Is Ma’aser Ksafim – tithing one’s income – an actual obligation or just a nice thing to do? Why do some give one-fifth of their income – isn’t one-tenth enough? How much is one obligated to give for tzedakah, and what is the source for the halachos of tzedakah? Testing Hashem, while usually forbidden, is permitted when it comes to tzedakah. Why?
People pledge charity to merit a cure for a family member. What happens when he is not cured – does the obligation remain in place? Can one distribute tzedakah to merit wealth? What is the difference between tzedakah and Ma’aser? Is tzedakah considered a loan to Hashem? And why does Yaakov Avinu’s promise “…I will surely tithe to You” (Bereshis 28:22) obligate us? Why did the Vilna Gaon warn his family to give a fifth of their income to tzedakah? Is giving more than one-fifth permitted?
In this week’s parasha we read (Bereshis 28:20-22) that Yaakov Avinu, on his way to Charan, promised Hashem: “Everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You.” The Gemara (Kesuvos 50a) learns from the redundance of “surely tithe [עשר אעשרנו]” in the pasuk that one may give up to 20% of his income to tzedakah (one tenth, and another tenth). While the concept of Ma’aser was not invented by Yaakov — Avraham Avinu gave Ma’aser from the spoils of the war (Bereshis 14:20); Yitzchak Avinu gave Ma’aser from his crop (Bereshis 26:12) — Yaakov Avinu was the first to make a pledge – he promised to give from what he still didn’t have. The Ba’alei Hatosefos learn here that Yaakov Avinu instituted the mitzva of Ma’aser Ksafim — tithing one’s income.
This week’s article will focus on several aspects of Ma’aser Ksafim. For practical guidance, please see Alon Hamishpat, issues # 28-30 (available on our website) where our esteemed Rosh Kollel, Rabbi Yosef Fleischman shlita outlines practical guidelines.
In writing this article I drew from Rabbi Fleischman’s articles in Alon Hamishpat and Kuntres Meah She’arim by Rabbi Weisel shlita, for which I am grateful.
Importance of Ma’aser Ksafim
The Gemara (Ta’anis 9a) learns from the pasuk (Devarim 14:22) “You shall tithe [עשר תעשר] all the seed crop that the field gives forth” – tithe in order to become wealthy [עשיר]. The commentaries debate if this promise of wealth refers only to tithing produce, or includes tithing money as well. Since the discussion appears in the Gemara after listing the reasons for drought – one of which is because people pledge tzedakah and don’t come through on their promise — the Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chessed 18, footnote) deduces that the Gemara here refers to Ma’aser Ksafim, and specifically — to money designated for supporting Torah scholars.
The Midrash (Tanchuma, Re’eh 18) explains the pasuk as follows: “Tithe so you will be wealthy, tithe so you shall not lack — businessmen who travel overseas should separate one-tenth of their earnings for Torah scholars.” The Midrash understands here that by giving Ma’aser Ksafim one merits wealth and protects himself from loss. Even one who makes a living from doing business overseas must give 10% of his income for Torah scholars.
The Vilna Gaon (Keser Rosh 123) writes that one who gives Ma’aser Ksafim is guaranteed not to lose money, but one who gives one-fifth brings wealth upon himself. And, if all the Jewish nation would be scrupulous with this mitzva, there would be no poor people and the pasuk that promises “However, there will be no needy among you” (Devarim 15:4) would come to realization.
One-Tenth or One-Fifth
The Gemara makes no explicit mention of the obligation to tithe finances. Tithing, as it is mentioned in the Gemara, only refers to tithing the produce of Eretz Yisroel. The Sifri (mentioned in Tosefos Ta’anis 9a and in other Rishonim) learns from the word “all” in the pasuk “You shall tithe all the seed crop that the field gives forth” (Devarim 14:22) that one is obligated to tithe all his income, not just crops.
The Gemara’s only mention of 20% tithing is “Takanas Uasha” – a legislative enactment announced in Usha, forbidding one from giving more than 20% to tzedakah, so as not to eventually become a burden on society. This is learned from Yaakov Avinu who said “I will surely tithe [עשר אעשרנו] to You” – I will give two times one-tenth of my income, i.e., 20%.
The Beis Yosef (Yore Deah 249:1) writes that since Yaakov Avinu did so, it is the optimal way of performing the mitzva of Ma’aser Ksafim. He also mentions the Yerushalmi’s text of the Usha enactment (Peah 1:1): “One should separate a fifth of his possessions to tzedakah.”This is learned from a pasuk: “Honor the Lord from your substance and from the first of all your grain” (Mishlei 3:9) – the obligation to honor Hashem with our finances is equal to the obligation to separate tithes from produce. Just as there are two tithes from produce (Ma’aser Rishon and Ma’aser Sheni) – so too, one is obligated to tithe his income twice.
The Vilna Gaon, in the famous farewell letter he penned to his family while en route to Eretz Yisroel (on a trip that never reached its destination and ended up back in Vilna), asked them to be careful to always separate a 5th of their income for tzedakah. He explains that since refraining from giving a poor person tzedakah incurs terrible midas hadin, the only way to be spared is by giving a fifth of one’s income to tzedakah, after which the Usha enactment is applicable, forbidding giving more than that to tzedakah.
The Shulchan Aruch (Yore Deah 249:9) rules that the wealthy must give the poor everything they need, people of more modest means can perform the mitzva in its optimal manner and give a fifth, or – in an average manner – one-tenth. Less than one-tenth is considered stingy behavior.
While the Shulchan Aruch seems to imply that a wealthy person is obligated to give as much as the poor need (even if it is more than one-fifth of his income), the Rama writes that in any case one should not give more than one-fifth of his income to ensure he doesn’t sink below poverty level. Before death, however, one is permitted to give more than one-fifth.
The Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed, 20) lists several situations where giving more than one-fifth is permitted:
- A life-and-death situation: While no-one is not obligated to search for these cases, if such a case presents itself, one must give more.
- One with a stable income that covers his needs is permitted to give all the remaining money to tzedakah.
- For supporting Torah one is permitted to give more than one-fifth since the donor acquires a share in the learning of the Torah scholar.
- An extremely wealthy individual
In general, one is forbidden use mitzvos to test Hashem. We are obligated to perform mitzvos regardless of their outcome. Actually, all our life’s a test — things usually don’t go as we wish for and anticipate. We are obligated to, nevertheless, do what’s right regardless. We know that we don’t see the entire picture of reality and only fulfilling Hashem directives will bring us to the ultimate good.
There is one area, in which Hashem, though, does allow for us to so-to-speak test Him – with the mitzva of Ma’aser. The prophet Malachi says it explicitly: “Bring the whole of the tithes into the treasury so that there may be nourishment in My House, and test Me now therewith, says the Lord of Hosts, [to see] if I will not open for you the sluices of heaven and pour down for you blessing until there be no room to suffice for it” (Malachi 3:10). Although we are forbidden to “test” Hashem – to demand clear results for our mitzvos — the mitzva of Ma’aser is the one mitzva in which one is permitted to expect clear reward – wealth.
The Rama (Yore Deah 247:4) rules that “testing” Hashem with the mitzva of tzedakah is permitted only for one who is careful to tithe his income properly. The Pischei Teshuva (footnote 2) argues that the above-mentioned pasuk refers specifically to produce, and with Ma’aser Ksafim one is forbidden to “test” Hashem. The Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed chapter 18:10) rules that one is permitted to test Hashem with Ma’aser Ksafim, especially if he gives his Ma’aser to Torah scholars. Since the original reason for giving Ma’aser was to allow the Kohanim and Leviim the peace of mind to learn and teach Torah, as the pasuk reads: “And he commanded the inhabitants of Jerusalem to give the portion of the Kohanim and the Levites, in order that they be strengthened in the Law of the Lord” (Divrei Hayomim II 31:4), today, whereas all Torah scholars have the status of Kohanim and Leviim in that sense, supporting Torah scholars allows one to expect wealth in return.
The Pischei Teshuva (247:1) limits the “test” only to material prosperity. One cannot, therefore, test Hashem in other areas, such as if his son is ill – that he will be cured, or other things.
In addition, the Gemara tells us (Bave Basre 10b) that when a Jew donates money to tzedakah so that his son should live even if his son, G-d forbid, dies – he does not regret the tzedakah he donated. A non-Jew, however, who donates tzedakah so that his son should live — if he dies, he regrets his tzedakah, as the pasuk says: “Charity will elevate a nation, but the kindness of the kingdoms [non-Jews] is sin” (Mishlei 14:34).
Why is one permitted to “test” Hashem with the mitzva of Ma’aser Kesafim, but no other? And why do we specifically expect wealth as a result, while the pasuk tells us of another result for tzedakah, “charity will save from death” (Mishlei 10:2), which cannot be used as a “test” for Hashem?
Rabbi Wiesel shlita explain this brilliantly:
Sefer Hachinuch writes (Mitzva 424) that the mitzva of tzedakah is the only mitzva with which we are permitted to test Hashem because donations given to G-d’s people – the convert, the orphan, and the widow – are considered monetary gifts to Hashem. They are considered a loan, which Hashem promises to repay. The pasuk (Mishlei 19:17) says this explicitly: “He who is gracious to a poor man lends to the Lord, and He will repay him his reward.” If supporting poor people is called “lending to the Lord”, poor Torah scholars are certainly such. And giving Ma’aser is not merely presenting monetary gifts to the poor Torah scholars – it is a loan, given, so to speak, to Hashem Himself. And Hashem repays his loans.
Giving, Not Receiving
To illustrate this point, Rabbi Wiesel quotes the Midrash (Tenchuma, Re’eh, 10):
There was once a man who would tithe his field as the Torah demands. Every year, his field would yield 1000 measures of wheat, of which he gave 100 measures for Ma’aser. He and his family would live from the rest. On his deathbed, he warned his children to continue giving as he had, and indeed, in the first year the field yielded as it usually did. The second year, the son became stingy and gave only 90 measures for Ma’aser. And, the following year, the field yielded only 900 measures of wheat. The following year, he again gave less, and again, the following year, the field produced a smaller crop. Finally, the field only yielded 100 measures of wheat.
When his relatives saw what was happening, they decided they had to help the son realize what he had done. They dressed up in fancy clothing and gathered at the son’s house. The son, who was distraught over his losses, asked them if they came to mock his punishment, but his relatives said, “No, on the contrary. We have come to rejoice with you. Until now, Hashem was the Kohen, and you were the owner. Now, Hashem is the owner, and you — the Kohen (who receives a tithe).”
This story contains a major lesson for us – the world is divided between givers and takers. Hashem, in His infinite wisdom, sends His blessing down to the world through intermediaries. A wealthy person should realize that he was chosen by Hashem to distribute His blessing in the world. The needy were chosen to be on the receiving end of that blessing. The wealthy receive G-d’s blessing for one reason – to pass it on to those who need it. This is what the son’s relatives wanted to teach him – if it is difficult for you to be a giver and you chose to be a recipient — you have succeeded. You now reached the status of a Kohen – one who receives one-tenth.
One who chose to be a giver, to distribute G-d’s blessing in the world, receives anything he needs to live properly from Hashem with the addition of the Ma’aser which he passes on to the “Kohen” figures – the Torah scholars, poor, and destitute. One who was chosen by G-d to be a giver needs only 80% of his income. The rest is given to him so he can pass it on to others.
When Yosef was the ruler of Egypt he instituted a similar law. Since he knew that as a rule, a person needs only 80% of his income, he instituted that all Egyptians were the King’s serfs and had to pay a 20% tax.
One’s income is a loan from Hashem. If he treats it as such, and is careful to share his blessing with others, Hashem is so-to-speak “obligated” to fulfill his “agreement” and give him what he needs because he is doing his job. For that, he is paid a “salary” which allows him to live comfortably, as well as an added 20% form which he must give others.
For this reason, the Gemara (Eiruvin 86a) writes: “Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi would honor the wealthy, and Rabbi Akiva would likewise honor the wealthy, in accordance with Rava bar Mari’s interpretation of the verse: ‘May he be enthroned before G-d forever; appoint mercy and truth, that they may preserve him’ (Tehilim 61:8). When may he be ‘enthroned before G-d forever’?… If one provides food to others, he deserves to be enthroned before G-d, to be shown honor and respect.” Because they are G-d’s messengers for kindness, when they do their mission properly, they are worthy of honor.
In light of the above it becomes clear why we are permitted to “test” Hashem with Ma’aser:
The pasuk in this week’s parasha reads: “And Yitzchak sowed in that land, and he found in that year a hundred fold, and the Lord blessed him” (Bereshis 26:12). Rashi explains: “For they had estimated how much it [the land] was fit to produce, and it produced for each measure that they had estimated, one hundred [measures]. And our Rabbis said that the purpose of this estimate was for tithing.” Rabbi Yonason ben Uziel explains that Yitzchak ploughed for tzedakah – his intention in sowing the wheat was to be able to give Ma’aser. He estimated even before the field was planted how much he would be able to distribute as Ma’aser and ploughed with intention to become a giver of Ma’aser.
“Testing” Hashem with Ma’aser does not mean checking if Hashem will repay me or not. “Testing” here means entering a working relationship with Hashem. One takes upon himself the obligation to give the Ma’aser to Hashem, and He, in return, promises to continue making him a giver, an emissary to distribute plenty in the world.
The Chofetz Chaim (20:6) writes that it is preferable to carefully calculate Ma’aser and give it or more, up to a fifth, than to simply distribute tzedakah generously without making any calculation. This is because the former sees his income as a partner sees his share in a partnership, the second – although his deeds are praiseworthy – does not act like a partner. In addition, the first merits that all his financial transactions receive the status of a mitzva while for the second, only his distributions are a mitzvah.
One who gives Ma’aser from his income shows that all his toil to earn it was with the intention to be a giver, and the 90% that remains in his hands after tithing is his salary – payment for his services to Hashem.
This approach has a halachic ramification: the Chovos Yair writes (224) that one must calculate his income and expenditures for Ma’aser Kesafim just as one would calculate it together with a partner in his business. Several halachic rulings follow this approach.
Bringing Hashem into our daily lives and into our business transactions reaps unlimited dividends. May we always belong to Hashem’s legions of givers who deliver his Kindness in the world, and be worthy of the blessing: “Bring the whole of the tithes into the treasury so that there may be nourishment in My House, and test Me now therewith, says the Lord of Hosts, [to see] if I will not open for you the sluices of heaven and pour down for you blessing until there be no room to suffice for it” (Malachi 3:10).