Living and Giving in Moderation
Rabbi Illa said that in Usha (one of the Sanhedrin’s locations while in exile) they decreed that one who wishes to give excessively should not give more than a fifth of his resources.
Rashi explains that this decree was based on the behavior of Yaakov Avinu. When he stated a promise to give of his wealth to the needy, he said the word for “a tenth” two times. This adds up to two tenths, or, in other words, a fifth. From here we can learn that even a generous person — as Yaakov most certainly was — should not give more than a fifth.
The gemara on our daf states that this teaching to limit giving to one fifth is the practical difference between the rulings of two Tanas who are quoted in our mishna. First we hear that Rabbi Eliezer says that a person may designate part but not all of his resources as cherem (a type of sanctified status), which is to be given to kohanim. He must leave for himself “a small amount,” explains Rashi. The Rashash suggests that Rashi means the amount needed for the person’s basic livelihood. Rabbi Eliezer derives this halacha banning total consecration from the Torah’s text, as explained in the gemara.
Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria follows Rabbi Eliezer with a different statement in the mishna. He says that if there is a ban against over-giving of one’s resources for a sanctified matter, all the more so there should exist a ban against over-giving for a non-sanctified matter.
It would seem from reading the mishna that there is no practical difference between the halachic rulings of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria seems to be simply pointing out that the words of Rabbi Eliezer should apply also to non-sanctified matters, due to logical reasoning. However, this cannot be the case since the structure of the mishna indicates that Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria differ in halachic rulings. Therefore, the gemara asks, “What indeed is the practical difference between the rulings of these two Tanas?”
The answer given is that they differ in their rulings regarding Rabbi Illa’s statement about a ban by the Sanhedrin to
limit giving more than a fifth to the needy. Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria holds that indeed a statement about a ban was decreed to limit giving, as is seen in his logical extension of Rabbi Eliezer’s teaching to include also the non-sanctified (e.g., giving to the poor). Rabbi Eliezer does not hold of the ban against giving more than a fifth to the poor. He limits the Torah teaching to not allowing consecration of one’s entire resources, but does not apply the same limit to a non-consecrated purpose such as giving to charity.
The gemara goes on to relate an event which supports the opinion of Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria, that one should not give more than a fifth to charity. Rabbi Yeshavev wanted to give more than a fifth to the needy, but Rabbi Akiva told him that it was forbidden to do so. The statement of Rabbi Illa about the decree of the Sahendrin in Usha is cited by Rabbi Akiva. The upshot of this story, which bans excessive giving, is consistent with the ruling of the Rambam who rules like Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria that one should limit his giving to a fifth.
As the Rambam states: Aperson who spends his money for mitzvot should not spend more than a fifth, and should conduct himself as our Prophets advised (in Tehillim 112:5): “[Good is the man] who is gracious and lends (which is a mitzvah)], who conducts his matters with good judgment.” (Hilchot Erachim and Charamim 8:13)
The Rambam elsewhere writes: A Torah scholar should manage his financial matters with good judgment. He should eat, drink and provide for his family in accordance with his funds and success without overtaxing himself… Our Sages have also taught us: One should always eat less than suits his income, dress as befits his income, and provide for his wife and children (reasonably) beyond what is appropriate for his income. (Hilchot De’ot 5:10)
- Erachin 28a