In the past two articles we discussed the mitzvah (or custom) of giving maaser kesafim, and, following this, the priorities that define how best to distribute charity money. In the present article we will merge the two topics, and discuss the special considerations that arise concerning the distribution of maaser money.

What purposes are qualified for maaser donations? Must all one’s maaser money be given based on the priorities explained in the previous article? Can one use maaser money to pay tuition for one’s own children? And can one give all one’s maaser to a single poor person? These questions, among others, are discussed below.

Fundamentals of Using Maaser Money

Can maaser money be used for anything other than charity to the poor? Can one give money for the support of cancer research, or for other positive causes? Can maaser money be used for paying tuition for one’s own children?

The Maharil (Rosh Hashanah) writes that “those who give their maaser money for candles during davening, do so improperly, for the maaser belongs to the poor.” Thus, the Maharil indicates that it is forbidden to use maaser money for anything other than the poor. The Rema (Yoreh De’ah 249:1) cites this ruling, writing that one must not use maaser money for general mitzvos, but only for the poor.

Elsewhere (Shut Maharil 58), the Maharil writes that a person does not fulfill his obligation of giving maaser if he gives his money for matanos la’evyonim. Although this money is going to the poor, these matanos are an obligation and he is not permitted to discharge his obligation with maaser money. As the Maharil puts it, “Matters of obligation are paid only from chullin.”

From these rulings, it emerges that the Maharil maintains that one may use maaser money for a mitzvah only when the beneficiaries of the mitzvah are the poor, and when the mitzvah is not an obligation on the person.

Poskim are generally lenient for mitzvah purposes where the beneficiaries include the poor among others, such as purchasing seforim that will be loaned out to the community (see Shut Be’er Sheva no. 41; Derisha, Yoreh De’ah 249:1) Today, when seforim are readily available, this is only permitted if the seforim will be readily available to the public. Furthermore, the consensus opinion is that one may use his ma’aser money for non-obligatory mitzvas even if they don’t directly aid the poor if that was his custom from the outset. If one was accustomed to use his maaser exclusively for mitzvos that benefit the poor, he may still make hatoras nedorim to allow him to use it for other mitzvas.

Moreover, based on our discussion of two weeks ago which explained that according to many authorities giving maaser is a custom rather than a full obligation, some are lenient concerning donations for any mitzvah. Thus, Shut Pnei Yehoshua (3) allows a person to buy an aliya using maaser money, even if the community requires all its members to do so once a year (see also Ahavas Chesed 2:19; Pischei Teshuva 249:2; Birkei Yosef 249:18; Shut Minchas Yitzchak 10:85).

Tuition from Maaser

Concerning tuition for one’s children, a father is obligated to teach his son Torah (Yoreh De’ah 245:4), so that it seems that he cannot use maaser money to hire a teacher to teach his son. This is the ruling given by the Aruch Hashulchan (Yoreh De’ah 249:10) and by the Chafetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed 2:19:2).

Yet, the obligation of a father to support his child is only until the age of six (Shulchan Aruch, Even Ha’Ezer 71:1). Past this age, the obligation is a branch of tzedakah (which is actually enforced by beis din). Therefore, it may seem that it is permitted to use maaser money to pay for one’s child’s tuition past the age of six.

However this is not true for three reasons. First, this was only the case when children could work to support themselves. Nowadays,  minors may not work and parents are required to support their child, and if one fails to so the government will give the child to someone else to raise. Second, even when a father did not have to support his son he was required to teach him Torah beyond the age of six.  This can be seen from the Gemara Bava Basra 21a that parents taught their children at least until the age of 16. Third, the law of compulsory education has affected the halacha as we will see shortly.

Some authorities differentiate between boys’ and girls’ tuition. Shut Minchas Yitzchak (10:85) while ruling that one may not use ma’aser to pay for a boy’s tuition, allows a person to use maaser to pay for his daughter’s tuition if necessary, since one is not obligated to teach daughters Torah in the same way.

Likewise, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Shut Iggros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 2:113) rules that in earlier times, while one could not use maaser to pay for a boy’s tuition, he was permitted to use it for a girl’s tuition. However, he writes that today there is no difference between boys and girls, since parents are legally required to send them both to school (compulsory education) and if one doesn’t send his daughter to a religious school she must go to public school where there is danger that her Judaism will be impaired. Therefore, everyone is required to send his daughter to a religious school and one may not use maaser to pay tuition. It is possible that Minchas Yitzchok would agree with this and he just answered the way he did because the people who asked him would never send their daughters to public school but would keep them at home. He adds that if due to his financial means one is eligible for a reduction in tuition, he may choose to pay the full amount and make up the balance with maaser.

Additionally, if the wealthy are charged more than the true cost to educate their child in order to enable the school to subsidize the tuition of the poor, the extra money may be paid with maser.

All or Nothing?

Opinions differ as to whether one should give all of one’s maaser kesafim based on the order of priorities, as discussed in the past article—family first, then Torah scholars, and so on—or only some of it.

According to some opinions, one should give all one’s maaser to the first priorities, until the relevant individuals or causes have sufficient funds for their needs. Only then should one donate charity to other poor people, or to alternative causes. There are several sources for this opinion (see Tanna Devei Eliyahu Chapter 27, as quoted by Bi’ur Hagra 251:4; Rekanti 63; Or Zarua 22; Rema 251:5; Maharam Mintz 7; Maharsham 1:32 and 4:105).

According to other opinions, however, one should set aside a significant percentage for those causes that take priority, and a smaller percentage for other poor people and causes (see Maharam Ziskind 19; Shut Givas Pinchas 64, as quoted by Minchas Pittim 251:3; Aruch Hashulchan 251:6).

A third opinion maintains that half one’s maaser money should be given to those who take priority, and half to others (see Derech Emunah, Matnos Aniyim 7:104, quoting from Pischei Teshuva 249:2, in the name of Chasam Sofer, Yoreh Deah 231; the proof from Chasam Sofer is questionable, as are other mentioned proofs to this opinion).

The logic behind this is that if people were to give all their maaser contributions to a single cause, other causes will be entirely neglected, and this will lead to a very problematic social situation.

Strictly speaking, one should follow the first opinion mentioned above, which is the majority opinion. However, it is correct to set aside a percentage of one’s money for people who are in worse financial straits than, for example, one’s relatives.

Thus while relatives take priority, it is not reasonable that poor people who have wealthy relatives should be supplied with all their needs, while other poor people will die of starvation. There could be another consideration of Chillul Hashem that should also be taken into account (see Shut Igros Moshe, Yoreh De’ah 1:142).

Giving All to One

The Gemara in Eiruvin (63a) explains that a famine came during the life of David Hamelech as a punishment for him giving all his matnos kehuna to a specific Kohen. The Mordechai (Bava Basra 502) and Or Zarua (24) derive from here that one should not give all one’s maaser kesafim to a specific poor person on a regular basis (even to one’s relative). This principle is noted in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 257:9).

However, one may give all of one’s maaser kesafim to a single poor person on a one-time basis (Maharsham 1:32; Chochmas Adam 145:1). According to some opinions, if a person has a poor relative, it is even permitted to transfer all his funds to him, even on a regular basis (Maharsham 1:32; Shut Igros Moshe 1:142; Tzedaka Umishpat 3:20; see Mordechai, quoted by Shach 19). If doing so, Rav Moshe Feinstein advises giving some money to other poor people, so that he should not be suspected of not giving tzedakah at all.

Perhaps the ideal approach is to regularly distribute his funds to several poor people who are all on the same level of priority (see Tosafos, Kiddushin 26b and Kesuvos 26a, who comment that Rabban Gamliel did not want to give all his maasros to a single person).

A possible reason for this ruling is the teaching of Rambam (Pirkei Avos 3:15), whereby each act of giving makes a positive impact on a person’s middos, increasing his inner generosity. This concept is echoed by Magen Avraham (695:12), who explains that Chazal enacted that charity be given on Purim to two poor people (whereas mishloach manos needs to be given only to one) because it is preferable to divide one’s charity among several poor people.

In extenuating circumstances, one may distribute funds to a single poor person. In certain circumstances, it might even be preferable to give charity to fewer people, for instance where it is possible to provide significant help to a few people, whereas dividing the money among many would mean that none of the recipients receives significant assistance (see Chasam Sofer, vol, 6, addendum 9).

Note that according to some opinions, if one’s parents need financial support, he must give them all his tzedakah money, until all their needs are satisfied (Shut Chasam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 229).


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