Back to Blogs

Parshat Terumah: Sanctuaries & Donations – Can I use tzedakah to pay shul dues?

Shevat 5783 | February 2023

Terumot in the Torah

In Parshat Terumah God commands Moshe to collect the materials needed to build the Mikdash: “Speak to the Children of Israel, and they shall take a terumah for Me, you shall take My terumah from every person whose heart so moves him.”[1] The fulfillment of this mitzvah in Parshat Vayakhel describes that the volunteer artisans were so inundated with donations from the men and women of Israel, they asked Moshe to stop them.[2] The Torah repeatedly stresses that these were voluntary donations.

The Torah often uses terumah to describe donations – to the Sanctuary, Kohanim (Priests), and Levi’im (Levites) – yet the word’s root is not n.t.n. (give), but rather r.u.m. (high or raise). The traditional explanation is that terumah is similar to hafrashah – separation, but the curious root encourages us to look for a deeper meaning. [3] As Orach Chaim expounds, such donations don’t merely raise funds, they raise parts of ourselves to connect with our Creator.

While this parsha stresses that these terumot were voluntary, the Torah also uses terumah to describe obligatory donations. Parshat Ki Tisa begins with the mitzvah of machatzit ha-shekel – the half shekel collected from every Israelite man aged 20 and up. In that case, “The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel to give the terumah of the Lord to atone for your lives.”[4]

Rashi notes that terumah is mentioned 3 times in the beginning of our parsha because there were three initial donations – a mandatory half shekel for the adanim (sockets) for the walls of the Mishkan, a mandatory half shekel for the year’s communal sacrifices, and the general voluntary donations for construction.[5] Subsequently, Israelite communities would collect the yearly half-shekel donation in Adar to send to Jerusalem to buy communal offerings so all of Israel would have an equal hand in the Temple service.[6] This mitzvah only applies when there is a Temple, but today many have a custom to donate “zecher (in memory of) l’machatzit hashekel.”[7] Kaf HaChayyim relates that these funds went to different causes depending on the community. In general, they were dedicated to needy Torah scholars in the community or in Israel, to pious poor people, or to synagogue expenses.[8]

Today, people usually use “terumah” to refer to another obligatory donation – the portion of grain (and other, but not all, types of produce) Israelite farmers donate to the Kohanim, rabbinically termed terumah gedolah.[9] Yet even in the section of Bamidbar that mentions this mitzvah the term terumah has a wider meaning. It is used to describe sacrificial offerings to God – portions of which are then given from God to the Kohanim and their families, the ma’aser (1/10) given to the Levi’im (ma’aser rishon), and the portion of that the Levi’im give to the Kohanim (terumat ma’aser).[10] Aside from these gifts to Levi’im and Kohanim, a further 1/10 was separated, either to be eaten in purity in Jerusalem (ma’aser sheni) or as a gift to the poor (ma’aser ani).[11]

Ma’aser Kesafim

As we saw, even though there is no obligation to give a half shekel to the Temple, many communities still collect charitable funds in remembrance. Similarly, even though most Jewish people today aren’t obligated to donate ma’asrot from their main source of income, as they are not farmers in Israel, there are Jews worldwide who practice ma’aser kesafim (tithing money) – and separate  1/10 of their income for tzedakah.

Some rabbinic authorities rule that there is a biblical or rabbinic obligation of ma’aser kesafim, others explain it is custom.[12] Yet we must not confuse custom with voluntary. There is a Torah mitzvah to give charity to poor people, and ma’aser kesafim can be understood as the customary way to fulfill that mitzvah. Therefore, while the level of obligation may be debated, it is generally agreed that one should not deviate from this custom without good reason. Ultimately, Shulchan Aruch rules that the one should ideally dedicate 1/5 of their income, or according to the needs of the poor if they can afford it. Otherwise the average amount is 1/10 of one’s income. Anything less than that is miserly, although he also rules that one can fulfill the biblical mitzvah with a mere 1/3 of a shekel a year.[13]

Poskim such as Maharil, Rema, and Taz explain that ma’aser kesafim is related to ma’aser ani, and therefore shares some of the same rules.[14] Ma’aser ani is designated for the poor, and halakha has strict criteria to determine eligible recipients, although Shulchan Aruch brings the possibility that these amounts are less applicable today and anyone who has trouble supporting their household qualifies.[15]

Similarly, Maharil rules that one may not use ma’aser kesafim for other mitzvot, not even to fulfill one’s obligation to give matanot l’evyonim – gifts to the poor – on Purim.[16] He explains that ma’aser money may not be used to fulfill other financial obligations, including those of mitzvot, as this would be like using ma’aser to pay a debt.[17] Similarly, Taz rules that any monetary obligations, even an obligation to support the poor of one’s community, may not be paid from ma’aser kesafim.

On the other hand, Maharshal and Drisha rule that if one has the opportunity to do a mitzvah but does not have the funds without using ma’aser money, they may use that money.[18] The examples cited are making a brit or wedding, or buying books to study and loan to others to study.[19] Others discuss using the money to support family members that one is not halakhically obligated to support, like elderly parents or older children. On one hand it could be considered an obligation since such support is halachically and socially encouraged, on the other hand the recipients are considered needy.[20]

There are many considerations involved in separating and allocating tzedakah – financial, halakhic, social… The scope and detail of rabbinic questions and discussions on the topic may be confusing at first, but ultimately they can also be useful tools to shape our priorities. Here we will briefly look at one such question: Can ma’aser money be donated to the synagogue?

Mikdash me’at – a small sanctuary

Parshat Terumah does not describe a house where God can dwell, but rather “They will make a mikdash for Me and I will dwell among them.”[21] The Temple and accompanying service act as a conduit to bring God into our world and our lives. With the destruction of the First Temple, God tells the prophet Yechezkel “I will be a mikdash me’at (small sanctuary) for them in the lands where they have come.”[22] The midrash explains this as the synagogues and Torah study halls in Babylon.[23]

As we saw, the mishkan was built with a mix of donations. The sockets that held the mishkan walls together and the communal sacrifices offered inside were funded by half-shekel donations shared equally by the families of Israel. The rest of the mishkan was built by volunteer craftspeople using donated materials. After the destruction of the Temple, the synagogue (a place of assembly, or beit knesset) eventually became the center of Jewish communities worldwide. A place to gather in prayer, some communities expanded its role, using synagogues as community centers, homeless shelters, schools, places for Torah study, and more.[24]

Historically, many synagogues were built by wealthy benefactors or using mandatory taxes collected from the Jewish community. In the modern era synagogues have had to evolve new ways to raise money – selling seats (permanent or for the High Holidays), auctioning off honors and mitzvot (such as aliyot to the Torah), dedications, and charging dues.

Can ma’aser money go to the synagogue

Based on Maharil who prohibited using ma’aser kesafim for other mitzvot, Rema rules that it may only be given to the poor and may not be used for another mitzvah. He specifically prohibits using it to buy candles for the synagogue.[25]

Other poskim allow for some leeway with these funds. Maharam, Maharshal, and Shach differentiate between individuals based on their financial abilities, ruling that one may use the money to perform a mitzvah they would be unable to perform otherwise.[26] Be’er Hagola differentiates between the type of mitzvah – one may not use ma’aser to pay for a mitzvah they are obligated to do, but they may use it to perform a voluntary mitzvah.[27]

Intentions may also be a factor. Taz rules that someone may use ma’aser money to buy an aliyah to the Torah if they had in mind that the money would come from ma’aser when they promised it. However, if they did not originally have such an intention then doing so is considered paying a debt using ma’aser, which is prohibited. Chatam Sofer adds that one’s intentions when separating ma’aser are also a factor. If one designated the money for the needy then they may not use it for other mitzvot, but if one designated it for mitzvot in general then they may.[28]

There are several relevant practical differences between these approaches. The most stringent, such as Maharil and Rema, prohibit using ma’aser money designated for the needy even for voluntary donations to the synagogue (unless that money would directly benefit the needy, such as a community scholarship fund). Those who allow people who are financially pressed to use ma’aser money for mitzvot they would otherwise be unable to fulfill would allow one to use this money even for dues or seats. Nevertheless, contemporary rabbinic authorities advise seriously considering if this is necessary based on the size of expense and one’s overall budget.

Be’er Hagola’s approach presents a third distinction, similar to the different types of donations to build the mishkan. One should not use ma’aser kesafim for obligatory expenses such as dues or seats, just as it can’t be used for the half-shekel for Temple services. But perhaps it can be used for voluntary donations, such as to a building fund, buying sefarim, or to sponsor activities.[29]


Ultimately, each person must honestly assess their finances and their priorities to determine what is right for them. Ideally, someone with the means to do so should designate ma’aser kesafim to the poor. Perhaps those who can afford more should use money beyond that to support other communal institutions.

Those who can’t afford ma’aser kesafim may find their budget allows them to dedicate ma’aser to mitzvah observance – ideally voluntary, but even mandated. Such people should follow Chatam Sofer’s instruction to designate ma’aser kesafim to general mitzvah observance. Meaning, one who can afford to should not pay shul dues from ma’aser, but can use it to donate to the building fund. One who can’t afford to can use it to pay dues (or other mitzvot).

While there are unfortunately some who can’t afford any form of ma’aser kesafim, and are therefore exempt, many others may find that this is an option to perform a mitzvah they previously thought beyond their financial reach. Although this may not be the ideal form of ma’aser kesafim (since some portion of the money will not go to the needy), the designation of 1/10 of one’s income for mitzvot is in itself an ideal. This habit should also make it easier for them to continue and grow in this mitzvah, particularly if their financial situation changes. One who does not account for their spending on mitzvot and charity will find it harder to take on at a later point.

The Torah describes an array of donations to the Temple and those who serve in it, as well as to the less fortunate members of our community. Some donations, such as ma’aser and the half shekel, were mandatory. Some, such as donations to building the mishkan, were voluntary. Others are more complicated, obligatory donations without set amounts.[30] While many of these donations are not applicable today, similar customs have evolved to maintain these Torah values in our modern world. Our sages have offered rules and advice to guide our giving, some of which we saw above, but ultimately, we each must strike a balance between our obligation to help the less fortunate and our obligation to contribute to our communal and religious institutions. Ideally, when we all contribute according to our ability we raise ourselves and our communities and we make places in this world for God to dwell among us.

[1] Shemot 25:2, 9

[2] Shemot 35:20-29, 36:3-7

[3] TY Shekalim 1:1, Shemot 25:2 commentaries Rashi, Rashbam, Orach Chaim. Mizrachi and Siftei Chachamim specifically add that this terumah should not be explained as the terumah of the sacrificial parts that are raised from the altar and given to the Kohanim as one of the priestly gifts.

[4] Shemot 30:15-16, 38:25-31. For more on why women are not obligated by the Torah see

[5] Shemot 25:2 “tikchu et terumati”

[6] Mishna Shekalim 4:1, Sefer HaChinuch 105. Extra money was used for items related to the Temple service.

[7] Rema OC 694:1

[8] Ibid note 22

[9] TB Rosh HaShana 12b Rashi “mna hani milei,” 12a Tosafot “Tana d’Rabanan,”, Rambam Hilchot Ma’aser Sheni Chapter 1. There is no set amount for terumah gedolah, but Chazal teach that the generous give 1/40, the average 1/50, and the stingy 1/60. 1/10 of the remaining grain is ma’aser rishon for the Levi’im, who did not have fields of their own. The Levi’im were obligated to give terumat ma’aser, a portion of this to the Kohanim.

[10] Bamidbar 18 verses 8, 11, 19, 24, 25-29. The Tribe of Levi was not given a standard portion of the Land of Israel. Instead they were given scattered cities, as they were the Torah scholars, teachers, and custodians of the Temple. They had limited fields and are traditionally understood to have been poor. This is reflected in the halakhot that include Levi’im as possible recipients of ma’aser ani – along with the poor, widows, and orphans – even though they are already the recipients of ma’aser rishon.
(See verse 12 for the idea that these are gifts to God that God gives to the Kohanim.)

[11] Devarim 12:17-21, Devarim 14:22-27, Devarim 26:12-15. The former, known as ma’aser sheni, was brought in years 1, 2, 4, 5 of the shemita cycle. The latter, ma’aser ani, was given in years 3 and 6 of the 7 year cycle.

[12] Torah obligation: Responsa Maharil 56, TB Ta’anit 9a Tosafot “Aser t’aser”

Rabbinic obligation: Taz YD 331:32

Custom: Bach YD 331:

[13] OC 249:1-2. The percentage is generally calculated from that year’s income, except for the first year one begins calculating. That year they should calculate based on their net worth.

Rema adds, based on the gemara, that one may not give more than 1/5 of their income to tzedakah, lest they end up destitute themselves. The exception, he says, is on one’s deathbed when they may give whatever they want.

[14] YD 331 Rema 146, Taz 32; Beit Yosef YD 251:12 (quoting Mordechai). Responsa Maharil 56 and Be’er Heitev OC 694:2 notes that the money given in remembrance of machatzit hashekel may not come from money set aside for ma’aser kesafim.

[15] Mishna Pe’ah 7:8-9, Tur Shulchan Aruch YD 253, 256. This approach allows ma’aser kesafim to be directed towards many worthy causes beyond soup kitchens and homeless shelters, such as covering medical expenses, homes or programs for older adults, school or camp scholarship funds, supporting certain aspects of Torah study, and more.

[16] Responsa Maharil 56, based on TB Menakhot 82., Mordechai Shevuot 767). It is generally agreed that the basic obligation of matanot l’evyonim can’t be fulfilled with ma’aser kesafim, but one may add money from ma’aser since it goes to people who are poor.

[17] For example, if one owed money to a Levi or poor person, they can’t use their ma’aser to settle their debt.

[18] Shach YD 249:3

[19] This was before the printing press made books more accessible. Even so, it seems that one may only use ma’aser money for books if they will be loaned to others as well. The poskim were careful to include this condition, such as Taz (YD 249:1:1) who wrote that one has to mark that the book was bought with ma’aser money so that their children will not keep it for themselves, but continue to loan it out.

[20] Chazal rule that one only needs to support a child until age 6. The verse in Tehillim (106:3) praises “one who does righteousness (tzedakah) at every moment.” How can one do tzedakah at every moment? Rabbi Eliezer explains that this is someone who supports their young children. (TB Ketubot 20a) Rashi explains that this is because such a person is not obligated. In general, supporting parents and children who cannot support themselves is the highest tzedakah priority. Poskim debate if one may use ma’aser money even if they can afford not to, or if this is only allowed if the individual is unwilling to use their own money or unable to afford to otherwise. (See discussion on Tur and Shulchan Aruch YD 241:2-3)

[21] Shemot 25:2, 9

[22] Yechezkel 11:16

[23] TB Megilla 29a. The Zohar (Bamidbar Nasso 126a) explains that the idea that God is present in all the sanctuaries we build is a demonstration of God’s love of the Jewish people.

[24] These functions are not new, as the name itself makes clear, the synagogue is a “place of assembly.” Judaism is a communal religion, Jerusalem is the spiritual, political, and social capital of the Jewish people. After the destruction of the Temple it’s logical that communities would need to build their own centers.

The model I most connect to is that of the shul of my youth in NJ. The Rabbi, Rabbi Alvin Marcus, zt”l, worked to make sure the community would remain unified. Particularly, he wanted the children to feel that the shul was the center of their community, opening the doors to youth groups and activities at all hours of the day and night. The shul’s event hall was kept simple so it could double as a basketball court. The Rabbi encouraged us to take ownership of the space – to help ourselves and clean up after ourselves. Looking at my contemporaries, this space and this leadership had a profound effect on the youth of West Orange, NJ.

[25] Maharil ibid, Rema YD 249:1. It seems that these candles were sometimes donated in memory of a loved one.

[26] Shach YD 249:3

[27] Ibid 5

[28] Responsa Chatam Sofer II YD 231. Additionally, if one has separated ma’aser 3 times and only given the money to the needy it is considered a chazaka, an established precedent that sets an obligation. If one wishes to use the money for other purposes they need to do “hatarat nedarim” – release from their vow.

Although Chatam Sofer states that Maharil would agree and such a designation would sort the apparent contradiction between his approach and that of Maharam and Shach, Pitchei Teshuva notes that Maharil rules that ma’aser kesafim for the poor is a biblical obligation, and therefore the funds can’t be directed to another cause. Nevertheless, Rema seems to agree with Shulchan Aruch that it is a custom, so Chatam Sofer’s approach may be relevant.

[29] One is allowed to have limited immaterial benefit from ma’aser money, so many poskim permit receiving benefits such as an aliyah, dedication, or other honor.

[30] Terumah gedola for the kohanim, and various gifts to the poor like tzedakah or the corner of the field – pe’ah. As we saw, some of these have maximums or minimums.

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.