More than ten years ago, I was drawn to a display in the Minneapolis Institute of Art gift shop containing only exquisite items seemingly selected precisely because of their eye-catching beauty. I was especially drawn to a collection of small pearl and gem studded silver cases. Only a closer inspection would satisfy my aesthetic curiosity. A tastefully understated card reminded me that these works of art were mezuzah cases. You may know that a mezuzah is a piece of parchment with verses from the Torah, Deuteronomy 6:4-9 and 11:13-21. These verses comprise the Jewish prayer Shema Yisrael, beginning with the phrase:
Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone. 5 You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might. 6 Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. 7 Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise. 8 Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, 9 and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates.
Observant Jews affix a mezuzah to the doorframe of their homes to fulfill this mitzvah (Biblical commandment). I remain envious of this practice for the way it expresses the disposition of their hearts. Only my conviction that to co-opt the practice would be disrespectful and pretentious kept me from splurging on a mezuzah for my front door.
Near these exquisite items were other superbly crafted boxes with the Hebrew צדקה carefully imprinted on each. Most were wood or ceramic, not nearly as precious or exceptional as gems and silver. Of the five or six there for inspection, I was immediately drawn to the hexagonal piece adorned with delicate, hand-painted blue and pinkish-orange “forget-me-nots.” Lush green and metallic gold leaves supported the flowers all set on a neutral cream base and covered with a protective coat of varnish. A coin slot in the top introduced me to the ancient practice of tzedakah boxes.
Tzedakah [tsedaˈka] in Classical Hebrew – thus the צדקה painted on the exterior – literally means justice or righteousness. Tzedakah is different from charity because tzedakah is an obligation and charity is typically understood as a spontaneous act of self-chosen generosity. In Judaism, tzedakah refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just. Unlike philanthropy or charity, tzedakah is a religious obligation which must be performed regardless of financial standing because it is grounded in care for the community and concern for the common good. This practice seemed something I could respectfully adopt and the flower-festooned box has occupied a conspicuous spot in our home for more than ten years. Our favorite distribution of its contents is to give the coins, and a random bill from time to time, to a friend who in turn gives them to her synagogue for their pre-school education program.
Today in many Catholic churches around the country, folks will be encouraged to pick up a Rice Bowl for their kitchen table where coins can be collected and we can be reminded of the scandal that is world hunger. We do this as expression of our three-part observance of Lent: prayer, fasting and alms-giving.
It is truly right and just for Christians to remember the devout traditions grounding our religious practice and to express respect for our observant Jewish neighbors on whose strong shoulders we continue to stand.