When my wife and I took on the ol mitzvos, we naturally accepted, as part of that, the practice of maaser kesofim, which we believed was at least a mitzva derabbonon. Recently, however, I read in the Artscroll guide to tzedokoh and maaser that maaser kesofim is merely a minhog—and that someone who took on the practice believing that it was an obligation is not bound by his previous practices. According to the book, we must now choose whether or not to take on this minhog.
I don’t want to give up on giving tzedokoh, but there are now lots of options open to me, e.g., taking on the practice bli neder; on condition that I can use my maaser for certain expenses, mitzvos, etc.; on condition that I can deduct certain expenses before maaser. I’d very much appreciate some guidance from you as to how to handle this situation in a sensible and Jewish way.
I agree with the information you found in the guide to maaser kesofim.Maaser is only a minhog,and any minhog accepted under the false premise that it was a chiyuv is not binding.
Someone who does not give maaser kesofim according to the rules ofmaaser has not violated any law; he simply cannot be sure he will not be placed in a situation requiring him to give tzedokoh. A person who has strictly followed the rules of maaser kesofim is exempt from givingtzedokoh, even in a situation that would normally require one to givetzedokoh. That is one of the greatest side benefits of giving maaser kesofim and the motivation for many people.
Since you do not have to give maaser kesofim, should you decide to commit yourself to any amount, you can make it conditional in any way you wish. That means you can decide to deduct expenses first or to use the maaser money for mitzvos instead of giving it to needy people. You can make any type of condition that you feel would suit your lifestyle and preferences. If this is the approach you wish to take, you should verbalize to yourself or your spouse that you plan to give one-tenth of your assets to tzedokoh according to your own interpretation of which assets are maaserable and what constitutes tzedokoh. After this, you are bound by a promise to continue this practice.
I recommend an alternative approach, which is to attempt to givemaaser kesofim according to your own interpretation, but to verbalize that this commendable behavior (minhog tov) is being done bli neder,i.e., without generating a neder even if practiced three times. It is worth declaring once a year that all the tzedokoh you will give in the next year will be given without any intention to generate a promise (neder) to continue doing so. This way, bli neder does not have to be said every time tzedokoh is given. This declaration can be made alone and does not have to be uttered in front of a beis din or anyone else. Such a declaration is printed in siddurim immediately following the hatoras nedorim generally said on erev Rosh Hashonoh.
The advantage of this recommendation is that you will not accidentally violate a neder of maaser kesofim if you fail to give a full ten percent of your assets even according to your own terms (since you will not have made such a neder). When you give tzedokoh, you are not fulfilling a neder; rather, you are performing a great mitzva of tzedokoh. The drawback is that there is no imperative “forcing” you to give maser and you might end up using the money for some personal purpose instead. Balancing the pros and cons is a personal decision. Every individual should judge his own character, considering the traits of attention to detail, consistency, benevolence, compulsiveness, and organization and his mastery of basic math when determining the better of the two approaches. Generally, due to the grave sin of not fulfilling one’s nedorim and the terrible consequences it may bring (mortality of one’s children), I think most people are best off performing the mitzvoh of giving tzedokoh and not having the responsibility of a neder. As Shlomo Hamelech taught us, it is better not to make a promise than to make a promise and break it. ((טוב אשר לא תדור מִשֶתִּדּוֹר ולא תשלם (קהלת ה:ד). ))
Although it is likely that Shlomo Hamelech was specifically referring to nedorim (halachic vows), it may be wise to apply that advice not only to financial pledges, but also to other benevolent acts, business commitments and even the way you present yourself and your capabilities to others. In our society, we see advertisements all too often that over-promise and under-deliver.
Sometimes nothing serves us better than underrepresenting ourselves. In a world where the norm is to claim to be more than one is, accepting that we are sometimes less is as refreshing as it is rare, and the candor can be its own magnetism.
So many of us spend so much time playing for applause we never notice that we have become enslaved to the play. There is something profoundly soul-satisfying to witnessing yourself doing quietly and privately what you decided quietly and privately you would do—especially when it is more than you have to do.
So why not switch to a policy of under-promising and over-delivering in all areas of life, including tzedokoh?