How Do I Distribute My Tzedakah?

clip_image002Let us begin by reviewing the concepts of mitzvas tzedakah that I discussed last article. These concepts include:

Dei Machsoro: the requirement to provide all the needs of a poor person, including luxury items that he became accustomed to when he was in a better financial situation.

Takanas Usha: a rabbinic injunction that prohibits spending more than one-fifth of one’s property on tzedakah or on any other mitzvah, lest one become destitute as a result. According to some opinions, this takanah does not apply to someone who will not become destitute as a result.

Ani Bifanav: when I am aware of a poor person whose needs are not attended.

Ayn Ani Bifanav: when I am not currently aware of a poor person whose needs are not being attended to.

Maaser Kesafim: giving ten percent of one’s moneys to tzedakah. The poskim dispute whether one subtracts household expenses from one’s income before calculating maaser.

The concept of maaser is primarily in the case of ayn ani bifanav, when I fulfill it by putting aside this much money for tzedakah. In a case of ani bifanav I do not fulfill my mitzvah by giving him only ten percent.

A person who distributes maaser kesafim to the poor is blessed with a special guarantee of wealth. This bracha occurs only if one is meticulous at calculating exactly a tenth of one’s income for tzedakah (Shu’t Avkas Rocheil #3). Furthermore, this bracha is fulfilled only if one gives this maaser money to the poor, but if one gives part of it to other causes, there is no guarantee that wealth will follow (see Shu’t Radbaz 3:441). Therefore, although one may use maaser kesafim to buy an aliyah, pay for a “mi’shebeirach,” purchase sefarim that will be used by the tzibur (Taz 249:1) or similar communal needs, it is preferred to earmark maaser kesafim for the needs of the poor (Rama 249:1). Donations to Torah institutions are considered distributions to the poor (Ahavas Chesed 2:19:2), as are hachnasas kallah expenses (to pay wedding and related expenses for a poor groom or bride).

The Chofetz Chayim recommends dividing one’s maaser as follows: two-thirds for distribution to the poor (including local chinuch and tzedakah institutions) and one-third for gemach loan funds that also benefit the poor (Ahavas Chesed 2:18). One should check with one’s local Rav whether this formula should be followed in light of local tzedakah needs.

Chomesh: giving twenty percent of one’s moneys to Tzedakah. This is the optimal level of fulfilling mitzvas tzedakah, whereas setting aside ten percent is considered only “midah beinonis,” an average person’s conduct. Someone who gives a chomesh to tzedakah should first calculate and set aside one tenth, and then a second tenth. This will guarantee that he receives the bracha of wealth mentioned above as well as a lot of extra reward. Furthermore, whereas the first maaser should preferably be given to the poor as mentioned above, the second maaser may be donated to other charitable causes. If possible, the first ten percent should be given to poor talmidei chachamim and Torah institutions (Ahavas Chesed 2:19:3).

Yissachar-Zevulun partnership: An arrangement whereby one person (Zevulun) assumes responsibility to support someone else (Yissachar) so that Yissachar can immerse himself completely in Torah without concern about making a living. In a true Yissachar-Zevulun partnership, Yissachar and Zevulun are complete partners, Yissachar receiving half of the profits of Zevulun’s business while Zevulun receives half of the reward of Yissachar’s learning.

Traveling Ani: One does not have to give a poor person who is traveling from place to place more than a minimum donation (Mishnah Peah 8:7; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 250:3,4). However if he is a respected person, one should provide for him appropriately.


Based on the above information, we are now ready to determine how much tzedakah I should be giving and to which causes.

Before starting to give regular amounts of tzedakah on an ongoing basis, one should declare that he is following this procedure bli neder, without accepting it as a vow. Also one should say that if one donates more than a chomesh of one’s income to tzedakah in one year, that the extra can be counted as part of the next year’s tzedakah calculation (Ahavas Chesed 2:18:2). The reason for the last condition is because some poskim otherwise require one to begin a new maaser calculation each year even if one gave more than his share the year before.

Preferably, a person should begin by calculating twenty percent of his net moneys for tzedakah purposes (Yerushalmi quoted by Tosafos Kesubos 50a). First, one calculates twenty percent or at least ten percent of one’s cash or cash-equivalent inventory. A newlywed couple should begin with their wedding presents; other people should begin with their accrued savings (assuming that they have not yet given tzedakah). If the couple intends to be in kollel, they should ask a rav whether they should distribute this money to tzedakah or whether they may keep it for their own kollel needs (see Rama, Yoreh Deah 251:3; Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:112).

The Chofetz Chayim suggests that someone who finds it difficult to give away ten percent of his principle should instead set it up as a loan fund (gmach) from which he himself is permitted to borrow if necessary (Ahavas Chesed 2:18).

As mentioned above, the poskim dispute whether one subtracts family living expenses from one’s income before making these tzedakah calculations. Ask your rav for his opinion.

This, in short, is how maaser is calculated. Whenever giving tzedakah, one should do so with a happy countenance and make the poor person feel good (Shulchan Aruch 249:3).

As mentioned last week, someone who has a secure and adequate income may give more than a tenth or a fifth to tzedakah. One is also permitted to give more than twenty percent of one’s income to support Torah study (yeshivos, kollelim, chadorim and talmidei chachamim).


Family comes first. Someone who has destitute relatives or family members studying in yeshiva or kollel, should give them top priority. This includes supporting one’s sons in yeshiva and kollel (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 251:3; see also Pischei Tshuvah 249:2).

Someone who cannot meet the financial needs of his own family should spend all his tzedakah funds on their needs (Rama, Yoreh Deah 251:3 and Gra ad loc.).

Community tzedakah funds should not be used to support someone as long as there are family members who can be leaned on for support (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 251:4).


Rav Moshe Feinstein ruled that one should not pay tuition for sons and daughters in elementary school and high school from maaser funds. However, someone who refrains from taking a tuition reduction for which he is eligible may pay the difference from maaser (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 2:113; also see Ahavas Chesed 2:19:2). If paying tuition without resorting to maaser funds creates hardship, one should ask a shaylah. Yeshiva gedolah tuition and expenses may be paid from maaser.


Tzedakah moneys should be distributed locally rather than sent out-of-town (Gemara Bava Metzia 71a). Thus, after meeting one’s family obligations, one should distribute the majority of one’s remaining tzedakah to local community needs. One should make sure to set aside enough money to give a small contribution to each person who comes to the door for a legitimate cause.

When there are limited resources, support of talmidei chachamim precedes non-talmidei chachamim (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 251:9). However, supporting local poor people precedes giving to out-of-town talmidei chachamim (Pischei Tshuvah 251:3).

Many poskim contend that out-of-town yeshivos that teach students from one’s city should not be treated as an out-of-town institution since they are educating local children.

I once heard an insightful story about the Chofetz Chayim from my Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Yaakov Ruderman, zt”l. When the Chofetz Chayim was in Vilna, he noticed many poor people from Brisk who had traveled to Vilna for financial help, and when he was in Brisk he noticed poor people there from Vilna. Surprised that the poor were traveling out-of-town for tzedakah, the Chofetz Chayim explained, “The Yetzer Hara tries very hard to stop Jews from keeping mitzvos. However, when it comes to giving tzedakah he has no success, since Jews are such merciful people that they always give. Instead the yetzer hara gets them to fulfill the mitzvah incorrectly. In this case, each city did not fulfill the mitzvah correctly since it did not provide sufficiently for its own poor, thus forcing them to travel for support.”


When distributing tzedakah funds to out-of-town people, those who live in Eretz Yisroel should be given more than those from Chutz La’Aretz (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 251:3; see Shach).


One should always give precedence to people who need food over people who need clothing (Gemara Bava Basra 9a; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 251:7). Life-threatening emergency situations should be prioritized. In most instances, one should prioritize to provide tzedakah to a needy woman ahead of a man.


One should never turn away a poor person empty-handed. If one has no more tzedakah to distribute, give the poor person a token donation “borrowed” from future maaser calculations (see Aruch HaShulchan 249:7) and make extra effort to boost the spirits of the poor person After all, it is very embarrassing to ask for financial help, and more uncomfortable to receive only a token gift in response.

If someone has already distributed his tzedakah requirements, he is not required to answer mail solicitations. (Nevertheless, I personally try to make a token contribution in order to participate, at least minimally, with people involved in a mitzvah [see Mishnah Makos 5b].)


Question: I tell a solicitor at my door that I cannot give more than ten dollars to his worthy cause, and he refuses to accept it. Did I fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah? Am I required to give him more?

Answer: Assuming that one has faithfully fulfilled the guidelines presented above, he is not required to give more if the solicitor refuses the donation. However, one has not fulfilled the mitzvah of tzedakah since the donation was not accepted (Shu’t Rashba #18; see also Derech Emunah, Hilchos Matanos Aniyim 7:1 in Biyur Halacha; cf. Beis Hillel, Yoreh Deah 248).


Question: Am I responsible to help someone who became poor by squandering all his money?

Answer: Rav Moshe Feinstein rules that I am, since he cannot afford essentials at this juncture (Shu’t Igros Moshe, Yoreh Deah 4:37:3).

However, the mitzvah of tzedakah does not require us to make someone wealthy (Gemara Kesubos 67b) by providing him with a lifestyle greater than what he is accustomed to. This reminds me of a family I knew who consistently spent beyond their means and always accumulated debts that they could not repay. I asked a shaylah whether there was a mitzvah of tzedakah to help them. I received a psak that although it would be a chesed to help them, it would not be considered tzedakah. (Incidentally, it is absolutely forbidden to borrow money if one cannot repay it.)


I now return to the three shaylos that I raised in the previous article.

Question: There is a knock on my door, and I find myself face-to-face with a stranger holding a letter from the local Vaad HaTzedakah. The letter testifies that he needs surgery but has no medical insurance to pay for it. How much should I give him?

Answer: Although this person desperately needs surgery and medical attention is a high priority, I am not required to make a major contribution to assist him since he is collecting door-to-door for his needs. Of course, if one wishes one can give him a major contribution.

Question: The mailman’s daily delivery includes a solicitation from an internationally renowned yeshivah. How big a check should I place in the return envelope?

Answer: Based on the opinion that out-of-town yeshivos that educate local students have a right to claim that they are servicing a local tzedakah need, this yeshivah should have a right to collect ahead of an out-of-town institution. Thus, one should treat this as an important tzedakah, although the local Torah and tzedakah institutions come first.

Question: My neighbor has been out of work for a while. The family is embarrassed to ask for help, but I know that they are hurting terribly. I can help them discreetly without their discovering the source of the money. How much should I give them?

Answer: Assuming that there is no local tzedakah that can assist him, one should consider this person’s needs high priority. If there is a local tzedakah that will help him, alert the gabbayei tzedakah and figure out a method of helping the needy neighbor without jeopardizing his self-dignity.

The neighbor’s attempt to avoid receiving tzedakah funds is highly meritorious. Chazal say, “Someone who needs to receive tzedakah funds and refrains from accepting will not depart this world without having sufficient means to support others,” (Mishnah Peah 8:9). I know someone who strived to fulfill this concept. After losing his job, he lived very frugally and worked whatever he could find to keep his family from receiving tzedakah. He attests that Hashem supported his family by totally supernatural means. For example, one of his “gifts” from Heaven was a sizeable inheritance from a great-aunt whom he hardly knew!


It is generally prohibited to “test” Hashem as the Torah states, “Lo senasu es Hashem,” “Do not test Hashem,” (Devarim 6:16). One may not say, “I am performing this mitzvah so that Hashem will reward me by providing me with such-and-such (Sefer Yerayim #361; Chinuch Mitzvah 395, 424; Shu’t Radbaz #882).

However, there is one exception to this rule – one may give maaser kesafim expecting to be blessed with wealth as a reward (Gemara Taanis 9a, as explained by Shu’t Avkas Rocheil #3; Rama, Yoreh Deah 247:4; Sefer Hassidim #144; Ahavas Chesed 2:18. Cf. Shl”a and Yaavetz #3, quoted in Pischei Tshuvah 247:2).

The Gemara relates that after Reish Lakeish’s passing, Rabbi Yochanan encountered his nephew (who was Reish Lakeish’s son). Rabbi Yochanan asked his nephew what he had learned in cheder that day. The nephew replied, “Te’aser kedei shetisasher,” “Give maaser so that you get rich.”

“How do you know?” asked Rabbi Yochanan.

“Go test it,” answered the nephew, who then asked, “but one is not permitted to test Hashem?”

Rabbi Yochanan replied, “I heard from my rebbe, Rabbi Hoshiyah, that this is an exception because of the pasuk in Malachi (3:10), where Hashem begs us to test Him when giving maaser and see for oneself that He opens the windows of heaven and grants blessings until our lips weary of saying ‘Enough!’”

We see from this that it is permitted to declare that I am giving the correct amount of tzedakah and expect that Hashem will reward me with wealth. I know several people who personally attest that this bracha was fulfilled!

One situation involved a man I knew by the name of Michael. Michael was in very difficult financial and personal circumstances and came to ask me advice about giving tzedakah. I suggested that he set aside maaser and use the amount for his family’s own unmet needs. He asked me, “Isn’t this just a game? I am not distributing tzedakah moneys elsewhere anyway!”

I explained to him about the bracha of wealth for someone who sets aside maaser, and that he is following the Torah’s instructions for distributing tzedakah under his circumstances since his family comes first. Then I suggested that he accept, bli neder, to set aside chomesh (as explained above) from any new, unexpected income he receives. I asked him to keep me posted.

A few months later Michael returned. He indeed had put my suggestion into practice and reported that he had paid off all his extensive outstanding debt. Furthermore, his marriage, which had been suffering from the financial strain, was also much improved. “I have only one thing to attribute this success to — making sure that I pay my two maasers to tzedakah accurately. It works like a charm!”

May we all always be showered with brachos for contributing generously to tzedakah!


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