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What constitutes tzedakah?

The general understanding is that tzedakah is giving money or things to the poor, or help them help themselves with jobs, loans, tuition for training, etc. You must give at least 10% but not more than 20% of your income.

But does giving to a cause count as tzedakah? Israel? Jewish day schools? Environmental protection? Fighting diseases? Free legal clinics? Civil rights? Gun control? Fighting abuse? Spreading democracy? Political candidates who promise to help the poor? Animal welfare? Nature conservancy? Museums for heritage protection? Endowing chairs at universities?

What is the dividing line? Are there any sources on that?

marked as duplicate by msh210 Oct 18 at 7:34

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  • There are two concepts; 1. tzedakah 2. community needs. What you call "giving to a cause" seems like "community needs". – Joe Howard Oct 17 at 20:24
  • Isn't tzedakah in itself giving away 10% of your annual income to the poor? Might a homeless shelter be not tzedakah and community need in one? @Joe Howard – Ilja Oct 17 at 22:29
  • @Ilja tithing is part of tzedaka, but isn't limited only to tithing. For example, if a homeless or needy individual ask for help to purchase a meal or to buy a necessary clothing item, that is tzedaka too. In such a case one is obligated to help out even though they had tithed their income. – Joe Howard Oct 18 at 5:29
  • I have answered your question here: judaism.stackexchange.com/a/109045/11501 – mbloch Oct 18 at 8:14
  • @mbloch -- I am still not 100% clear. Suppose you write another answer that takes all the examples in my question one by one, and tell me whether donations to them can be counted against your required 10%. – Maurice Mizrahi Oct 18 at 17:27
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Since most of us only have limited resources to contribute to tzedakah, the question is one of priorities. Where should our money go and in which order? Halacha prescribes priorities ("kdimot") in giving tzedakah which helps answer your question.

In one survey of such priorities, dinonline offers many sources for the following

  1. Saving a life takes precedence over all other needs and requirements
  2. Supporting the study of Torah and Jewish education for children and students
  3. Supporting poor people, first family members, then friends, neighbours, poor people in one's city, then different cities (but note some say the poor of Israel take precedence, and Jerusalem's even more)

R Shimon Taub in The laws of tzedakah and maaser, pp. 60ff writes it up slightly differently: pikuach nefesh, study of Torah, medical needs of the poor, building or maintenance of a synagogue, all other needs of the poor, firt of all the marriage of orphan girls. See also The tzedakah treasury pp. 373ff and Priorities in Tzedaka pp. 59ff. On how to allocate quantitatively across these priorities see a related question: How can tzedakah to the needy of Israel be justified?

This being said I note that R Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe YD vol. 1, 144) rules that an individual has the right to divide his money as he wishes and that the rules of priority from the Shulchan Aruch apply only to a gabbai tzedakah (an administrator of public tzedakah funds), based on the idea that our maaser money doesn't belong to us but we retain the privilege to distribute it how we want.

As a personal thought, I would add that, while there are many worthy non-Jewish causes, lots of non-Jews donate to them, while Jewish charities are nearly only supported by Jews, I have now seen this written up by R Pesach Feinhandler in Avnei Yashpei (see here) building on the famous Rambam in Matnot Aniyim 7:7: "we provide sustenance and clothing for the poor of the gentiles together with the poor of the Jewish people", see also SA YD 151:12.

At the same time, many agree that there are no exact proportions in tzedaka and you can/should follow your heart beyond the general guidelines above.

  • Sure, but it doesn't answer my question: what counts and what doesn't towards your required 10%? – Maurice Mizrahi Oct 18 at 6:19
  • I see. There are 2 different mitzvot, one of tzedakah (giving charity to the poor) which is accomplished by giving away a few dollars (YD 249:2) and one of maaser (carefully separating 10% or more of your income). See here. You seem to be asking what counts against maaser. I was preparing another answer but have now placed it on the duplicate question here. – mbloch Oct 18 at 8:22

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