Question: May a person ever give more than 20 percent of his assets or income to tz’dakah?
Short Answer: Yes. The poskim debate how much more a person on his deathbed may give to tz’dakah. Likewise, according to many, a very rich person may give more than 20 percent. One may also give more than 20 percent to save a person’s life or to support Torah learning.
I. Takanas Usha
The Gemara (K’subos 50a) recounts that the Rabbis in Usha enacted an edict that no person can give more than one-fifth (20 percent) of his money to charity lest he become a pauper himself. [As an aside, Rav Yosef Shlomo Kahaneman, the Ponevezher Rav, once remarked that we learn from this Gemara how much the B’nei Yisrael love giving tz’dakah – so much that the Rabbis had to enact an edict preventing them from giving too much tz’dakah. See sefer Ezri Mei’im Hashem, p. 474.]
While the Beis Yosef (Yoreh Dei’ah 246) cites this Gemara, he does not list it in the Shulchan Aruch. The Rama (ibid), on the other hand, paskens like this Gemara – that one cannot give more than 20 percent of his money to tz’dakah.
II. The Deathbed Exception
There are numerous exceptions to this general rule. One exception, cited by the Rama (ibid), is that a person “at his time of death” may give as much tz’dakah as he wants. The simple understanding of this Rama is that a person on his deathbed may give away all his money to tz’dakah.
Rabbi Akiva Eiger (gloss, ibid) cites the Sh’iltos, which rules that a person on his deathbed may only give up to 33 percent of his money to tz’dakah, but no more. This is also the opinion of the Chochmas Adam (144:10) and the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (34:4).
Others, including the Chida (Birkei Yosef 15), suggest that a person can give up to 50 percent to tz’dakah on his deathbed, based on a story in the Gemara in K’subos. The Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh Dei’ah 249:1) appears to adopt this number as well. The percentages of 33 percent and 50 percent are likewise cited by the Chofetz Chaim in Ahavas Chesed (2:20).
Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l (Igros Moshe Choshen Mishpat 2:49-50) writes that one of the reasons why a person should not give all his money to tz’dakah, even on his deathbed, is because of the prohibition of not disinheriting one’s children. See also Tz’dakah U’Mishpat (1:9).
III. Rich Person Exception
Another exception is that a very rich person may give more than the 20 percent maximum. Indeed, the Sh’eilas Ya’avetz (3) writes that a person who otherwise has enough funds to take care of himself for the rest of his life, may give more than 20 percent to tz’dakah. See also Chochmas Adam (ibid).
However, Rav Moshe Feinstein (Igros Moshe Orach Chayim 1:143) disagrees, and thinks that although the Shulchan Aruch requires someone who “has means” to properly take care of the poor, the language of the Rama – by not distinguishing between rich and poor givers – suggests that the Rama did not agree with the Shulchan Aruch and would not require a very rich man to give more than 20 percent.
The Minchas Yitzchak (5:34:2) understands the Rama differently from Rav Moshe Feinstein. According to the Minchas Yitzchak, a very rich person must take care of all the poor man’s needs, even according to the Rama, who is merely adding to the opinion of the Shulchan Aruch.
IV. Other Exceptions
There is a discussion in Tz’dakah U’Mishpat (1:23) whether a person can spend more than 20 percent to save another person’s life (i.e., pay for his medical bills). After citing proofs for each opinion, the Tz’dakah U’Mishpat concludes by citing Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zt”l that even if one is obligated to spend more than 20 percent in such a situation, he can certainly claim reimbursement from the members of his community.
Another exception, cited by the Chofetz Chaim (Ahavas Chesed, ibid), is that a person may give more than 20 percent for talmud Torah. The reasoning is that supporting Torah scholars is in truth a partnership between the giver and the learner. Since the giver is benefiting from this transaction, he can give more than 20 percent. See sefer Y’shuos Daniel (144:10). The sefer P’sakim U’T’shuvos (249:2) cites Rav Sternbuch, who explains that learning Torah leads you to fulfill all mitzvos, and thus is tremendously important and worthy of spending more than 20 percent of one’s money on it.
Next Week’s Topic: 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)?
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.