I was recently having a conversation with someone I know that is an active member of a mega-Church with tens of thousands of members and multiple satellite locations. Curious about how they support the tremendous infrastructure, I asked him how much dues cost. He responded that there are no dues because the Church budget is more than supported through people’s tithing.
“C’mon,” I asked, “people really tithe? They really give ten percent of their income away every paycheck they get?” I pressed him. “You really give the first ten percent to the Church, no questions asked?” “Yes,” he answered. “And what percentage of the members at your Church do you think tithe?” I asked. He looked at me bewildered and said, “at least ninety eight percent.” He must have seen the look of shock on my face and he continued, “Rabbi, why are you surprised? It says in the Bible you have to tithe, it’s not like it is negotiable.”
The truth is, while the Torah does mandate giving tzedaka, there is a great debate regarding the source of the obligation to tithe. Some say it is Biblical, others Rabbinic and others as a binding custom that the community has accepted. Regardless, the virtuous practice of giving ma’aser, tithing ones income, began with our religion and remains part of the expectation of a practicing Jew today.
Observing the laws of ma’aser is complicated and includes such questions as how does one calculate ma’aser – gross or net income? Can one make deductions from ma’aser such as the cost associated with earning the money? What can ma’aser legitimately be spent on? Is tuition or at least a portion of it considered ma’aser? Should those receiving financial help from the community still be tithing?
While the answers to these questions are beyond the scope of this article, I raise the subject of ma’aser to challenge us to picture a Jewish community that functions financially like my friend’s Church. Imagine if everyone gives ten percent of their net income back to the community, no questions asked, no creative accounting, no excuses and no confused priorities. Imagine if almost every member of the Jewish community saw the giving of ma’aser as non-negotiable and an obvious and expected part of their lives?
Yet, for some reason so many people who generally accept Torah, mitzvos and halacha as binding and obligatory, see giving meaningful tzedaka as a practice they can simply choose to pass on. But helping others, contributing to indigent people, worthy organizations and meaningful causes is no less incumbent on us and expected of us than keeping kosher, observing Shabbos, wearing tefillin or lighting Shabbos candles.
The Rambam points out that tzedaka is a peculiar name to describe a person giving their hard earned money that belongs to them to someone else who did nothing for it. Shouldn’t such a deed be called chesed, kindness instead of tzedaka meaning just? What is just about mandating that I give what is mine to someone else? He explains that in truth tzedaka is completely just when you recognize that not all that you have is really yours. God assigns us as stewards of what is truthfully His money and while He generously allows us to keep ninety percent of that which we worked hard for, He fully expects us to allocate the remaining ten percent to help care for His other children. When we use that money properly, it is not a benevolent act of kindness, but rather it is an act of justice and righteousness.
Many hesitate to give tzedaka appropriately because they feel their own lives are so incredibly expensive that they simply cannot afford to be generous with others. There is legitimacy to such a claim as the Rama (y.d. 251:3) writes, “providing for one’s livelihood takes priority over all others and one is not obligated to give charity until one’s own livelihood is secured.” But that is only part of the story. R’ Yechiel Michel Epstein in his Aruch Ha’Shulchan, qualifies the ruling of the Rama:
Thus it seems clear to me…that one’s own livelihood takes priority, is limited to an individual who earns only sparing bread and scarce water…However, it is obvious that a person who earns a prosperous living, like an important household who eats bread, meat and other cooked items as befits him and clothes and cloaks himself appropriately is obligated to disburse 10 or 20 percent of his income to charity…This formulation must be correct, otherwise there would be no limit on one saying that one’s own livelihood takes priority and everyone would claim that they need all of their income for their livelihood, for there is no limit to expenses as we know. Rather, it must be as I have presented that this rule applies only to one who has but a small amount of food to sustain his own life and the lives of his wife and young sons and daughters.
For the Aruch Ha’Shulchan, the financial priorities of our lives should look like this – First, I cover my necessities, then I give my ma’aser, and only then can I indulge in luxuries. Imagine what we could accomplish if giving ma’aser took priority over lavish simchas, fancy vacations, gratuitous Starbuck stops, latest gadgets, a new car every 3 years, etc.
While it should be natural to give tzedaka, the reality of the world is that too often people need to be solicited and then recognized in order to give. But while recognition and honor are effective strategies, we shouldn’t have to celebrate the fulfillment of this mitzvah more than we do any other. We don’t list all of those who do business honestly, do chesed regularly or put on tefillin consistently. Moreover, those that give large amounts may in fact be giving a smaller percentage of their income than those that give less. It would be most appropriate for us to acknowledge and honor those that give the highest percentage of their income, rather than those that give the largest amounts.
But alas, our organizations and underprivileged are in need and so the reality is that we must do all that we can to raise the greatest sum, including honoring specifically those that give the largest donations, particularly because it encourages others to give similarly. Halachik authorities allow and some even encourage using one’s name when pledging or naming in order to encourage others to give as well.
With that said, the Rambam in his famous hierarchy of giving lists among the greatest forms of tzedaka one who gives anonymously. In a remarkable effort to fulfill this high level of giving, a trio of philanthropists took great pains to conceal their giving until sadly, a Businessweek article last month entitled “The $13 Billion Mystery Angels” decided to expose them.
The article tells how for more than two decades, the partners at little known hedge fund TGS Management gave more than $13 billion to charity through lawyers who helped them hide their identities. From 1999 to 2005, the law firm established more than a dozen anonymous private foundations with names like Shekel Funding and Matan B’Seter Foundation, anonymous gift in Hebrew. Between 2001 and 2012, $137.6 million was given to at least 26 Jewish charities.
The three men exposed by the article cherish their privacy and value modesty and therefore simply don’t talk about their wealth or extraordinary philanthropy. When Businessweek’sreporter introduced himself to one of them at a Jewish conference on philanthropy, he refused to talk and walked away. Another member of this incredible trio reluctantly granted an interview with the Los Angeles Times in 2004 and said, “I don’t think that if you have a lot of money and you give away a lot of money, you should get a lot of recognition. You shouldn’t be able to buy that,” he said. “Most wealthy people spend their lives trying to make more and more money rather than give it away. They wait too long. They are depriving themselves of a lot of joy.”
Businessweek may have sold magazines with this fantastic expose, but in my opinion they did something terribly unethical and inappropriate by violating the wishes of these philanthropists to remain anonymous and by bringing their acts of giving down a few levels on the Rambam’s hierarchy by revealing the recipients and donors of more than $13 billion worth of giving.
The trio may not be able to go back into hiding, but we can draw tremendous inspiration from their story. Even if we can’t give away the enormous amounts that they did, we can follow in their footsteps and make sure not to deprive ourselves of the joy of giving without having to be asked or expecting to be honored.
Just imagine what the Jewish community would look like if ninety eight percent of us tithed, no solicitation or pressure necessary.