JA: How much money should one give to tzedakah?
RHS: If one can afford it, the recommended amount is one-tenth of one’s annual earnings, which includes salary and interest earned. There are different opinions as to whether the one-tenth is applied to the total earned [aside from withheld taxes] or to the remainder after essential living expenses. I think the general practice follows the first opinion. Of course, this applies only if one can afford it. If one cannot afford to give one-tenth of his income to tzedakah then he should not.
The Gemara (Ketubot 50a), quoted by the Rambam (Hilchot Arachim 8:13), seems to say that the maximum one may give is 20 percent, because if one gives too much, one may become poor and dependent on the charity of others. In another place (Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 7:5), the Rambam sets the recommended amount, rather than the maximum, as 20 percent. Yaakov Avinu said (Bereishit 28:22) that from everything he will earn “aser a’asrenu lach,” he will give one tenth and then another tenth. The Chofetz Chaim (Ahavat Chesed II 50:2) resolves this contradiction regarding whether 20 percent is the maximum or the recommended amount. According to the Chofetz Chaim, if poor people are knocking at one’s door asking for donations, if one can afford it, then one should give up to 20 percent. But if people are not asking for that much then the recommended level of giving is 10 percent.
JA: When giving tzedakah, can people decide entirely on their own whom to give?
RHS: A person does have some tovat hana’ah, the right to decide whom to give the money, but not that much. The mishnah in Pirkei Avot (3:8) tells us that we are only trustees of HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s money. We shouldn’t act as if it is ours. “Ten lo mishelo she’atah veshelcha mishelo, Give to Him what is His because you and yours are His.” Everything belongs to the Ribbono Shel Olam—our bodies, our souls, our wisdom and our property. We should act as if we are just trustees giving out His money. That is why we must follow the instructions of the Chumash (Devarim 15:7), quoted in the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 251:3), regarding priorities for whom to give more and whom less.
The Rambam (Hilchot Matnot Aniyim 7:7) quotes Tehillim (75:21) “Al yashuv dach nichlam, Do not send a poor man away embarrassed.” If a poor person asks for tzedakah for himself, you must give him something. But you do not have to give him a hundred dollars; you can give him just one dollar. You have a little tovat hana’ah. You have the right to choose whom to give a lot and whom to give a little.
We are only trustees of HaKadosh Baruch Hu’s money. We shouldn’t act as if it is ours.
This rule does not apply to a person collecting for an institution. You can choose not to give tzedakah to an institution because you want to donate elsewhere. Some people respond with a check to every solicitation letter they receive. I don’t. I throw out most of these letters. I’m not obligated to send money to an institution or to a person I’ve never heard of. If a poor person is standing in front of you, then you have to give him something. If a person is collecting for someone else or for an institution, or if he or even a famous rav sends a letter rather than comes himself, then the rule does not apply, and you are not obligated to give anything.
JA: What are the priorities for determining whom to give more?
RHS: The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 251:3), based on Biblical and Talmudic sources, states that poor relatives come first, next come neighbors, then people in the same city [aniyei ircha], and then the poor in Israel [aniyei Eretz Yisrael]. The Chatam Sofer (VI:27) gives precedence to the poor of Yerushalayim over those from elsewhere in Eretz Yisrael, and then the poor people who live in other parts of the world.
The question is what does “precedence” mean? Does it mean you give everything to the poor people in your family? The commentaries assume that this is not the case. The Chatam Sofer (II: 233-234) writes that you give half of your tzedakahmoney to family and divide the other half among other poor people. Others think that you have to give more than half to those who take precedence.
The Aruch HaShulchan (Yoreh Deah 251:4) says a little more than half—51 percent. The Pitchei Teshuvah (251:2) quotes an opinion that states you should give three-quarters to those with precedence and one-quarter to the rest. The Chachmat Adam (145:5) and Rabbi Moshe Feinstein say that the split is two-thirds/one-third.
For many years, the American community was supporting its own yeshivot and sending its surplus tzedakah money to Eretz Yisrael. Now we realize that there is no surplus money and yeshivot in America are closing.
Here is an example following this last opinion: Assuming I have $1,000 to give to tzedakah, if I have a relative who needs $667, I give it to him. The maximum is $667; but if he needs less, I give him less. Once my relatives are taken care of within the amount of $667, I give up to two-thirds of the remaining money to needy neighbors. And of the remaining money, I similarly give up to two-thirds to aniyei ircha. And so on, through the list of priorities.
However, aniyei ircha does not refer to the poor people of your city literally. I live in Manhattan. Are all the poor people in New York considered my aniyei ircha? I don’t think so. Years ago, the cities were small and aniyei ircha were the people you knew. Today, aniyei ircha are the people with whom you associate, with whom you have a kesher. There are so many shuls in New York, but I don’t daven in all of them. There are so many mikvaot in this city, but my family only uses one. The shuls and mikvah from which my family benefits are considered aniyei ircha. The yeshivot where I, my children and my grandchildren learned, even in distant cities or countries, are considered aniyei ircha. The institutions with which I have a connection are aniyei ircha, and those with which I have no link are aniyei ir acheret [the poor of another city].
JA: Is it better to give to poor people far away so they can eat or to a local yeshivah so it does not close down?
RHS: That is a very serious question. For many years, the American community was supporting its own yeshivot and sending its surplus tzedakah money to Eretz Yisrael. Now we realize that there is no surplus money and yeshivot in America are closing. I think that our local yeshivot take precedence over aniyim in another city. Let other people take care of the aniyim in the other city until we can support ourselves and educate our children.
JA: Should someone who receives tuition assistance give tzedakah priority to those yeshivot?
RHS: Definitely. One who is receiving a tuition scholarship should certainly give tzedakah money, if he has any to give, to the institution offering him the discounted tuition. He should give his own money or raise funds from others to try to return the amount of the tuition break.
JA: Is it tzedakah to give to a yeshivah that pays higher wages than was standard in the past?
RHS: I think it is considered tzedakah. Years ago, many yeshivot and day schools had under-qualified teachers. Those teachers knew how to speak Hebrew and read a little Chumash, but they were lacking in knowledge and often observance. Many of them were not even shomer Shabbat. What kind of a positive religious influence can such teachers have on children? We would prefer to have observant and learned teachers but such people can go into many other fields. We expect a little mesirut nefesh [sacrifice] on the part of Jewish educators, but we can’t expect that much. Since they can go into other professions and make more money, we have to make chinuch appealing. If we do not pay decent salaries, we are not going to get good teachers.
JA: Is it considered tzedakah to give money to people who can work but choose not to?
RHS: There is absolutely no mitzvah of tzedakah in this case. The mitzvah of tzedakah is to give to a poor person. Someone who has the ability to earn a living is not considered poor. I am not obligated to give him tzedakah just because he decided to retire at the age of twenty.
Rabbi Gil Student writes frequently on Jewish issues and blogs at TorahMusings.com.