Question: When giving maaser k’safim, may a person estimate the ten percent (or five percent) he plans on giving to tz’dakah, or must he give an exact ten percent (or five percent)?
Short Answer: The poskim debate whether one must give an exact ten percent (or five percent) of maaser k’safim. The best practice is to stipulate that the first ten percent you give constitutes the mitzvah of maaser k’safim, and any extra is just general tz’dakah.
I. The Lesson From Avos
The Mishnah (in Avos 1:16) states that “Al tarbeh laaser omdos (Do not frequently tithe by estimation).” While the simple explanation of the mishnah refers to tithing crops, the Chavos Yair (224) applies this mishnah to maaser k’safim,as well. In other words, do not estimate your maaser k’safim, but rather give an exact amount (i.e., exactly ten or five percent). Indeed, the Chavos Yair cites the Tosafos Yom Tov (on Avos ibid) who understands the mishnah’s requirement as not limited to “frequently” giving based on estimation, but rather a requirement for an individual to give an exact amount every time. This Chavos Yair is cited as well by the Pischei T’shuvah (Yoreh Dei’ah 249:2).
II. Reasons and Further Support
The Meiri (on Avos ibid.) likewise states that a person should make a calculation of his earnings and give an exact amount of maaser k’safim, because if he merely estimates, he will end up giving less than the proper amount. This reason is also found in the Tosafos Yom Tov, cited by the Chavos Yair mentioned above.
However, other Acharonim suggest different reasons for why maaser k’safim should be calculated and given exactly. Specifically, the K’neses HaG’dolah (Yoreh Dei’ah 249) rules that maaser k’safim should be calculated and given exactly, because maaser k’safim has a “sod” – deep secret to the mitzvah. The Pele Yoetz, cited by the sefer Leket T’shuvah U’Tz’dakah (p. 384), appears to agree to such reasoning. The sefer Y’shuas Daniel (144:11) also suggests that the Hafla’ah agrees with this opinion and reasoning. Similarly, the sefer Shaarei Avraham (p. 518) cites Rav Shimshon Mei’Ostrepoli, that since maaser k’safim pushes off the “klipos” – the impurities, according to Kabalah it must be given exactly.
The Avkas Rachel (Siman 3), as well as the Chidah (Birkei Yosef, 249:8), give a slightly different reason why maaser k’safim should be calculated exactly. Since the Gemara in Taanis (9a) allows you to test Hashem by maaser k’safim, i.e., give ten percent and expect that Hashem will repay you, it is important that you give a precise amount, so that the “test” works.
III. Estimation is Okay
The Pischei T’shuvah (Yoreh Dei’ah 249:2), after citing the Chavos Yair, brings the Mishnas Chachamim (on Avos ibid.) who disagrees and holds that maaser k’safim can be estimated. Indeed, one can, of course, give more than the ten percent (or five percent). The sefer Y’shuas Daniel (144:11) notes that the Maharil and the sefer Yosef Ometz agree to this opinion.
IV. In Practice
The Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed 2:19:3, footnote) cites both opinions, but concludes that ideally one should give the precise ten percent as maaser k’safim. If one wants to give more than ten percent, but not exactly 15 percent, the Chofetz Chaim suggests that he should first give ten percent as maaser k’safim, and then give any extra as general tz’dakah. Notably, Rav Chaim Kanievsky, cited by the sefer Shaarei Avraham (p. 518), states that one only needs to make such a stipulation once, as opposed to each time he gives tz’dakah.
Similarly, the sefer Tz’dakah U’Mishpat (5:10) holds that ideally one should give the precise ten percent as maaser k’safim, and cites a ruling from the Noda BiYehudah that one should scrupulously record his income in order to properly give maaser k’safim.
On the other hand, the Sheivet HaLevi (5:133:3) also notes both opinions, but concludes that there is no problem if a person wants to estimate, as long as he surely gives ten percent. Indeed, the Sheivet HaLevi acknowledges that nowadays it is very hard to calculate the exact amount of maaser k’safim.
The sefer Chavatzeles HaSharon (Toldos, p. 409-410) suggests the reasoning behind this debate (whether exactly ten percent needs to be given or whether estimation is allowed). The issue is whether maaser k’safim is considered a subset of regular maaser on crops or whether it is a subset of tz’dakah. If it is part of maaser, then an exact ten percent must be given, as opposed to if it is a part of tz’dakah, where the exact amount is not as important, and an estimate can be given.
Based on this understanding, the Chavatzeles HaSharon explains why the Rambam (Hilchos M’lachim 9:1) writes that Yitzchak Avinu, as opposed to Avraham Avinu, instituted maaser. Indeed, the Raavad queries on the Rambam from Avraham, who the pasuk says gave maaser. But, the Chavatzeles HaSharon answers that while Avraham may have given tz’dakah generally, Yitzchak was the first one to give “mei’ah sh’arim” – i.e., an exact amount.
Next Week’s Topic: Must you give maaser k’safim from (i) a gift, (ii) an inheritance, or (iii) insurance payout/litigation damages?
Rabbi Ephraim Glatt, Esq. is Assistant to the Rabbi at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills and a practicing litigation attorney. Questions? Comments? Email EphraimGlatt@gmail.com.