Rabbi Meir Orlian
The Mandels lived in a rented apartment, on a shoestring budget. Although both Mr. and Mrs. Mandel worked, they were unable to make ends meet, and their debt was steadily increasing. Recently, they had started receiving food packages from the local tzedakah organization.
One summer, the Mandels’ washing machine and refrigerator stopped working within days of each other. “How are we going to find the money to fix them?” Mrs. Mandel said to her husband worriedly. “We have to pay rent in a week, and I don’t know how we’ll cover even that!”
Mr. Mandel contacted Mr. Fixler, an appliance repairman. “How much would it cost to repair our washing machine and fridge?” he asked.
“It depends on the problem, obviously,” replied Mr. Fixler. “I would estimate that the visit and repairs would come to about $350 plus parts.”
“That’s a lot for me,” said Mr. Mandel. “I’ll have to check around.”
That evening, Mr. Mandel approached a local gabbai tzedakah. “Do you know of anyone who would be willing to help us cover the appliance repairs?” he asked.
“I’ll see what I can do,” the gabbai replied.
The gabbai’s first phone call was to Mr. Fixler. “Mr. Mandel shared his predicament with me,” he said. “He has no money for these repairs. Would you consider doing the work as a favor to him?”
“This is my parnassah,” Mr. Fixler answered, “and if I start doing favors for everybody, I’ll have no business. If I can consider the work as tzedakah and deduct it from my maaser kesafim, though, then there’s what to talk about.”
“I can’t rule for you,” said the gabbai, but I’m happy to put you in touch with Rabbi Dayan with this question.
May Mr. Fixler perform the repairs for the Mandels free of charge and deduct his charge for those repairs from his maaser kesafim?
The Gemara (Kiddushin 8a, 63a) teaches that something that has monetary value has the same status as money. Therefore, a person can purchase real estate or betroth a woman not only with money (kesef), but also with items worth money, such as a ring. Service is also considered of monetary value, but cannot be used to betroth for a technical reason (E.H. 27:1, 38:13; Aruch Hashulchan, C.M. 190:22; Pischei Choshen, Kinyanim 3:).
Accordingly, the obligation of maaser kesafim may be fulfilled not only through money, but also through goods and services that are worth money. If a professional provides a service pro bono, he may deduct the price of that service from his maaser; if the service does not have a set price, he may deduct only what he would have charged the recipient (Maaser Kesafim 7:1-2; Tzedakah U’mishpat 5:).
Maharil Diskin (Responsa #23-24) writes that even if the professional committed to working pro bono without intending to deduct the price of the work from maaser kesafim, he may still declare, before doing the job, that this will count toward his maaser.
However, if he already did the work as a favor, it is doubtful whether he is permitted to retroactively deduct the cost from maaser. That is because we have a mitzvah of gemilus chessed through action, in addition to the mitzvah of tzedakah. Therefore, if a person already helped someone without intending that the monetary value of his assistance should be counted as charity, it is considered an act of gemilus chassadim, and might not be countable toward maaser kesafim (see Taz, Y.D. 249:1.).
Harav Moshe Feinstein ruled that for a professional to count his pro bono work as maaser kesafim, he must draft a bill and then cancel it. Some explain that this is because the service must have a quantified, realistic value in order for it to be equivalent to money. Harav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach allowed only nine-tenths of the value of the work to be deducted from maaser, since one-tenth of the wages would have gone to maaser, anyway. Others, however, do not make these distinctions (Maaser Kesafim 7:; Hilchos Tzedakah, p. 104).
Ruling: Mr. Fixler may consider the repairs he performs for the Mandels as tzedakah and deduct what he would realistically charge for such work from maaser kesafim, if done with this intent.