Ideally, people would have no qualms about supporting those in need. The Torah, however, recognized that charity is not necessarily a person’s first instinct and therefore specifies a mandatory giving of tzedaka (charity) of 10% of a person’s income.
Maaser, which means a tenth (often translated as “tithe”), is the specific name for the allocation of one’s tzedaka. In ancient times, each Jew was required to give one tenth of the produce of the fields to the Levite, and an additional tenth to the poor or to support Jerusalem. Today, maaser is generally given from both one’s regular income and from any additional monies that come to a person, such as bank interest, an inheritance or a monetary gift. Because of the intricacies of the laws and differences in situations, it is recommended that one seek the help of a rabbi to properly allocate one’s maaser.
Ideally, maaser money is used specifically to support those in need--whether through direct hand-outs or by supporting a local food shelter (as an example). However, the money may also be used to support schools of Jewish learning, hospitals and other worthwhile causes.
In Genesis 28, we learn that on his way to a foreign land, Jacob vowed that if God protected him on his journey and brought him back to his father’s house in peace, “of all that You [God] will give me, I will surely give the tenth to you.”
How is giving tzedaka actually giving to God? Obviously, God does not need our money. Giving tzedaka, however, makes a person more aware of the needs people around him/her, and also reminds a person that all that he/she owns is a gift from God. That recognition is the payment that God seeks.