Q: While it was mentioned last week that most Poskim are of the opinion that maaser kesafim (tithing ten percent of earned income) is a minhag and that one is not necessarily obligated to give, is there any instance where one would still be mechuyav to tithe his money?
A: In the event that one is aware that his parents or grandparents gave maaser on all their monies then one would be obligated to do so as well on the basis of “al titosh toras imecha”1 (which is the commandment to hold on to all good customs of your parents and grandparents). It is not so simple to absolve oneself of this obligation2 and therefore if one is looking to stop giving maaser he should approach a halachic authority as how to proceed in this particular situation.
Q: Is there any limit as how much maaser one is allowed to give?
A: While the gemara3 states that one may not give more then one fifth of his wealth to charity so as not to become impoverished himself, there are certain exceptions to this rule. To name a few:
1) If there are poor people in front of you4
2) If one’s life is in danger5
3) To support Torah learning6
4) If one is very wealthy and is in no real danger of having to become reliant on tzedaka7
5) When engaged in a Yissachar/Zevulun partnership8
6) For a Jew who is incarcerated in prison, even in civil countries such as America, one may spend more then 20% to secure his release9
7) One who in any case spends beyond their means for unnecessary items, and buys every item that strikes his fancy, may do the same for mitzvah expenditures, even to the point of spending much more than 20%10
In summation, the limitation of not exceeding 20% is somewhat flexible and not all inclusive, as the previously mentioned exceptions clearly exhibit. Therefore, in a situation where one may be able to give more then 20% a Rav should be contacted as how to proceed.
Q: Does one’s particular financial situation affect his obligation to give maaser?
A: While some Poskim are of the opinion that only if one is missing bread and water is he exempt from giving maaser, there are others who hold if one is relying on someone else to get by the month and does not live with any luxuries at all then he/she is exempt from giving maaser.11 Even the more stricter opinion holds that if one is living meagerly he may first make sure that his basic needs are met (i.e. purchase beds, tables, chairs, appliances etc.) before figuring out any maaser calculations.12
Q: Does one who is reliant on tzedaka need to give maaser?
A: One who is being helped by others need not give maaser. If however he decides to give anyway it is most appropriate to give to the organization that is currently helping him out.
Q: Does maaser need to be given only with money?
A: One may give maaser money in the form of commodities (i.e. donating a car to a tzedaka organization), as well as in the form of a service13 (i.e. private tutoring, therapy etc.). If one has a tenant who is struggling to pay the rent, he may charge less and then deduct the difference of what the apartment is really worth and then consider that maaser. Similarly, a store owner who is owed money from an impoverished person may withhold the usual pressure placed upon a debtor and consider that maaser. However, ideally he should stipulate at the time that the poor person took the item (i.e. groceries, clothing, furniture etc.) that any money that will not be paid is coming from maaser.14
Q: Should one figure out how much money to give to maaser from his monthly paycheck before or after taxes?
A: Since sales tax is something that everyone is obligated to pay it may not be deducted from the amount of maaser that one is obligated to give. Many hold that income taxes that are taken before one receives his paycheck is not considered actual income and therefore does not enter the equation.15 However, if one received an income tax refund then he would be obligated to take off maaser from those earnings. Similarly, any monies spent on optional life insurance policies are not exempt as well and must be included in the grand total of money being tithed per month. Whether or not health insurance premiums are exempt from maaser is a matter of dispute, while some hold that it is exempt from maaser16, others maintain that health insurance is like any other household expense and may not be deducted from income when figuring out how much maaser to give.17 A Rav should be consulted for final Psak. Fire, accident and theft insurance are considered business expenses and may be deducted before calculating maaser.
Q: May one support his children in kollel with his maaser money?
A: Since this goes under the category of “supporting Torah learning”, as well as helping a family member in need (which takes priority over helping others not related to the donor)18, this would be permitted.19 This is assuming that at the time of marriage the parent had in mind to take the monies from maaser. As if the parent obligated himself and only after decides to use maaser funds this would be using maaser to fulfill an obligation which is not permitted.20 One is encouraged not to use all of his maaser for this,21 if however one does not have the funds otherwise then he may use all of his maaser monies for this purpose.
1 Mishlei 1:8
2 This is brought down in Ahavas Chesed by the Chofetz Chaim
3 Kesuvos 50a, Rama 249:1, Igros Moshe Y.D. 1:143
4 Ahavas Chesed 2:20:2, Birchai Yosef 249:1
5 Aruch Hashulchan 249:5
6 See Shitah Mikubetzes on Kesuvos 50a
7 Sh”ut Minchas Yitzchok 5:34:2, Ahavas Chesed 2:20:1, R’ Moshe Feinstien was of the opinion that even in this case one should not exceed giving one fifth his wealth, see Igros Moshe Ibid.
8 See Rama Y.D. 246, Igros Moshe Y.D. 4:37
9 If one is being held in prison because of a crime he committed it is not so clear amongst the Poskim if this is considered Pidyon Shevuyim, as the mitzvah is in general referring to someone who is being held captive for no reason other then the fact that he is a Jew
10 Derech Emunah Hilchos Matnas Aniyim 7:26
11 Teshuvos V’Hanhagos 1:560, Kuntros Kol Torah Choberes 39 B’Shem R’ Shlomo Zalmen Aurbauch Zt”l
12 Sh”ut Minchas Tzvi:6
13 Oral Psak heard form R’ Doniel Yehudah Neustadt Shlita
14 Teshuvos V’Hanhagos 2:471
15 Igros Moshe Ibid.
16 This is the Psak of R’ Shlomo Zalmen Aurbauch zt”l
17 Said B’shem R’ Menasheh Klien Shlita
18 Rama Y.D. 252, Chachmas Adam 145:1
19 Oral Psak heard from R’ Moshe Plutchok Shlita
20 This is part of the understanding as to why one may not use maaser money for lulav, esrog, mezuzah, tefilin etc.
21 Ahavas Chesed 2:6:3