Sivan 5762 – Tzedakah vs Maaser

1 Sivan 5762

L’chvod HaRav:

We are learning “ma’aser kesafim” which relates to halochot of charity. The basic question: is tzedaka different from ma’aser, and do they have different obligations with respect to whom they must be given to? If possible can you explain the differences according to Torah and Rabbanon? Also, if they are different does ma’aser constitute 9/10 of the balance of money remaining or is it 10% twice from the original balance (ie .10% of $100, 10% of $90 or 20% of $100).

Thank you for your help.

Name & Seminary withheld

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Dear Name Withheld,

Thank you for your question. The obligation of giving Tzedakah and the obligation to give Maaser are different, but they are also intertwined with each other, as follows:

TZEDAKAH – This is a Torah obligation on every Jew to support a fellow Jew who asks him for help, as stated in Devarim 15: 7-12. We are not permitted to turn him away empty handed, and even if we do not have funds we are not permitted to ignore his request. We must apologize for being able to financially help him, and smile and encourage him. It is a Lo Saaseh, a negative commandment, to totally ignore his request, when he has personally requested funds from you. However, a person is only obligated to contribute in a situation where he is requested for funds, up to 20% of his income. Once you have given away 20% it is not a violation to refuse the poor person who is requesting funds.

MAASER – This is an obligation upon every Jew to separate and designate 10% of his income to the poor, even if they have not solicited him. Although the custom has become to use it for other purposes also, such as Jewish educational institutions, and purchasing books to lend to others, these funds are meant primarily for the poor. This does not absolve a person from his obligation to contribute more Tzedakah, up to 20% (another 10%) when solicited, but Maaser must be designated and set aside even when not solicited.

According to most Poskim, this Maaser obligation is actually a relatively new custom, although there are opinions that it is a Torah or Rabbinic obligation. According to those who say that it is a recent custom, it was instituted over the past 1000 years when we switched from an agrarian society to a commerce-based society, and the idea was to compensate the poor for the crop tithes and cattle tithes that they lost because of this switch. However, all Poskim agree that it is obligatory upon every Jew today. It is interesting to note that there is no discussion of these laws in Rabbinic responsa, including the Mishna and Talmud, until the past 1000 years. This is very strange, considering the myriad of details involved in these Halachos, such as which expenses may be deducted, who we may disburse these funds to, what is considered income regarding this obligation, etc.! This would seem to be an indication that the opinions that it is a more recent custom is correct.

I hope this clarifies things for you a little.

Take care,
Rabbi Aaron Tendler