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The Challenge of Wealth

Parshas Bo

By Dr. Meir Tamari

It should not escape us that on the eve of their dramatic and miraculous exodus from our first exile, our fathers were instructed in and obligated to a social act that has become the hallmark of the Jewish People. “If the [family] house shall be to large for the pascal lamb, then your neighbor shall join you” (Exodus). This is not primarily consideration for the poor since we have no knowledge of the status of the neighbor. We are not told, in contrast to the agricultural gifts or the Shmittah and the Yovel, that this for the poor. We should rather see it, therefore, as a Divine instruction regarding our use of our own money, wealth or assets. My lamb is to be shared with my neighbor, irrespective in this case of his or her economic status, simply because such sharing is one of the purposes for which the wealth is earned, created or granted to us. It is perhaps precisely because we find it hard to accept them as a purpose of our wealth that we try to think of our charitable acts as an expression of our pity or kindness. The Torah however insists both on a positive mitzvah- “You shall open your hand”, but also a negative one, “You shall not close your hand”.

One expression of these two mitsvot is maser Kesafim, the financial tithe that is an obligation, separate from the charity levied by the community. . There are some authorities who see this as an extension of the tithing of fruits, produce and livestock, commanded by the Torah. Others see it only as an age-old custom adopted by Ashkenazi Jews and therefore obligatory on their descendants. Irrespective, it has become the common practice today, throughout the Jewish world.(Teshuvot Chatam Sofer, Yoreh Deah,231)

All income is subject to maaser, irrespective of its source. This even includes windfall profits like gifts, inheritances or lottery winnings, refers to such income after expenses incurred in creating or earning that income, are deducted. This income is the after tax income. However since Social Security payments are in effect savings or investment they cannot be deducted. In the same way, not all expenses recognized by the income tax authorities as tax deductible expenses are acceptable for determining the maser liability. For example travel expenses incurred in earning income cannot be of the most expensive nature- first class air fare or 5 star hotels. Since these are at the expense of the poor, one is required to limit oneself to more modest traveling (Rabbi M. Sternbuch, Am HaTorah, vol 2, number 5). The same could apply to perks enjoyed by the executive officers and owners, even where they are accepted by the tax authorities (Bet Din Shel Shlomo,Yoreh Deah, section 1). There exist maser forms and the book, “Maaser Kesafim” by Domb and Homberger that assist one in determining what is liable to maaser. The sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud were keenly aware of the subterfuges that people used in order to escape the giving away of wealth that they had earned, as demanded by the obligation to tithe. It is important to remember that human nature wasn’t different from ours today.

Since economic resources are by definition limited, we need guidelines on how to allocate our charity. I have presented only a brief summary of these guidelines as they appear in Mishneh Torah, Matnot Ayim, Chapters 7 -10, and Shulchan Arukh, Yoreh Deah, Sections.247- 256.

It seems permissible to give to organizations and institutions of our choice. Regarding individuals, however, the choice is not a free one. So we learn, “one who says I am hungry”, we give without examination; one who says “clothe me, we may examine to see if the need is justified”. So too, pidyon shevuyim, redeeming the captives, is not an obligation that one can avoid. Unfortunately, this need that existed throughout history is still a reality in Jewish life. Even a synagogue may be sold in order to fund this redemption. The logic is simple. Refugees and captives share all the sorrows and suffering of the poor, but they suffer, in addition, the loss of freedom. It is pertinent to note the following halakha in the Mishneh Torah (chapter 8, halakhah 13), that even when the captivity is the fault of the captive, we still have the obligation to redeem him or her. “One who borrowed money from gentiles with the intention of not repaying the loan we are required to release him. This remains even a second time and even a third time. Only then may we refuse. However, where there is a danger to life, even a hundred times”. There is no concept in Judaism of only funding the deserving poor. Our charity is to be given even to the addict and the lazy. Despite the legitimacy of limitations in the giving of charity, one should at least give something to all that ask. This may be done through the giving advice or sympathy, where there are no funds available. Ones close relations have first claim on our charity. Indeed, Rabbi S.R. Hirsch points out that such help has to precede recourse to the communal funds. The Arukh HaShulchan imposes a restriction on helping ones relatives; otherwise there will not remain enough for the other poor.

We have seen in parshat Shmot, that proving employment or financial help to assist the establishment of businesses is the highest form of charity. This is followed by the secret gifts that preserve the respect and dignity of the recipients. To achieve the same goal, the Rambam, prescribes times for the harvesting of the peah[ corners of the field] by the poor even in our day, that would accommodate the young, the old and nursing mothers respectively. So too it is meritorious to persuade others to give charity.

There is however, a zealous attitude to charity that one hears expressed in our society, whereby giving charity is used to justify or excuse immoral business behavior. Is this a modern Jewish version of indulgences? Often it flows from the zealousness of communal fundraisers that leads them to seek out or accept money from people whose financial immorality is radically opposed to Torah values. The chillul hashem involved is immeasurable in taking charity in cases of money laundering or from income from drug money or tax evasion and in the recent case of Jewish and Israeli leaders seeking presidential pardons for Jewish criminals. Modern technology in communication makes the knowledge of such chillul hashem inevitable and widespread. However, we need to examine the opinions that are advanced to permit such behavior. It is true that the gabbaim of charity are not obligated to examine and check the kashrut of the donors and that one may have a benefit from the property of a thief, in contrast to the halahka that forbids buying from a thief or a robber. This is because we are not certain which of the assets are stolen and which not. This is true where the theft refers to cattle, real estate or durable goods, where it is possible to separate and determine the source of the assets. Can we apply this ruling to our modern economy where the bulk of the criminal’s assets are financial so that it is impossible to keep the kosher money separate from the non kosher.

Over and above any halakhic issues, there always remains the religious and spiritual damage done from a philosophy of the ends justifying the means. Who will measure the results of a Torah education received in an institution whose funding is, even partially, rooted in immorality or preserve the kedusha of communities whose charitable organizations accept non kadosh funds?

Copyright © 2002 by Rabbi Meir Tamari and Project Genesis, Inc.

Dr. Tamari is a renowned economist, Jewish scholar, and founder of the Center For Business Ethics ( in Jerusalem.



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