Judaism: Wealth Through Tithing
Rabbi Eliezer MelamedThe writer is Head of Yeshivat Har Bracha and a prolific author on Jewish Law, whose works include the series on Jewish law "Pininei Halacha" and a popular weekly column "Revivim" in the Besheva newspaper. His books "The Laws of Prayer" "The Laws of Passover" and "Nation, Land, Army" are presently being translated into English. Other articles by Rabbi Melamed can be viewed at: www.yhb.org.il/1
“Aser T’aser” – Tithe to Grow Rich
In this week’s Torah portion Re’eh, we learn about the mitzvah ma’aser k’safim (giving 10% of one’s income to charity), as the verse says: “Take a [second] tithe”, or in Hebrew, “aser t’aser”(Deuteronomy 14:22). Our Sages interpreted this verse as follows: “Take a [second] tithe – so you may grow rich” (a play on the words aser, to give tithes, and t’aser, to grow rich (Ta’anit 9a). Seemingly, one could ask: Shouldn’t a person perform mitzvoth l’shem shamayim (for the sake of Heaven), and not in order to receive a reward? How could our Sages have said “Take a tithe, so you may grow rich”?
Rather, the wealth gained by one who gives ma’aser from all his income, is itself a mitzvah. This manifests itself in various ways: First of all, from any profits one obtains, he continues giving ma’aser. Second, by giving the ma’aser to Torah students and tzedaka (charity) one merits using his remaining money properly – to strengthen his family and marital relationship, educate his children, create suitable conditions for Torah study and observance of mitzvoth, and improve society. Third, it is a kiddush Hashem (sanctification of God) when a Torah observant Jew merits discernible blessing.
Our Sages also said that a person is allowed to test God in this matter – one can give ma’aser, and see for himself how he grows rich (Ta’anit 9a). And although it is written: “Do not test God your Lord” (Deuteronomy 6:16), this is the only mitzvah where it is permitted to test God, as the verse says: “Bring all the tithes into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and put me to the test with that, says the Lord of hosts, if I will not open for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you immeasurable blessing” (Malachi 3:10) (see, P’ninei Halacha, Likutim 2, halacha 6:8).
Blessing by Natural Means
This blessing, however, comes by way of natural means since the foundation of human life in this world is freedom of choice, and if observant Jews were rewarded with revealed miracles, freedom of choice would be eliminated. Therefore, Divine blessing is revealed in the world by natural means – a person devotes all his talents and energy into his work and God blesses his achievements, as it is written: “God your Lord will then bless you in everything that you do” (Deuteronomy 14:29).
On the other hand, someone negligent at work, even if he gives ma’aser k’safim, will not get any richer. The blessing is correlated to the effort one makes at work: One who works similar to most people – not lazily, but not diligently – will merit mediocre blessing, for his mediocre work. But a person who works diligently, investing considerable thought on how to advance his dealings – by giving ma’aser k’safim, merits great financial blessing.
Always Spend Less than You Earn
Some people impede the blessing they receive by wasting their money on luxuries, and neglecting to leave a significant percentage of their funds and income for savings.
We learn this important instruction from this week’s Torah portion as well, as it is written: “When God expands your borders as He promised you, and your natural desire to eat meat asserts itself, so that you say, “I wish to eat meat”…you need only slaughter your herd [m’bikarkha] and flock [m’tzonekha]” (Deuteronomy 12:20-21). From the wording of this verse our Sages learned: ‘m’bikarkha” -- “of your herd, and not your entire herd; ‘m’tzonekha’, of your flock, and not your entire flock” (Chullin 84a). If we
transfer this instruction to contemporary times, the Torah teaches us to use a portion of one’s salary, while making sure to leave part of it for interest-yielding savings.
Presumably, people who waste all their earnings on luxuries and immediate needs, even if they give ma’aser k’safim, will not merit the blessing of wealth. Subsequently, they cannot then come and complain to God, just as someone who throws his money into the ocean, cannot complain afterwards that he is broke. Still, no harm will result from their giving ma’aser, as stated in the Shulchan Aruch “No one ever became poor from giving tzedakah, nor did anything bad or any harm come from it” (Y.D. 247:2).
Those Who Give Improperly
In practice, according to my experiences, the vast majority of people who give ma’aser k’safim have told me they merited financial blessing, as the Torah says. However, I have encountered cases of people who tried to give ma’aser, who work diligently, but nevertheless, did not merit financial blessing. They could not make ends meet, and came to me for advice about what to do.
In all these cases, I discovered they had not given ma’aser according to halakha, but rather, gave it for purposes that are not considered tzedakah, such as giving it to relatives who in actuality were not so needy, or to questionable organizations, or to yeshivot which educate their students improperly (in keeping with their worldview). When a person gives tzedakah for improper purposes, no reward is received, and sometimes it is even a transgression, helping sinners continue deceiving the public (see, Baba Kama 16b).
Additionally, the same people who failed to give ma’aser for appropriate purposes usually wasted their money in a shamefully, careless way. Apparently, these matters go hand-in-hand: Since they gave tzedakah improperly, they also did not merit spending their money correctly, and as a result, lose out both ways.
Ma’aser Cannot be Used for Talmud Torah
Here, I come to a painful problem: Many people mistakenly think they can pay for their children’s Talmud Torah (Torah study) with their ma’aser k’safim. This is wrong. It is forbidden to use one’s ma’aser k’safim for his mitzvoth. For example, it is forbidden to buy tefilin, tzitzit, arba minim (four species) for Sukkot, and the like, with ma’aser money. Similarly, it is forbidden to pay for Talmud Torah with ma’aser money, because it is a Torah commandment for parents to ensure their children learn Torah, are taught to observe mitzvoth, and obtain good midot. And as long as parents have not accomplished this, they have not fulfilled the mitzvah. Nowadays, education is more complex than in the past, and in order to place children on the proper Torah path, parents need to care for their studies and education until the age of eighteen, and for boys, up to the age of about twenty.
Therefore, the expenses that parents pay for their children all those years cannot be considered ma’aser k’safim. Indeed, Shulchan HaRav (Laws of Talmud Torah 1:7) wrote that if parents send their children to another city to study Torah, then expenses for study cannot be paid with ma’aser k’safim, but parents can pay for their child’s food with ma’aser k’safim. However, he was referring to youth who were already used to helping their parents carry the burden of making a living; therefore, caring for them beyond the usual could have been considered as ma’aser k’safim. But nowadays, when the norm is to take care of children until the age of eighteen, and this is even required by law, it cannot be considered ma’aser k’safim.
However, regarding the period after eighteen years of age, in time of need, the expenses for boarding fees can be considered ma’aser k’safim. This must also be dealt with from several aspects (for example, given the state pays some of the costs, as a result, the parents are only paying for tuition).
Using Ma’aser K’safim for Enhanced Education
Q: Rabbi, I easily could have sent my child to an ordinary school and paid relatively less. Why can’t the amount I add for Talmud Torah be considered as ma’aser k’safim?
A: Just as a person who can purchase regular kosher tefillin for 1,000 shekels but chooses to buy tefillin mehudarot (enhanced tefillin) for 2,000 shekels cannot pay the difference with ma’aser k’safim, the same is true for all the mitzvoth, including Talmud Torah, that it is forbidden to use one’s ma’aser k’safim for an additional enhancement (hee’dor) of mitzvoth. This is because ma’aser k’safim is intended for charitable needs and the Torah study of talmidei chachamim who learn in order to teach, similar to the past when the Kohanim and Levi’im, who taught the nation Torah, were supported by money from ma’asrot.
Put Me to the Test
After all this, there are still rabbis who instruct it is permissible to pay for Talmud Torah with ma’aser k’safim. But it is clearly evident that the blessing of ma’aser fails to be realized by those who pay for their children with ma’ase k’safim. After all, regarding ma’aser it is written “Put Me to the test”, and if the test results show there is no blessing, then this is not the proper intention for ma’aser k’safim.
True, a poor person is exempt from ma’aser, but someone who earns a reasonable salary, or even a little less than average, cannot claim that he is poor; he is obligated to give ma’aser, and may not pay for his children’s education with ma’aser k’safim.
And who knows? Perhaps if they carefully observed the mitzvah of ma’aser and not used it for educational purposes, the government would focus on improving the quality of schools for the public at large, whose tuition costs are markedly lower. This would serve a double purpose, for l’chatchila (from the outset) it is better for all children living in one zone desiring a religious education, to learn together, for as the our Sages said, there is no comparison between “the many who learn Torah, as opposed to the few who learn Torah” (Sifra, Bechukotai 1:2).
However, when raising the regional school to the required level is unachievable, and it is impossible to provide an appropriate Torah education within its framework, then, out of lack of choice and for the sake of their future, children should be sent to Talmud Torah. If the parents do not have the ability to pay for Talmud Torah and, in addition, give ma’aser k’safim, in such a case they are the considered poor, and exempt from ma’aser. However, since in practice they do not give ma’aser, nor will they merit the blessing of wealth. Therefore, if possible, it would be preferable for them to relocate to a place with a regional school that can provide good education, and thus, be able to fulfill the mitzvah of ma’aser.
Reduce the Cost of Education
Here, I must express an urgent call for the reduction of education costs. Rather than accepting the given situation and considering where to cut back, the discussion should begin by stating in principle that the parents expenses for boys in yeshiva high school should not exceed 4,000 shekels a year, and for girls in ulpana, not more than 2,000 shekels a year. Afterwards, the administration can discuss how to handle the given budget. This is the only way we can fulfill our obligation to all of Israel, and not just the wealthy and those who understand the necessity of religious education.
There is no room left to explain how this can be done. I will just mention that in another two years in Har Bracha, with God’s help, an ulpana for girls will be started and the designated director, Rabbi Shlomi Badash, shlita, who has extensive experience in managing a school, has already announced that the parent’s expenses will not exceed 2,000 shekels a year, and this, without harming the religious or educational level.