Tithing and Taxes

By Shlomo M. Brody
Friday, April 12, 2013

Are taxes a form of charity?  This is probably not what most Americans ask themselves when they mail their checks to the IRS.  Yet significant percentages of our taxes are used for what could be considered charitable purposes: food stamps, Social Security, housing assistance, and public healthcare, to name a few.  Can you therefore view your tax payments as part of your annual charity tithes—that is, charitable contributions out of your income?  This is a hard question for Jewish law, and it also casts light more broadly on matters relating to personal morality within a welfare state. 

The Bible asserts that one must give charity to the needy: “If there is a poor man amongst you . . . open your hand wide . . . .” (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).  Yet the Torah never specifies how much money one must give.  At some point tithing became common practice, but the legal basis for this standard remains disputed.  Since the Torah commands agricultural tithes, a few commentators, reasonably, expanded this obligation to include tithing on all income (Tosafot Taanit 9a).  Other commentators, however, asserted that the obligation stemmed only from rabbinic decree (Shu"t Maharil 152), with some even downgrading it to the level of a custom (Bach YD 131).  Whatever its legal origins, traditional Jewish practice has long viewed donating 10 percent of one’s income as a benchmark, and 20 percent as an extremely meritorious act (YD 149).

While the Talmud attests that Jewish communities have always established communal funds to assist the poor, many medieval communities went so far as to specify precise portions of one's tithe that would  be transferred to the communal charity coffers.  As Judah Galinsky has documented, some communities directed half of an individual's tithe to charity (Maharam Mi-Rotenburg), while in others it could reach 75 or even 100 percent (Shu"t Zichron Le-Yehudah).  Tithing, in short, became a communal tax to support the poor and possibly provide for other religious needs. 

Of course, personal charity that went beyond communal taxes continued to exist, with Jews, particularly wealthier ones, encouraged (and, in circumstances of acute hunger, required) to provide additional funds to support the poor or additional religious activities.  Yet in communities with coerced contributions to public welfare funds, these contributions were counted toward meeting one's tithing obligations.  Thus, Meir Tamari, a pioneering writer on Jewish economic policy, has cited tithing requirements as precedents for modern national tax systems within a welfare state.  If that is the case, one might argue that Jews living in welfare states should count a percentage of their taxes as fulfillment of their charitable obligations. 

Yet many prominent decisors, including Rabbis Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe 1:143) and Yaakov Blau (Sefer Tzedakah U-Mishpat), reject this position.  They assert that on a fundamental level, tax money paid to the government should not be viewed as part of one’s income in the first place.  Instead, in this view, taxes are essentially debts to the government built into one's gross income.  They therefore ought not to be considered a part of the income on which one calculates one’s obligation to contribute to charity, even if a large portion of the money that the government collects is used for charitable purposes.  Instead, our net, or after-tax, income is what we retain of our newly acquired income after we have paid our yearly debt to society, and we must tithe from that figure. 

Yet several prominent decisors, including Rabbis Eliezer Waldenburg (Tzitz Eliezer 9:1:5), Nachum Rabinovitch (Siach Nachum #65), and Yitzchak Weiss (Minchat Yitzchak 5:34:9), have asserted that at least people with limited incomes may indeed count a percentage of their income taxes toward fulfilling their tithing obligations.  (Other decisors believe that struggling families may also deduct basic household expenditures from their net income or count some educational expenses as part of their charitable contributions).  They argue that one is, at bottom, the owner of one’s gross, or pre-tax, income; and the fact that the state imposes taxes for national welfare projects does not change that fact.     

Yet even these latter decisors have reserved this dispensation—the permission to calculate one's tax payments toward their charitable giving —for those with economic struggles, while continuing to urge people in general to tithe their post-tax net income.    It seems that three factors push them in this direction, all of which relate to the way in which one might view the broader goals of charitable giving within the modern welfare state.     

First, as Rabbi Michael Broyde has argued, in a high-tax nation, Waldernburg's approach would significantly reduce charitable obligations—to something close to zero.  This would make it increasingly difficult to support those who aren’t helped by the government or to help critical religious institutions that require non-governmental funds, especially outside of Israel.  Quite simply, government support remains woefully insufficient for the broader community and especially the particular needs of the Jewish community.  Additional personal charity is required to fill in the gaps and create a better society. 

Second, broadly speaking and with many exceptions, Jews have benefited from the tremendous prosperity of modern times—and recognize the moral dangers of unprecedented economic disparities.  While Jewish law respects private property and personal attainment, it also calls upon its adherents to sacrifice some material superfluities or luxuries for the sake of the greater good, and this could include giving personal charity that goes far beyond paying taxes.  Admittedly, it remains difficult to draw the line for oneself or others, between reasonable expenditures and unnecessary, self-indulgent ones.  But if one's participation in local charity requires the choice, say, of a Camry instead of a Lexus, the decision is clear.  Personal charity tempers acquisitiveness and reminds us that our material blessings have arrived in tandem with economic disparities that we ought to try to mitigate. 

Finally, as Tamari notes, whatever benefits it might achieve, paying taxes does not develop the personal virtue produced by charitable giving.  Obeying the law and sending a check to the IRS do not attune a taxpayer to other people’s suffering.  To become conscious of the sorrows and misery of the poor, one must take personal initiative and interest.  Charitable giving, at its core, fulfills the commandment of imatitio dei, following the ways of God.  Ultimately, no obligatory obedience to your government, no matter how just or beneficent its actions may be, can exempt one from this higher duty. 

Rabbi Shlomo M. Brody teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel, writes a column for the Jerusalem Post, and directs the Tikvah Israel Seminars for Post-High School Students.  Facebook.com/RabbiShlomoBrody.


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