Can’t Finish the Month
Rabbi, my husband and I have a problem. I am self-employed, my husband has a regular job, and we have two young children. Together, we make about 16,000 shekels a month. Nevertheless, due to the high cost of living in our neighborhood (high mortgage rates, municipal taxes, education, extra-curricular activities, etc.), our monthly expenditures usually come close to this amount, and sometimes, even beyond. We are not spend-thrifts or pleasure-seekers; nevertheless, this is the situation. My question concerns giving ‘ma’aser’ (tithe): How should we calculate how much to give – from our salaries of 16,000 which goes into the bank, or are there legitimate household expenditures that can be subtracted before calculating our ‘ma’aser’? Presently, we try to give ‘ma’aser’ from the maximum amount, namely 16,000 shekels, but it’s very hard. We are wondering how we will be able to have more children. What should we do?
A Personal Answer
‘Ma’aser’ should be calculated from the amount deposited in the bank, which is the net salary. Indeed, the cost of getting to work can be subtracted because this is money invested for the purpose of one’s job, and not for daily expenditures. However, the cost of food that one eats at work cannot be subtracted, because even if one stayed at home, he would have to eat. Someone who rides to work in a private car cannot subtract his personal high cost of travel; rather, he must calculate the price of public transportation, because traveling to work in a private car is not essential.
This is the personal answer to the question of how to calculate ‘ma’aser’. However, it is fitting to add some general guidance.
If a person makes a reasonable salary, even if it is lower than the average marketplace salary (all the more so when it is higher than average, as in your case), but nevertheless, finds it difficult to give ‘ma’aser’ – it is a sign that his life is not arranged properly. In the past, Jews gave ‘ma’aser’ and even ‘chomesh’ (20%); how can it be that today, when incomes and living standards have risen dramatically, people with reasonable salaries find it hard to give ‘ma’aser’? Consequently, the necessary conclusion to be drawn is that, according to the spirit of ‘halacha’ (Jewish law), you should move to a place where the cost of living is lower. In so doing, you will be able to fulfill the mitzvah of ‘ma’aser’ without difficulty, you can save large sums of money, and you will be blessed with wealth.
A Year Later
The couple moved to a different place, and rented their expensive apartment. With half of the rental fees, they themselves rented a larger apartment. The cost of education decreased nearly 2,500 shekels. Today, they give ‘ma’aser’ with no trouble, and even save approximately 4,000 shekels a month. Seemingly, other costs have also decreased in their new location.
How to Choose a Place to Live
One of the most crucial decisions in life is choosing a place to live. Some people would prefer to live in a prestigious location in terms of materialism – in other words, a place where rich people live, where apartments are expensive, extra-curricular activities are costly, people wear high-priced clothing and own expensive cars, the divorce rate is high, and the number of children per family is low. On the other hand, there are those who prefer to live in a spiritually prestigious location – a place where moral people live; people with good character traits who set time to study Torah. The apartments are inexpensive, and, relatively speaking, so are the clothes and extra-curricular activities; the divorce rate is low, and the number of children per family is high.
A family just starting out who accepts upon themselves to give ‘ma’aser’, already upon deciding to buy an apartment is calculating how they can give ‘ma’aser’, and as a result, are careful not to buy an apartment that will cause them to fall deeply in debt and make it difficult for them to give ‘ma’aser’. And thus, naturally they will choose a less expensive apartment, in a place where people don’t compete with each other over the quality of their clothes and cars. In this manner, one mitzvah leads to another – in the merit of giving ‘ma’aser’, they are saved from the mania of materialistic shopping, succeed in granting their children a higher quality education, and are able to save more money.
Savings to Save Israel
On a humorous note, a thought came to my mind: Had the religious community been meticulous in regards to giving ‘ma’aser’, we would have solved a number of serious national problems. This might sound strange, but think about it: If from the start, everyone buying an apartment would have taken into consideration how they could give ‘ma’aser’, they wouldn’t have invested all their savings and financial support from their parents, taking upon themselves a heavy mortgage in order to buy an apartment in Gush Dan (the greater Tel Aviv area). Rather, they would have bought an apartment for half the price in Judea and Samaria, left their savings aside, and continued saving each month so they could help their children stand on their own two feet.
In addition to the public being more financially stable, there would have been nearly a million Jews living in Judea and Samaria today, and the nightmarish idea of a Palestinian terrorist state would have fallen by the wayside. The tensions between the political left and right-wing parties surrounding the withdrawal initiative would fade away, international pressure would be released, and our national state of affairs would be far better.
Also from a socio-economic standpoint, the relocation of hundreds of thousands of families to Judea and Samaria would bring to a halt the increased demand in Gush Dan, reduce housing prices, and enable many people to live comfortably.
Living in Gush Dan
Of course, there is nothing dishonorable about living in Gush Dan or the Coastal Plains area. A person serving in an educational role in his area of residence certainly fulfills a great mitzvah by doing so. Surely, someone who wishes to live near his parents thus fulfills the mitzvah of ‘kibud av v’em’ (honoring one’s parents). And there is nothing wrong for a person wanting to live closer to his workplace and businesses, or in a social or cultural environment that enriches his life. The criticism is directed at people who spend their savings and fall into debt, or take-out a heavy mortgage for the sake of buying an apartment in Gush Dan.
The Torah on Money
The Torah teaches that a person should be careful to spend less than he has, so that he will always have savings put aside. Our Sages said (Talmud Chullin 84a) a man who has a ‘maneh’ (one hundred shekels of gold) should eat only vegetables. If he has ten ‘manim’ (one thousand shekels of gold) – in addition to vegetables, he can eat fish on Shabbat. If he has fifty ‘maneh’ (five thousand shekels of gold) – he can eat meat on Shabbat, which was more expensive than fish. And if he has one hundred ‘maneh’ (ten thousand shekels of gold) – he can eat meat every day. The Sages learned this from the verse in the Torah (Deuteronomy 12:20): “When God expands your borders as He promised you” – only at that point – “so that you say, I wish to eat meat.” On this verse, Rashi, according to Chazal, comments: “The Torah teaches ‘derech eretz’ (rule of conduct), that a person should not desire to eat meat, only out of prosperity and wealth.” In other words, a person who has a number of sheep in his herd, can slaughter some of them for his meals, but the majority should be kept so they can breed additional offspring for him, and increase his herd, as it is written (Deuteronomy 12:21): “You need only slaughter [of] your cattle and [of] your small animals” – but not all your cattle and small animals.
Emancipation through ‘Ma’aser’ and Savings
A person who earns a reasonable salary and spends all his money without saving is considered to be a slave controlled by his desires. Nowadays, this domination is done largely through the mass media. Such a person claims it’s because his present salary is insufficient, but in all probability, if given a significant raise in pay, he would find ways to spend it all, and still claim he doesn’t have enough money. He claims he has to buy an apartment in such a place and with such a number of rooms, own a car, buy everything he bought, and go out on the town. But in truth, it’s not so. Despite all the advertisements and the despicable media that worships materialism – he doesn’t need a thing. He can buy an apartment for half the price; he doesn’t have to own a car. He can live on a higher standard of living than his grandfather did, and still have a lot of money to save.
The ability to save money expresses freedom from the bondages of materialism. As a result, one can grow and connect to more eternal values, such as giving ‘ma’aser’, providing money to enlarge one’s family, and helping one’s children acquire a profession and start a family.
Moreover, a person who wastes his earnings becomes a slave to his job. He worries about getting fired, and consequently, is forced at times to flatter, lie, and act against his conscience. But someone who is accustomed to saving money can act independently. When his employer requires him to do contemptible things, he can quit, and patiently wait to find a better job.
The mitzvah of ‘shmitta’ (Sabbatical year) in our weekly Torah portion also teaches us not to get into the habit of squandering and eating all of the years’ produce, for if we do, we will experience serious trouble in the Sabbatical year, when all the fruits are ‘hefker’ (abandoned) to every one, and it is forbidden to grow grain and vegetables. Jews who observe ‘shmitta’ must learn to conserve from the previous years, and get used to living frugally. By doing so, one gains an understanding that the land belongs to God, and accordingly, learns how to plan life for the long-term, giving greater weight to the values of faith and morality, and attains extra blessing.
However, a wasteful person who is used to eating everything he has, does not lift his eyes to Heaven, is incapable of long-term planning, and cannot get rich.
The mitzvah of Shabbat also teaches us to save. In the past, many people worked in order to have something to eat on the same day, namely “hand-to-mouth”. In the Talmud also, there are laws pertaining to workers who, in compensation for their daily labor, received food for that day alone (Talmud Berachot 16a). And yet, the Torah commanded all of Israel not to do any work on the Sabbath, and already from Sunday, to prepare and save the choice foods for Shabbat. There is no greater education with regards to saving and long-term thinking than this.
Once again, in the merit of cutting back on the weekdays for the sake of the Sabbath, showing restraint and not working on Shabbat, one attains additional blessing for the duration of the week.