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Are Jews Required to Give a Maaser [Tithe] of their Income to Tzedakah?

Responsa in a Moment: Volume 4, Issue No. 4, March 2010

In memory of Bill Davidson z”l
one of the greatest philanthropists
of our generation on his first yahrzeit.

Question: What are the sources for giving Maasar Kesafim [a tithe] to tzedakah? Must all Maaser money be given to the poor or may it be used to support Jewish education, to buy ritual objects for a synagogue or for other mitzvot?

Answer:  (This responsum is based on the Bibliography listed below and especially on Dr. Jay Rovner’s book on the subject).

I) Talmudic sources

Maasar Kesafim means that one gives one tenth of one’s income to charity. Rabbi Yair Hayyim Bacharach (1638-1702) already stressed in his Responsa (Havot Yair, end of No. 224, ed. Kutas, Jerusalem, 1997, p. 640) that “Maasar Kesafim is not mentioned in the Shass” (i.e. in the Babylonian Talmud).

The first mention of setting aside a certain percentage of one’s property for charity appears in the Jerusalem Talmud (Peah 1:1, fol. 15b = Ketubot 4:8, fol. 28d; cf. Pesikta Rabbati, Piska 25, fol. 126b; Ketubot 50a; and Rovner, p. 18):

…R. Shimon ben Lakish (ca. 250 c.e.) in the name of R.  Yosi ben Hanina: they decided at Usha that a person should set aside one fifth of his income for Mitzvah...

The Mordekhai who lived in Ashkenaz in the late 13th century (onBava Kama, parag. 192 and on Bava Batra, ed. Riva, parag. 652) sees in this passage of the Jerusalem Talmud an allusion toMaasar Kesafim. However, it is difficult to accept this explanation because none of the Amoraim in this passage mentioned a tenth as the correct amount of tzedakah. At any rate, this passage does contain the idea that every Jew must set aside a certain percentage of his/her income for “Mitzvah“, which meansTzedakah or charity in the Jerusalem Talmud.  ( On the word mitzvah meaning tzedakah, see Rashi to Shabbat156a at bottom s.v. tzadkan bemitzvah; Jastrow’s dictionary, the second entry on mitzvah; Michael Sokoloff, A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, Ramat Gan, 1990, p. 325; and Rovner, note 48).

The first to require something resembling Maasar Kesafim was R. Abba bar Kahana, a third generation Israeli Amora (ca. 300 c.e.). As we have learned in Pesikta d’Rav Kahana (Piska 10, ed. Mendelbaum, p. 172, and the parallels listed there):

Asser te’asser – “Tithe you shall tithe” (Deut. 14:22) – so that you shall not be in want, tithe so that you become wealthy [as if it says asser te’asher]. Said the Holy One Blessed be He: Tithe that which is mine and I will make prosper that which is yours.
“all” (ibid.) – Said R. Abba bar Kahana: this is a hint to merchants and seafarers [who do not engage in agriculture] that they should give a tithe to those who labor in the Torah.

It is worth noting that R. Abba bar Kahana says to give “a tithe to those who labor in the Torah“, not for charity, and he bases this request on a verse dealing with tithes.

II) The First Sources which Clearly Mention Tithing

There is no mention of Maasar Kesafim in the Geonic period (ca 500-1000 c.e.). In early Ashkenazic sources, Maasar Kesafimreferred to a communal tax and not to a personal obligation orMitzvah. (See Rovner, pp. 25-28 and the literature cited there and Finkelstein. It seems that the Ashkenazim adopted this practice from the Christian world in which they lived – see Rovner, pp. 13-15 and note 27 where he thanks me for this insight). The first sources which mention Maasar Kesafim as a personal obligation were written in Germany and France between the years 1200-1350:

1) Sefer Hassidim, ed. Margaliot, No. 144:

“Bring the full tithe into the storehouse… and thus put Me to the test” (Malachi 3:10)… that tithe is the tithe for the poor,  to give to the poor a tithe of everything a person earns from interest, from hiring himself out, and from everything a man profits from… and Oy to those who delay giving their tithes, for in the  end, the only thing that will remain in their hands is the tithe, as it is written: “And each person shall retain his sacred donations” (Numbers 5:10).  

Sefer Hassidim, which was written in Ashkenaz ca. 1200, is of the opinion that one has to give to the poor one tenth of all earnings. It does not base this ruling on Pesikta d’Rav Kahana but on Malachi 3:10.

2) R. Isaac ben Moses of Vienna (1180-1250; Or Zarua, part 1, No. 13, end of fol. 8b) quotes a derashah on the verse “Asser te’asser– “Tithe you shall tithe” (Deut. 14:22) from Ta’anit 9a and adds:

We have learned that it is a Mitzvah for a man to tithe his money, and the more he tithes the wealthier he becomes.If he gives to tzedakah more than the tithe, this is praiseworthy on condition that he does not spend more than a fifth…. (For other passages in the Or Zarua, see Rovner, p. 29, note 88).

  1. Isaac ben Moses of Vienna speaks about the “tithing his money” as a “Mitzvah” and he considers it as tzedakah; he even connects this custom to the above-mentioned verse in Deuteronomy 14:22.

3) R. Asher ben Yehiel, the Rosh, was born in Ashkenaz ca. 1250 and moved to Toledo, Spain in 1303. In 1314, he wrote the following document which was quoted by his son Yehudah in his ethical will (I have translated from Israel Abrahams, ed., Hebrew Ethical Wills, Philadelphia, 1926, pp. 192-194):

My lord, my father of blessed memory, ordained in his city in Ashkenaz that every member of the congregation should pay a tithe of his entire income, and in the district of Toledo he likewise ordained that he and his children should do so. And after his death, I and all my brothers resolved to maintain the practice and to add to its terms. In Elul 1346, I wrote out the ordinance which was signed by my elder sons…

“Hear my son the instruction of your father and forsake not the teaching of your mother” (Proverbs 1:8). Seeing that in the country from which we migrated our fathers and our fathers’ fathers were accustomed to set aside one tenth to God fortzedakah for the sake of mitzvah from everything they earn in business as the Sages said on the verse and explained: ” ‘Asser te’asser’ – ‘Tithe you shall tithe from all the produce of your seed’ (Deut. 14:22) – from here [we learn] that seafarers [who do not engage in agriculture] should set aside a tithe to those who labor in the Torah.” Therefore, we have continued in the footsteps of our fathers, and have taken on ourselves the obligation to set aside a tithe of all our profits in business, in interest and in trade. Three-fourths of that tithe we will deposit in a chest, controlled by two treasurers, by whose authorization all grants shall be made to all those in need. And this undertaking we have assumed upon ourselves and our offspring to observe, to do and to maintain it. The treasurers whom we have selected are two brothers who are R. Jacob and R. Judah, may God preserve them, and what we have accepted upon ourselves we have signed on the 9th day of Marheshvan in the year 1314.

Asher ben Rabbi Yehiel z”l
Shlomo ben Rabbi Asher, may God protect him
Yaakov ben Rabbi Asher, may God preserve him
Yehudah ben Rabbi Asher, man of valor
Elyakim ben Rabbi Asher, may God protect him.

This important source teaches us that the Rosh enacted aMaaser for everyone in his community in Ashkenaz, but in Toledo, he only included himself and his sons in the enactment. On the other hand, the maaser is  described here as a “custom” intended “for God for tzedakah for the sake of mitzvah“.

4) Tosafot to Taanit 9a, s.v. Tithe you shall tithe:

Thus it is in Sifre: “Tithe you shall tithe all the produce of your seed which is brought forth from the field every year” (Deut. 14:22) – we have only the produce of the seed which is liable to tithing. Whence do we learn that we are obliged to tithe interest, trade and all other profits? Scripture states “all”, for it could have said “your produce”. What then is the meaning of “all”? This includes interest, trade and everything which he profits by.  

The midrash quoted here does not appear in our version of Sifreand Prof.  Louis Finkelstein maintained that “according to the style of this passage, it is clear that it was created in the Middle Ages in Ashkenaz or in France (Sifre Devarim, ed. Finkelstein, end of parag. 105, pp. 165-166, in the notes). In any case, according to Prof. E.E. Urbach, the Tosafot to Ta’anit were probably edited in France ca. 1350.  (E. E. Urbach, Ba’alei Hatosafot, fourth edition, Jerusalem, 1980, pp. 615-616). The editor apparently knew a midrashresembling the one in Pesikta d’Rav Kahana cited above.

Until now we have seen that the personal Maaser appears in Ashkenaz/France between the years 1200 and 1350 and that it moved to Spain with the Rosh and his sons in the beginning of the 14th century. It is described alternatively as a “mitzvah” [a commandment], a “minhag” [a custom] and a “takanah” [an enactment] based on Deuteronomy 14 or on Malachi 3. The money is designated for “the poor” (Sefer Hassidim), for tzedakah (OrZarua), or “for God for tzedakah for the sake of mitzvah” (Rosh).

III) Is it Permissible to Use the Maaser Money for OtherMitzvot?

  1. Strict Rulings
    1) Rabbi Meir (the Maharam) of Rothenburg (Ashkenaz, d. 1293) dealt with Maasar Kesafim in several places in his writings. InResponsa of the Maharam, ed. Prague, No. 74, he ruled:

It would seem that the coins of maaser after he put them aside to give to the poor, they cannot be changed for another mitzvah, because it is like stealing from the poor, because even though it is not in the Torah but rather a custom… But the poor have already acquired the coins ofMaasar Kesafim through the custom, for this is the custom in the entire Diaspora, and one cannot change the purpose from the poor for another mitzvah which the poor do not need. As we have learned in the second chapter of Shekalim (mishnah 5): “The excess of the poor goes to the poor”. (Cf. ibid., No. 75 and Tashbatz, No. 405 where he allows giving the tithe to one’s relatives and cf. Rovner, pp. 31-32).

2a) Rabbi Yaakov Mollin (Austria, d. 1427) as reported by his disciple Rabbi Zalman, Minhagei MaharilHilkhot Rosh Hashanah, ed. Spitzer, p. 273:

Those who give their Maaser to make candles to light during the time of prayers do not act according to the law, because the Maaser belongs to the poor.

2b) Rabbi Yaakov Mollin, Responsa Maharil, No. 56, parag. 7: The Maharil rules that it is forbidden to use the Maaser to pay forMatanot La’evyonim [presents for the needy] on Purimbecause the Matanot La’evyonim were enacted by the Sages (seeMegillah 7a at the bottom) and therefore he is deriving benefit from the maaser if uses it to fulfill another mitzvah.

3) Rabbi Moshe Isserles (the Rema, Cracow, 1525-1572) on YorehDe’ah 249:1 ruled according to Minhagei Maharil:

One cannot use his Maaser for a mitzvah like buying candles for the synagogue or for any other mitzvah; he must only give it to the poor.

4) Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe (1535-1612), Levush Malkhut to YorehDe’ah 249, gave a similar ruling:

A person may not use his maaser for a mitzvah such as buying candles for the synagogue and the like, because once he has set it aside, it is no longer his; he can only give it to the poor.

  1. Lenient Rulings
    1) R. Menachem Ha’me’ili (of Meerseberg, early 15th century), No. 459, quoted in the Drisha on Yoreh De’ah end of parag. 249 (and cf. Rovner, p. 34):

About your question whether you can buy books from [money which you have set aside] for Maaser, this is what I usually rule when people ask: Any mitzvah which he has the opportunity to do such as being a Ba’al Brit [a sandek at a circumcision] or bringing a groom and bride to the huppah, and the like, as well as to buy books in order to study from them and to lend them to others to learn from them – if he does not have the means and he would not do that mitzvah, he can use the Maaser.

2) R. Yisrael Isserlein (Austria, 1390-1460) as reported by his disciple Reb Yozl (Leket Yosher, part 2, p. 76) ruled that “it is permissible to teach his son Talmud [by using money] from hisMaaser“. He adds that in the beginning, “when he begins to giveMaaser, he has to make a condition that he will use the Maaser for every mitzvah, but in any case he may not use it to buy a tallit ortefillin or an etrog… because his children will enjoy these things as an inheritance, but he can use the Maaser for buying a fancieretrog, or candles for the synagogue, even the candle for YomKippur“. In other words, his position regarding using maaser for the candles in the synagogue is exactly the opposite of the Maharil’s.  R. Isserlein also permits a person to use his maaser to support his father (ibid., p. 37).

3) The Shakh (R. Shabtai Hakohen, 1621-1660) on Yoreh De’ah249: 1, quotes R. Menahem Ha’me’ili’s responsum (No. 1 above) from the Maharshal and the Drisha, and from this it appears that he agrees with it.

4) The Taz (R. David Halevi, 1586-1667) ibid., allows using theMaaser “to buy mitzvot in the synagogue” i.e. to pay for aliyot and the like, on condition that he intends to do this at the time he buys the mitzvah.

5) Be’er Hagolah (R. Moshe Rivkas, 1600-1671), ibid., agrees with the Rema cited above that one should not use his maaser to fulfill a mitzvah that he is obligated to do [such as matanot laevyonim on Purim] “but if he wants to do with it a mitzvah that he is not already obligated to do, he is allowed to do so”.

6) Rabbi Jacob Reischer (1670-1733, Responsa Shevut Yaakov, Part 2, No. 85), reports that “the custom has already spread that the bride and groom pay the musicians and the waiters from themaaser coins” and he justifies this custom.

7) R. Eleazar Fleckeles (1754-1826, Responsa Teshuvah Mei’ahava, No. 87, ed. Koshoy, 1912, fol. 52d), ruled that when there is no clear local custom, it is permissible to use the money from Maasar Kesafim for every mitzvah. (For a summary of many lenient and strict rulings, see Felder, pp. 105-108).

IV) Summary and Conclusions

1) Maasar Kesafim is hinted at for the first time by R. Abba bar Kahana in Pesikta d’Rav Kahana on the basis of Deuteronomy 14. In his opinion, the money should be set aside for those who labor in the Torah, not to the poor.

2) In early Ashkenazic sources, they only spoke about Maasar Kesafim in connection with a communal tax.

3) Maasar Kesafim as a personal obligation to give tzedakahdeveloped in Ashkenaz at the end of the 12th century. Six important authorities stressed that this is a custom and not a biblical or rabbinic law,  (See Responsa Maharam Meirotenberg, ed. Prague, No. 74;Bach on Yoreh Deah 331 s.v. av uveno at the end; R. Yair Hayyim Bachrach, Responsa Havot Yair, end of No. 224, ed. Kutas, Jerusalem, 1997, p. 640; Responsa Pnei Yehoshua, No. 2;Responsa Shevut Yaakov, Part 2, No. 85; R. Eleazar Fleckeles, Responsa Teshuvah Mei’ahava, No. 87). even though various authorities brought support from some of the verses and Midrashim quoted above.

4) There is a controversy among the halakhic authorities as to whether one is allowed to use Maasar Kesafim for other mitzvot. The Maharam, Maharil, Rema and the Levush ruled strictly. R. Menahem Ha’me’ili, R. Yisrael Isserlein, ShakhTazBe’erHagolahShevut Yaakov, and Teshuvah Mei’ahava were more lenient, each according to his own reasoning.

5) Whoever wants to be strict about using maaser for other mitzvothas on whom to rely. Whoever wants to be lenient can rely on Pesikta D’Rav Kahana who speaks about giving a tithe to “those who labor in the Torah” and not about tzedakah, on the fact that this is a custom which began in the 12th century, on the language of the Rosh and on the lenient rulings cited above.

6) In any case, it would be wonderful if modern Jews would adopt this beautiful custom in order to ensure giving a fixed amount oftzedakah on a regular basis. We can draw inspiration for this practice from the Pinkas Maasar Kesafim [Tithe Ledger] of Mordechai Ze’ev Ehrenpreis of Lvov which was published recently by Dr. Jay Rovner. In it, the author recorded all of his maasercontributions between the years 1837-1849. May it serve as an inspiration to modern Jews who wish to adopt this beautiful custom.

David Golinkin
17 Adar 5770


Abrahams – Israel Abrahams, Jewish Life in the Middle Ages, 1896, pp. 319-321
Albert – R. Avraham Albert, Maasar Kesafim, Jerusalem, 1977, 268 pp.
Azulai – R. Hayim Joseph David Azulai, Birkhei Yosef on YorehDe’ah 249:1
Domb – R. Cyril Domb. ed., Maaser Kesafim: on Giving a Tenth to Charity, Jerusalem and New York, 1982
Felder – R. Aaron Felder, Oholei Yeshurun, Vol. 2, New York, 1982, pp. 101-114
Finkelstein – Louis Finkelstein, Jewish Self-Government in the Middle Ages, second edition, New York, 1964, pp. 18, 48, 61, 185, 247
Peretz – R. Mikhael Peretz, Otzar Piskey Tzedakah… al Hilkhot Maasar Kesafim, Jerusalem, 2000, 238 pp.
Rivkin – Isaac Rivkin, “Maaser Gelt” in Yiddishe Gelt, New York, 1960, pp. 157-167
Rotenberg – Hayyim Shlomo Rotenberg, ed., Hanhagot Tsadikim, 4 vols., Jerusalem, 1988-1991
Rovner – Jay Rovner, The Ma’sar Kesafim Ledger of Mordecai Zeev Ehrenpreis of Lvov, New York and Jerusalem, 2003 and the bibl. P. 69-77
Waldenberg – R. Eliezer Waldenberg, Responsa Tzitz Eliezer, Part 9, No. 1 (24 pages)

Image Credit: MAXpixel

All four volumes of Rabbi Prof. David Golinkin’s Responsa In A Moment – Halakhic Responses to Contemporary Issues as well as other books by the author are available for purchase from the Schocken-JTS Press Bookstore.

David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.

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