A discussion of Halachic topics related to the Parsha of the
week. For final rulings, consult your Rav.
MA'ASER KESAFIM: OBLIGATIONS and EXEMPTIONS
Ma'aser kesafim, tithing one's income for charity, is an age-old practice
dating back to our forefathers' days. Avraham gave ma'aser to
Malki-Tzedek(1); Yitzchak gave ma'aser(2); and Yaakov, too, says, "And of
all that You will give me I will surely give a tenth to You"(3). In
addition, tithing is a time-honored formula for becoming wealthy(4), so much
so that it is even permitted to give ma'aser with the intent of "testing"
Hashem to see if one will become rich through giving tithes(5).
Some poskim imply that tithing is a Biblical obligation(6). Other poskim,
noting that there is no explicit commandment in the Torah to tithe one's
assets, consider this mitzvah to be Rabbinical in nature(7). These views
notwithstanding, many poskim(8) consider ma'aser kesafim as neither a
Biblical nor a Rabbinic obligation, but rather as an ancient custom that
should be practiced by all Jews. According to this opinion, one who does not
give a tenth of his income to charity still fulfills the mitzvah of
tzedakah, although he has not done so "properly"(9).
Whether ma'aser kesafim is a Biblical commandment, a Rabbinic ordinance, or
an ancient custom is of crucial importance in actual practice. When in doubt
about certain applications of a law, for instance, a halachic authority may
rule leniently on a Rabbinic or customary mitzvah, but must rule stringently
on a Biblical one. Similarly, a Biblical mitzvah must be performed even
under duress, while Rabbinical or customary mitzvos can - under certain
extenuating circumstances - be dealt with leniently. There are other
distinctions as well.
Concerning ma'aser kesafim, therefore, the poskim(10) offer the following
advice: In order to avoid potential problems(11), one should stipulate -
prior to the first time he gives ma'aser - that he is giving ma'aser beli
neder, without the binding force of a vow. If he fails to make this
stipulation, he becomes obligated to give ma'aser as if he had vowed to give
a tenth of his money to tzedakah, and all the stringencies that apply when
fulfilling a pure obligation command would apply to him.
If one had been giving ma'aser under the assumption that all poskim require
him to do so, but would now like to give ma'aser only beli neder, he does
not require hataras nedarim, an annulment of vows(12). If, however, he had
been giving ma'aser knowing all along that he is not absolutely required to
do so, he may not discontinue his practice without hataras nedarim(13).
QUESTION: Is a poor person required to give ma'aser kesafim from his income?
DISCUSSION: We have already established that the poskim differ on the degree
to which one is obligated to give ma'aser kesafim. We mentioned, therefore,
that at the time ma'aser kesafim is initially given, it should be given beli
The poskim generally agree that a poor person is not obligated to give
ma'aser, in keeping with the principle that "one's life takes precedence
over the lives of others"(14). Some poskim advise that although a poor
person is exempt from ma'aser, he should, nevertheless, separate the ma'aser
and then keep it for himself(15).
The question remains as to the definition of "poor". The poskim maintain
that a poor person is one who earns only enough for subsistence. Many poskim
define subsistence as having "bread and water"(16) (the basic necessities of
food, clothing and shelter). Anyone who has more than that would not be
considered a poor person with respect to giving ma'aser(17).
The Brisker Rav is quoted(18) as having ruled that "anyone who finds
himself in dire circumstances - so that he needs financial help from
others - and does not live a life of luxury at all, but lives frugally,
should not give ma'aser. Rather, he should keep his own ma'aser money. A ben
Torah in particular should not take money from others if he can use his
ma'aser money for himself".
A substantial savings account does not necessarily define a person as
"rich" if he is not generating any income on his own. A couple who needs
$20,000 to subsist on and earns that amount from interest, is still
classified as "poor" if they have no other income. This is especially so if
the couple is using the interest or the savings account as their source of
income while learning in kollel(19).
One who receives a government subsidy for rent (e.g. Section 8), or one
whose rent is paid for him by another individual, is required to include
that amount when figuring his overall income for the year(20).
1 Bereishis 14:20.
2 Rashi Bereishis 26:12.
3 Bereishis 28:22.
4 Tanchume Devarim 18.
5 Rama Y.D. 247:4 based on the verse in Malachi 3:10. Although Pischei
Teshuvah 2 quotes dissenting opinions, Aruch ha-Shulchan 6 and Ahavas Chesed
18:1 rule in accordance with the Rama.
6 See Tosefos Chadashim (quoted and rejected by R' Akiva Eiger Pe'ah 1:1);
Taz as understood by Aruch ha-Shulchan 249:5; Maharil as understood by
Chasam Sofer Y.D. 232.
7 Taz (as understood by Tzitz Eliezer 9:1); R' Akiva Eiger Pe'ah 1:1; Aruch
ha-Shulchan 249:2 and other poskim.
8 Bach Y.D. 331; Chavos Yair 224; Ya'avetz 1:3; 2:119; Chasam Sofer Y.D.
331; Yehuda Ya'aleh Y.D. 334. This is the view of the majority of the
poskim - see Pischei Teshuvah Y.D. 331:12 and Igros Moshe E.H. 3:43.
9 See Y.D. 249:1 where the Shulchan Aruch rules that the "average" person
gives a tenth to charity. Giving less than that is considered "giving with a
bad eye," but as long as one gives a third of a shekel, he has fulfilled his
11 There are numerous complicated issues connected with hilchos ma'aser
kesafim - in both the giving and the disbursing end - in which there is no
clear ruling or binding custom. Unless one wants to be stringent in all
cases, he is advised to follow the poskim who rule that ma'aser kesafim is
based on custom. One can then rely on a more lenient view.
12 Y.D. 214:1 and Shach 5.
13 If, as is the custom, one has "pre-nullified" all his vows on Erev Rosh
Hashanah, he may then rely on that declaration and consider his customary
practices as not having the force of a vow - Minchas Shelomo 91.
14 Rama YD 253:3; Shach 248:1; Chochmas Adam 144:2.
15 Minchas Yitzchak 6:101, based on Tashbatz 2:131.
16 Aruch ha-Shulchan Y.D. 251:5; Harav S.Z. Auerbach (Ma'aser Kesafim pg.
21). See also Igros Moshe Y.D. 2:112 who maintains that one with basic
parnasah for a day or two is required to give ma'aser.
17 As opposed to the definition of "poor" regarding the receiving of ma'aser
money - Harav S.Z. Auerbach (Ma'aser Kesafim pg. 23).
18 In Am ha-Torah vol. 2, no. 5, pg. 36, by Harav M. Shternbuch.
19 Harav M. Feinstein quoted in Ohalei Yeshurun pg.103. See also Igros Moshe
Y.D. 2:112. See also Guide to the Ma'aser Forms pg. 14.