Korach 5766 — How Much Do You Have to Give to Charity

Earlier this week Warren Buffet, the world’s second richest man, announced that he is giving $25 billion to the world’s richest man.

Well, he’s not exactly giving the money to Bill Gates. He’s giving the money to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, a charitable organization that is already the largest private foundation in the world with assets of $30 billion. Buffet’s gift will double the amount of money that the Gates Foundation gives away every year. The Foundation is being given two years to staff up to be able to give away an extra billion and a half dollars every year.

Buffet is actually giving away more than the $25 billion. He is giving away 85%–$32 billion worth—of his Berkshire Hathaway stock to five different foundations; the Gates Foundation is getting the lion’s share.

This is the largest charitable contribution in history. It shows that Warren Buffet is a truly remarkable man. Most really rich people are very ego driven. They want to build dynasties. They want to build large multi-generational fortunes like the Rockefellers are famous for. If they give money away, they often do it with fanfare and their name attached.

Buffet already has a couple of family foundations of his own. But instead of expanding those foundations – and giving away large amounts of money with the Buffet name attached – he decided it made more sense to give the money to an existing foundation, the Gates Foundation, whose work he approved of and who had the right management structure in place to handle the additional funds. It’s actually an approach not unlike his approach to investing, which has been to buy companies with good management and let them continue to do what they do well. His business empire is run out of Omaha, Nebraska, with a staff of just 20 people.

Buffet has said that he eventually plans to give away the bulk of the rest of his Berkshire Hathaway stock. By the time he’s done he will probably have given away something like 95% of his wealth.

What a remarkable example! What an inspiration to us all. The idea of dedicating 95% of your wealth to fighting poverty and sickness is truly setting a wonderful example.

It is, however, an example that few of us could hope to live up to. If I gave away 95% of my own wealth I’d probably end up living on cat food in my retirement, and would be taking handouts from the community to get by. Which is why the Jewish tradition actually sets an upper limit to charitable giving: you are not supposed to give away more than 20% of your net income unless you are wealthy enough to really afford it. Gates and Buffet of course could give away 99% of their income and still live like kings.

I hate to sound like I have a negative opinion of people, but to tell the truth I’d be surprised if there were many people here who needed be concerned that they might be violating the halacha, Jewish law, because they are giving away too much money to charity. For most of us the issue is not are we giving away too much money. The issue is, are we giving away enough?

So how much is enough? How much money are we obligated to give to charity? The Talmud in Bava Metzia says that to fulfill the obligation of giving tzedaka, you have to give at least one third of a shekel every year. I’m not sure how they calculated it, but the estimates are one third of a shekel equals $.84.

Before you pat yourself on the back saying, cool, I’ve given more than eighty four cents to charity this year, there are a lot of other obligations to give charity as well. The Torah commands us that whenever we see a poor person, we should not turn our eyes away and ignore him, but we should help him—so there is also an open ended obligation to help whenever it’s needed.

Furthermore, even though the Temple is no longer standing and we can’t give the half-shekel to the Temple, it is very appropriate to make at least a gift of that amount to support Israel. Instead of basing the calculation on the one I used above, and conclude that you should donate $1.25 to Israel, I suggest we calculate differently: 2,000 years ago, half a shekel represented about two days wages for the average worker – so giving two days of your wages specifically to Israeli causes would be an appropriate way to symbolically fulfill this mitzvah.

There is also a specific commandment to give matanot l’evyonim, gifts to poor people, on Purim, so that everyone can share in the joy of the holiday. It is customary to donate the value of the food you would have eaten on Yom Kippur to feed poor people, so that you won’t be accruing a financial benefit from the fast.

But the real biggie in our obligatory charitable donations is found in this week’s Torah portion, Korach. In this week’s parsha we read “And, behold, I have given the sons of Levi all the tenth in Israel for an inheritance, for their service which they serve, the service of the Tent of Meeting.”

Giving a tenth to the Levites is the origin of the custom of tithing. I find it kind of strange that tithing is a practice more typically associated with Christians than with Jews. Many Christians give 10% of their income to their church to fulfill this obligation. Some Christians argue about whether it’s an obligation or not, but still, I suspect more Christians tithe their income than Jews – and Christians for the most part don’t even see themselves as bound to follow the commandments!

Yet tithing is an ancient Jewish practice. In Genesis 28:22 we are told Jacob is talking to God and he says to God“and of all that You shall give me I will surely give the tenth to You.”

The Torah twice commands us to give a tenth: first in this week’s parsha, as previously mentioned, where we are told to give a tenth to the Levites, and again in Deuteronomy (14:22) where we are told עַשֵּׂר תְּעַשֵּׂר אֵת כָּל-תְּבוּאַת זַרְעֶךָ הַיּצֵא הַשָּׂדֶה שָׁנָה שָׁנָה “You shall truly tithe all the produce of your seed, that the field brings forth year by year.” The Hebrew word for tithe is aser, which means a tenth.

But what do these verses mean in terms of practical halacha, what we are required to provide? One could argue that these verses don’t apply to us today: the verse in Deuteronomy specifies produce, so you might try to argue that it’s only for farmers; the verse in this week’s parsha specifies that the tithe goes for Levites, so one might argue that the whole concept is inapplicable in these days when the Levites are no longer serving in the Temple, and one might further argue that the verse from Genesis describing Jacob’s practice is not a commandment but rather just showing us what he did, maybe to serve as an inspiration, but not as law.

And there are rabbis who make all of those arguments and conclude that maaser kaspim, tithing of money—giving 10% of one’s income to charity—is an ancient Jewish custom to be encouraged, but it is not an obligation. In the Mishneh Torah (Matanot Aniyim 7:5) Maimonides tells us that one who wants to fulfill the mitzvah of giving tzedaka in a praiseworthy fashion should give 20% of his income; someone who gives 10% is considered average, less than this is considered stingy. He also tells us in no event should someone give less than a third of shekel a year, for anyone who does not give that much has not fulfilled the mitzvah of giving charity—even a poor person living on the dole needs to give at least this much charity to someone else.

So by Rambam you need to give a tenth to avoid being considered stingy by God or your fellow man.

The Chatam Sofer (YD 232), on the other hand, understands the Maharil as saying that giving a tenth of one’s income is a Biblical requirement, and one who fails to give a tenth is not only stingy, but he is robbing from the poor and violating a commandment of the Torah!

The Tzitz Eliezer (9:1) specifically explores this question: is giving a ten
th of your income to charity a Biblical obligation, a rabbinic obligation, or just a nice custom? I haven’t had time to study his lengthy response in detail, but he concludes that it is a rabbinic obligation to give a tenth, although if it is difficult to give all of the 10% to the poor you are allowed to count expenses for your children and certain other mitzvot as part of your 10%.

So whether it is a Biblical requirement, a Rabbinic requirement, or just a nice thing to do is a subject of debate among the rabbis. This is a subject where I would love to see my colleagues add their views. I think this is a question of vital significance – how much charity is a person obligated to give? Yet when I was in rabbinical school we never studied any of these laws, and as near as I can tell neither of the Movement’s two law committees, the one in America and the one in Israel, have taken up the question. Perhaps I’ll address it after I get my paper on whistleblowing through the Law Committee.

But whether the requirement is Biblical, rabbinic, or custom, all the traditional sources agree that one should tithe. How exactly are we supposed to do that? Is it based on net income or gross? Can you just guesstimate are you supposed to calculate it precisely? Is it based on income or assets?

Rabbi Tsvi Shpitz of Jerusalem, as translated by Rabbi Aron Tendler of Valley Village, CA – my former neighbor and teacher of a Daf Yomi shiur I used to attend – brings some wonderful teachings on the principles to use in calculating your charitable obligations. To start with he quotes Rabbi David Oppenheim (1664-1736, Author of Shaalos U’Teshuvos Nishal L’Dovid): “Regarding financial Maaser, a person is a 9/10 partner with Hashem in his income. When it comes to deducting expenses, a person may deduct any expenses or losses that occur in his business as long as they are not due to his negligence, for there is a mutual liability (between the business and Maaser) …therefore any expenses incurred in earning the income, including any clothing that must be purchased for a business related journey, may be deducted.”

Viewing God as a business partner makes sense of a teaching in the Talmud which says that it is in your own “enlightened self-interest” to tithe. The Talmud says that if you give a tithe, you will be enriched. Not only that, we are normally told that it is forbidden to test the Holy One, to see if He lives up to His promises – except when it comes to tithing. The Talmud tells us it is OK to test the Lord by giving a tithe and seeing if you don’t become enriched! The prophet Malachi (Malachi 3:10) quotes God as saying “Bring the whole tithe unto the storehouse, that there may be food in My house, and try Me now herewith, says the Lord of Hosts, if I will not open you the windows of heaven, and pour you out a blessing, that there shall be more than sufficiency.”

Since God is a 10% minority partner in your “business”, in your income, he has an interest in seeing you prosper—since when you do well, His causes also benefit. So if you really treat God like a partner, God will help you succeed.

Rabbi Shpitz explains that this is why we should be precise in calculating our Maaser: “Therefore an accounting of the partner’s share is required, just like any partner. But if a person just gives a large amount without an accounting "out of the goodness of his heart", although he certainly is doing a wonderful Mitzvah, this is not making Hashem a partner in your business, rather you are fulfilling the Mitzvah to give Tzedakah, and are deserving of a reward like any other Mitzvah, but not the guarantee of someone who actually makes Hashem into a partner.”

So if God is a partner in the business of your life and the income you produce, how do we do the accounting? What is it you have to pay? What expenses are deductible?

Just like any business, you are allowed to deduct your expenses. Most taxes, like income tax, social security tax, etc., you can deduct from your maaser income—but not sales tax, because that’s really like part of the cost of something you buy. Your mortgage and other housing expenses are not deductible from your Maaser obligations unless you use your home as an office, in which case you could deduct the expenses that are associated with your home office. Costs of commuting to work are deductible from your Maaser obligation even if they are NOT deductible from your income taxes. So here’s a case where God is more generous than the IRS.

Gifts and inheritance definitely do count as Maaser income.

Now what counts as donations that are credited to you as Maaser? Certainly any money you give strictly for charitable purposes counts – donations to the Federation, Magen David Adom, the Red Cross, food banks, etc. Donations of goods counts for what their value is.

Your synagogue dues are not considered a charitable donation for Maaser purposes – you receive services for those dues, like seats for the High Holidays, education for yourself or your children, etc. If you pay full dues and other people pay partial dues, you could claim part of the dues as you are subsidizing other people. Other donations to the synagogue, like to support the capital campaign, or in honor of someone’s special simcha, would count as Maaser contributions.

There are some things that you can count as Maaser donations that you might not have thought of: if you have children in college, those expenses could count as Maaser since once the child is 18 you are no longer obligated to support them – so if they would otherwise be poor without your support, those expenses count. The expenses for a wedding for a child over 18 would count as part of your Maaser contribution as it is a mitzvah to help poor people wed, and presumably without your help your kids couldn’t afford it. If it is really tough for you to give the full tithe, you can even count the expenses for your minor children.

If this all sounds rather complicated, you’ll be relieved to know that someone has created an online Maaser calculator to help you figure out what your obligations are. Rabbi Dovid Bendory, an ordained rabbi who works as a software engineer and teaches Torah for the love of it, developed a calculator where you can sit down with your tax return and accounting records and figure out what your Maaser obligations are. You can find his calculator at http://rabbi.bendory.com/docs/maaser.php .

I will admit that I have not yet done these precise calculations for figuring my charitable obligations. On occasion, when I’ve had a “windfall” profit like cashing in some stock options I’ve set aside ten percent right away. But otherwise I’ve not been very precise. But I really like the idea of viewing God as a 1/10 partner in my business enterprise, and I’m going to try it and see how I come out. I suspect I will end up owing God money.

We can’t all be like Warren Buffet who can give away 95% of his income and have a lot left over. But we can all strive to make God our partner and pay Him his 10% promptly and cheerfully. Think of how it would change the world if we all treated this mitzvah with the seriousness that it deserves.

May God help us all to have the courage to really and truly make Him a partner not only in the business part of our lives but in the rest of our lives as well.


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Barry Leff

Rabbi Barry (Baruch) Leff is a dual Israeli-American business executive, teacher, speaker and writer who divides his time between Israel and the US.

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