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Donating to Shul Building Funds with Ma’aser Kesafim Money

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on February 15, 2018)
Topics: Terumah, Tzedakah & Social Justice

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Can I use my ma’aser kesafim, tithes from my income, to contribute to my synagogue’s building campaign, and can I use it to pay my shul’s membership dues?

Giving money to the building of a house of God is the theme of this week’s parasha:

Speak to the Children of Israel, and they that bring me an offering (terumah); from every person whose heart moves him to give, you shall take My offering (Ex. 25:2).

The second half of Shemot, in fact, is devoted almost exclusively to this project – the building of the Mishkan and the contributions in time, talent, and wealth that the people gave with such enthusiasm and generosity.

In our post-Temple period, the synagogue stands in for the Temple – it is referred to in Rabbinic literature as a mikdash me’at, a Temple-in-miniature – and it stands to reason that donating money to the building of a synagogue would be an important mitzvah. Which it indeed is. But the question is: is it a legitimate use of ma’aser kesafim money?

To answer this question, we have to better understand the nature of the obligation of ma’aser kesafim. Poskim debate just how obligatory it is – whether it is a Biblical or Rabbinic obligation, or only a custom. The evidence all seems to point to the latter.  Historically speaking, it was a custom that existed for centuries almost exclusively among Ashkenazic Jews; it was almost unknown in Sepharad.

Certainly nowhere in the Torah does it state that we must give a tenth of our income to tzedakkah. Our obligations to the poor consist of agricultural gifts (leket, shikhihah, peah), an agricultural tithe to the poor (ma’aser ani), leaving the produce that grows from the land during shmittah to the poor, and lending or giving money when a poor person asks for financial assistance.

This latter obligation that of tzedakkah, has no Torah-mandated minimum. If no poor person asks for assistance, then as a strict matter of halakha, there is no personal requirement to give (communal obligations are a different matter). The Talmud does mandate a minimum, but it is only 1/3rd of a shekel per year (see Baba Batra 9a).  Rambam rules this way, but he adds that for an average person, it is appropriate to give 1/10th of his or her income (Matnot Aniyim 7:5). Shulkhan Arukh rules likewise (YD 249:2).

Rambam is most probably taking his lead from that case of ma’aser ani. Although this gift was only given from grain, and was only given twice every seven years, it serves as a good model for a target amount for our tzedakkah giving.  This is especially the case for the post-Temple period, when our community’s income is not based primarily on agriculture.

The practice of tithing might be based on a very different model. When Yaakov runs away from Esav, and God appears to him and promises to protect him, Yaakov vows that if God will be with him, then “everything You give to me, I shall give a tithe to You” (Gen. 28:22). A similar episode took place two generations earlier. When Avraham returns from the war of the four kings, he gives a tenth of the plunder to Malkitzedek, a priest to God (Gen. 14:20, and see Breishit Rabbah, ch. 12).

To frame ma’aser kesafim as a tzedakkah obligation is to focus on the needs of the poor. If there were no poor, there would be no point in giving tzedakkah. Avraham and Yaakov’s tithes, on the other hand, were not given to the poor; they were given to God. This type of tithing serves a different purpose: it recognizes that our material success, indeed, everything that we have in this world comes from God, and we demonstrate this by giving back to God some of what we have received. This is fully captured in Yaakov’s vow: “Whatever You will give to me, I will tithe from it to You.”

Understood this way, ma’aser kesafim is more similar to the Tabernacle donating that takes place in our parasha, than it is to ma’aser ani. The key word that opens our parasha is not tzedakkah, but terumah, something lifted up to God. The first gift that we give from our grain is similarly referred to as terumah, as our first act when bringing in the harvest must be to recognize God’s hand in our success.

Whether a person can use his or her ma’aser money towards the synagogue’s building fund should directly depend on how we understand the nature of this tithing. If ma’aser kesafim is a form of tzedakkah, then it should be directed to the poor, and indeed the standard of 1/10th appears in Shulkhan Arukh and Rambam in the laws of tzedakkah. But if it is a way of giving back to God, then giving to the building of a synagogue would be an ideal use of the funds!

Rema, following the ruling of Maharil (Teshuvot 56) comes down on the side of tzedakkah: “And one should not use his ma’aser for (another) mitzvah, for example, to give candles to the synagogue or any other mitzvah, rather it must be given to the poor” (YD 249:2).

Many dispute Rema’s ruling. Shakh (YD 249:3) and Taz (YD 249:1) both rule that the money could be used for other mitzvah purposes, such as buying an aliyah or purchasing seforim, and this would certainly include donating to a synagogue or a yeshiva. For them, this is a tithing to God, not to the poor.

The general consensus is that ma’aser kesafim money can be used for mitzvah purposes and not just tzedakkah.  Therefore, as regards to the first question, a person can draw on her ma’aser kesafim money to make a donation to the shul’s building fund.

What about using it to pay shul dues? This raises a different, but related, question: may ma’aser money be used towards pre-existing obligations? If one were to follow the ma’aser ani model, one would likely conclude that it may not, since the Halakhah forbids ma’aser ani to be used towards other tzedakkah purposes (see YD 331). The poskim overwhelmingly reject this position in regards to ma’aser kesafim. They state that even if we are using ma’aser ani as a model, this is only a model. Since this is not true ma’aser ani, it does not operate under the same restrictions (see, e.g., Bach YD 331).

A number of poskim, however, remain wary of such doubling-up, since this translates into fewer mitzvot being done. For them, a person may use the money towards a mitzvah obligation, only if she would not have been able to do that mitzvah otherwise. For example, she couldn’t use it to pay for her lulav and esrog if she could otherwise afford them. But if she would have to forgo the mitzvah due to lack of funds, she may use her ma’aser money to make this purchase (see Shakh and Taz, above).

When one turns to the contemporary poskim, one sees in a number of them certain compromise, or even pluralistic, positions. Shvut Yaakov (R. Yaakov Reicher,17th Century, Prague, Responsa 2:85) states that while ma’aser kesafim is not technically obligatory, and it certainly is not a form of ma’aser ani, there are communities that have adopted it as an obligation. For those communities, giving ma’aser kesafim is a binding obligation. Implicit in this practice is to treat ma’aser kesafim as a type of ma’aser ani. Thus, if someone has adopted the practice of ma’aser kesafim, she may not use it for preexisting mitzvah obligation, and possibly not for any purpose other than to give financial support to the poor.  For this posek, paying shul dues, and possibly donating to the shul’s building fund as well, is not an acceptable use of ma’aser kesafim money.

Rav Waldenberg takes a different tack.  Noting that this practice is a minhag, Rav Waldenberg argues that a person is free to choose from many possible models when beginning this practice. This is true in terms of how one computes ma’aser kesafim (for example: is it 1/10th of income after taxes and household expenses or before?), and – more to our point – in terms of whether it may or may not be used towards non-tzedakkah mitzvah obligations. If one chooses a more permissive model, she would be able to use them to make a donation to the shul’s building fund and to pay for shul membership dues.

My personal view is that one should adopt a model that stretches his or her giving, but that does so to a point that it is manageable.  One should also be prepared to reconsider what model he or she is using when life circumstances change.  The goal should be to have a system in place that constantly reminds us that our financial success is thanks to God, that pushes us to do more mitzvot and give more tzedakkah, and that gives us discretion, so that we may give with with nedivut lev, because our hearts move us to do so.