Rav Chaim Weg
Question 1: As a result of the coronavirus, many people have unfortunately been struggling financially to make ends meet. Is the widespread practice of giving ma’aser kesafim, one-tenth of one’s earnings to tzedaka, applicable during this time? Must one give ma’aser from his income during a period that he is not earning enough to support his own household?
Answer 1: The general rule concerning issues of tzedaka and ma’aser kesafim is chayecha kodmin, your needs precede those of other needy individuals. As a result, many people may technically be patur from giving ma’aser even in ordinary times. This complex determination is subject to the amount of a person’s monthly expenses and evaluating what percentage of those expenses are in fact necessary and what percentage is spent on “extravagances” that are not truly necessary. In fact, the Chazon Ish suggested that in addition to the tremendous beracha that results from it, one of the common reasons for giving ma’aser is so people do not waste money on unnecessary expenses (though he stresses that one must not judge others, since what is “extra” for one person may be “needed” for another). Thus, in order not to do be bothered with calculating what is in fact needed and what is not, some people simply push themselves to give ma’aser regardless of their expenses. But those are struggling significantly financially and cannot support their family are certainly patur from giving ma’aser during this period of time.
Question 2: A follow up question that often arises is whether one who was patur from ma’aser for a certain period of time should try to separate ma’aser retroactively from his earnings once business improves for the previous months. For example, in the current crisis, should someone who was patur from ma’aser during the months of March, April, and May give ma’aser in June, July, and August retroactively for the previous months when business (hopefully) improves?
Answer 2: According to the strict halacha, he is considered to be an ani (poor) during the months of March, April, and May, thus if he gives ma’aser separately for each month, he would not be chayav in ma’aser regardless of his earnings in later months.
However, some people run businesses that have ups and downs and they must look at their net gain every year to assess their earnings. The Chafetz Chaim recommends that such a person make a tenai (stipulation) that at the end of the fiscal year, he will assess his net earnings and then give ma’aser based on that calculation. In our case, too, one who calculates his ma’aser kesafim on a yearly basis in this manner should assess his net earnings at that time, taking into account the losses due to the coronavirus, and give ma’aser accordingly.
We daven that we should return to the state where all of us are able to give ma’aser at all times with relative ease and be zocheh to the beracha of financial stability.