Should I Limit How Much Tzedakah I Give?
This article was originally published in Yated Neeman
There is a knock on my door, and I am face-to-face with someone holding a letter from the local Vaad HaTzedakah. The letter introduces him as an individual in need of surgery but without medical insurance to pay for it. How much should I give him?
The mailman’s daily delivery brings a solicitation letter from an internationally reknown yeshivah. How large a check should I place in the return envelope?
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. There is a discreet way of helping them whereby they will never find out the source of the money. How much should I give them?
These are shaylos we face daily. Do we know the halacha guidelines how much to give?
Before we begin to discuss the details of these halachos, we should reflect for a moment on the importance of the mitzvah of giving tzedakah. When we give tzedakah we emulate Hashem’s deeds, since He is constantly giving tzedakah. It is for this reason that “whoever has mercy on the poor, Hashem will have mercy on him” (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 247:3; see Gemara Shabbos 151b). When a person listens to the supplication of the poor and gives him tzedakah, Hashem listens to him and provides him with parnasah (Rama Yoreh Deah 247:3). A person should always realize that as much rachmonus as he has on others, Hashem has on him. For this reason, tzedakah tears up any evil decree (Gemara Rosh Hashanah 16b).
In addition, giving tzedakah is rewarded monetarily, so one does not lose by giving tzedakah. As the Rambam teaches us, “No one ever became poor from giving tzedakah nor did anything bad or any harm come from it” (Rambam, Matanos Aniyim 10:2; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 247:2). Someone who gives ten percent of his income to tzedakah will be rewarded with wealth. Yitzchak Avinu distributed ten percent of his profits to the poor and was rewarded that he received back one hundred times what he gave (Pirkei D’Rabbi Eliezer #33). How many investments do you know that pay back a 10,000 % return, which is what Yitzchok received!
Before we deal with specific halachic cases, we need to explain some of the concepts of the laws of tzedakah. Because of the complexities and importance of the issues involved, this week’s article will deal primarily with the principles of hilchos tzedakah, whereas next week’s article will focus on practical applications.
HOW MUCH ARE WE REQUIRED TO PROVIDE A NEEDY PERSON?
Once a person qualifies to receive tzedakah (the criteria by which this is determined will be explained IY”H next week), the Torah required us to provide him with his entire needs. What is included in his needs? It certainly includes his basic living necessities of food, adequate clothing, and a proper place to live. It also includes enabling him to get married, including setting up a household with all its necessities (hachnasas kallah). It also includes providing him with whatever he was used to when he was in a better financial situation.
People find surprising that we are required to provide someone needy with items that other people consider luxuries. This halacha is derived from the following pasuk: “When one of your brethren will be needy … do not harden your heart and do not close your hand from your needy brother. However, open your hand and give him as much as he lacks, whatever he is lacking” (Devarim 15:7,8). The pasuk closes with a very obvious redundancy (“as much as he lacks, whatever he is lacking”). This teaches that we are required to provide him with “as much as he lacks,” in Hebrew “dei machsoro,” even if other people would not be considered “lacking” if they were without this item. This is the source for the famous story where Hillel provided a pauper who came from a wealthy family with a servant to run before him since this was the accepted lifestyle he grew up with (Gemara Kesubos 76b). On the other hand, we are not required to make his wealthy.
What is the difference? If he was once a man of legitimate means and became used to a certain lifestyle, then to him it is poverty to manage on a lower financial level. But I have no responsibility to provide him with a lavish lifestyle that he was never accustomed to.
THE COMMUNITY TZEDAKAH FUND
In earlier generations, every Jewish community had a system of providing for the poor. The community appointed “gabbayei tzedakah” who were empowered to make weekly collections for the local tzedakah needs. These gabbayim evaluated how much each member of the community should give (according to his means), assessed him appropriately, and collected the moneys (Rambam, Matanos Aniyim 9:1; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 156:1). Someone who felt the gabbayim had assessed him for more than he could afford could challenge the assessment in a beis din.
One can imagine that the gabbay’s job was not a pleasant one, yet it was absolutely necessary. For this reason, only the finest people were chosen for this job (see Gemara Pesachim 49b; Bava Basra 8b), and also for this reason Chazal say, “Gadol hame’aseh yosair min ha’oseh,” “the one causing others to give tzedakah is greater than the person giving the tzedakah” (Bava Basra 9a).
One of the unfortunate results of being in our galus is that we no longer can enforce the authority of the gabbayei tzedakah. For this reason, tzedakah organizations are dependent on voluntary contributions. The unfortunate result of this situation is that the community’s tzedakah’s needs are never met adequately, and the needy are almost never provided with “dei machsoro.” Thus, those in charge of distributing tzedakah funds are often placed in the unenviable position of having to decide how much to give each individual. Deciding tzedakah priorities with limited resources is a lengthy halacha discussion.
It should be noted that the gabbayei tzedakah were primarily responsible to provide for local tzedakah needs. If someone came from out-of-town requesting tzedakah help, he was provided with only a small contribution (Mishnah Peah 8:7; Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 250:4 and Shach).
IS DEI MACHSORO A COMMUNITY RESPONSIBILITY OR AN INDIVIDUAL’S?
Many poskim contend that dei machsoro is primarily the responsibility of the community’s tzedakah fund (Rama 250:1). Others disagree, contending that the individual still has a responsibility to take care of dei machsoro of the needy (Rambam; Bach). However, when the community is not providing dei machsoro, all agree that the individual is responsible for all the poor person’s needs if he can (Rama). Therefore, if a needy person requests financial help, and I have the financial means to provide whatever he needs, I am required to. (However, if the poor person is soliciting door-to-door, I do not have to give more than a minimal donation, as will be explained later.) Some poskim rule that if providing dei machsoro is more than twenty percent of my net earnings, I am not obligated to provide all his needs, but only twenty percent of my earnings (Rambam, Peirush Hamishnayos Peah 1:1). I will explain shortly how one calculates “earnings.”
Most of the above discussion is describing a case referred to by the poskim as “ani bifanav,” literally, “a poor person is before him.” This means that I am aware that there are poor people whose needs are not fully provided. In our day, we are always in a situation of “ani bifanav,” since we always know of tzedakah organizations that try to provide for the needy but do not have sufficient funding to provide all their needs. However in earlier generations, people did not always have contact with someone who was not provided for. This is referred to as “ayn ani bifanav,” there is no poor person before him. In such a situation, one should still set aside money for distribution to tzedakah.
HOW MUCH SHOULD ONE SET ASIDE IN A CASE OF AYN ANI BIFANAV?
Rambam and Shulchan Aruch rule that one should preferably set aside twenty percent for tzedakah, and that a person who is “midah beinonis,” neither miserly nor overly generous, sets aside ten percent.
SETTING UP A SYSTEM TO GIVE MAASER
The Chofetz Chayim (Ahavas Chesed 2:18) suggests setting up the following system to guarantee that one gives ten or twenty percent of one’s income to tzedakah. Although it involves a bit of bookkeeping, it is definitely worthwhile.
Because of reasons beyond the scope of this article, it is a good idea to state that one is following this practice bli neder. Chofetz Chayim also suggests making a condition that he is entitled to estimate expenses. We will soon see why he makes the second condition.
Whenever one receives income, he calculates what expenses were incurred in earning this money and writes down the amount in his income ledger. In a separate column in his ledger, he subtracts his household expenses.
There is a dispute among poskim whether household expenses can be deducted from income before one calculates maaser. Some poskim rule that one may deduct household expenses from income and only needs to calculate maaser on the net amount that is left (Shu’t Avkas Rocheil #3; Ahavas Chesed 2:18). Others disagree (Aruch HaShulchan 249:7).
In a separate place in the ledger, he calculates all tzedakahs donated, even small amounts placed in a pushkah or at the door. He should certainly include ongoing tzedakah responsibilities, donations to local institutions and tzedakahs.
Periodically make a cheshbon to see whether you gave more or less than maaser. At that time, if one has given less than maaser, put aside the extra money for maaser purposes. In the interim, he may borrow the money for his own needs (Ahavas Chesed 2:18:1).
Chazal tell us that someone who sets aside a tenth of his income for tzedakah is rewarded with a bracha of wealth. The Gemara even states that one is permitted to test Hashem to see that this bracha is fulfilled, something that is otherwise strictly forbidden (Gemara Taanis 9a). We will discuss next week IY”H how one “tests” Hashem.
IS IT TRUE THAT ONE MAY NOT GIVE OVER A CERTAIN AMOUNT TO TZEDAKAH?
After the destruction of the Second Beis HaMikdash, the Sanhedrin relocated several times and was once situated in a town name Usha. While in Usha, the Sanhedrin made several important takanos (permanent rulings). One of these takanos forbade a person from distributing more than twenty percent of his property to tzedakah lest he himself become needy (Gemara Kesubos 50a). This ruling is referred to as the “Takanas Usha.”
[The Chofetz Chayim (Ahavas Chesed 2:20:5) points out this takanah implies that one should never spend more that twenty percent of one’s savings on any item. (Presumably, one’s residence is an exception.) If Chazal ruled that one may not spend more than twenty percent of one’s property for tzedakah, one certainly should not spend this much for any other purpose. Furthermore, one should be careful to avoid purchasing luxury items, since it is very to become accustomed to an expensive lifestyle. Unfortunately, this sometimes results in having difficulty purchasing the necessities of life, as we often see happen.]
A superficial understanding of the Takanas Usha would lead one to strange (and inaccurate) conclusions. Reading the Takanah literally, it would seem that even a wealthy individual may not give more than one-fifth of his property to tzedakah because he may become a tzedakah case himself. Why should this be so? If he has considerable savings, perhaps so much that he could not figure out how to spend all this money in a lifetime, yet is he not permitted to give away more than twenty percent of what he owns? Surely, this could not be what was intended by the Takanas Usha.
The Chofetz Chayim (Ahavas Chesed 2:20:1,3) explains that this is a misunderstanding of the Takanas Usha. Since the reason for the Takanah was to make sure that someone does not become destitute, it applies only to someone whose income does not provide generously for his family. Someone who has a job or business that provides adequately for his family is permitted to give everything above his needs to tzedakah even if it is more than twenty percent of his income or his holdings.
The following story bears out this ruling. In the days of King Munbaz (one of the Chashmonayim kings) there was a drought, and he distributed the entire royal treasury, accumulated over several generations, to the poor. His family members protested, saying that his predecessors had all increased the wealth of the monarchy, and King Munbaz was disbursing it. Munbaz responded, “My ancestors stored below, and I stored above. They stored their wealth in a place where it could be stolen and I stored in a place from where it cannot be stolen. They stored items that do not reproduce and I stored items that produce profits. They stored money and I stored lives. They stored for others, and I stored for myself” (Gemara Bava Basra 11a). Thus we see that it is permitted for someone wealthy to give away more than twenty percent of his income for tzedakah needs.
There are a few other instances when it is permitted to give more than twenty percent to tzedakah. As mentioned above, one case is where someone’s dei machsoro is greater than twenty percent of my income (Rambam, Matanos Aniyim 7:5; Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh Deah 250:4; Ahavas Chesed 2:19). This is assuming that I can provide dei machsoro without being hard-pressed to take care of my family’s needs. If paying the poor person’s needs will make me hard-pressed to provide for my family, I am not required to pay “dei machsoro.”
Another case where I am permitted to give away more than twenty percent of my income is if I commit myself to a Yissachar-Zevulun partnership. This means that I commit myself to support someone so that he can learn Torah.
The Tribe of Zevulun provided for all of Yissachar’s financial needs and they become partners. Zevulun provided half his income to Yissachar, and Zevulun received half the reward. In a true Yissachar-Zevulun partnership, the person learning Torah is provided half the profits of the business, and the businessman is provided with half the reward in Olam Haba for the learning (Midrash Rabbah Bamidbar 13:17; Shach Yoreh Deah 246:2). This can be done whether or not one has a business. Thus, the Zevulun partner commits himself to provide far more than twenty percent of his disposable income to support the learning of Yissachar.
The Midrash declares, “Why did Zevulun merit to be the third tribe to offer korbanos at the dedication the mishkan? Because they treated the Torah dearly and spent money lavishly on Yissachar, thus enabling Yissachar to be totally devoted to learning.” As a result, in the course of time, Yissachar produced two hundred heads of the Sanhedrin, and Zevulun was given the credit (Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 13:17).
Anytime someone provides money to enable others to learn Torah he receives tremendous reward for the support of Torah learning. The unique feature of a Yissachar-Zevulun relationship is that the profits for the business are also divided equally. However, even if someone is not involved in a formal Yissachar-Zevulun relationship, he may donate over twenty percent of his income to Yeshivos, Chadarim, Kollelim, or talmidei chachamim (Ahavas Chesed 2:20:4).
If someone is collecting money for a pikuach nefashos situation, the Takanas Usha does not apply and one may contribute over twenty percent (Aruch HaShulchan 249:5).
A person who is terminally ill is permitted to give away tzedakah money without being limited by the Takanas Usha. The Gemara tells us that Mar Ukva, who was known as a big baal tzedakah, knew that he was terminally ill. He asked that he be brought his tzedakah calculations, which amounted to the fantastic sum of 7000 dinarim. His response was “such a small amount prepared for such a long way” and gave away half of what he had left. The Gemara asks, how was he permitted to give away so much to tzedakah, one is not permitted to give away more than a fifth of one’s property to tzedakah? The Gemara answers that the Takanas Usha was established so that one not become needy later in life. However, to give away large sums of money immediately prior to one’s demise is permitted (Gemara Kesubos 67b; Rama, Yoreh Deah 249:1). For this reason, a person is permitted to give away in his will a large percentage of his property to tzedakah. In a previous article we discussed how one does this in a way that is halachically effective.
I HAVE EXCEEDED MY LIMIT
What should I do if my family’s responsibilities are great, and I simply cannot afford to give someone soliciting me significant moneys. I should never turn someone away empty handed. Even if I am not obligated to give him more because I have already exceeded my limit, I should still give him a token contribution. If I have absolutely nothing to give him, then I should make certain to leave him with a positive feeling.
If I am solicited for a donation that is beyond my means, I should tell the solicitor how badly I feel that I cannot give him an appropriate amount, but try to make him feel good and then give him a very small contribution (Yoreh Deah 249:4).
See “How Do I Distribute My Tzedakah” for the practical applications of tzedakah based on these principles.