Adapted from Likkutei Sichos, Vol. XXVII, p. 217ff.;
Chiddushim U’Biurim BeShas, Vol. III, p. 152ff.

In the Mishneh Torah, the Rambam writes:1

A person should never consecrate or dedicate all of his property. Indeed, a person who does so violates the Torah’s intent, for it is written:2 “[Any dedication which a person will dedicate to G‑d] from all that he possesses….” [The Torah states:] “from all,” i.e., not all.

[When a person gives all his property away], our Sages3 termed this foolishness, and not piety. For he forfeits all his assets, and will need the assistance of others. One should not have mercy upon him.

With regard to such individuals, our Sages said:4 “Men of foolish piety are among those who destroy the world.” Instead, one who distributes his wealth… should not distribute more than a fifth.

In his Commentary to the Mishnah,5 the Rambam appears to follow a different perspective. On the teaching: “These are the precepts for which no fixed measure is prescribed,” he writes:

This — that deeds of kindness have no fixed measure — refers to helping a person with one’s efforts. There is a measure, however, with regard to helping a person financially: one fifth of one’s resources. A person should not obligate himself to give more than a fifth of his resources unless he does so as an expression of piety.

Thus, in his Commentary to the Mishnah, although the Rambam advises that a person’s gifts should not exceed a fifth of his resources, he does not restrict one to that measure. If a person desires to act piously, he may exceed that limit. In the Mishneh Torah, by contrast, the Rambam states unequivocally that a person’s gifts should not exceed a fifth.

It is, however, possible to explain this difference6 as follows:7 In his Commentary to the Mishnah, the Rambam is speaking about a situation of immediate and apparent need; there are captives to ransom, hungry people to feed, or needy to clothe. In such an instance, although one is not obligated to give more than a fifth, one may do so if one desires. In his Mishneh Torah, by contrast, the Rambam is speaking of a person dedicating his property for charitable purposes, but not necessarily meeting situations of immediate need. In such a circumstance, it is improper to give away more than a fifth.

This interpretation is reflected in the context in which the Rambam’s rulings were given. In describing the value of the gifts and consecrated property mentioned in Hilchos Erachin VeCharamim, the Rambam writes:8 “It is proper for a person to practice such generosity [so as] to influence his [natural] inclination, [so that] he will not be miserly,” i.e., the purpose of such gifts are not to meet the needs of others,9 but rather to shape one’s own character. For this purpose, it is not proper to give more than a fifth.

The Commentary to the Mishneh, by contrast, is speaking about deeds of kindness and charity, of which the Rambam writes:10 “It is a positive commandment to give charity to the poor according to what is appropriate for him [the recipient].” This indicates that the emphasis is on the needs of the poor person, and if another person has the means, he should endeavor to meet the poor man’s needs, even if this requires him to give away more than a fifth of his resources.11

In Tanya, Iggeres HaTeshuvah,12 the Alter Rebbe states:

A person may redeem his fasts13 with charity…. Although this may amount to a considerable sum, he need not fear [violation of] the injunction: “Do not distribute more than a fifth.” For giving for these reasons is not considered “distributing,” since he is giving to release himself from fasting and affliction. This is no less necessary than medication for his body or any of his other needs.

Similarly, in Iggeres HaKodesh,14 the Alter Rebbe states:

The ruling: “One who distributes should not distribute more than a fifth,” applies only to one who has not sinned, or has atoned for his sins through penances and fasts…. But he who has yet to correct his soul’s [blemishes, he should give] surely. For the healing of the soul is not less important than the healing of the body, for which money is no object, as it is written:15 “All that a man has, he will give on behalf of his soul.”

It must be emphasized that from a strict halachic perspective, the Alter Rebbe may rule even more strictly than the Rambam. For it appears16 that he follows the opinion of the Ramah17 who rules that it is forbidden to distribute more than one fifth of one’s resources to charity even when a direct need is involved. Indeed, this is evident from the Alter Rebbe’s wording itself: “He need not fear [violation of] the injunction: 'Do not distribute more than a fifth.’” This implies that were a person not concerned with cleansing his soul of spiritual blemishes, he should follow the injunction not to distribute more than a fifth.

Why then does the Alter Rebbe advise giving more than a fifth? Not because the immediate needs of the people are pressing as the Rambam maintains, but to enable a person to remove the blemishes from his soul. For just as a person will spend unlimitedly to care for his physical health, so too, he may spend unlimitedly to care for his spiritual health.

It is within the potential of tzedakah, not only to remove undesirable spiritual influences, but more importantly, to precipitate the revelation of positive ones. Thus our Sages state:18 “Great is tzedakah for it brings the Redemption near,” hastening the time when “there will be neither famine… for good things will flow in abundance and all the delights will be as freely available as dust,”19 with the coming of Mashiach; may this take place in the immediate future.