Tzedakah or Charity

Historical background and description

Tzedakah (Ṣedaqah, צדקה), or charity-giving, was a prominent concern of the sages who authored the classical rabbinical literature between the second and seventh centuries CE.[317] According to the rabbis, being compassionate to the poor and giving tzedakah to the less fortunate were qualities that God expected from all the people of Israel.[318] By performing tzedakah, a person fulfils one of the most important duties laid out to Moses on Mount Sinai,[319] it brings one closer to the divine,[320] and increases peace in this world.[321] Indeed, charity-giving was considered so powerful that it could prolong a donor’s life by 22 years and even save one from imminent death.[322]

Tzedakah could be performed in multiple ways; either by giving directly to beggars or by donating to tzedakah funds. Begging was a common sight in antiquity and beggars could be found in and around sacred spaces such as near Roman temples or divine statues and shrines at the city gates.[323] Jews as well were known to beg near religious buildings, such as at the Jerusalem temple and near synagogues.[324] This, according to Gregg Gardner, was for two reasons: first, the poor sought divine protection and comfort at the deity’s abode. Second, beggars improved their chances of receiving alms by begging in places where large groups of people gathered. Just as it was common to beg at marketplaces and road junctions, it was strategic to solicit alms from the stream of people entering and exiting sacred spaces, especially if they had just been told to perform tzedakah.[325]

However, the Tosefta states that one need not give alms when a beggar comes to the door, and begging in the streets was often seen as a shameful act that should be avoided.[326] Instead, rabbinic texts instruct that charity be given and received in a collective and organized way, removing the sight of beggars from the community, and thus providing “charity with dignity.”[327] In Late Antique Palestine, this organized approach meant donating to the two official Tzedakah funds: the tamhui and the quppa.[328]

The tamhui can best be translated as “the soup kitchen.” Originally, the word tamhui only referred to a serving bowl (sometimes translated as “tureen”), a common household vessel that had no particular connection to the poor or charity.[329] It could be made out of ceramic, silver, wood, glass, or stone (making it an excellent vessel for purity reasons), and had an open shape with concave sides.[330] Because of its large size, the tamhui could hold enough food for several individuals, and the rabbis talk about passing it around at the table to share the food. Thus, the vessel often appeared at communal meals and banquets.[331] It is for these reasons that this vessel was transformed into the figurative manifestation of the soup kitchen: an official institution that provided the poor with the foods necessary daily substenance.

According to rabbinic literature, the tamhui should provide a loaf of bread to anyone unable to afford two meals a day (three on Sabbath) on a daily basis. If a travelling poor man stayed overnight, legumes should be donated from the tamhui. The tamhui also provided olive oil, a dietary staple in Roman Palestine that supplied necessary fat and calories. Together, half a loaf of bread, some legumes, and olive oil could support an individual’s daily caloric needs, providing the poor with their most basic needs.[332]

The quppa, on the other hand, originally was a wicker basket made of palm leaves, woven so tightly it could hold coins.[333] Tannaitic texts depict the quppa as relatively large (about 85 cm high) and holding 24 pints in volume but small enough to be carried by one person slung over the shoulder.[334] Quppot found in excavations in the Judean Desert held personal belongings, such as metal utensils, textiles, keys, papyri, etc., but texts mention that they were also used to hold and carry other dry goods, such as fertilizer and, especially, food.[335] Similar to the tamhui, the quppa lent itself well to holding, collecting, and distributing food to multiple individuals. Unlike the tamhui, however, the quppa could be closed, allowing more control over who had access to it, and it was larger, capable of holding a significant quantity of provisions.

Both common household vessels were transformed into central institutions of organized charities during the rabbinic period. The tamhui, because of its open shape, became symbolic of provisions ready to consume: the soup kitchen, a space for immediate sustenance.[336] The quppa, on the other hand, could be closed and contained enough produce to support an individual for a week: it became the institution of the Charity Fund in which money was donated, a larger support system that could be more easily controlled. In this sense, these vessels became more than mere collection containers: they were, as Gardner states, forms of conduct articulated by a system of rules that organized and controlled activities. In our case, these were institutions that controlled the way assets or alms were transferred from one individual to another.[337]

Members of the community were instructed to donate to both the tamhui and the quppa: bread to the tamhui and money to the quppa.[338] Early Tannaitic texts do not specify how much one should give: according to Gardner, the rabbis may have deliberately left this obligation openended to encourage individuals to donate as much as they could.[339] It was only from the Amoraic period onwards that people were instructed not to donate more than one-fifth of their income, to prevent benefactors from falling into poverty themselves.[340] We also know that giving to and taking from the institutions happened anonymously, to protect the dignity of the poor.[341] But how? According to the Tannaim, a charity supervisor, an unpaid, voluntary official, was responsible for overseeing the operations of the quppa (and in later Amoraic texts, also for overseeing the tamhui). The tasks of the charity supervisor were twofold: to be a charity collector (gabbai tzedakah) and to be a charity provider (parnas).[342] As a charity collector, the supervisor was responsible for collecting funds publicly and privately. Publicly, funds could be raised in public spaces, such as at the synagogue.[343] Privately, the supervisor would go door-to-door to ask people for their contributions, reminiscent of tax collectors (the word gabbai on its own also means tax collector).[344] As for the distribution, the supervisor was responsible for assessing exactly how much each individual needed, if they were eligible to receive in the first place. But where was this money stored? T. Sheqalim 2:16, D-E, probably written around the 3rd century CE, states: “Just as there was a chamber of secrets in the Temple, so too there was such a chamber in every town, so that wellborn poor could be maintained from it in secret.” In other words, this text reveals that there was a “secret place” in every town where the poor could go to get donations anonymously to preserve their dignity, protecting them from the humiliation of begging. Perhaps this “chamber of secrets” as remembered from the Temple might have become the quppa, located in or near the synagogue?[345] We may even have evidence for this: in the synagogue at Arbel, a niche or “chamber” was discovered by archaeologists. The Arbel synagogue was first excavated by Kohl and Watzinger in 1905-1907 and then by Zvi Ilan and Avraham Izdarechet in 1978-1988.[346] In the building, which is dated to the 4th century for Phase I and the 6th century for Phase II, a small carved, stone cupboard of 135 cm high, 148 cm wide, and 110 cm deep was discovered in the east side of the north wall.[347] The niche was hewn out of a single stone and its sides were about 15 cm thick. Access to the cupboard was possible through a small door that opened to the outside of the building. Unfortunately, no coins or other objects were found inside the cupboard, but some scholars have identified this receptacle as a possible quppa.[348] If this is true, then this kind of niche or cupboard could have been an integral architectural part of many synagogues, but no longer recognizable by archaeologists as the upper parts of walls of ancient synagogues are rarely preserved.[349] New excavations at Arbel, currently conducted by Benjamin Arubas, might shed new light on this interpretation of the cupboard.[350]

If there was a quppa receptacle placed inside the niche, how should we imagine it? Was it a wicker basket, as found in the Judean desert? Or a wooden box, or a clay storage jar? In all those cases, however, the receptacles would be long gone and all we would find are its contents: the coins. So how then could we recognize these deposits? I suggest there are five qualities a coin deposit should have to make it a candidate for a Tzedakah deposit:

1) the coins are found together as a group,

2) the deposit is found in a retrievable, accessible place (so that coins could have been easily added to, and taken from it),

3) the deposit mostly contains small, low-value coins (the money that people had in their pockets on a daily basis and were willing to donate),

4) the quantity of the coins is low (as they were intended for distribution rather than long-term storage),

5) and the coins are all more or less of the same date (because the money would change hands quickly and was never stored for long in the quppa).

It would also make sense that these deposits were stored in a separate part of the synagogue building, away from the ritual spaces, in the symbolic “Chamber of Secrets”: in a niche in the (outer) wall or in a side room.

Deposits categorized as charity hoards or Tzedakah

Based on the qualifications laid out above, I believe these three deposits are possible candidates for charity hoards: Beth She’arim (Deposit 1), Wadi Hamam (Deposit 1), and Horvat Rimmon (Deposit 4). A map can be found at .

At Beth She’arim, 1200 bronze coins were discovered in the basement of a building “associated with” the synagogue. This building, designated Building B, was located northwest of the synagogue hall, on the other side of a small courtyard in front of the synagogue. The coins were found in the basement of the two-story building, in burnt debris. Of the reported 1200 coins, 615 were legible and kept at the Hebrew University. At Wadi Hamam, 37 silver coins probably came from the collapsed east wall of the synagogue. The coins were found dispersed in between the collapse of the upper part of the east wall among roof tiles and rubble just outside the synagogue building. Last, at Horvat Rimmon, a coin deposit was discovered in a hole or crack in the west wall of the side room of the synagogue building, some 20 cms above the floor. The 64 bronze coins were still stuck in between two stones of the wall.

The three deposits identified as charity hoards are diverse in content and context. Two deposits consist of bronze coins, while one solely contains silver coins. The silver deposit can be dated to 3rd century CE, while the bronze deposits from Beth She’arim to the mid-fourth century and the one from Horvat Rimmon to the first quarter of the fifth century. The Wadi Hamam and Horvat Rimmon deposits were stored inside walls, while the original location of the Beth She’arim deposit is unknown, but the coins were discovered in a basement. In other words, the charity deposits are our most “random” and hardest category to identify. The reason for why they can be recognized as tzedakah, and are set apart from other categories like the treasuries, however, is that these kinds of deposits are always found in retrievable places, the coins are low in value,[351] and they have a (relatively) limited time span: the Wadi Hamam coins have a range of 173 years (except for the single Jannaeus coin), Horvat Rimmon of 141 years, and Beth She’arim of only 59 years, with 557 of the 623 datable coins coming from the second quarter of the fourth century ( ).

Map of all sites where Charity Deposits have been found. Hover over a triangle to see the name of the site.

Table of all Charity Coins broken up per deposit. Toggle the parameter to show the emperor under which each coin was minted, the minting place, or the end date (final terminus post quem) of each coin.

Table of all Synagogue Charity Coins. Toggle the parameter to choose between exact dates or quarter centuries.

Table of all Synagogue Charity Coins. Toggle the parameter to show the emperor under which each coin was minted, the minting place, or the end date (final terminus post quem) of each coin; or choose between absolute numbers or percentage of total.


[317]Ulmer and Ulmer 2014, pp. 40-41; Wilfand 2014, pp. 44-49; Gardner 2015, pp. 1, 26-29: Tzedakah evolved from the word Tzadik, or righteousness, and meant “righteous giving”: the commandment to assist others, or a mandatory obligation upon every Jew to give if s/he could do so (Deut 24:13; Prov 14:34; Ps 106:3). Levine notes that giving charity “by Late Antiquity had become a well-accepted practice.” He lists biblical and historical sources that mention communal funds deposited in the synagogues (Levine 2000, pp. 396-398). Weddle notes that rabbinic tzedakah could have also been a replacement for the Temple sacrifices after 70 CE (Weddle 2017, p. 72). See also Mark 12:41-44.

[318] Ulmer and Ulmer 2014, p. 49: “according to the rabbinic literature, God has the expectation that we imitate his divine attributes. This leads to Imitatio Dei, or the becoming of the human being like the Creator.”

[319] Deut. 15:7-11.

[320] Ulmer and Ulmer 2014, pp. 71-73.

[321] Tosefta, Pe’ah 4:21, p. 61 (Lieberman edition), and Babylon Talmud, Bava Batra 10a.

[322] Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 11a; Vayikra Rabbah 34:1.

[323] Wilfand 2014, pp. 175–183.

[324] Cf Acts 3:2. See, for example, Cleomedes, On the Circular Motions of the Celestial Bodies II, 1:91 (Since, in addition to other things, his style [scil. Epicurus’] is also a corrupt motley, making use of expressions like “stable states of the flesh” and “hopeful hopes” concerning it, and calling tears “glistenings of the eyes” and having recourse to phrases like “holy screechings” and “ticklings of the body” and “wenchings” and other bad mischiefs of this kind. One may say that these expressions derive in part from brothels, in part they are similar to those spoken by women celebrating the Thesmophoria at the festivals of Demeter, and in part they issue from the midst of the synagogue and the beggars in its courtyards. These are Jewish and debased and much lower than reptiles) and Artemidorus, Interpretation of Dreams III, 53 (A synagogue and beggars and all people who ask for gifts, and such as arouse pity, and mendicants, foretell grief, anxiety and heartache to both men and women. For on the one hand, no one departs for a synagogue without a care, and, on the other, beggars who are very odious-looking and without resources and have nothing wholesome about them are an obstacle to every plan). Scattered coins found at the entrances of ancient synagogues, as in Capernaum or Horvat Kur, could perhaps be interpreted as retrieved coins given to/thrown at beggars who were stationed there.

[325] Gardner 2015, pp. 5–6.

[326] Tosefta Pe’ah 4:8.

[327] Hamel 1990, pp. 216–219; Gardner 2015, p. 2, 35; Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 9b.

[328] Tosefta Pe’ah 4:10; y. Pe’ah 8:6, 21a; t. Pe’ah 4:9.

[329] For an overview of the transition of tamhui from a vessel to an institution, see Gardner 2015, pp. 67-69.

[330] T. Kelim Bava Batra 7:10; t. Mikvaot 6:15, 16; m. Shabbat 3:15. See also Brand 1953, p. 539 (Hebrew) and Schwartz 2006, p. 441.

[331] m. Nedarim 4:4; m. Pesahim 10:1. In the ancient texts, it has also been identified with the Greek tryblion or the Latin paropsis: vessels that were used for handwashing in the Gospels and were present at the Last Supper. According to Gardner, archaeological examples have been found at Beth She’arim, Jerash, Nazareth, and Qumran (Zevulun and Olenik 1979, pp. 24–25, 16* and plates 50–54), and a stone example at Jerusalem (Avigad 1983, pp. 176, 181), although no basis for the identification of these vessels as tamhui are provided.

[332] On special occasions, other foods were donated as well, such as wine for the Seder on Passover, or fish and vegetables on the Sabbath (Gardner 2015, pp. 91–97). Furthermore, the tamhui as an institution provided shelter and lodgings to travelers or those who needed a place for the night (Gardner 2015, pp. 98–109).

[333] m. Kelim 16:2-3; Kelim Bava Batra 3:1; m. Shekalim 3:2.

[334] Gardner 2015, p. 71.

[335] Yadin 1963, pp. 136–151 (contains drawings of the baskets); Gardner 2015, pp. 72–74.

[336] Perhaps this food was stored in an upper room of the synagogue, which could have also been a space for communal meals or banquets (Ottenheijm and Pater 2021).

[337] Gardner 2015, pp. 81–82. In other words, the names of the institutions were based upon the names of the vessels, which became the symbolic nomenclatures for these organizations. This is similar to how we, for example, say “to xerox a document,” a process which does not necessarily has to include a Xerox machine or happen in a Xerox-owned copy-center. So too were the original vessels not necessarily a part of the “House of the Tamhui” or “Public Charity Fund”.

[338] This money could come from the ma’aser shani, the tithes for the poor (see below).

[339] Gardner 2015, p. 129: “giving should be done in accordance to the needs of the poor and not the means of the donor.” In other words, the poor needed to be compensated according to their needs, which could be limitless and so too should the donations be limitless. The needs of the poor were understood differently by the rabbis than they are today. Donations were supposed to have a “restorative function” as the aim was to restore to each individual exactly what they had before they became poor. Thus, they had to offer more than just sustenance: they also had to provide the individual with the means to purchase clothing, food, slaves, and horses, if that was what they had before they became destitute. In other words, the charity institutions were designed to restore the poor to their former social status.

[340] This is outlined in the so-called “Usha ordinance” as found in m. Pe’ah 1:1; Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 50a. Perhaps this was in reaction to the common practice in early Christianity in which people gave away all their possessions to others?

[341] Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot mattenot ‘aniyyim 108-10; t. Pe’ah 4:18 and perhaps most famously Matthew 6:3-4: “do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your alms may be done in secret.”

[342] Originally, these two functions could have been served by two different individuals. For an overview of the history of both professions and their specific functions over time, see Gardner 2015, pp. 158–163.

[343] Kindler 1989; Hamel 1999, p. 218; Spigel 2012a, p. 36. Safrai 1995 calls this the “allocation” or psikah: during the allocation, the purpose or specific need for the funds was announced and everyone present contributes as they saw fit.

[344] Tosefta Demai 3:20; y. Dema ch. 3, 23b; y. Horayot ch. 3, 48a; Leviticus Rabbah 5:4; Deut Rabbah 4:8.

[345] Of course, archaeologists have also found a plethora of coin deposits in private houses from Late Antiquity, so it is possible that the quppa, at least in some instances, was kept at the house of the collector, perhaps in a separate room or chamber. Here, however, I want to pay attention to possible examples of quppot in synagogues. A link between synagogues and charity distribution is also made by Rosenfeld and Menirav 1999, p. 267.

[346] Kohl and Watzinger 1975, pp. 59–70; Hüttenmeister and Reeg 1977, pp. 15–17; Chiat 1982, pp. 114–116; Chen 1986, pp. 235–240; Dolev 1988, pp. 29–34 (Hebrew); Ilan and Izdarechet 1989, pp. 111–117 (Hebrew); Ilan 1991, pp. 116–118 (Hebrew); Ilan and Izdarechet 1993, pp. 87–89; Dauphin 1998, pp. 718–719; Milson 2007, pp. 214, 302–305; Leibner 2009, pp. 250–264; Spigel 2012a, pp. 143–148; Hachlili 2013, pp. 17, 57, 59–60, 183, 540; Gardner 2015, p. 66.

[347] Ilan and Izdarechet 1993, p. 88. According to Hachlili 2013, p. 540, the cupboard was 118 cm high, 100 cm wide and 80 cm deep. As Zvi Ilan and Avraham Izdarechet were the excavators of this building, I am following their measurements in this dissertation.

[348] Perhaps there was a quppa box or other receptacle stored in this niche that at some point was taken out. Tzedakah boxes, nowadays often called pushkahs, still exist but are now kept in the private home, a custom that arose at the end of the 18th century in Eastern Europe. Charity boxes now come in all sorts and shapes, from plastic boxes to silver caskets, and everything in-between.

[349] However, in other synagogues with completely preserved or reconstructed walls, like Umm el-Qanatir, no such cupboards have been recognized.

[350] I tried to contact Benjamin Arubas on different occasions to talk about this cupboard but all emails and phone calls went unanswered.

[351] The value of silver coins in the 3rd century is still debated, but waves of debasement could indicate that their value was decreasing rapidly in this period (Reece 1975; Grierson 1999; Bland 2012).