Ideally, people would have no qualms about supporting those in need. The Torah, however, recognized that charity is not necessarily a person’s first instinct and therefore specifies a mandatory giving of tzedakah (charity) of 10% of a person’s income.

Maaser, which means a tenth (often translated as “tithe”), is the specific name for the allocation of one’s tzedakah. In ancient times, each Jew was required to give one tenth of the produce of the fields to the Levite and an additional tenth to the poor or to support Jerusalem. Today, maaser is generally given from both one’s regular income and from any additional monies that come to a person, such as bank interest, an inheritance or a monetary gift. Because of the intricacies of the laws and differences in situations, it is recommended to consult a rabbi to properly allocate maaser.

Ideally, maaser money is used specifically to support those in need–whether through direct handouts or by supporting a local food shelter (as an example). However, the money may also be used to support schools of Jewish learning, hospitals and other worthwhile causes.

In Genesis 28, we learn that, on his way to a foreign land, Jacob vowed that if God protected him on his journey and brought him back to his father’s house in peace, “of all that You [God] will give me, I will surely give the tenth to you.”

How is giving tzedakah actually giving to God? Obviously, God does not need our money. Giving tzedakah, however, makes a person more aware of the needs of people around him/her and also reminds a person that all that he/she owns is a gift from God. That recognition is the payment that God seeks.

There is also another benefit to giving a tenth to tzedakah. According to the Midrash Tanchuma, on the words “aser t’aser, literally, “tithe, you shall tithe” (Deuteronomy14:22) the play on words indicates that that by giving a tenth to tzedakah, you will become wealthy. Echoing a similar theme, the prophet Malachi (3:10) states that people are allowed to test God as it were, to see whether they will become wealthy if they give a tenth to tzedakah.

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