Alms (//, //) or almsgiving involves giving to others as an act of virtue, either materially or in the sense of providing capabilities (e.g. education) for free. It exists in a number of religions and regions. The word, in the modern English language, comes from the Old English ælmesse, ælmes, from Late Latin eleemosyna, from Greek ἐλεημοσύνη eleēmosynē ("pity, alms"), from ἐλεήμων, eleēmōn ("merciful"), from ἔλεος, eleos ("pity").
In Judaism, tzedakah - a Hebrew term literally meaning righteousness but commonly used to signify charity - refers to the religious obligation to do what is right and just. Contemporary tzedakah is regarded as a continuation of the Biblical Maaser Ani, or poor-tithe, as well as Biblical practices including permitting the poor to glean the corners of a field, harvest during the Shmita (Sabbatical year), and other practices. Tzedakah, along with prayer and repentance, is regarded as ameliorating the consequences of bad acts.
In Judaism, Tzedakah (charity) is seen as one of the greatest deeds that man can do. Jewish farmers are commanded to leave the corners of their fields for the starving to harvest for food and are forbidden to pick up any grain that has been dropped during harvesting, as such food shall be left for the starving as well.
Famous Jewish scholar and sage Maimonides has been noted for creating a list of charity, with the most righteous form being allowing an individual to become self-sustaining and capable of giving others charity.
1) Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant
2) Giving when neither party knows the other's identity
3) Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity
4) Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity
5) Giving before being asked
6) Giving after being asked
7) Giving less than you should, but giving it cheerfully
8) Giving begrudgingly
In Islam, the concept of charitable giving is generally divided into voluntary giving, or Sadaqah and the Zakat, an obligatory practice governed by a specific set of rules within Islamic jurisprudence, and intended to fulfill a well defined set of theological and social requirements. For that reason, while Zakat plays a much larger role within Islamic charity, Sadaqah is possibly a better translation of Christian influenced formulations of the notion of 'alms'.
Zakat is the third of the five pillars of Islam. Various rules attach to the practice but, in general terms, it is obligatory to give 2.5% of one's savings and business revenue and 5–10% of one's harvest to the poor. Possible recipients include the destitute, the working poor, those who are unable to pay off their own debts, stranded travelers and others who need assistance, with the general principle of zakaah always being that the rich should pay it to the poor. One of the most important principles of Islam is that all things belong to God and, therefore, wealth is held by human beings in trust.
The literal meaning of the word Zakat is "to purify", "to develop" and "cause to grow". According to Shariah it is an act of worship. Our possessions are purified by setting aside a proportion for those in need. This cutting back, like the pruning of plants, balances and encourages new growth.
Zakat is the amount of money that every adult, mentally stable, free, and financially able Muslim, male or female, has to pay to support specific categories of people.
This category of people is defined in surah at-Taubah (9) verse 60: "The alms are only for the poor and the needy, and those who collect them, and those whose hearts are to be reconciled, and to free the captives and the debtors, and for the cause of Allah, and (for) the wayfarers; a duty imposed by Allah. Allah is knower, Wise." (The Holy Qur'an 9:60).
The obligatory nature of Zakat is firmly established in the Qur'an, the Sunnah (or hadith), and the consensus of the companions and the Muslim scholars. Allah states in Surah at-Taubah verses 34–35: "O ye who believe! there are indeed many among the priests and anchorites, who in Falsehood devour the substance of men and hinder (them) from the way of Allah. And there are those who bury gold and silver and spend it not in the way of Allah. announce unto them a most grievous penalty – On the Day when heat will be produced out of that (wealth) in the fire of Hell, and with it will be branded their foreheads, their flanks, and their backs, their flanks, and their backs.- "This is the (treasure) which ye buried for yourselves: taste ye, then, the (treasures) ye buried!" (The Holy Qur'an 9:34–35).
Muslims of each era have agreed upon the obligatory nature of paying Zakat for gold and silver, and from those the other kinds of currency.
Zakat is obligatory when a certain amount of money, called the nisab is reached or exceeded. Zakat is not obligatory if the amount owned is less than this nisab. The nisab (or minimum amount) of gold and golden currency is 20 mithqal, approximately 85 grams of pure gold. One mithqal is approximately 4.25 grams. The nisab of silver and silver currency is 200 dirhams, which is approximately 595 grams of pure silver. The nisab of other kinds of money and currency is to be scaled to that of gold; the nisab of money is equivalent to the price of 85 grams of 999-type (pure) gold, on the day in which Zakat is paid.
Zakat is obligatory after the money has been in the control of its owner for the span of one lunar year. Then the owner needs to pay 2.5% (or 1/40) of the money as Zakat. (A lunar year is approximately 355 days). The owner should deduct any amount of money he or she borrowed from others; then check if the rest reaches the necessary nisab, then pays Zakat for it.
If the owner had enough money to satisfy the nisab at the beginning of the year, but his wealth in any form increased, the owner needs to add the increase to the nisab amount owned at the beginning of the year, then pay Zakat, 2.5%, of the total at the end of the lunar year. There are minor differences between fiqh school on how this is to be calculated. Each Muslim calculates his or her own Zakat individually. For most purposes, this involves the payment each year of two and a half percent of one's capital.
A pious person may also give as much as he or she pleases as sadaqa, and does so preferably in secret. Although this word can be translated as 'voluntary charity' it has a wider meaning. The Prophet said 'Even meeting your brother with a cheerful face is charity.'
The Prophet said: 'Charity is a necessity for every Muslim.' He was asked: 'What if a person has nothing?' The Prophet replied: 'He should work with his own hands for his benefit and then give something out of such earnings in charity.' The Companions asked: 'What if he is not able to work?' The Prophet said: 'He should help poor and needy persons.' The Companions further asked 'What if he cannot do even that?' The Prophet said 'He should urge others to do good.' The Companions said 'What if he lacks that also?' The Prophet said 'He should check himself from doing evil. That is also charity.'
In Buddhism, alms or almsgiving is the respect given by a lay Buddhist to a Buddhist monk, nun, spiritually-developed person or other sentient being. It is not charity as presumed by Western interpreters. It is closer to a symbolic connection to the spiritual realm and to show humbleness and respect in the presence of the secular society. The act of alms giving assists in connecting the human to the monk or nun and what he/she represents. As the Buddha has stated:
Householders & the homeless or charity [monastics]
in mutual dependence
both reach the true Dhamma....— Itivuttaka 4.7
In Theravada Buddhism, nuns (Pāli: bhikkhunis) and monks (Pāli: bhikkhus) go on a daily almsround (pindacara) to collect food (piṇḍapāta). This is often perceived as giving the laypeople the opportunity to make merit (Pāli: puñña). Money cannot be accepted by a Theravadan Buddhist monk or nun in lieu of or in addition to food, as the Patimokkha training rules make it an offence worth forfeiture and confession.
In countries that follow Mahayana Buddhism, the practice of a daily alms round has mostly died out. In China, Korea and Japan, local cultures resisted the idea of giving food to 'begging' clerics, and there was no tradition of gaining 'merit' by donating to practitioners. After periods of persecution, monasteries were situated in remote mountain areas in which the distance between the monastery and the nearest towns would make a daily alms round impossible. In Japan, the practice of a weekly or monthly takuhatsu replaced the daily round. In the Himalayan countries, the large number of bikshus would have made an almsround a heavy burden on families. Competition with other religions for support also made daily almsrounds difficult and even dangerous; the first Buddhist monks in the Silla dynasty of Korea were said to be beaten due to their minority at the time.
In Buddhism, both "almsgiving" and, more generally, "giving" are called "dāna" (Pāli). Such giving is one of the three elements of the path of practice as formulated by the Buddha for laypeople. This path of practice for laypeople is: dāna, sīla, bhāvanā.
The paradox in Buddhism is that the more a person gives – and the more one gives without seeking something in return – the wealthier (in the broadest sense of the word) one will become. By giving one destroys those acquisitive impulses that ultimately lead to further suffering. Generosity is also expressed towards other sentient beings as both a cause for merit and to aid the receiver of the gift. In Mahayana Tradition it is accepted that although the three jewels of refuge are the basis of the greatest merit, by seeing other sentient beings as having Buddhanature and making offerings towards the aspirational Buddha to be within them is of equal benefit. Generosity towards other sentient beings is greatly emphasised in Mahayana as one of the perfections (paramita) as shown in Lama Tsong Khapa's 'The Abbreviated Points of the Graded Path' (Tibetan: lam-rim bsdus-don):
Total willingness to give is the wish-granting gem for fulfilling the hopes of wandering beings.
It is the sharpest weapon to sever the knot of stinginess.
It leads to bodhisattva conduct that enhances self-confidence and courage,
And is the basis for universal proclamation of your fame and repute.
Realizing this, the wise rely, in a healthy manner, on the outstanding path
Of (being ever-willing) to offer completely their bodies, possessions, and positive potentials.
The ever-vigilant lama has practiced like that.
If you too would seek liberation,
Please cultivate yourself in the same way.
- Tsongkhapa & Berzin (2001), verse 15.
In Buddhism, giving of alms is the beginning of one's journey to Nirvana (Pali: nibbana). In practice, one can give anything with or without thought for Nibbana. This would lead to faith (Pali: saddha), one key power (Pali: bala) that one should generate within oneself for the Buddha, Dhamma and Sangha.
The motives behind giving play an important role in developing spiritual qualities. The suttas record various motives for exercising generosity. For example, the Anguttara Nikaya (A.iv,236) enumerates the following eight motives:
- Asajja danam deti: one gives with annoyance, or as a way of offending the recipient, or with the idea of insulting him.
- Bhaya danam deti: fear also can motivate a person to make an offering.
- Adasi me ti danam deti: one gives in return for a favor done to oneself in the past.
- Dassati me ti danam deti: one also may give with the hope of getting a similar favor for oneself in the future.
- Sadhu danan ti danam deti: one gives because giving is considered good.
- Aham pacami, ime ne pacanti, na arahami pacanto apacantanam adatun ti danam deti: "I cook, they do not cook. It is not proper for me who cooks not to give to those who do not cook." Some give urged by such altruistic motives.
- Imam me danam dadato kalyano kittisaddo abbhuggacchati ti danam deti: some give alms to gain a good reputation.
- Cittalankara-cittaparikkarattham danam deti: still others give alms to adorn and beautify the mind.
According to the Pali canon:
The giving of alms is an act of charity toward those less fortunate. In the Apostolic age, Christians were taught that giving alms was an expression of love which was first expressed by God to them in that Jesus sacrificed himself as an act of love for the salvation of believers. The offertory is the traditional moment in Roman Catholic Mass, Anglican Eucharist, and Lutheran Divine Services when alms are collected. Some Protestant groups, such as Baptists or Methodists, also engage in alms, although it is more commonly referred to as "tithes and offerings" by the church. Some fellowships practice regular giving for special purposes called Love Offerings for the poor, destitute or victims of catastrophic loss such as home fires or medical expenses. Traditionally, Deacons and Deaconesses are responsible for distributing these gifts among widows, orphans, and others in need. Many Christians support a plethora of charitable organizations not all of which claim a Christian religious affiliation. Many American Educational and Medical Institutions were founded by Christian fellowships giving alms.
In the Eastern Orthodox Church and the Eastern Catholic Churches, the collection of alms and tithes has not been formally united to the offertory in any liturgical action. However, either having a collection plate in the narthex or passing it unobtrusively during the service is not uncommon. In Orthodox theology, almsgiving is an important part of the spiritual life, and fasting should always be accompanied by increased prayer and almsgiving. Almsgiving in the name of the deceased also frequently accompanies prayer for the dead. Those whose financial circumstances do not permit the giving of monetary alms may give alms in other ways, such as intercessory prayer and acts of mercy.
In the majority of Christian forms of worship and denominations, a collection of "tithes and offerings" is given for the support of the church's mission, budget, ministry, and for its relief of the poor, as an important act of Christian charity, united to communal prayer. In some churches the "offering plate" or "offering basket" is placed upon the altar, as a sign that the offering is made to God, and a sign of the bond of Christian love. In addition, private acts of charity, considered virtuous only if not done for others to admire, are seen as a Christian duty.
Be careful not to do your 'acts of righteousness' in front of others, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.
The outward and an inward giving of alms:
Here Jesus places the primary focus on the motives behind such acts, which should be love.
Rather, give as alms what is inside, and then everything will be clean for you!
Giving of the rich versus the poor:
Here Jesus contrasts the giving of the rich and the poor
He looked up and saw the rich putting their gifts into the treasury. And He saw a poor widow putting in two small copper coins. And He said, 'Truly I say to you, this poor widow put in more than all of them; for they all out of their surplus put into the offering; but she out of her poverty put in all that she had to live on.'
Giving out of Love and not out of duty:
He will reply, 'I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.'
Dāna (Sanskrit: दान) is an ancient concept of alms-giving dating to the Vedic period of Hinduism. The word for alms in Vedic literature is Bhiksha (भिक्षा). The Rigveda has the earliest discussion of dāna in the Vedas and offers reasons for the virtue of alms-giving.
The Gods have not ordained hunger to be our death: even to the well-fed man comes death in varied shape,
The riches of the liberal never waste away, while he who will not give finds none to comfort him,
The man with food in store who, when the needy comes in miserable case begging for bread to eat,
Hardens his heart against him, when of old finds not one to comfort him.
Bounteous is he who gives unto the beggar who comes to him in want of food, and the feeble,
Success attends him in the shout of battle. He makes a friend of him in future troubles,
No friend is he who to his friend and comrade who comes imploring food, will offer nothing.
Let the rich satisfy the poor implorer, and bend his eye upon a longer pathway,
Riches come now to one, now to another, and like the wheels of cars are ever rolling,
The foolish man wins food with fruitless labour: that food – I speak the truth – shall be his ruin,
He feeds no trusty friend, no man to love him. All guilt is he who eats with no partaker.— Rigveda, X.117,
The early Upanishads, those composed before 500 BCE, also discuss the virtue of alms-giving. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, in verse 5.2.3 for example, states that three characteristics of a good, developed person are self-restraint (damah), compassion or love for all sentient life (daya), and charity (dāna). Chandogya Upanishad, Book III, similarly, states that a virtuous life requires: tapas (meditation, asceticism), dāna (charity), arjava (straightforwardness, non-hypocrisy), ahimsa (non-violence, non-injury to all sentinent beings) and satyavacana (truthfulness).
Bhagavad Gita describes the right and wrong forms of dāna in verses 17.20 through 17.22. The Adi Parva of the Hindu Epic Mahabharata, in Chapter 91, states that a person must first acquire wealth by honest means, then embark on charity; be hospitable to those who come to him; never inflict pain on any living being; and share a portion with others whatever he consumes. In the Vana Parva, Chapter 194, the Mahabharata recommends that one must, "conquer the mean by charity, the untruthful by truth, the wicked by forgiveness, and dishonesty by honesty". The Bhagavata Purana discusses when dāna is proper and when it is improper. In Book 8, Chapter 19, verse 36 it states that charity is inappropriate if it endangers and cripples modest livelihood of one's biological dependents or of one’s own. Charity from surplus income above that required for modest living is recommended in the Puranas.
Dāna has been defined in traditional texts as any action of relinquishing the ownership of what one considered or identified as one's own, and investing the same in a recipient without expecting anything in return. While dāna is typically given to one person or family, Hinduism also discusses charity or giving aimed at public benefit, sometimes called utsarga. This aims at larger projects such as building a rest house, school, drinking water or irrigation well, planting trees, and building care facility among others.
Abū Rayḥān al-Bīrūnī, the 11th century Persian historian, who visited and lived in India for 16 years from about 1017 CE, mentions the practice of charity and almsgiving among Hindus as he observed during his stay. He wrote, "It is obligatory with them (Hindus) every day to give alms as much as possible."
After the taxes, there are different opinions on how to spend their income. Some destine one-ninth of it for alms. Others divide this income (after taxes) into four portions. One fourth is destined for common expenses, the second for liberal works of a noble mind, the third for alms, and the fourth for being kept in reserve.
Alms-giving is held as a noble deed in Hinduism, to be done without expectation of any return from those who receive the charity. Some texts reason, referring to the nature of social life, that charity is a form of good karma that affects one's future circumstances and environment, and that good charitable deeds leads to good future life because of the reciprocity principle. Other Hindu texts, such as Vyasa Samhita, state that reciprocity may be innate in human nature and social functions but dāna is a virtue in itself, as doing good lifts the nature of one who gives. The texts do not recommend charity to unworthy recipients or where charity may harm or encourage injury to or by the recipient. Dāna, thus, is a dharmic act, requires idealistic-normative approach, and has spiritual and philosophical context. Some medieval era authors state that dāna is best done with shraddha (faith), which is defined as being in good will, cheerful, welcoming the recipient of the charity and giving without anasuya (finding faults in the recipient). These scholars of Hinduism, states Kohler, suggest that charity is most effective when it is done with delight, a sense of "unquestioning hospitality", where the dāna ignores the short term weaknesses as well as the circumstances of the recipient and takes a long term view.
Satrams, also called Dharamsala or Chathrams in parts of India, have been one means of alms-giving in Hinduism. Satrams are shelters (rest house) for travelers and the poor, with many serving water and free food. These were usually established along the roads connecting major Hindu temple sites in south Asia, as well as near major temples.
Hindu temples have served as institutions for alms-giving. The dāna the temples received from Hindus were used to feed people in distress as well as fund public projects such as irrigation and land reclamation. Other forms of alms-giving in Hinduism includes donating means of economic activity and food source. For example, Go Dāna (donation of a cow), Bhu Dāna (भू दान) (donation of land), and Vidya Dāna or Jňana Dāna (विद्या दान, ज्ञान दान): gift of knowledge and skills, Aushadhā Dāna: Charity of care for the sick and diseased, Abhay Dāna: Giving freedom from fear (asylum, protection to someone facing imminent injury), and Anna Dāna (अन्ना दान): Giving food to the poor, needy and all visitors. Between giving food and giving knowledge, Hindu texts suggest the gift of knowledge is superior.
- Indicative of the mutual nature of the almsgiving exchange, in some Theravada countries, if a monk were to refuse alms from someone—a gesture known as "turning over the rice bowl"—this would be interpreted as an act of excommunication of the almsgiver by the monk. An example of such a refusal the refusal of Buddhist monks to accept offerings by military personnel in military-occupied Myanmar (Mydans, 20 September 2007, NYT).
- Almsgiving is also commended by the Buddha in a less prominent way in various other canonical texts such as the Dighajanu Sutta.
- In Pali, this line is: "Sabba danam, Dhamma danam jinati." This line can be found in the Dhammapada, Chapter 24, verse 354. Thanissaro (1997) translates this entire verse as:
A gift of Dhamma conquers all gifts;
the taste of Dhamma, all tastes;
a delight in Dhamma, all delights;
the ending of craving, all suffering
- Cf. Matthew 5:23–24
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Translation: Now Tapas (austerity, meditation), Dāna (charity, alms-giving), Arjava (sincerity, uprightness and non-hypocrisy), Ahimsa (non-violence, don't harm others) and Satya-vacanam (truthfulness), these are the Dakshina (gifts, payment to others) he gives [in life]. – Chandogya Upanishad 3.17.4
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