8/19/20239 min read

Charity and the Ten Percent Rule


Charity (Tzedakah) is included in a broad range of behavior under the heading of loving-kindness (gemilut hasadim). It is a mitzvah in the Torah to ‘love your friend as yourself.’1 This is the biblical source for acts of kindness (hesed) which make this world a better place and draw us closer to the final redemption.2

This article will discuss the following topics:

1. The different types of kindness (hesed).

2. Order of priorities.

3. No limits on hesed.

4. Tzedakah.

5. Is tithing for tzedakah (maaser kesafim) a Torah law, rabbinic law, or a custom (minhag)?

6. May a person support his own children from his maaser kesafim?

1. The Different Types of Kindness (Hesed)

A person can help someone in a variety of different ways:

1. Physical help. Assisting someone to lift or carry a burden. Giving someone a ride. Having and entertaining guests (hakhnasat orhim).

2. Mental support. Listening to someone else’s problems, empathizing with them, and helping them to gain a positive attitude.

3. Spiritually. Teaching others about God, the Torah and mitzvot. Spreading ethical monotheism.

4. Speaking positively about others. Recommending someone to somebody else to make business contacts, find a marriage partner, or to make friends. Giving positive encouragement and praise.

5. Financial support. Giving a person in need a loan, tzedakah or employment.

6. Bikur holim. Visiting the sick and taking care of their needs; praying for them and cheering them up.

7. Hesed shel emet.3 Taking care of the needs of the deceased.

2. Order of Priorities

The Shulhan Arukh4 states that the following people take precedence over others with regard to acts of charity:

a) One’s older children whom one is not obligated to support any longer in order to teach them Torah and an ethical and moral lifestyle. One’s parents if they are unable to support themselves.

b) Other relatives.5

c) Other members of one’s household, e.g. poor servants.

d) The poor of your town.

e) The poor of Israel.

f) The poor of other places.

The Rema gives a slightly different order of priorities:

a) Oneself.

b) One’s poor parents.

c) One’s children.

d) One’s siblings.

e) One’s immediate neighbors.

f) The indigenous poor.

g) Others.

3. No Limits on Hesed

The Mishnah in Peah6 states the following: These are mitzvot with no maximum limits:

a) Peah (separating a corner of one’s field for the poor).

b) Bikkurim (bringing first fruits to the Temple).

c) Re’ayon (visiting the Bet Hamikdash three times a year). There is no time limit on how long a person should spend in the Temple.

d) Acts of kindness (gemilut hasadim). There is no upper limit on acts of kindness, it is left up to our free choice.

e) Learning Torah.

The mitzvah of kindness is one of the pillars on which the world stands, as Shimon Hatzadeek says in Pirke Avot7: ‘On three things does the world rest: Torah, service of God, and acts of kindness.’

4. Tzedakah - Charity

Tzedakah is one facet of loving-kindness, which is performed with a person’s belongings rather than his or her person.

Tzedakah is not only one of the facets of loving-kindness, but it is a mitzvah in its own right, as it says ‘you will surely open your hand to your poor brother.’8 By hiding from a poor person a person transgresses the negative commandment of ‘do not close your hand to your poor brother.’9

The concept of tithing one’s belongings and giving a tenth away to tzedakah (charity) is an old one mentioned in Genesis: When Abraham our forefather conquered the four kings in order to save his brother-in-law and cousin, Lot, he gave one-tenth of all the belongings that he had captured to Malkhitzedek, the King of Shalem, priest to the High God.10 Also Jacob when he left his father’s house to run to Haran to escape Esau’s wrath makes a vow that whatever God would give him he would give one-tenth back.11

There are mitzvot of tithing in the Torah, but they all seem to deal with the tithing of agricultural produce not money or other commodities. For example, one tenth of a person’s crop had to be given to the Levites and on the third and sixth years of the Shemittah cycle another tenth was to be separated and given to the poor. This was known as maaser ani (tithe for the poor).

Tosaphot,12 one of the classic Talmudic commentators, quotes the Sifri on the verse: ‘You will surely take a tenth of all the produce of your crops...’ The Sifri points out that the word ‘all’ is redundant in the verse and therefore must teach us something additional. The Sifri says that the additional law, that we learn from the extra word is that of maaser kesafim - tithing ones profits whether in goods or money.

Rambam,13 Tur and Shulhan Arukh all quote this law in their books of halakhah.

Shulhan Arukh seems to divide the mitzvah of tzedakah into four levels:14

a) The ideal for a very wealthy person: If a person can afford it he should give as much tzedakah as the poor require.

b) The ideal for an average person: If he is unable to give as much as the poor require he should give at least one-fifth, the first year from his capital, and from then on one-fifth of his profits annually.

c) The recommended minimum for an average person: One-tenth of one’s income is the average quantity that a person should give. Less than this is miserliness.

d) The absolute minimum that a person should give is: Not less than a third of a shekel15 a year to charity.16

5. Is Tithing for Tzedakah (Maaser Kesafim) a Torah Law, Rabbinic Law, or a Custom (Minhag)?

There are a variety of opinions regarding the halakhic basis for maaser kesafim covering the entire spectrum of possibilities:

Bah17 and other authorities18 write that tithing one’s income is neither a Torah law nor a rabbinic law, for the following reasons:

1) Most of the great early rabbinic authorities do not mention this law.

2) It is true that the Sifri, Midrash Tanhuma and Yalkut Shimoni all quote this law, but why does the Talmud not quote it? The Talmud Yerushalmi19 says that we are not allowed to learn halakhah from stories or from additional material, only from the Talmud.

3) The law of tithing agricultural produce and giving it to the poor (maaser ani) is a law from the Torah and yet the Torah only obligates this on the third and sixth years of the shemittah cycle and not every year. If the rabbis did make this law of tithing for tzedakah based on the verse quoted by the Sifri, it would be logical to make it exactly the same as the Torah law of maaser ani i.e. only applicable on the third and sixth years of the shemittah cycle.

4) Even Rambam and Shulhan Arukh, who quote the law of the Sifri conclude that a person should not give less than three shekels a year. We see that they hold that tithing is not a requirement of Jewish law and is therefore not obligatory. Giving three shekels a year is, however, mandatory, because it is a requirement of Jewish law.

5) If maaser kesafim is obligatory, why do the majority of Jews not observe it? We find that only one or two people in a city give a tenth of their profits to tzedakah. (In the time of Bah).

6) The Talmud20 does discuss the verse that is the source for the Sifri’s rule of tithing income and does not learn the same rule from it.

Tur and Rema21 write that one is not obligated to give maaser kesafim if one cannot afford it because one is not obligated to give charity unless one has enough for one’s own needs. On the other hand, maaser ani - the tithe for the poor, has to be paid by everyone regardless of lack of their financial resources.22 It appears that they are of the opinion that maaser kesafim is not a mitzvah but a hiddur mitzvah.23

However, Hida (Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai) insists that maaser kesafim is a rabbinic law. He explains that the reason most people were lenient on maaser kesafim was not because it is not a mitzvah, but because most people were engaged in supporting their own children. The Talmud considers this to be tzedakah because sometimes a person can spend over half of their earnings on expenses involving their own children. Similarly, some people help to financially support their poor relatives. This can also be considered part of their maaser kesafim. Therefore only very wealthy members of the community had the custom to give maaser kesafim.

Even though one is not allowed to feed one’s own poor parents maaser ani, the biblically-ordained tithe for the poor, one is allowed to provide for one’s parents from the rabbinically-prescribed maaser kesafim.

Maharam of Rottenberg agrees with the Bah that maaser kesafim is neither a Torah Law nor a rabbinic law, but says that it is a custom.24

Once a person starts a good minhag with the intent to continue, or he does it three times in a row it becomes a vow.25

6. May a Person support his own Children from his Maaser Kesafim?

Rambam26 and Shulhan Arukh27 write:

A person who provides for his older sons and daughters, for whom he is not obliged according to law to support, in order to teach them Torah and lead them along the right path, performs the mitzvah of tzedakah. And it is a high form of tzedakah because the closest relatives take priority.

This law is based on the Talmud,28 which comments on the following verse:

‘Happy are they that do justice and perform righteous deeds all the time.’29 Is it possible to do righteousness (tzedakah) at all times? Our Rabbis from Yavneh, and some say Rabbi Eliezer, explained that this (verse) refers to a person who maintains his sons and daughters when they are young.30

The Talmud later on31 explains that a person has an obligation to support his children until the age of six. We can infer that beyond the age of six a person may support his children from his tzedakah contributions.

The Shakh32 quotes Maharam me’Rottenberg:

It is allowed to support one’s grown children from maaser money even if one has the ability to pay for their needs without touching the maaser money, since this is also considered tzedakah as mentioned later in the Shulhan Arukh.33

The Taz, however, dismisses this opinion and states that the Talmud considers supporting one’s children as an act of righteousness, but not as an act of charity (tzedakah), and one is forbidden to utilize one’s maaser money for the upkeep of one’s children over age six. 34

The Arukh Hashulhan35 also prohibits a person to support his children or even grandchildren using maaser money. Otherwise no one will give a cent to the poor.

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein36 writes that in the present day and age, a person is prohibited from supporting his children over age six from his maaser money. His rationale is that, according to Rabenu Nissim, a person’s obligation to support his children under age six stems from his obligation to his wife, since they are totally dependent on her and she cannot bear to withhold their support. Supporting them is part of supporting her.37 In today’s society, where mother and children live together in the same house and the children are unable to support themselves independently, the father is also obliged to support them as part and parcel of his support for his wife.

Rabbi Ovadia Yosef states that a person is allowed to support his children over age six from his maaser kesafim. He disagrees with Rabbi Moshe Feinstein for the following reasons:

a) The Ribash and the Rosh considered a situation similar to that cited by Rabenu Nissim above, where a man had a child from an unmarried woman who was not his wife. They still made him pay for the child’s upkeep even though there was no contractual relationship of a ketubah but simply because of the moral obligation of it being his child.

b) Similarly the Semag obliged a man to support his children even though he was now divorced from their mother. We see that a man is obligated to provide for his young children regardless of his contractual obligations to his wife.

The Chief Rabbinate of Israel, in order to enforce child support payments, passed a rabbinical edict in the 1950s that made a man liable to support his children up to age fifteen,38 not just up to the age of six mentioned in the Talmud. Nevertheless, even after this edict, a person may deduct his child support payments from his ‘maaser kesafim.’ This rabbinical edict was not made to remove the mitzvah of tzedakah from a father who supported his son through ages six to fifteen, but to force those fathers who would shirk their responsibilities of kindness and charity toward their own children and leave them penniless.

c) Rabbi Yosef Karo, famed halakhic authority and author of the Shulhan Arukh and Bet Yosef in his responsa entitled Avkat Rokhel,39 discusses the obligation of ‘maaser kesafim’ and concludes that the obligation to tithe one’s money applies only after paying one’s household expenses, this would include expenses on children over age six.

Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg,40 concludes that since the majority of our legal decisors (poskim) determine that ‘maaser kesafim’ is either a rabbinical ordinance or only a ‘minhag’, a person may be lenient and give ‘maaser’ from what is left after sustaining his household without any constraints. If a person was already accustomed to give ‘maaser’ as a percentage of his gross earnings, he may annul his minhag and then only give ‘maaser’ as a percentage of his net earnings after subtracting all his household expenses.


If a person can afford to give ten percent of his income to the poor and support Yeshivot he should do so.

For Sepharadim a person who tithes his income is allowed to subtract from the tithe the cost of supporting his children over the age of six, even if they are dependent on him. Similarly, a person may use his maaser (tithe) money to pay for his children’s weddings, apartments, furniture etc. to enable them to get established, especially if his sons or sons-in-law are learning Torah, in which case it is a tremendous mitzvah to support them honorably.

A person, who, because of financial constraints is unable to give ten percent of his gross income, may give ten percent of what is left of his income after subtracting his household expenses.

There are Ashkenazic opinions that do not allow support of children over six to be deducted from the ten percent tithe and a competent rabbi should be consulted.