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Tzedakah Boxes at The Magnes Collection


During my tour behind the scenes in the storage area of The Magnes, Curator, Dr. Francesco Sagnolo, opened a drawer containing Tzedakah boxes.  

Drawers in the storage area of The Magnes Collection of Jewish Art and CultureHow did he know that these small tin boxes would be my favorite objects of the day.

drawer of Tzedakah boxes at The Magnes CollectionThese tzedakah boxes 
are printed tin used to collect coins for charity. 

Once even a humble tin Tzedakah box enters a museum collection, it is documented and stored with reverence.  


Tzedakah boxes are often called "puske" boxes in Yiddish. The boxes have little value as an object, or materials, yet are very hard to find. They document a time and place when a penny, nickel or dime was collected for charity. Coins would add up to significant donations in another time.

While these are not religious objects, they often have sentimental value or even serve historical documentation.(Starting with the box on the far left in the above photo...)


This Tzedakah box from The Magnus Collection (above) shows an early map of what is now called Israel, Gaza, and Lebanon. This is an area we hear about every night in the news. The box carries historical perspective from about the 1920's before borders were designated by international negotiations and modern maps. It portrays a concept of Israel before it even existed as a nation. 

Sometimes Tzedakah boxes were for a specific organization -- kind of like a special savings account set up for donations.

This green tzedakah box (shown below) with Hebrew lettering says:
 "Tzedakah (alms) in memory of Rabbi Meir Baal Hachayim, Hungarian "kollel" [religious community study room], [...] Jerusalem". (Translation from Dr. Daniel Viragh)

The Tzedakah box
(shown below) is from Vienna, Austria. 


The coin slot opening at the top was equipped internally with linked chains to make more noise when the coins were placed in the box.  


Usually Tzedakah boxes were humble materials such as painted tin, brass or copper.  The cylindrical box (left- created 1801 - 1900) has a clasp and loop for a small lock. Even more than a century ago, it was necessary to keep honest people honest.

Humble objects and modest materials can communicate values and meaning beyond the intrinsic materials themselves. 

I had completely forgotten about the little blue tin Tzedakah box of my childhood until 1997 when vague memories of tin boxes surfaced for a new direction in my work... this is THE next post. 

PS. I will be lecturing at The Magnes Collection on Wednesday, October 29th for a short lunch time lecture and discusion. Please consider coming. Admission is free.