The mitzvah of giving charity, tzedakah, is among the mitzvos that define Jewish communal life. Rather than taking an individualistic and distant approach from one another, the Torah urges us to be attentive to the needs of the other, and to come to the assistance of those who require it.
Of the importance of the mitzvah of tzedakah, the Sages teach that charity “weighs against all other mitzvos of the Torah” (Bava Basra 9a). We likewise find that charity is “of tremendous importance, for it brings closer the redemption” (Bava Basra 10a).
Chazal quantify the minimum obligation of giving charity as one third of a (Torah) shekel—an amount that even a poor person, himself dependent on charity donations, must give (Bava Basra 9a; see Aruch HaShulchan, Yoreh De’ah 248:4; Derech Emunah, Matnos Aniyim 7:68). This is a very small sum. However, people who can afford it are required to give one tenth of their income to tzedakah, which can reach a respectable amount.
One of the first sources for giving maaser is the statement of Yaakov Avinu: “And all that You will give me, I shall surely tithe for You” (Bereishis 28:22). Dwelling on the words, the commentary of Baalei Tosafos quotes from a Midrash: “Ya’akov Avinu enacted the tithing of one’s wealth.” This Midrash is not found in our compilations, but Chazal, in several places, do mention the concept of maaser in relation to Yaakov’s tithing.
We take the opportunity to discuss the basics of donating maaser. Which virtues are associated with donating a tenth of one’s income to charity? Do these refer only to exactly one tenth, or even to similar amounts? Is giving maaser an obligation or a custom? From which income must maaser be separated? These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Virtue of Giving Maaser
The principle halacha of tithing one’s income is presented in the Gemara (Taanis 9b). Concerning the tithing of one’s produce that one must give to a Levi, the Torah states: Aser ta’aser, “you shall surely tithe.” Chazal make a hermeneutical interpretation: “You shall surely tithe—tithe, so you become wealthy.”
Tosafos (s.v. aser) quote from the Sifri, where we find that the instruction to tithe is not limited to the produce of the field, but applies rather to all income: “Interest payments (from non-Jews), business dealings, and all other income.”
Indeed, we find that Yaakov Avinu achieved great wealth in the merit of his vow to tithe everything he received, as the verse writes (Bereishis 30:43), “The man spread out exceedingly, and he had great herds of cattle, and maidservants and servants, and camels and donkeys.”
Rabbi Yitzchak Avuhav, in Menoras Hame’or, cites a Midrash that takes this promise a step further: “Therefore one should not slacken in giving maaser, from the field and from the home, and from all that comes to a person’s hand, for through this a person preserves his wealth, and increases it a thousand-fold.” The Kabbalists also expound on the virtue of giving maaser, and the Chafetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed, vol. 2, no. 2, sec. 7) records their opinion.
It is even permitted to test Hashem in the matter of maaser. While in general the Torah instructs us to refrain from this (“Do not test Hashem, your G-d”—Devarim 6:16), concerning maaser it is permitted to test Hashem: One may tithe the income, and check if the gain of wealth is as promised. As the verse in Malachi (3:10) states, “Bring the maaser to the storehouse, and there will be plenty in My house; test me in this matter, says Hashem” (see Or Zarua, tzedakah 13; Tur, Yoreh De’ah 247; Aruch Hashulchan).
Giving Exactly One Tenth
According to some authorities, the special virtue of maaser—for which the Torah promises wealth (and even permits testing Hashem)—is only achieved when one donates exactly one tenth of his income. Therefore, if a person wants to give more than 10% of his income to charity, he should preferably separate exactly 10% first, and then give the additional money (Shut Chavos Ya’ir 234, based on Mishna in Avos 1:16).
Other authorities (see Pischei Teshuva, Yoreh De’ah 249:2, quoting from Mishnas Chachamim) state that it is permitted to approximate when one separates maaser kesafim, and there is no need to give precisely one tenth. Yet several authorities write that one needs to be precise to achieve the special virtue of maaser (see Avkas Rochel 3; Ahavas Chesed; Kenesses Hagedolah 249; Birkei Yosef; Machazik Beracha). Ahavas Chesed quotes from Sefer Hakarnayim (of Rabbi Aharon Mikardia) that the heavens are sustained in the merit of maaser, and they shower blessing onto one who donates one tenth of his income.
Some are careful, following the advice of the Vilna Gaon, to give a chomesh (20%) to charity. Even in this case, one should preferably give maaser twice, rather than giving a direct donation of one fifth (Ahavas Chesed 19:3). To ensure that one gives a tenth to charity, the Pischei Teshuva (249:1) quotes the Noda Biyehuda, who advises that during the year one should write down amount of charity that one gives, and once or twice a year make a calculation, ensuring that the amount of charity comes to 10%.
Obligation or Custom?
Is giving maaser an obligation, or a custom? In fact, there are three different opinions concerning the classification of maaser: Some maintain that it is a Torah obligation; others consider it a rabbinic obligation; and others—in fact, the majority of authorities—regard it as a custom.
Based on the words of Tosafos (noted above), Rabbi Dovid Oppenheim (cited in Shut Chavas Yair, no. 224) writes that the concept of giving maaser is a full obligation. However, although Tosafos (quoting from Sifri) mention a Torah verse concerning the obligation, this does not constitute proof that giving maaser is an actual Torah law. It is possible that the obligation is rabbinic, and the verse is only an asmachta (a textual support) for the rabbinic enactment. This, indeed, is the implication of the Midrash Tanchuma Re’eh 18), which mentions an “allusion” to the concept of maaser kesafim.
On the other hand, the Bach (Yoreh De’ah 331:19) writes that it is permitted to use one’s maaser money to pay off debts. This indicates that giving maaser is not considered an obligation, because if it were an obligation, one would not be permitted to use it for the fulfillment of other monetary obligations. Ma’aser sheni (or ma’aser ani), for example—the tithing of produce that grows in the Land of Israel—is a full obligation, and cannot be used for fulfilling monetary obligations such as paying off debt. The Bach maintains that the tithing of other income is only customary, and can therefore be utilized for paying off monetary obligations.
The Taz, the illustrious son-in-law of the Bach, differs with his father-in-law, and maintains that maaser is a full obligation, and one may therefore not use it for making obligatory payments. Many authorities, however, side with Bach, and maintain that there is no formal obligation to tithe one’s income, and the concept of maaser kesafim is only a minhag.
Having said this, it is important to note that once somebody begins to tithe (even by doing so once), it is possible that the practice becomes obligatory by virtue of its being a neder (a vow).
We will use the word “obligation” to refer to donating maaser, though as noted, according to many it is not a full obligation, but rather an important custom.
Is a Poor Person Obligated?
If we assume that maaser kesafim is a custom, rather than an obligation, it follows that tithing is not a separate concept, but rather a quantification of the general mitzvah of giving charity. Meaning: the custom is to fulfill one’s obligation of giving charity by donating one tenth of one’s income to tzedakah. The Rambam (Matnos Ani’im 7:5) thus writes that giving a tenth is the median level in giving charity.
According to this viewpoint, a poor person is not obligated to tithe his income, since the poor are generally exempt from the mitzvah of charity (see Shach, Yoreh De’ah 248:1), beyond the minimal one-third of a shekel per annum.
The Rema (Yoreh De’ah 251:3) rules according to this position, stating that “one’s own livelihood takes precedence over that of any other’s.” There are some halachic precedents nonetheless noting that a poor person who strives to give maaser will not lose out from doing so; this of course is left to each person’s discretion (See Shut Teshuvos Vehanhagos, vol. 1, no. 560)
Separating Maaser from Inheritance and Gifts
From which income is maaser separated?
Rabbeinu Yonah writes, “Any matter of income, including teaching, writing, working, or even one who finds a find or one who receives a gift, or any other matter, be it gold or silver—from all one should separate one tenth.” As we will see below, not all authorities concur with this opinion. However according to Rabbeinu Yonah, there is nothing a person receives which is exempt from tithing.
Concerning an inheritance, the Pischei Teshuvah (249:1) writes in the name of the Shelah that a full obligation applies. This is true even if the deceased was always particular to take maaser from his income. The principle behind the ruling is that the obligation of maaser kesafim, unlike the tithing of produce, is incumbent on the person (gavra) rather than the money (cheftza). When a person gains, he becomes obligated to tithe, irrespective of whether the money or assets were already tithed.
The same rule applies to monetary gifts, from which maaser must also be separated. Thus the Taz (331:12) writes, concerning marriage gifts: “Is this an obligation on the money, so that we could say that the money is already exempt? It is an obligation on the person, who is obligated to separate from that which Hashem gave him!”
However, under special circumstances a person giving a gift is able to exempt the recipient from taking maaser by separating maaser twice, with the intention that the recipient should therefore be exempted from the obligation. In Poland, it was customary to do this for monetary gifts given to children at their marriage, so that the children will not have to separate maaser, and thereby create a neder (vow) regarding future income (Pischei Teshuvah 249:1). Yet, this mechanism should not be applied without a special reason for doing so. Additionally, nowadays since this is not the custom, the parents would need express permission from the children to tithe on the children’s behalf.
In addition, there are situations when, if the person giving the gift objects to the recipient separating maaser, the recipient does not have the right to go against the giver’s wishes. This ruling is given by Shut Iggros Moshe (Yoreh De’ah vol. 2, no. 112) concerning somebody who gave an amount of money to his son-in-law, so that he would be able to study Torah in financial tranquility, promising to add more according to his needs.
When the son-in-law wished to separate maaser, the father-in-law objected, arguing that this would cause him a loss in having to pay more.
Rav Moshe ruled in favor of the father-in-law: A person has the right to stipulate condition concerning gifts, and the father-in-law gave the monetary gift on condition that it should be used exclusively for the recipient’s sustenance in order to avoid additional expenses. This ruling has been seconded by additional authorities (see Orach Tzedakah, p. 364).
Gifts and Inheritance of Goods and Land
The rulings above, whereby a person is obligated to separate maaser from gifts and inheritance, are limited to inheritance and gifts of money. Concerning a gift (or inheritance) of goods or an apartment, the Chazon Ish (quoted in Derech Emunah, Matnos Ani’im 7:27) ruled that there is no obligation to separate maaser.
The reason for this is that maaser is only a quantification of charity (as explained above), and there is no obligation to sell one’s possessions in order to give charity (Orchos Rabbeinu, vol. 1, p. 396). In light of this explanation, somebody who sells the gifts he was given is obligated to separate maaser from the income he receives. Although most authorities follow the ruling of the Chazon Ish, it is noteworthy that Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach disputed this, and ruled that even non-monetary gifts obligate one to separate maaser.
A common example of this halacha concerns parents who bought an apartment for their children. According to the lenient opinion, the children are not obligated to give one tenth of the value of their apartment (fortunately for them). This is also the prevalent custom (Shut Shevet Halevi, vol. 5, no. 133, sec. 7).
Even if the parents do not purchase an apartment on behalf of their children but only give them money with which to buy the apartment, the children are not obligated to give a tenth to charity. However, it is preferable that the children should not take full possession of the money, but rather serve as agents of their parents to purchase the apartment (based on Orchos Rabbeinu, id).
Another example of this halacha refers to coupons or vouchers for making various purchases, or bus cards, and the like. Once again, the lenient opinion (above) will exempt such items from maaser. However, Chut Hashani (Yom Tov and Chol Hamoed, p. 351) rules that if one receives supermarket vouchers, which can be used for buying a range of products, the obligation of maaser applies. Due to the purchasing power of these vouchers, they are considered (in this opinion) money, and therefore obligated in maaser.
Finding Something
In the above words of Rabbeinu Yonah, we see that even something that a person finds is obligated in maaser. According to the lenient opinion above, this applies to found money, but not to found objects.
In the matter of found money, we find a great chiddush in the commentary of Haflaah (Kesubos 50a). In his opinion, not only is somebody who finds money obligated to separate maaser, but even somebody who loses money, gives up hope of finding it, and then finds it, must tithe that money.
He writes that the same applies to somebody who loses hope of collecting a monetary debt, and then manages to collect it. It is considered a new gain, which is obligated in maaser.
As pointed out in hilchos tzedakah of Rav Yosef Fleischman shlita (no. 5, note 25), this chiddush has numerous difficulties, and it is difficult to accept it in a practical sense.
We find an interesting ruling of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited in Orach Tzedakah, p. 324), which states that there is no obligation to separate maaser from reparation payments made by Germany to Holocaust survivors. Although the survivors had obviously lost hope of seeing their money again, getting it back does not obligate them in separating maaser.
Uses of maaser Kesofim
The Gemara does not say to whom the maaser money should be given. However, the Midrash (Tanchuma, Re’eh, no. 18) expounds on the obligation: “You shall surely tithe—tithe so you become wealthy, tithe so you should not lack. This is an allusion to businessmen who should separate one tenth for Torah scholars” (lit. those who strive in Torah). We see from here that the enactment of giving maaser had in mind those who dedicate their lives to Torah study.
However, there is no doubt that one performs his halachic obligation of maser by donating the tithes to ordinary poor, as Rema rules (Yoreh De’ah 249:2): “Those who donate their tithes for the purchase of candles, which are lit in shul during prayers, do wrongly, for maaser belongs to the poor.” According to Shach, one is even permitted to use maaser money for purposes of other mitzvos, provided one had such uses in mind at the time of separating the maaser. Yet, it is important to remember that the principle beneficiaries of maaser money should be the poor, and, specifically, Torah scholars whose dedication to Torah leaves them in need of financial support.
There are numerous halachic areas of maaser kesafim that we have not dealt with here. For instance, the halachah of separating a fifth of one’s income, which is also deduced from the wording of Ya’akov Avinu’s separation, raises a number of issues in the area of charity in general. Moreover, there is extensive discussion among poskim as to how income should be evaluated regarding maaser, and concerning which causes maaser money may be given to. These halachos are elucidated in Rav Yosef Fleischman’s “Laws of Charity”, which can be found online at www.din.org.il, and (partially) in English at www.dinonline.org.

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