The minimum annual contribution to tzedakah is an amount under $2. However, that is unacceptably low for a person who himself eats decent food and wears decent clothes.
If one gives the minimal amount or above, he or she fulfills the mitzvah of tzedakah, but not necessarily as it should be done(1). The minimum annual contribution to fulfill the mitzvah of tzedakah is one-third shekel. Albert (p. 153) concludes that one-third shekel is 10.1 grams (about one-third troy ounce) of fine silver or a little under $2.00. Blau (p. 6) says 6.5 grams of silver, about $1. That amount would be appropriate for someone who has no income or is so poor he himself is supported by tzedakah and is living at a subsistence level. A person who eats bread, meat and cooked foods and dresses nicely should certainly give a tenth or a fifth of his or her income(2). (See the sections “Good” and “Better” below.)
It is acceptable for a person of adequate means to give 10%. of one’s income including any accretion in wealth as well as a one-time contribution of a tenth of one’s net assets(3).
The choice performance of the mitzvah of tzedakah is to give 20% of one’s income including any accretion in wealth plus a one-time contribution of one-fifth of the value of net assets.
The rabbis limited tzedakah to giving no more than a fifth of income for fear that being overly profligate in giving tzedakah may cause a person eventually to come to need(4).
There are, however, exceptions to the one-fifth upper limit. One may give more than a fifth in the following circumstances:
To ransom a captive(5). (See To Whom Should I Give?)
To save a life(6).
If the donor is near death he or she may give more than a fifth. Some say a dying person should limit the amount he or she leaves for tzedakah if the donors’ children would need a bequest in order to support themselves(7). Some say the maximum amount a dying person can leave for tzedakah is one-third, others one-half, of the estate(8).
To support Torah scholars (9).
If the donor has a regular job, a steady business income, or is very wealthy he or she may give more than a fifth(10). However Rav Moshe Feinstein disagrees with this ruling on the grounds that all of us, no matter how rich, need to be reminded that we can suffer reversals(11). However, Rav Moshe permits more than a fifth to save lives, ransom captives, and build new buildings for Torah institutions.
To atone for sin(12).
Some say that the limit of a fifth applies only if donors must go out and find poor, one should be ready to give more than a fifth if needy approach the donor for food and clothing(13).
In a place with many advantaged people and few poor, the community should provide the poor with whatever they lack. Each person of adequate means must give his or her fair share (as decided by the community or voluntarily) to meet this requirement.
The optimal performance of the Torah mitzvah of tzedakah requires that we give to the eligible poor “dai mochsoro” enough to fulfill whatever he lacks(14). The Aruch HaShulchan argues vigorously that this is what the Torah demands and that there is no justification in the Torah to give less. It is only because the resources of the Jewish community became so small and the poor so many that the rabbis were forced to find the less demanding requirement of giving a tenth or a fifth. Whether an individual poor person lacks a thing depends on his individual circumstances, community standards, and what he or she is accustomed to (see below for Maimonides description of what dai machsoro entails).
In general, the obligation to provide the poor with what they lack does not fall on the individual, but on the community(15). The individual is generally obligated only to make known the needs of a poor person he discovers. However, if there is a single rich person in town, no community charity effort, and few poor people, the rich person does have the obligation to provide the poor with whatever they lack if he can afford to do so(16).
Under this optimal arangement, each person of adequate means would be required to contribute his or her fair share to the community fund so the eligible poor receive whatever they lack.
Maimonides defines the requirement of providing “dai machsosoro” — enough to provide whatever the poor lack — as follows: “If a person has no clothing, clothe him; if he has no household utensils, buy them; if he has no wife, arrange for him to get married; if a woman, arrange for her marriage to a husband. Even if the practice of this poor person had been to ride on a horse preceded by a running servant and the person had financial reversals, buy him a horse to ride and a servant to run before him. The mitzvah is to fulfill his needs but not to make him rich.”(17)
The obligation of giving the individual whatever he lacks has the following limitations:
It applies only to people from one’s own city. For a poor person who travels from city to city, it is not necessary to give him dai machsoro. However, the community must provide the itinerant poor food and lodging. If on Shabbat, three meals should be provided. According to the mishna, the requirement is only to provide for one day but some communities provide for three days(18).
A person who regularly goes from house to house collecting need be given only a small amount, not dai machsoro(19).
It is popular nowadays to see tzedakah as a private matter and each person is entitled to decide for himself how much to give. But that is not necessarily the traditional Jewish view. In other times, the community assessed individuals’ tzedakah obligation. When individuals did not donate an appropriate amount, the court could force the reluctant donor to give or even confiscate an appropriate amount of his assets. Under certain limited circumstances, the poor could take money by force.(22).
Disclaimer. The information on this page is an introduction to selected topics related to tzedakah. It is designed to help individuals understand the issues and formulate questions. It is not an authoritative guide for practical personal policies with regard to tzedakah. Specific questions should be posed to a competent authority.
Notes. See Introduction and Summary for full citations of the sources.
1. Aruch HaShulchan 249.4 Return to text
2. Ibid. 251.4,5 Return to text
3. Ahavat Chesed chapter 18, Blau p. 6 Return to text
4. Albert Chapter 2, Blau Chapter 9 Return to text
5. Aruch HaShulchan 249.5 Return to text
6. Albert p. 119 Return to text
7. Blau p. 10 Return to text
8. Ahavat Chesed ch 20 Return to text
9. Ahavat Chesed, Chapter 20, Albert p. 189 Return to text
10. Ahavat Chesed ch 20, Albert, pp. 181-185, 193, Blau p. 8 Return to text
11. Domb p. 36 quoting Igros Moshe and a conversation with Rabbi M. D. Tendler. Return to text
12. Albert p. 194 Return to text
13. Ahavat Chesed chapter 20 Return to text
14. Mishneh Torah 7:7, Aruch HaShulchan, 249.1, 2 Return to text
15. Aruch HaShulchan 250.4 Return to text
16. Ibid. 250.4 Return to text
17. Mishneh Torah 7:3 Return to text
18. Aruch HaShulchan 250.8 Return to text
19. Mishneh Torah 7:7, Aruch HaSHulchan, 250.7), Albert pp. 117, 108 Return to text
20. Blau p. 8 Return to text
21. Mishneh Torah 7:11 Return to text
22. Blau p. 10-12 Return to text
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