More Than Twenty Percent

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow

The story is told of a man who approached a rabbi. He said to him, “Why are you always so machmir? Every time I ask you a question, the answer is always that it is forbidden.” The rabbi said, “I’m surprised to hear you say that. I indeed have many kulos! For instance, many rabbis say that one may not fast on Shabbos or Rosh Hashana. I hold that one may. Many rabbis rule that one should not learn Daf Yomi on Erev Tisha B’Av in the afternoon. I hold that one may. Many rabbis are of the opinion that one is not allowed to sleep in the sukkah on the night of Shmini Atzeres. I say that it is permitted and encouraged. Some rabbis are of the opinion that one should not cry on Rosh Hashana. I hold that it is permitted. Finally, some rabbis are of the opinion that one should not give more than twenty percent of his money to charity. I hold that it is permitted. Of course, I need to be machmir in other areas to counterbalance these numerous kulos!” The Gemara in Kesuvos (50a) records that when the Sanhedrin was exiled to Usha, they made numerous enactments. One such enactment is that one should not give away more than twenty percent of his money even for charity. Yet, the Gemara in close proximity records two instances where this rule was seemingly ignored.

The first incident was when Rebbe Akiva returned home after 24 years. Not realizing that the great Rebbe Akiva was his son-in-law, Ben Kalba Savua went to see him. He asked Rebbe Akiva to annul his vow that he made many years earlier not to support his daughter. Rebbe Akiva annulled the vow and told Ben Kalba Savua that he was, in fact, his son-in-law. Ben Kalba Savua then gave Rebbe Akiva half of his money. (Kesuvos 63a) How was Ben Kalba Savua allowed to give away so much money, when the law is that one should not give away more than twenty percent? The Haflah offers a very simple answer. Ben Kalba Savua gave away half of his cash. Still, he had many investments and real estate holdings. Indeed, he did not give away more than twenty percent of his net worth. Still, others suggest that the restriction of not giving away more than twenty percent of one’s money does not apply to a very wealthy individual such as Ben Kalba Savua. (Igros Moshe OC 5:43)

The Shita Mekubetzes (Kesuvos 50a) suggests that the limitation of twenty percent does not apply to someone who is supporting Torah. When one supports Torah, he is in effect making a partnership with the individual studying Torah. He is providing sustenance, enabling the individual to immerse himself completely in his studies. In return, the donor receives a portion of the scholar’s reward. The Sages did not apply the twenty percent limitation to a partnership. That is not the same as giving away one’s wealth. Ben Kalba Savua was investing his funds with Rebbe Akiva and was therefore permitted to do so. (Indeed, some are of the opinion that for a true Yissachar and Zevulun partnership, one must specifically invest half his earnings in Talmud Torah.) The next apparent violation of the dictum is recorded a few pages later. (67b) The Gemara relates that when Mar Ukva was dying, he instructed others to bring him his charity records. He found that it was written there that he had given seven thousand gold dinars to charity. He commented, “My provisions are light, and the way is far. This meager sum is insufficient for me to merit the World to Come.” He then distributed half of his remaining money to charity. The Gemara itself wonders why distributing more than twenty percent of his wealth was permitted. The Gemara then explains that the restriction does not apply to someone who is dying. This restriction on giving too much charity applies only while he is well because perhaps he will descend from his holdings and become destitute.

Therefore, for his own financial security, he should never distribute more than one-fifth. That is inapplicable to a dying individual. The Baal HaTanya suggests that someone who gives charity as part of the teshuva process can also give more than twenty percent. He reasons that people pay exorbitant sums for medical care. Why should spiritual cures be treated any different? The Rema (OC 656) writes that the above discussion is limited to expenditures for a mitzvah. However, one must give away all of one’s money to prevent oneself from committing an aveira. The Mishna Berura says this definitely pertains to a biblical mitzvah. However, the Chofetz Chaim himself wrote in his Sefer Chofetz Chaim that this pertains to a rabbinic mitzvah as well. One time, my father-in-law, Rabbi Aaron Yosef HaKohen Katz, was visiting his son in Israel. At that time, it was determined that his scheduled return flight was going to fly over a Jewish cemetery. He consulted with his Rebbe Muvhak, HaGaon Rav Dovid Feinstein, zt”l. He ruled that, as a kohen, my father-in-law was forbidden to knowingly fly over the cemetery. He further ruled that since a negative precept was involved, my father-in-law was obligated to spend whatever money he had to avert this transgression. He spent over $1,000 purchasing a one-way ticket on a different airline. His original ticket was non-refundable. Rav Dovid, zt”l, ruled similarly regarding a rabbinic prohibition.

A woman went into labor on the night of bedikas chometz before the commencement of a three-day yom tov. The insurance company was only willing to pay for three days of hospitalization. According to her insurance company, she should be discharged on Shabbos morning. The new mother did not mind staying until after Shabbos. The young couple asked Rav Dovid for guidance. He explained that taking a taxi on Shabbos that is driven by a gentile is a rabbinic prohibition. The couple should therefore offer the hospital all the money they have to allow the mother to stay in her room until after Shabbos. (Rav Dovid said that staying in the waiting room is not an option for a new mother and her child.) This fulfilled the words of the Chofetz Chaim that even when it comes to a rabbinical prohibition, a person must use all his money to escape violation. The couple offered full payment for the use of the room until after Shabbos. The nurse in charge responded, “What do you think this is? A hotel?” The mother was discharged on Shabbos morning. She used a taxi driven by a gentile to get home.

Rabbi Avrohom Sebrow is a rebbe at Yeshiva Ateres Shimon in Far Rockaway. In addition, Rabbi Sebrow leads a daf yomi chaburah at Eitz Chayim of Dogwood Park in West Hempstead, NY. He can be contacted at ASebrow@

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