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The Differences Between Tzedakah and Ma’aser

Rav Dovid Grossman, Rosh Bais HaVaad


Question: We are all familiar with the terms “tzedakah” and “ma’aser”. Are these two words synonymous or do they have different definitions?

Answer: While people often confuse the two, there are a number of definitive differences between tzedakah and ma’aser.

Tzedakah is a mitzvah d’oraysa which is derived from several pesukim. Whether the obligation of ma’aser stems at all from a d’oraysa is a 3 way machlokes Rishonim. 

  1. Some say that the mitzvah of taking ma’aser of one’s earnings is derived from the Biblical halacha of taking ma’aser from one’s crops. 
  2. Some say that it is learned from Yaakov Avinu, who promised to take ma’aser from everything he received. 
  3. Others disagree and say that ma’aser is not derived from either of these sources and is simply an obligatory minhag. We pasken like the latter.

Since ma’aser is not a d’oraysa, whenever there is a safek in halacha as to whether one is obligated to take ma’aser or not, the ruling would be that he can be lenient. Tzedakah, however, is a d’oraysa; therefore, one would have to be stringent in any case of uncertainty.  

The amount of money one must give to fulfill the mitzvah is another area where tzedakah and ma’aser differ.. Ma’aser has a defined amount of 10%, with individuals being encouraged to give up to 20%. Tzedakah, on the other hand, has no clear amount. There is a very small minimum amount of tzedakah that everyone must give of one-third of a shekel a year – which equals just a few dollars, yet at the same time there  is a halacha that one must give a donation to every reputable pauper that asks him for alms. There is a mitzvah to give every poor person “dei machsoro”, which basically means the amount that he needs to fill his personal needs. This is not a very clear amount and would vary depending on numerous factors.

It is true that whenever one gives ma’aser, he receives a mitzvah of tzedakah. As we have seen, however, the obligations of ma’aser and tzedakah are quite different in a number of ways.




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