After discussing the principles of maaser kesafim, we turn this week to the question of how maaser money should be allocated. In dealing with this matter, we need to consider the general principles of allocating charity money, and the order of preference that halachic sources give for making charity contributions. Following this, we can consider how these principles apply to maaser money.

What then is the order of preference in which we should allocate charity? To what extent is family first? What is included in the category of “saving a life”? Which Torah study is the most worthy of donation? These questions, among others, are discussed below.

Saving a Life

The first principle of donations to charity is that saving a life takes precedence over everything, including even the support of Torah study. This follows from the principle that pikuach nefesh, the saving of lives, defers all mitzvos of the Torah (but three). It follows that this is the first priority for charity donations, and this principle is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 251:14; see also Shut Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 1:144).

The Maharshal (in his glosses to the Tur), questions the priority of saving a life from an explicit statement of the Gemara (Megillah 16b), which states: “The study of Torah is greater even that saving a life.” This seems to indicate that Torah study ought to take precedence, even over saving a life.

One possible explanation is that the study of Torah takes preference when the endangered life will be saved by somebody else—meaning that the relevant person won’t lose his life—but does not take precedence when it will lead to the person’s death (Perishah; see also Derishah; Taz, Yoreh De’ah 251:6).

It should be noted that the Shulchan Aruch (251:9), based on a statement of Chazal, states that the purchase of clothing for a Torah scholar takes precedence over the life of an ignoramus. Yet, many authorities interpret this ruling in a non-literal way (see Shaarei Yosef, Horios 13a; Shut Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 1:144), and in practice the saving a life certainly takes precedence.

Release from Captivity

Based on the Gemara (Bava Basra 8), the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 252:1) rules that redeeming a captive from his captivity is considered saving his life. This gives the mitzvah of redeeming captives the same precedence as saving a life.

The concept of modern imprisonment (certainly in Western countries) does not fall under this category, because imprisonment does not (in general) pose a threat to inmates’ lives. However, depending of course on circumstances of his imprisonment, it is usually a mitzvah to seek to free the inmate, and assist his plight. This is all the more the case where imprisonment can have an adverse effect on a person’s religious observance.

There are other donations that will fall under this category of saving lives. For example, aiding somebody whose poverty is so extreme that he is liable to die of hunger is of course considered saving a life (Chochmas Adam 145:7). This will also apply to purchasing medicine or paying for an operation for somebody in danger of dying of his illness.

Torah Study

After saving a life, the next priority in charity donations is the support of Torah study. Thus, the support of a kollel, a yeshiva, or a Torah elementary school, takes precedence over the building of a shul, or over support of the sick—provided the illness does not endanger a life. This principle is ruled by the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 249:16), and echoed by later authorities (for instance Chochmas Adam 142:7).

We find in the Gemara that the Torah study of children is more important even than that of Amoraim (because children are free of sin; Shabbos 119b). Based on this teaching, some authorities maintain that a donation to an elementary school in which Torah is taught (cheider) takes preference over donations to yeshivos and kollelim (Mishpetei Shmuel, no. 65).

On the other hand, Chazal ascribe utmost importance to “gates of halachah” (Berachos 8a), on account of which Maharia Halevi (Yoreh De’ah 315, 3:243) rules that the study of Torah scholars (in particular study aimed at reaching halachic rulings) takes priority over that of children.

Shut Iggros Moshe (Yoreh De’ah, vol. 3, no. 94) reaches a compromise between the two opinions: The support of Torah scholars who are training to be halachic authorities takes preference over small children because there is an urgent need to train halachic authorities who will be able to reach concrete rulings. For others who study Torah, children take priority.

Family First

While the support of Torah study takes precedence over the ordinary poor, this does not include family members. As the Rambam writes, “A poor person who is his relative comes before all others.” The principle is that while we are all obligated to help the poor, there is a special responsibility to support and maintain one’s own family (see Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 257:8).

People who have the means must therefore support their poor relatives, and should not leave the responsibility to the city’s charity fund (Nedarim 65b). Beis Din can even force a person to support his relatives, in particular his children (see Kesuvos 49b, regarding a father supporting his child; see also Yerushalmi, Kiddushin 1:7; Shulchan Aruch 250:5; Shut Maharam Mintz, 65; Rema 251:4). The custom today is that this also includes a son-in-law or daughter-in-law and their families (Beis Hillel 251:1).

The responsibility of a tzedaka fund begins where the family responsibility ends. The charity fund has to provide for those who do not have sufficient support from relatives (see Or Zarua, 9; Mordechai Bava Basra 494; Beis Yosef 251; Darkei Moshe 2). Poor people who do have wealthy relatives should therefore not be supported by the community fund (Aruch Hashulchan 257:16). If the relatives refuse to support their poor family members, and cannot be convinced or forced to do so, they should of course be supported by the fund (Chochmas Adam 146:10; Ahavas Chesed 6:12).

Note that while there is a special responsibility toward family, relatives do not have to go beyond their normal requirement to give tzedakah in supporting family members (Rif, Rosh, Rambam, Beis Yosef 250:5). Thus, Beis Din will not force somebody who gives maaser to donate extra funds, even for the sake of poor family members.

Family Ahead of Torah Scholars

Based on the heightened responsibility towards family, Shut Chacham Tzvi (no. 70) rules that poor family members take precedence even over poor Torah scholars. This ruling is cited by Rabbi Akiva Eiger (annotations to Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 251:3) and by other authorities (Ahavas Chesed 6:7; Aruch Hashulchan 251:8).

However, some authorities maintain that Torah scholars take precedence even over family members (Meishiv Davar (2:47; Ruach Chaim (Falagi), Yoreh De’ah 251:3). This will not include somebody’s parents, who certainly take precedence, on account of the mitzvah of honoring parents (Shach, Yoreh De’ah 251:17).

Concerning sustaining one’s parents, we find moreover that a child who can support his parents using regular funds should not support them with money he set aside for charity purposes. The Sages went so far as to curse the person who uses charity money to support his parents (see Haghos Mordechai, Bava Basra 657-657; Or Zarua, tzedaka 26; Rema 240:5). The Chochmas Adam (145:1) explains that it is degrading to support one’s parents with money set aside for the poor. However, other opinions are lenient concerning this matter (Shut Maharil 54 and 56:7; see also Shevet Halevi 5:133:10).

Precedence Among Relatives

Among relatives the order of priority is as follows (Rema 251:3, based on Sifri 115):

(1)        Parents

(2)        Children

(3)        Siblings

(4)        Other relatives.

Brothers and sisters have equal status concerning general charity support (Shut Givat Pinchas 62). However, if both a brother and a sister need financial support for clothing or wedding expenses, the sister takes precedence (Yorah De’ah 251:5), since it is generally more difficult for women to raise the funds.

A family member more distant than a first cousin is not regarded as a relative for the purpose of these halachos (Chasam Sofer, Choshen Mishpat 112).

Note that children under the age of six take precedence even over a person’s parents, since the father is obligated to support them on account of their being his children (Kesuvos 49b; Rishon Letziyon 251:3). This support is a financial obligation, and not considered charity. Some opinions maintain that even older children (today) take precedence over one’s parents, until they get married or become self-sufficient (See Shut Iggros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 1:143, Even Ha’ezer 1:106; Otzar Haposkim 71:1:12(a)). In addition, a parent has an obligation to ensure his child receives a Jewish education (see Shut Iggros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:113).

Helping the Local

Local poor take precedence over poor from other localities (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 251:3). This law is derived by the Midrash (Sifri) from the verse (Devarim 15:7): “from one of your brothers, in one of your towns.”

Therefore, where a charity fund exists for local poor, and it lacks the required funds to support its operations, one may not contribute to the charity needs of a fund which aids poor people in general.

Poor neighbors likewise take precedence over the general poor of the town (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 251:3). Although the Rambam (Matnos Aniyim 7:13) uses the expression “the poor of his house” rather than “neighbors,” The Chochmas Adam (145:1) implies that there is no dispute in this matter, and all neighbors are included (see Imrei Eish, Yoreh De’ah 101).

A “neighbor” is defined for this purpose as somebody living in the same building. For somebody living in a private house, it refers to the inhabitants of the three nearest houses (Derech Emunah on the Rambam). The question of whether business partners take precedence over neighbors, or vice versa, is discussed by Poskim, without reaching a firm conclusion (Imrei Eish, no. 101). The Chochmas Adam (145) writes that he recollects (from an ancient volume) that a “neighbor” includes anybody with whom one is close, rather than someone who necessarily lives next door. As noted, local poor take precedence over poor from other localities, including even the poor of the Land of Israel (Shach, Yoreh De’ah 251:6, citing Bach; Chasam Sofer 6:27). Although Pe’as Hashulchan disputes this ruling, and maintains that the poor of Israel take precedence, later authorities have not concurred with his view (see also Shevet Halevi vol. 5, no. 135, sec. 2).

However, when the question of priority does not include local poor, the poor of the Land of Israel take precedence over the poor of other countries (Sifri, Devarim 116, as cited in Beis Yosef, Yoreh De’ah 151; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 251:3). The Chasam Sofer (Yoreh De’ah 233-4) adds that the poor of Jerusalem take precedence over the poor of the rest of the Land of Israel.

Yet, as Shut Shevet Halevi (vol. 5, no. 135, sec. 5) explains, this refers specifically to inhabitants of the Old City of Jerusalem, a small fraction of today’s wider Jerusalem.

Many authorities rule that the principle of “local poor come first” applies only when the financial condition of local poor and poor elsewhere is equivalent. However, if distant poor are worse off than local poor, for instance if local poor have enough money for food, whereas others cannot even pay for basic provisions, distant poor take precedence over local poor (See Chasam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 231, 234).

While Shut Iggros Moshe (Yoreh De’ah vol. 1, 144) does not concur with the ruling above, writing that we do not find an obligation to investigate and compare the poverty levels of the poor, many authorities quote the ruling of Chasam Sofer. The same distinction will apply to the precedence of Israel’s poor over the poor of other countries (Shevet Halevi, vol. 5, no. 135, sec. 4).


We have yet to discuss other worthy charitable causes, and to explain how this will apply to the allocation of maaser funds. We will, please G-d, complete the analysis in next week’s article.


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