Question: How is maaser k’safim different from the mitzvah of tz’dakah, and does maaser k’safim even apply nowadays?
Short Answer: Maaser k’safim is an obligation to give 10% of your income to charity, regardless of whether you encounter a poor person. The poskim disagree whether this obligation is biblical, rabbinic, or just a minhag nowadays.
I. What is Tz’dakah?
As an initial matter, the Torah obligates us to give tz’dakah, as well as not to turn down empty-handed a poor person who requests funds. See D’varim 15:7-8.
The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Dei’ah 247:1 and 249:1-2), after extolling the virtues of giving tz’dakah, rules that one who can afford to give tz’dakah must provide a poor person with sufficient funds to take care of the poor person’s needs. The average giver should give 10% of his own assets to tz’dakah, while a generous giver should give 20%.
However, a person must give at the very least one-third of a shekel per year, which roughly comes out to $10 per year. See Tz’dakah U’Mishpat (1:6) and Rav Ari Marburger, A Practical Guide To Giving Charity, available at https://www.businesshalacha.com/en/publication/tzedaka-and-maaser-k’safim. Importantly, however, if one never encounters a poor person over the course of the year, he is only obligated to give this minimum.
II. What is Maaser K’safim
The Avos were the first to give maaser k’safim: Avraham gave a tithe to Malki-Tzedek (see Raavad, Hil. M’lachim 9:1), Yitzchak gave a tithe (see Rambam, Hil. M’lachim 9:1), and Yaakov promised a tithe to Hashem (see Daas Z’keinim, B’reishis 28:22). Indeed, the Sifrei (see Tosafos, Taanis 9a) learns that not only does a person have an obligation to give maaser from his crops, but he also must give maaser (10%) of his money to charity.
Interestingly, the Shulchan Aruch does not address maaser k’safim. Nevertheless, the Tur (Yoreh Dei’ah 331), as well as the Rama (ibid), reference the laws of maaser ani, which parallel the laws of maaser k’safim in many ways.
Notably, maaser k’safim is different from tz’dakah. One must give maaser k’safim each year, regardless of whether he encounters poor people or not. See Tz’dakah U’Mishpat (5:11) and Shalmei Simchah (Vol. 6, 3:1).
III. Maaser K’safim Nowadays
The poskim debate the precise nature of our obligation nowadays to give maaser k’safim.
The Vilna Gaon (cited in Minchas Tzvi, 3:2 and in Kuntras Hilchos Tz’dakah 2:2) understands that maaser k’safim nowadays is a biblical obligation. (Accordingly, maaser k’safim may be the exact same as tz’dakah!) The Sifrei (mentioned above) likewise appears to understand maaser k’safim as a biblical obligation. [See also Hilchos Maaser K’safim (R’ Batzri, 1:1), who cites some as understanding the Maharil as holding maaser k’safim is a biblical obligation.]
The Taz (Yoreh Dei’ah 331:32), on the other hand, understands that maaser k’safim is only a rabbinic obligation nowadays. Indeed, it is the rabbinic obligation for maaser ani. This is the opinion of the Birkei Yosef (Yoreh Dei’ah 249:3) as well. [See also Hilchos Maaser K’safim (R’ Batzri, 1:1) who cites some as understanding the Maharil as holding maaser k’safim is a rabbinic obligation.]
However, many poskim, including the Bach (Yoreh Dei’ah ibid), hold that maaser k’safim is simply a minhag nowadays. See Minchas Tzvi (ibid.) and Tz’dakah U’Mishpat (5:11). Accordingly, once a person observes maaser k’safim, it becomes like a neder that he must always keep. The Tz’dakah U’Mishpat advises that one should say “bli neder” before accepting such a minhag.
Finally, the Kuntras Hilchos Tz’dakah cites the Chazon Ish as holding that the reason why we observe maaser k’safim nowadays is to ensure that we are fulfilling our mitzvah of tz’dakah. In other words, we give 10% as maaser k’safim because a regular person anyway needs to spend up to 10% of his assets on tz’dakah.
Next Week’s Topic: May a person ever give more than 20% of his assets or income to tz’dakah?
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.