“It seems to me that one cannot use ma’aser money (one’s obligatory tithe, or assigned funds, for tzedakah) as a gift for the poor on Purim. A rabbinic enactment, such as ma’aser, is a binding obligation, and so the ‘giver’ would be paying a debt from ma’aser that does not belong to him. He has only the right of disposal (tovat hana’ah). Some rabbis rule that tovat hana’ah is not considered a monetary asset. But even those who rule that it be considered as such would agree that a binding obligation can only be met from unassigned funds.”http://youtu.be/59Z4y_WZ83c
— Jacob b. Moses Moelin, the Maharil
Giving tzedakah — setting aside a minimum of 10 percent and a maximum of 20 percent of one’s income — to help those who are disadvantaged is a Jewish obligation. It is a requirement to take care of others for the sake of justice. Eating a Purim seudah, the special meal on the afternoon of the holiday, is an obligation. In order that all can partake, the rabbis levied a “tax” — not to be confused with the obligation to give tzedakah — on members of the community. Even though both tzedakah and this tax go to feed hungry people, they are separate obligations; one cannot use money set aside for tzedakah to pay the tax.
Philanthropy is the act of voluntarily giving to promote the common good; it differs from both tzedakah and taxes, which are mandatory. Philanthropy is the money that one chooses to give away beyond tzedakah and taxes.
Although the Internal Revenue Service defines a donation as a charitable deduction, the donation does not necessarily count toward one’s tzedakah obligation. Traditionally, synagogue dues are not tzedakah; neither are they philanthropy, because we are required to maintain communal institutions. Giving tzedakah is providing for the legitimate needs of those who are disadvantaged. —Mordechai Liebling
The fiery discourse about tax reform that weighed so heavily on last year’s presidential race raised questions about both the scope and nature of one’s “obligation” to society and the medium through which that obligation should be satisfied. One of the more commonly debated ideas among the electorate was whether our tax dollars represent compulsory charity (tzedakah) or the fulfillment of a social contract that precedes voluntary contributions made within our communities.
Rabbi Mordechai Liebling’s commentary on the text suggests that we should distinguish among our responsibility to comply with taxes that may be levied to ensure the social welfare, our commandment to provide some amount of unsolicited support in the form of tzedakah, and the concept of philanthropy as discretionary kindness above and beyond one’s cumulative obligation. The IRS code allows tzedakah and philanthropy to be used to pay (or offset) one’s taxes, which has become a critical incentive for many to fulfill their charitable obligation. However, this provision should not diminish the moral imperative of both honoring one’s obligation to society by paying taxes and voluntarily donating to one’s community through the channels of tzedakah and philanthropy.
— Alexander Smith
Obligations of tzedakah and taxes are an important concept to explore after the somewhat inconclusive avoidance of the “fiscal cliff.” The discourse around this issue involves two questions. The first is: to tax or not to tax? The second is: What is our obligation to our fellow citizens? What is an appropriate tax rate to provide funds that will aid the poor in fulfilling their needs? What are their needs? In an age where we are used to picking and choosing, to what extent should we as taxpayers decide what programs are worthy of support? Active participation in our democracy can be a way of exercising tovat hana’ah.
Rabbi Mordechai Liebling’s distinction between philanthropy and tzedakah is important. The obligation to give tzedakah and pay taxes teaches us that we can and should give in different ways, for different purposes. We should also be philanthropic. Each type of giving fulfills a different need. In different ways, we grow from an opportunity to contribute to something we personally value and from a choice to contribute
to those things that, as citizens, we must support to keep our community strong.
—Dara Weinerman Steinberg
Rabbi Mordechai Liebling’s distinction between the mandate of tzedakah and voluntary acts of charity reminds me of a talmudic dictum espoused by Rabbi Chanina: “The one who is commanded and acts is greater than the one who is not commanded and acts.”1 Though this teaching might seem counterintuitive to one who finds greater meaning in voluntary acts of devotion, acting within the framework of a divine order of obligation to shape a just society through policy can be more effective than relying on the whims of the individual Jewish heart. In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, “It is such happiness to belong to an order of the divine will. [W]hen I am weak, it is the law that gives me strength; when my vision is dim, it is duty that gives me insight.”2 We do well to be guided by our tradition’s vision of a just society, and to take upon ourselves the full force of obligation in making that vision a reality through acts of tzedakah and the unceasing pursuit of justice.
— Sam Feinsmith
1 B. Talmud Bava Kama 38a, 87a, and Avodah Zarah 3a.
2 Abraham Joshua Heschel,
Man’s Quest for God: Studies in Prayer and Symbolism, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954,