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Leaving aside, for purposes of this question, any issues of monetary benefit associated with giving charity (tax deductions, supporting school fundraisers by purchasing items at a discount, etc.), which, in most cases, at least, it's possible to track how much monetary savings are associated with the donation, and in which case one may be required to deduct that amount of benefit from one's accounting of their Ma'aser (tithe).


Can one count towards their Ma'aser money that is donated for ulterior motives, intangible gains, or other immeasurable benefits?

One example of intangible benefit might be a donation in which one's name is prominently displayed on a plaque or commemorative item indicating appreciation for the donation. First, can the donation be used for the cost of the plaque, and second, does the donation (in its entirety, including the cost of the plaque) count towards the donor's Ma'aser?

Another example might be if influence is gained by being a regular, large donor to a given organization.

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And another example might be to make money. Uv'chanuni na vazos.... –  msh210 Dec 15 '11 at 19:31
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up vote 3 down vote accepted

In short, yes.

In some rare cases, religious pursuits for the wrong reasons are viewed by the Gemara as "poisonous" -- Tosfos explains, if you're only studying just so you can get back at someone, that's no good.

But generally, we say "let a person engage in Torah and mitzvahs [there are varying texts whether it's 'Torah', 'Torah and mitzvahs', etc.] for ulterior motives, as it will bring him to the right motives."

Similarly the Gemara says a person who gives a hefty sum of tzedaka in the hope that the merit will save a deathly-ill relative is an "absolutely righteous person", so long as they don't explicitly regret the donation if the relative doesn't pull through.

The practice of noting donors is a well-established one, and if you search the Gemara you'll find parts of the Second Temple that had been dedicated by donors. Shulchan Aruch describes the practice too, as have twentieth-century responsa. (Rabbi Moshe Feinstein got some of these; as did Rabbi Eliezer Waldenberg in Israel -- I recall one where an old, widowed rebbetzin donated a new Torah cover, and asked that her name be embroidered on it. The yeshiva receiving it felt it was inappropriate to have a woman's name on it -- Rabbi Waldenberg told them, in short, go jump in a lake.)

As for costs -- it's the institution's choice how to spend the money, and if they think a plaque is in their best interest, then by all means. A charity is allowed to have some overhead. (By oral tradition from Rabbi Yaakov Kaminetsky, in theory overhead can be up to 49%).

From a US legal perspective, as I understand it, if the benefit is purely a ritual one (such as a high holiday seat -- which wouldn't be worth anything if you weren't a member of that faith), then whatever you pay for it is a charitable donation. If you take out an ad in your synagogue's dinner journal, if you're promoting your business then that's business activity (both maaser and tax-wise, I think); if it's "mazel tov honorees and best wishes", that's charity as you're receiving very little dollarized benefit. (Yes, reputation, but that's amorphous.) Similarly a synagogue/school banquet seat usually costs, say, $100; if you ask they'll tell you the cost of your meal is maybe $40. So that's a $60 donation, both tax-wise and maaser-wise.

As usual, disclaimer -- this is not official tax advice, obviously.

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