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Shabbos meals as tzedakah?

Rabbi David SperlingNisan 24, 5773
580
Question
Hi, I have a few scenarios and I’d like to know if they can qualify as maaser tzedakah (the mitzvah to give away 1/10th of earnings to tzedakah). 1) I know someone who makes Shabbos and yomim tovim meals, they invite a variety of people ranging from completely irreligious (kiruv?) to yeshiva bochrim, but of course the guests are all looking for (and possibly don’t have another) Shabbos meal. If I were to help fund this meal, can this qualify as maaser tzedakah? 2) What if I sometimes sit in on these meals? 3) What if I myself host a meal and invite guests, similar to in #1 except that this is in my own home, and of course I am eating there too? I’d like to know if any or all of these three separate scenarios can count towards maaser tzedakah as well as the source (and if it is a requirement vs a nice thing) to give maaser. Thanks!
Answer
Shalom, Thank you for your question - it is great to get questions about giving charity and helping others! May you be blessed with the means to provide much charity and help many people. The obligation to give a tenth of one's earnings to charity ("ma'aser kesafim") is not as clear cut as the obligation to give charity in general. Every Jew must give some money to charity throughout the year, and by putting coins in a charity box on a regular basis, one fulfills the minimum requirement. (Giving a small amount to charity every day, before each tefillah, and/or before Shabbat, are very good customs, which add up to the minimum amount of charity everyone is obligated in). The obligation to give 10% though is not so clear. Some Rabbis hold that it is a Torah obligation, learnt from the verses in the Torah that talk about the patriarchs giving "ma'aser" - a tenth (See Tosafot Taanit 9a). Others hold that it is a rabbinic law, and the verses are only a hint to the reason why the rabbis made the law (see Maharil 54). The major opinion of rabbis today is that giving a tenth is only a custom (see Shvut Yaakov 2, 85). Even though it is a custom, it is very widespread and recommended (in general) to follow. Unless there are extenuating circumstances, the correct thing to do is to give one tenth of one's earnings to charity. What things can the ma'aser be used for? This too is argued by the rabbis. Though all agree that the best use of the ma'aser is for the poor, the consensus is that the money may also be used for all mitzvoth. There is one proviso however, which is that ma'aser money cannot be used to pay off any debts or obligations that a person already has. As a Jew, one is already obligated to spend money for many mitzvoth, such as buying tefillin or giving gifts to the poor on Purim. As such, ma'aser money may not be used for these obligations, nor to pay off pledges one has already made to charity. But other mitzvot, such as donating to a yeshiva (or the yeshiva.org website!), cancer research, building Jewish settlements in Israel etc. are all good uses of ma'aser monies. So in answer to your questions - 1) Providing Shabbat meals for those who need (even if they have funds for food, but need "spiritual" food) is a mitzvah, and one may use ma'aser monies for it. 2) Even if you eat there you may still use ma'aser monies for it - the money you donate is not going directly to your plate, but we can assume it is going for the needy. 3) Using ma'aser money to invite guests for a Shabbat meal depends on who the guests are. If they are just for your own company and companionship, then one should not use ma'aser money for it. If they are in need of a place for Shabbat (or as we wrote above, they need "spiritual" food), and you are inviting them for the mitvzah of having guests who are in need of a place, then one may use ma'aser monies for the extra costs of these guests - but not of one's own expenses, as you are obligated to buy yourself (and family) a Shabbat meal anyway. Blessings.
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