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Ari Hart, of Uri L’Tzedek, on tzedakah and ma’aser kesafim

How we make and spend our money is a central concern in Jewish life. The concern is most famously manifested in tzedakah: using money to pursue tzedek – justice—by providing financial support to individuals and institutions in their struggles for better lives and a better world.

Tzedakah has been practiced in many diverse ways through our history. A few thousand years ago, it was expressed agriculturally through tithes that went to the poor, itinerant and those who served the community. As Jewish civilization shifted from agriculture, the rabbis devised mechanisms to keep Jews giving tzedakah in consistent, meaningful ways. One of these mechanisms was called ma’aser kesafim (ma’aser means “a tenth,” kesafim “money”). This mechanism takes the tithing principle from agriculture and applies it to money; one resolves that 10 percent of his or her income now belongs to the poor and is to be donated accordingly. The fraction, 10 percent, is considered by Jewish law as a good median level of giving. The Talmud (Ketubot 50a) considers 20 percent the upper ceiling, unless one has means to give more or someone’s life is in immediate danger. Less than ten percent is considered miserly.

As with all Jewish practices, there is discussion and disagreement over many of the details, but here are some starting points for giving maaser kesafim based on rabbinic sources:

How do I calculate ma’aser kesafim?

Ma’aser kesafim is generally understood as taking 10 percent of all after-tax income or profit one receives from income, business deals, inheritances, gifts, things you find or acquire through other means. One is not required to take ma’aser kesafim from stocks, bonds or other assets that rose in value over a given time period if they were not sold. Once sold, take ma’aser kesafim from the profit, after taxes.

How often should I calculate it?

Ma’aser kesafim can be allocated annually, monthly, or even weekly. Generally, whatever is the easiest way to keep track. One suggestion, from Rabbi Jill Jacobs, is to set up a bank account that automatically moves one tenth of every direct deposit paycheck into a separate ma’aser account.

Who should receive my ma’aser kesafim money?

Money designated as ma’aser kesafim should go toward supporting the poor. Some say that it can also be used to support religious/spiritual activities.

Though ma’aser kesafim has deep Jewish roots, it is not widely known about or practiced in many Jewish circles. This is unfortunate, but you have the power to change it. By taking on this practice, and then sharing it with your family, friends, and Jewish communal organizations, you can help strengthen the capacity of the Jewish people to pursue tzedek. We have a lot of work to do in this world until we reach the biblical call to make poverty efes - zero. Good intentions won’t get us there alone. Together, let’s strive towards that more perfect world, using the might of our hearts, our minds, and our money.

Photo courtesy of cwwycoff1

Ari Hart

Ari Hart is a co-founder of Uri L’Tzedek: Orthodox Social Justice (www.utzedek.org), and a rabbinical student at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah.

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