unlearning the fear and embracing the love — as a driving force. You see, we are not responsible for the conditioning we were exposed to during our childhood. But as adults, we are fully responsible for fixing it. Truly, confusing religion with spirituality is like confusing education with intelligence.

Echoing with Leo Buscaglia’s piercing words: The fact that I can plant a seed and it becomes a flower, share a bit of knowledge and it becomes another’s, smile at someone and receive a smile in return, are to me continual spiritual exercises.

Garlic bread to anyone hungry by Omar Cherif, Venice Beach
From Italian restaurant take out in Venice Beach which I use to leave on a
bench at the Washington Blvd bus stop.

Linguistically, Arabic and Hebrew both belong to the Semitic language family, making them similar languages. Both found under the tree of the BiDi “Bidirectional“ languages, written from right to left. Words, pronunciations, and sentence structures resemble one another. Being language cousins — like Romance languages such as French, Italian, and Spanish — both share a variety of similarities, including words, words that sound similar like numbers, some common grammatical concepts, alphabets that look reminiscent, and similar vocalisations, such as the tendency to utter ‘kh’ ‘خ’.

They also both rely on systems of three-letter consonant roots; groups of “triliteral roots”, which are the foundations of verb and noun forms. Remember ‘S-d-k’

. Despite the similarities, however, both languages are not mutually comprehensible.
So yes, it is not really a surprise. But it was certainly a delightful educational Aha-Moment regarding Comparative Languages and Linguistics as well as Comparative Religion. When you come to think about it, learning multiple languages allows us the opportunity to understand how language influences people’s sense of reality while bridging some gaps.

 Mayhap more importantly, it reminds us that we’re all essentially One. 

The movie turned out to be pretty decent, too.

Similarities between Hebrew and Spoken Arabic by Discover Discomfort
Similarities between Hebrew and Spoken Arabic by Discover Discomfort

After finalising the article I decided to Google ‘Tzedakah’ and ‘Sadaqah’ together, just to see what had been written before, perhaps if any. Man, am I happy I hadn’t done it at the beginning, because probably I wouldn’t have written any of this. Here they are for additional information on the topic.

The first is a link titled Tzedakah-Sadaqah: A Series of Intercultural Service Projects by the Faith and Spirituality Centre of the University of Calgary. This only includes a broad definition of both terms.

The second is an article, Tzedakah and Sadaqah: Charity tradition gets Jews and Muslims together by Medill Reports Chicago - Northwestern University.

Then finally an actual comparison in Tzedakah and Sadaqah… the laws of charity in Islam and Judaism by

Now here is a fun note to end this article with: As a kid I had no idea what a bar mitzvah is. Slowly I began to get a clearer understanding of what it might be: When a teenager has finally become a man, so his family takes him out to a bar for celebration. Yep. I kid you not. It
’s not too far out, though. Thank Djod for education. Of course, Thank You, Internet as well. Actual bar mitzvah is Hebrew for “son of commandment”; and it is a coming of age ritual for boys, whereas bat mitzvah is the equivalent for girls.

All this Tzedakah/Sadaqah-
Tzadik/Sadik business discussed herein made me remember Tzatziki (cacık), the dip, soup, or sauce found in the cuisines of Southeast Europe and the Middle East; it is made of salted strained yogurt or diluted yoghurt mixed with cucumbers, garlic, salt, olive oil, sometimes with vinegar or lemon juice, and herbs such as dill, mint, parsley and thyme. And how the first time I ever heard the word at a shawerma shop in Toronto, I thought the guy behind the counter was asking me if I was his sadiqi, or friend. Or that I was ordering the sandwich to my sadiqi. Bwahaha. The more language we know, the more these peculiarities increase in numbers.

I hope you enjoyed reading this as much as I did researching and writing it. Learning can be intrinsically fun when we're not forced or coerced to do it. Knowledge is free — and it frees you rather than freezes you.

Salam and Shalom, consanguineous Brothers and Sisters. Now spread the Love.


Tzedakah 101: The Jewish Law of Philanthropy,
Tzedakah, Wikipedia
Sadaqah, Wikipedia
What similarities are there between Hebrew and Arabic?, Quora
Similarities between Hebrew and Spoken Arabic, Discover Discomfort 
TZADIK - Secrets of the Hebrew Letters, YouTube


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