Maaser for a bookcase

Originally Published: Parshas Naso 5775 Vol. XVIII No. 33

This week’s question:

May maaser money be used to purchase a book-case for sefarim purchased with maaser kesafim money? May he hire a struggling carpenter to build it, and pay him maaser?

The issues:

A) Maaser kesafim, tithing income

B) Vehechezakta bo, the mitzvah to help a person struggling financially

C) Spending maaser on a mitzvah

D) Buying sefarim with maaser

A) Ma’aser Kesafim [Sections A and B excerpted from Halochoscope X:45]

Maaser means a tenth or tithe. The Torah obliges the farmer to tithe his crops and new livestock. It is given to the Kohain, the Levi, the poor. Maaser sheini is kept by the tither, and is later taken to Yerushalayim and eaten there, mostly as an offering. Maaser Kesafim, tithing one’s money, is modeled on crop tithes, but linked to the mitzvah of tzedaka, charity. Tzedaka is a Scriptural obligation, positive when giving, and negative when refusing, despite its appearance as a voluntary act of kindness and generosity. It is forbidden to refuse a plea for alms by the poor, and communal authorities may force individuals to donate. They can assess an amount, graduated by means, and seize goods or property as collateral. There are basically four types of tzedaka: (i) When a poor person asks for alms one must provide him with basic needs; (ii) Communal compulsory collections for the community poor, kupah vetamchuy; (iii) Nidrei tzedaka, a self-imposed vow, undertaking, to gain merit for the sick, the souls of the deceased, in repentance or thanksgiving; and (iv) Maaser kesafim.

The basis for the obligation is found in the Talmud, based on a vow undertaken by Yaakov Avinu. He promised to ‘give back’ a [double] tenth to Hashem, i.e., a fifth of all that Hashem would provide him with. The simple interpretation of the passage is a Rabbinically mandated maximum limit on the amount one should spend on mitzvos in order to avoid dependency on tzedaka. In the process, we derive the praiseworthiness of ‘giving back’ a portion of one’s earnings to Hashem. It is also supported by a Midrash linking tithing money income to crop tithing. The simple outcome of this would be a Rabbinic obligation to donate one tenth of one’s income to tzedaka. For those who wish to perform the mitzvah in the best possible manner, one fifth would be best.

There is a view that it is a Scriptural obligation. A third view considers it neither Scriptural not Rabbinical, but a minhag, recommended positive practice. Some suggest that one who has not yet begun the practice should announce that he is doing it bli neder, without undertaking a vow. He may also stipulate how he plans to use the tithed money. He could reserve the option to use it for mitzvos other than tzedaka for the poor, provided the mitzvos are not outstanding obligations. The most ideal would be to set aside a fifth, using one tenth for tzedaka and the second tenth for a free loan fund (vehechezakta bo). [See Kesubos 50a, Sh. Mk. Taanis 9a, Tos. Pe’ah 1:1, Shnos Eliyahu. Sefer Hamitzvos A:195 L.S.:232. Tur, B.Y. Sh. Ar. Y.D. 249, 331, commentaries, Ar. Hash. Noda Biyehuda I:YD:73. Tshuvos Chasam Sofer YD 229. Igeress Hagra. Ahavas Chesed 2:19, etc.]

B) Vehechezakta Bo

The Torah says: If your brother shall [begin to] fall and his hand shall falter, you shall strengthen him … and your brother shall live with you. ‘Strengthen’ implies that it is important to help before he falls all the way and needs to be ‘picked up’. One should provide ways to stop the poor man falling to the point that he needs to ask for charity. Though written in the style of an independent mitzvah, it is counted as part of tzedaka. Rambam lists eight levels of tzedaka, the highest being the fulfillment of vehechezakta bo. Make him ‘live with you’ (hachayaihu) by sharing rather than giving.

The recommended ways to fulfill this are: giving him a gift; providing him with a free loan; forming a partnership with him; providing him with work. If the gift is given before he is impoverished, he will not be embarrassed to accept it. A loan should have easy repayment terms. The latter two are the ideal, with utmost being the partnership. The former two cases may be paid from tzedaka monies, according to some poskim. The latter two involve personal gain, which may probably not be done with tzedaka money.

Accordingly, there is indeed an obligation to do what one can when one knows of the situation. However, it is difficult to say that one who neglects it has not fulfilled tzedaka. He could still fulfill it on a lower level. [See Sifra Behar 25:35. Rambam, Matnos Aniyim 10:7. Tur, Sh. Ar. OC 249:6, 251:6, commentaries. Ahavas Chesed II:21 (footnote ke’ein), Tzedaka umishpat 1:3185]

C) Using this money for a Devar Mitzvah [excerpted from Halochoscope XI:26.]

As mentioned, there is a way to reserve the option to choose how to spend his maaser. Not all poskim consider it designated tzedaka money. Moreover, some maintain that it is not even a Rabbinical ordinance, but a minhag. Therefore, some permit using it for a devar mitzvah, to cover the expense of another mitzvah. We mentioned a suggestion that before undertaking this practice one stipulates that he only plans to do so if he has the right to use it for devar mitzvah. However, there are limitations to this usage.

Ma’aser money is considered matnos aniyim, gifts due to the poor, similar to the agricultural tithes for the poor. It is not considered one’s personal fund, since it does not belong to him. He has discretion on how it should be distributed or spent in the same way that one can choose how to distribute his tzedaka. In fact, the regular tithes have the same quality. One may choose which kohain he wishes to give his terumah tithe, and to which levi he wishes to give his regular maaser rishon. There is even a debate on whether this discretion, knows as tovas hana’ah, the benefit of cultivating favor by choosing a certain recipient, is considered a monetary asset. One might accept payment from a third party to give the tithe to a person of the third party’s choice.

Since it is not his personal fund, the one separating it may not use it for mitzvos that are outstanding personal obligations. This is based on the festival offerings and maaser sheini. In Temple times one had to separate maaser sheini most years. This was taken to Yerushalayim and eaten there, or redeemed and transferred to money that was taken to Yerushalayim to be spent on food. It was not to be used on other expenses. The Talmud debates whether it is still considered one’s personal fund, but limited to spending on food items. The ideal way to spend it was on animals that would be offered as korbanos shlamim, that are eaten by the owner (except certain parts burnt on the mizbaiach and parts eaten by kohanim). One is also obliged to make three offerings at the festival season: re’iyah, chagiga and simcha. Re’iyah is a burnt offering, and chagiga is eaten as a shlamim. Both are obligations in their own right, while for simcha one need only eat meat of an offering that was anyhow offered. Thus, one may use maaser sheini for simcha, but not for chagiga. Chagiga is an outstanding obligation. One could not use someone else’s money to discharge this obligation. The Torah instructs one to use specifically chulin, unconsecrated money, for outstanding obligations. Simcha requires a korban of any kind be brought, which is done anyway with maaser sheini money.

Based on this, one may not spend maaser kesafim on outstanding obligations. A common case would be payment for one’s children’s Torah teachers. This is a mitzvah obligation that one usually pays for. Paying for it with maaser would be like paying off a debt with other people’s money. [See See Chagiga 7b-8a, Gitin 30a-b, Tosefta Peah 4:16, Poskim. Tur Sh. Ar. YD 245:4, 249:1, 331:146, commentaries. Halochoscope X:45.]

D) Buying sefarim with maaser money

The poskim debate using maaser money to purchase sefarim. The opinions range from those who permit buying sefarim for personal use, to those who forbid it even if the sefarim will be loaned to others. One may donate a gift of sefarim to an eligible recipient. However, if the sefer will belong to the donor, he is spending the money on himself. On the other hand, he only buys the sefer to use in mitzvah performance, Torah study.

If he buys the sefer to loan to anyone who needs it to study, he has not truly spent the money on the poor. However, he has dedicated the money towards a mitzvah that is not his own obligation, nor will he limit the usage to himself. In a sense, he is spending it on a voluntary mitzvah, and at the same time, spending on others. The sefer will always ‘belong’ to maaser, but the donor will have tovas hana’ah.

Some say this makes most sense according to the view that maaser is a minhag. Indeed, this practice is cited as a minhag as well. Some speculate that it was formally instituted due to historical events. When holy literature was destroyed by the church, due to the scarcity of the hand-written sefarim, the rabbis enacted a minhag to encourage those who had sefarim to loan them. Thus, some say that while they cannot deny the validity of the view permitting it, it no longer applies nowadays. Some say that the type of sefer would need to be one that is commonly used. Since everybody has printed common sefarim, how could one reasonably claim to be providing a need for the poor! Others maintain that based on this, one may only purchase rare sefarim. While they will not be used all the time, he is certainly providing a valuable service to others.

Others, however, do permit using maaser for sefarim that will be loaned to others. Some poskim require making a note in the sefer that it has the sanctity of maaser. This will prevent it becoming mixed with his personal sefarim. When the time comes, his heirs will know that these sefarim were bought with this special provision.

Assuming that one relies on the lenient view, our questioner would like to use maaser money to buy a bookcase to house his maaser sefarim. The issue seems to be that this is not being loaned to others. It is for his own convenience. If one were to argue that he needs a space to store the sefarim, and that he should be permitted to use maaser for it, the same argument could be taken ad absurdum. Just as people are entitled to claim a part of their home as an office for reporting purposes, this person will claim a part of his home overheads from maaser! Rather, he should designate a section of his own bookcase, with a sign on it saying that these sefarim are maaser and free to be borrowed.

However, there is mitzvah usage in a sefarim shelf. Based on this, one could make the case that it can be purchased with maaser money in our case. A sefer has sanctity. The shelf, which serves the sefer has sanctity as well, on a lower level. Thus, a bookcase has some measure of tashmish kedusha, serving sanctity, or tashmish detashmish, indirect service. Unlike a home office, one is buying these shelves specifically to service the sefarim. May one use maaser for this?

When using maaser sheini to purchase sealed packaged items, one need not deduct the cost of the packaging, even though he will be recycling it for personal use. This is because it cannot be purchased without the packaging. If one could buy it loose, he should not use maaser sheini for the utensils. In our case, the person can use his own shelves. However, in our case, the person intends to use the purchased shelves ‘permanently’ for the maaser sefarim. This could perhaps be included in the costs of the sefarim. [See refs section A and C. Maaser Sheini 1:4, Megillah 25b-27a, Poskim. Tur Sh Ar OC 154:3, commentaries. Tzedakah Umishpat 6:9 15:26-27, notes. Derech Emunah I:Matnos Aniyim 7:4 (BHL). Maaser Kesafim (Burstein) 15. Maaser Kesafim (Albert) II:2.]

To mitigate the issue, the person will hire a poor carpenter. If the work being done is for his own benefit, he could not use maaser. He might be able to add some maaser to the basic cost price of the work. However, he feels that he does not need this work for himself at all. Therefore, he should be permitted to rely on a combination of the factors mentioned: the bookcase serves the maaser needs, that is, the sefarim; it serves those who will be borrowing the sefarim; it is really more for their convenience than for his own; he  will use this opportunity to give work to a poor man.

In conclusion, one may use maaser money for this bookcase with the following provisions: it must be prominently marked as such; if he wishes to be able to use it for mundane uses in the future, he should make sure to purchase it back from maaser at that time.

On the parsha … Whatever a man consecrates shall be his own. Whatever each man gives to  the Kohain, it shall be his own. [5:10] To whom does ‘his own’ refer, the donor or the Kohain?

It teaches that the tovas hana’ah is the right of the donor. It also teaches us that if one withholds the donations for himself, he will suffer financial loss. [If he gives it away, he will gain, as though he is keeping it for himself [see Rashi]. Is this not like making the donations for ulterior motives? The Torah wishes to covey the message that the donor is a trusted guardian appointed by Hashem. He must use his judgment and discretion to distribute wisely.

© Rabbi Shimon Silver, May 2015.