It is well-known that Jews are charitable. I'm wondering if you can help me trace the source of that historically. And perhaps shed some light on what my obligations might be today.
The Aish Rabbi Replies:
Back from the time that Abraham welcomed the strangers into his tent (Genesis chapter 18), charity has been a foundation of Jewish life.
The Torah says to give 10 percent of our earnings to people in need, based on Leviticus 25:35 and Deut. 15:7-8. This is called Ma'aser, literally "one tenth" (hence the English word "tithe"). This is colloquially called tzedakah (charity), which Maimonides lists charity as one of the 613 mitzvahs.
Maaser Ani, or the "Poor tithe," is an obligation to set aside 10% of produce grown in Israel for the poor (Deuteronomy 14:28). "Ma'aser Ani" is given only in the third and sixth year of the Shmittah (Sabbatical) cycle.
In the same spirit, a Jew today is obligated to give 10% of income to charity. This is known as ma'aser kesafim.
Ten percent of a person's wages after taxes should be set aside for tzedakah. Business expenses and Jewish education costs may be deducted from the 10 percent. (Some people deduct only two-thirds of a boy's Torah education cost.)
For those who want to do extra, the Torah allows giving 20 percent. Above that amount is unrealistic. By giving too much, one will come to neglect other aspects of life - and may even need to rely on charity themselves! (There are exceptions, such as someone who is very wealthy or in cases of great need.)
The important thing is that this money be set aside in a separate account. That way it will be available when the need arises.
U.S. President Herbert Hoover said in 1923: "I have frequently had cause to comment upon the extraordinary generosity and liberality of the American Jews in their charitable contributions. Indeed, their voluntary contributions exceed that of any other American group, and range from the stinted savings of the poorest workman to the full outpouring of those in more fortunate positions."