Forms. Number-Crunching. Headaches. Worry. Going through the year's spending and income and applying it to the nitty-gritty of our tax code often feels like the least religious, least spiritual activity possible. While doing our taxes can be a source of frayed nerves and aggravation, they can also be a spiritual lens that reflects our priorities, values and the effects of our labors on the world.
How we make and spend our money can and should be a spiritual concern. All faiths have profound things to say about money, from the Social Gospels to the concept of zakat and everything in between. My faith's concern with money is manifest most nobly through the eternal Jewish practice of tzedakah: using money to pursue tzedek -- justice -- by providing financial support to individuals and institutions in their struggles against hunger, poverty and injustice.
Tzedakah has been practiced in many diverse ways throughout history. A few thousand years ago, it was expressed agriculturally. The Torah (written law) and Mishna (oral law) detail many tithes that went to the poor, itinerant and those who served the community as educators and priests. As most Jews turned from farming to other methods of supporting themselves, the rabbis devised mechanisms to keep Jews giving tzedakah in consistent, meaningful ways. One of these mechanisms was called ma'aser kesafim (ma'aser means "a tenth," kesafim "money"). This mechanism takes the tithing principle from agriculture and applies it to money, so that one resolves that 10 percent of his or her income now belongs to the poor and is to be donated accordingly. The fraction, 10 percent, is considered by Jewish law as a good median level of giving. The Talmud (Ketubot 50a) considers 20 percent the upper ceiling, unless one has means to give more or someone's life is in immediate danger. Less than 10 percent is considered miserly. Giving 10 percent of your income to make social change is a strong statement, whether you're a millionaire or making minimum wage; Jewish law obligates even those who are poor themselves to give to charity.
Earmarking 10 percent of one's income for the poor can be a spiritual discipline as well, bringing a powerful sense of meaning and purpose to one's finances. As with all Jewish practices, there is discussion and disagreement over many of the details, but here's are some starting points based on the rabbinic sources.
How do I calculate ma'aser kesafim?
Ma'aser kesafim is generally understood as taking 10 percent of all after-tax income or profit one receives from income, business deals, inheritances, gifts, things found or acquired through other means. One is not required to take ma'aser kesafim from stocks, bonds or other assets that rose in value over a given time period if they were not sold. Once sold, ma'aser kesafim is to be taken from the profit, after taxes.
How often should I calculate it?
Ma'aser kesafim can be allocated annually, monthly or even weekly. Generally, whatever is the easiest way to keep track. One suggestion, from Rabbi Jill Jacobs, is to set up a bank account that automatically moves one tenth of every direct deposit paycheck into a separate ma'aser account.
Who should receive my ma'aser kesafim money?
It is generally agreed upon that money designated as ma'aser kesafim should go toward supporting the poor. Some Jewish authorities say that it can also be used to support religious/spiritual activities as well.
Can I count the taxes I give as ma'aser kesafim? Some of those go toward supporting the poor.
Generally, no. Taxes, or other things which one is legally obligated to give might count as tzedakah, especially if they are supporting those in need, but they do not count toward ma'aser kesafim. The reasoning is that since you never really saw the money in the first place, you never experienced it as profit.
Are there any expenses I should deduct from income before I count ma'aser?
Just as with taxes, there are expenses Jewish scholars suggest you deduct from your income before calculating ma'aser kesafim and separating out 10 percent. As noted, ma'aser kesafim is usually calculated after taxes. Other deductions before removing the 10 percent are expenses that go toward enabling you to work and/or your business to function, such as: employee salaries, basic marketing costs, child-care costs if otherwise you wouldn't be able to work, transportation costs to and from work, office expenses, including basic work clothing, etc. If unsure, a good rule of thumb is to take ma'aser kesafim from money you experienced as purely profit.
Tithing has strong roots in the conservative world, but the idea of giving away 10 percent of one's income has not taken root in more progressive religious communities. This is unfortunate. Ritualizing giving in this way pushes us to really put our money where our mouths/values are. When commenting on the seminal Jewish prayer "You shall love God with all your heart, all your mind and your might" (Deuteronomy 6:5), Rashi, the famous medieval commentator, writes that "all your might" refers to money. Together, using the special awareness that tax season brings to our finances, let's strive towards that more perfect world, loving God with our hearts, our minds and our money to build a more perfect world.