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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Terumah – The Rosh Yeshiva Responds – Using Ma’aser Kesefaim Money for a Shul’s Building Fund

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on February 14, 2024)
Topics: Rosh Yeshiva Responds, Sefer Shemot, Terumah, Torah

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דַּבֵּר אֶל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ לִי תְּרוּמָה מֵאֵת כָּל אִישׁ אֲשֶׁר יִדְּבֶנּוּ לִבּוֹ תִּקְחוּ אֶת תְּרוּמָתִי:

Speak unto the children of Israel, that they shall bring to Me an offering: from every person who gives it willingly with his heart shall you take My offering. (Shemot 25:2)

QUESTION-Los Angeles, CA

Can I use my ma’aser kesafim, tithes from my income, to contribute to my synagogue’s building campaign?

ANSWER

Giving money to the building of a house of God is the theme of this week’s parasha, where the Israelites were called on to donate to the construction of the Tabernacle. In our post-Temple period, the synagogue stands in for the Temple, and there is no question that donating money to the building of a synagogue is an important mitzvah. But 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 and for centuries it was practiced almost exclusively among Ashkenazic Jews; it was almost unknown in Sepharad.

There is also a debate as to the nature of ma’aser kesafim. Is it understood as a classic tzedakah obligation, which would mandate that it be given to the poor? Or is it more like the tithes that we find Avraham and Yaakov giving: gifts not to the poor, but to God? This type of tithing serves not primarily to help those in need, but to help us recognize that our material success, indeed, everything that we have in this world, comes from God, as is captured in Yaakov’s vow: “Whatever You will give to me, I will tithe from it to You.” (Breishit 28:22). The key word here is not tzedakah, but terumah—the word that opens our parsha—something lifted up to God.

If ma’aser kesafim is a form of tzedakkah, then it should be directed to those in financial straits 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 tzedakah: “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. 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.  A person can thus draw on her ma’aser kesafim money to make a donation to the shul’s building fund (or to their favorite Torah institution!).

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