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Shabbat Parashat Vaeira 5780

Ask the Rabbi: Using Tzedaka Funds for Grandchildrens Education

Rav Daniel Mann

Question: Can one use ma’aser money to pay for their grandchildren’s education? Is there a distinction between grandsons and granddaughters or Judaic studies and general studies? If it is permitted, may I putting money in a 529 fund (which earmarks savings for education, primarily post-secondary in return for tax breaks for the donor in the US)?  


Answer: There are two major channels for use of ma’aser funds. The classic one is to help provide essentials for the poor (Ahavat Chesed II:19). Another is to enable the fulfillment of mitzvot. There appears to be a machloket if ma’aser money can be used for mitzvot (see Rama, Yoreh Deah 249:1; Shach ad loc. 3). In practice, only if the donor is not required to finance the mitzva is he allowed to use ma’aser funds (see Beitza 19b).

It is a complicated question whether the parents are able to count their children’s tuition toward ma’aser since it is their obligation to educate their children (see Igrot Moshe, YD II 113). Regarding Torah education, it is likely permitted after bar mitzva (Tzedaka U’mishpat 6:14). Without getting into a discussion about what the Torah considers the ideal secular education, schooling is generally included in the positive matter of teaching a child a profession, and the obligation is on the father alone (see Kiddushin 29a). It is unclear to what extent this would be considered like a classic mitzva, like teaching Torah, which would justify one using his ma’aser money on it. However, if due to lack of funds, the child would be forced to go to public school unless someone pays his day school tuition, then the secular tuition, of boys or girls, can be taken from tzedaka funds, whether from the community or from grandparents’ ma’aser, as this is a critical mitzva. This could apply to a college education in the framework of a makom Torah as well.

Grandfathers have a mitzva to teach Torah to their son’s sons (see Rambam, Talmud Torah 1:2). It is unclear whether this includes paying for yeshiva (see Kesef Mishneh, Talmud Torah 1:2; Igrot Moshe YD II, 110), but the Shach (YD 245:1) and Shulchan Aruch Harav (Talmud Torah 1:8) assume that he is obligated. Thus, a son’s son’s Torah education before bar mitzva might not be able to be taken from ma’aser.

The way to justify using ma’aser funds for a grandchild’s college education is to focus on his parents’ needs. If from one’s child’s perspective, he needs to provide a college education that he cannot afford, then that middle generation could be considered poor for such matters (poor is whoever cannot afford that which is subjectively considered a necessity in his healthy milieu – Ketubot 67b). The needs of a close relative are a tzedaka precedence compared to people with less connection (Shulchan Aruch, YD 251:3). While it is possible that one who can afford to support his poor parents cannot use ma’aser for that purpose (see Shulchan Aruch and Rama, YD 240:5), one may give ma’aser money to a son who should normally be financially independent (Tzedaka U’mishpat 6:4).

Now we present crucial questions you need to answer yourself. Is your child unable to afford his children’s education? To what extent is the planned education a necessity (e.g., they want their son to go an expensive university, which might not improve his future significantly compared to a cheaper alternative)? Setting up a 529 fund might complicate the answers to these questions, as one may not know when putting the money aside what the situation will be when it will be time to use it (it is difficult to reassign the funds later).

Let us hint in closing that many people who give ma’aser are already acting beyond their basic obligation, by not using legitimate leniencies to greatly lower their ma’aser obligations. They, therefore, have a right to rule leniently on ma’aser questions. On the other hand, the more one is noble and generous about giving tzedaka (within limits) the greater his merit and blessing (see Taanit 9a), which all who can afford it deserve.
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