Following is Rabbi Ari Enkin’s latest piece in a series on charity according to Torah thought.
Rabbi Yochanan says: Separate a 10th of your earnings so that you will become wealthy!
One of the first biblically mandated forms of charitable donations concerns one’s agricultural profits. The Torah teaches us that one who harvests a field should leave a portion of the field untouched so that the poor may come and take of it. Similarly, should one accidentally drop individual stalks when gathering produce, they must not be picked up, but rather left for the poor to come and gather.
Of course, the Torah also instructs us to care for the poor in terms of our financial resources. Not only is it required to give money to the poor, but even offering a loan is considered an important form of charity. The Torah teaches us that a charitable nature is one of the signs that a person is a true descendant of Abraham our forefather.
It was actually our forefather Abraham who introduced the well-known custom of tithing one’s income, known as ma’aser, namely, giving 10 percent of one’s net income to charity. This idea of tithing our resources continues in several other places throughout the Torah, as well. Indeed it is only with regard to charity that one is permitted to tease and test God, as it were. That’s right – you may “threaten” God that you’re giving charity “on condition” that you become wealthy. We are taught that God ensures high dividends for those who give charity with noble motives.
There is a difference of opinion among the halachic (Jewish legal) authorities as to whether this idea of donating 10 percent of one’s income to charity is truly an obligation per se. Some authorities insist that it is actually a biblical requirement, while others limit it to a rabbinically instituted requirement. Yet other authorities assert that the concept of donating 10 percent is not a requirement at all, but rather a recommended and meritorious custom. This latter ruling is actually the majority view. Be advised, however, that donating more than 20 percent of your income to charity is actually forbidden unless you’re really wealthy.
Regardless of how much one gives, donating to charity is a mitzvah (commandment) required of everyone. Of course, should one be so poor as to not even earn enough money to cover bare essentials for proper sustenance, such a person would be exempt from making charitable donations. People often forget or do not realize that it is more important to pay off outstanding debts and loans to others before dispensing charity, no matter how noble the cause.
No doubt you’ve often wondered: Which causes are worthy of receiving monies earmarked for charitable purposes? This is an exhaustive topic; a general rule is that supporting poor individuals is seen as the ideal use of ma’aser money, although other mitzvah-related projects and institutions are legitimate as well. In the event that one has amassed an amount of money intended for charity but does not desire to distribute it at the time, the money may be put aside in a special fund to be used at a later date.
Who are the poor people we should support? As with lending money, when supporting poor people with charitable gifts, we are taught to support the poor of our community first, but prior to supporting the poor of other communities, the poor of Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) come first.
As can be seen, issues surrounding charity and charitable donations are ones that Judaism takes seriously. May we be found worthy of never needing to be dependent on charity, but rather blessed with the ability to give it handsomely!
Below are earlier writings by Rabbi Enkin on the topic of charity.
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