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What is maaser?

by Rabbi Mendy Hecht

  

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A. Maaser means “a tenth.” It’s based on the Hebrew word eser (pronounced EH-sehr), or ten. As a rule, it refers to donating ten percent of whatever to whomever. While maaser may seem like a lot of giving, it’s actually all about receiving. Just like sacrifices, which primarily benefit those who bring them, giving maaser whips you into spiritual shape by forcing you to extend yourself.


B. The original concept of maaser is Torah-based. There we find several mitzvahs requiring Farmer Jew to give a tenth:

Positive Mitzvah #78: Maaser Behemah (the Livestock Maaser)

All Kosher cattle were tithed, and one tenth of the animals were brought to Jerusalem and offered as a sacrifice in the Holy Temple. The flesh of these animals was consumed within the confines of Jerusalem by the owners and their guests.

Positive Mitzvah #127: Maaser Rishon (the First Maaser)

One tenth of a farmer's produce was given to the Levite. Historically, the Levites served as the spiritual leaders of the Jews and therefore did not have their own portion of land in Israel. This Maaser was the basic livelihood of the average Levite.

Positive Mitzvah #128: Maaser Sheni (the Second Maaser) 

Jewish agriculture followed a seven year cycle -- with the farming observing the Sabbatical every seventh year. On the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th year of this cycle, after separating the First Maaser, a second tithe was taken from the remaining crop. This produce was taken to Jerusalem and eaten there.

Positive Mitzvah #130: Maaser Ani (the Poor Man’s Maaser)

On the 3rd and 6th year of the aforementioned cycle, the second tithe was given to the poor, who ate (or sold) it wherever they wished.

C. Additionaly, every person is obligated to give a tenth of his earnings to charity.1 We already find this custom by our patriarchs. Before Jacob went to his uncle Laban he pledged to G-d that "everything that You give me, I will surely tithe to You."


How do I give maaser?

1. Be specific

Depends on which type you’re talking about. Firstly, all except the "income maaser" are only obligatory in the Holy Land. And many of their laws apply only when the Beit Hamikdash stands — which means, when Moshiach comes.

2. Deductions

Income maaser is given from all gross income and monetary gifts which a person earns or receives. There are certain deductions and credits -- such us tuition costs -- speak to a rabbi to find out if you are eligible. Similarly, if you are in a financial predicament, a rabbi should be consulted to find out what your obligations are.

Ed. note: Please also read, What is the minimum amount one must give to charity?

Footnotes

  • 1. There is debate whether this rule is a Torah law or a rabbinic decree.
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RELATED CATEGORIES

Mitzvot » Agriculture Related
Jewish Identity » Kohains and Levites » The Holy Tribe

Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Moshiach
The Messiah. Moshiach is the person who will usher in an era of peace and tranquility for all of humanity when there will be no jealousy or hate, wars or famine. This is a fundamental Jewish belief.
Levite
A descendant of Levi, son of Jacob. The Levites were the teachers and spiritual leaders in the Land of Israel. They had various responsibilities in the Holy Temple, including choir and orchestral duties.
Kosher
Literally means "fit." Commonly used to describe foods which are permitted by Jewish dietary laws, but is also used to describe religious articles (such as a Torah scroll or Sukkah) which meet the requirements of Jewish law.
Jacob
Third of the three Patriarchs and father of the Twelve Tribes. Lived most his life in Canaan and died in Egypt in 1505 BCE. Also known by the name of "Israel."
Jerusalem
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
Laban
Rebecca's brother and father of Rachel and Leah. He deceived Jacob into marrying both of his daughters for the price of fourteen years of labor.
Temple
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.
G-d
It is forbidden to erase or deface the name of G-d. It is therefore customary to insert a dash in middle of G-d's name, allowing us to erase or discard the paper it is written on if necessary.