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Hilchos Choshen Mishpat

Volume III : Number 11

Maaser: The Torah's Prescription For Wealth


Question:

Is there any difference between the Mitzvah to give Tzedakah (charity) and the obligation to give 10% from our income? What unique laws are involved in this obligation, and what is the reward for giving Maaser properly?


Answer:

  1. Although the obligation to give Maaser from our income is a sub-category of the overall commandment to give Tzedakah, there are many unique laws involved in fulfilling this obligation that need not be kept when fulfilling the "standard" Mitzvah of giving Tzedakah. (1)

  2. Although anyone who gives Tzedakah has a guarantee from our Torah that he will not be impoverished by doing so, one who properly separates 10% of his income to charity has a guarantee that he will be repaid for every penny that he gives to charity, and that he will become wealthy over time. As a matter of fact, it is permitted to "test" Hashem by separating Maaser and seeing if he will receive the wealth that he has been guaranteed, although regarding other commandments, including the Mitzvah of giving Tzedakah, it says (Devarim 6:16) "You shall not test Hashem".

  3. Anytime a person gives money or items to charity he fulfills the Mitzvah of giving Tzedakah, even if he does not keep an accounting of what he has given throughout the year. However, the obligation to give Maaser is only fulfilled if it is separated and given based on an exact accounting system, i.e. an actual one-tenth or one-fifth of his annual income. Only if this is done can he expect to become wealthy based on the Torah's guarantee.

    Therefore, in order to properly fulfill this obligation to give Maaser, a person should stipulate in the beginning of each year that when he does give charity throughout the forthcoming year, exactly one-tenth (or one- fifth) of his income is being given to fulfill his Maaser obligation, and any money given above and beyond his amount will be for the purpose of performing the "standard" Mitzvah of giving Tzedakah. In this manner, he can fulfill the Halacha to give an exact amount to fulfill his Maaser Kesafim obligation. (2)

  4. According to the opinion of the Vilna Gaon, this wealth is guaranteed only for someone who gives one-fifth of his income to charity. If you only separate one-tenth, your guarantee is only that you will have all of the basic necessities for living, and that, through various means, you will be reimbursed for the money that you have given to Tzedakah. However, we do not find this distinction regarding this guarantee of wealth in the words of the Rishonim and Poskim. Therefore, it can assumed that someone who is of modest means who meticulously fulfills his obligation to give one-tenth of his income to Tzedakah, and he is really not capable of giving more, can be assured that he is guaranteed to become wealthy also. (3)

  5. This guarantee of wealth that we mention above is only if the entire Maaser amount is given to poor people who study Torah, or other truly impoverished people who require these funds to sustain their families with the basic necessities of life (based on today's standard of living). Although the custom today is to allow for Maaser money to be used for certain communal needs and certain Mitzvos, a person has no right to expect this guarantee of wealth to be fulfilled if he does not give it to the poor in as direct as a manner as is possible (see below). (4)

    A person's impoverished relatives take precedence over other poor people when dispensing personal Maaser funds. (5)


    Sources:

    (1) The Gemara in Taanis (9a) states: "Rav Yochanan says; What is the meaning of the verse (Devarim 14:22) 'Asser Ta'Asser'? Separate a tenth so that you will become wealthy!" Rav Yochanan additionally states there that it is permitted for a person to give Maaser with the express intent of testing Hashem to see whether he will actually receive the promised wealth. This is because Hashem told us through the prophet Malachi (3:10), "Bring all of the Maaser into the storehouse, so that there will be food in My house, and put me to the test in this, says Hashem, if I will not open the windows of heaven and pour out for you immeasurable blessings". Tosafos there quote the Sifri that the obligation of separating Maaser that Rav Yochanan is referring to is not only from the grain harvest, but also from any profit a person makes from business deals, salary, or even gifts that he receives. Also, the promise of wealth applies to proper separation of such Maaser. This is stated as the Halacha by the Bais Yosef and the Rema in Yoreh De'ah (247:4), and by the Chofetz Chaim in Sefer Ahavas Chessed (Vol. 2 Ch. 18).

    (2) It is stated in the Teshuvos Avkas Roechel (3) that the Mitzvah of giving Maaser is only performed properly when exactly 10% or 20% of that year's income is distributed to the poor. Many other Poskim agree with this.

    (3) The opinion of the Vilna Gaon that we state above is quoted in Sefer Shaarei Rachamim (45) as having been heard from his student Rav Chaim Volozhin Zatza'l in his name. See also the famous Iggeres HaGra where he discusses the obligation to separate 1/5 of one's income to Tzedakah.

    However, this opinion of the Vilna Gaon is actually very puzzling. Most Poskim state the obligation to give Maaser, from one's income is Rabbinic, or even a "Minhag Tov" -a recommended custom that a person should do. It is therefore very hard to conceive that by not separating 20% of his income a person actually violates negative commandments, as stated by the Vilna Gaon there! I once heard a Talmid Chochom explain the words of the Vilna Gaon as follows: The Gra is not trying to say that the obligation to separate 20% is a Torah obligation. Rather, if the person has not given 20% of his income to Tzedakah and a bona fide poor person requests charity and he refuses, he is violating the prohibition of (Devarim 15:7) "You shall not close your hand from your poor brother". However, if the person has already given 20% of his income to Tzedakah, since he is not permitted to give more than this amount to charity, as was decreed by our Sages in Usha, he will not transgress any Torah prohibitions by refusing the poor person's request.

    (4) Answer 4 is based on the decision of the Rema in Yoreh De'ah (249:1). Perhaps this can be understood according to the statement of the Teshuvos HaRidvaz (Vol. 3 Siman 441) that the guarantee of wealth that Hashem provides to someone who separates Maaser properly is only for the sake of the poor, to encourage people to support them. If you will use the funds for the communal good, although you have fulfilled your Maaser obligation based on the present custom, no guarantee was given for such giving.

    (5) Some have a custom to give half of their Maaser obligation to impoverished relatives, and the remaining to other charities. This custom is based on a Shita Mikubetzes in Meschta Kesubos. However, even if one has such a Minhag, if his relative is in great need, he may give the relative more than half, even if this means that he will not be able to support charities and institutions that are expecting his support.

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    This week's class is based on a column by Rabbi Tzvi Shpitz, who is an Av Bet Din and Rosh Kollel in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem. His column originally appears in Hebrew in Toda'ah, a weekly publication in Jerusalem. It has been translated and reprinted here with his permission and approval. His columns have recently been compiled and published in a three volume work called Mishpetei HaTorah, which should be available from your local Sefarim store.

    Feedback is appreciated! It can be sent toatendler@torah.org.


    This week's class is based on a column by Rabbi Tzvi Shpitz, who is an Av Bais Din and Rosh Kollel in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem. His Column originally appears in Hebrew in Toda'ah, a weekly publication in Jerusalem. It has been translated and reprinted here with his permission and approval.

    We hope you find this class informative and stimulating! If you do not see a subscription form to the left of the screen, access the Advanced Learning Network to subscribe to Business-Halacha.

    For information on subscriptions, archives, and other Project Genesis classes, send mail to learn@torah.org for an automated reply. For subscription assistance, send mail to gabbai@torah.org.

    Please Note: The purpose of this column is to make people aware of Choshen Mishpat situations that can arise at any time, and the Halachic concepts that may be used to resolve them. Each individual situation must be resolved by an objective, competent Bais Din (or Rabbinic Arbitrator) in the presence of all parties involved!

 






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