May one use Maaser money to purchase a seat in a Shul, or to pay for membership?
Background: Under certain conditions, it is permitted to use Maaser money for the sake of fulfilling a Mitzvah. These conditions are as follows: a) The Mitzvah is not an obligation for one to fulfill, and rather is voluntary; b) One is unable to afford the voluntary Mitzvah and hence would abstain from doing so unless he uses his Maaser funds. c) Some Poskim also require that one precondition prior to separating the Maaser money that he will use the money for whatever he chooses. [Practically, however. one may use Maaser money for Mitzvos even if he already separated it without a precondition, and already separated three times to pauper. Thus, it is permitted to use Maaser money to donate to a Shul. This applies even if the Shul will use the funds for its personal upkeeping and will not distribute it to the poor. This applies even if one will be receiving a benefit from the donation. It is, however, forbidden to do so if the Gabbaim of the Shul are not G-d fearing and cannot be trusted with the money to use it for the Shul’s benefit.]
The ruling: One may use Maaser money to pay for seats in a Shul or for Shul membership [if it would be difficult to afford otherwise], as the money is going towards the Mitzvah of upkeeping a Shul, and to give one the ability to properly participate and Daven with the Minyan in a set area. This, however, only applies if one had intent to do so upon making the purchase of the seat or membership. If, however one did not have intent to do so upon purchasing it, then it is forbidden to use Maaser money to pay for it later on.
One may use Maaser money to pay for seats in a Shul or for Shul membership if it would be difficult to afford otherwise.
 Shach 249/3; Taz 249:1; Maharshal; Derisha 249/1; Maharam Menachem 459; Admur Hilchos Talmud Torah 1/7 regarding using Maaser to pay tuition of Talmud Torah; Admur Seder Birchas Hanehnin 12/9 “The Maaser of the son may be used for other Mitzvos”; Likkutei Sichos 9/346; Toras Menachem 34/272 [brought in Shulchan Menachem 5/110] based on Admur ibid; See Tzedaka Umishpat 6:12
Other opinions: Some Poskim rule it is forbidden to use Maaser money for the sake of a Mitzvah, and rather it must be given as charity to paupers. [Rama Y.D. 249/1; Maharil Rosh Hashanah and Teshuvah 56; Kneses Hagedola 249; Beis Dino Shel Shlomo Y.D. 1; See Beir Goleh ibid who explains that the Rama refers to a Mitzvah that one already obligated himself to pay, and on this he can’t use Maaser money, however in general he agrees with the Maharam that Maaser may be used for a Mitzvah, and hence there is no dispute. [Pischeiy Teshuvah 249/2] So can also be implied from Taz 249/1 that there is no dispute. [See Tzedaka Umishpat 6 footnote 7] However, see Chasam Sofer 231[brought in Pischeiy Teshuva ibid and Ahavas Chesed 18/2] who negates this explanation and states that according to Rama/Maharil it is always forbidden to use it for a Mitzvah, and so explains Rebbe in Toras Menachem 34/272.
 Beir Hagoleh ibid [in explanation of opinion of Rama ibid]; Chasam Sofer 231, Pischeiy Teshuvah 249/2
 Shach 249/3; Taz 249/1; Maharshal; Derisha 249/1; Maharam Menachem 459; Admur Hilchos Talmud Torah 1/7 regarding using Maaser to pay tuition; Toras Menachem 34/272 [brought in Shulchan Menachem 5/110]
 See Chasam Sofer 231, brought in Pischeiy Teshuvah; Toras Menachem 34/272 who mentions such a differentiation even according to the lenient opinion; Hilchos Maaser Kesafim 14/1
 Toras Menachem 34/272 based on Admur Hilchos Talmud Torah 1/7 regarding using Maaser to pay tuition who does not differentiate in this matter
Other opinions: Some Poskim are stringent like the former opinion mentioned, and rule one is not to use Maaser money or Mitzvos unless he preconditioned its use prior to beginning separating for the first time in his life, as rules Chasam Sofer 231 that in such a case all Poskim agree. [Kaneh Bosem 3/84]
 As stated above, that one may use Maaser money for a Mitzvah
 Taz 249/1 regarding paying for a Kibud purchased in a Shul
The reason: As although one benefits from the Kibbud, nonetheless, this does not invalidate its Tzedaka status, being that all Tzedakah has some benefit. [Taz ibid]
 Minchas Yitzchak in next footnote; As stated above in condition b, one should avoid using Maaser money for the purpose of a Mitzvah unless it would be difficult to afford otherwise. If, one can afford only some of the sum, while the remaining sum is above his affordability, then he can use Maaser money for the remaining sum.
 Minchas Yitzchak 8:83; Shaareiy Tzedek 10:92 that so ruled Rav Fisher; and Rav Karelitz; Tzitz Eliezer 20:35; Pashut based on all the reasons mentioned below and the background above; Pesakim Uteshuvos 249:35 that so rule many Poskei Zemaneinu
The reason: As a) The money is going for a Mitzvah purpose, to support a Shul; and b) The benefit received is a Mitzvah, so one can Daven properly in a set seat and have a set place in Shul, as recorded in the Gemara in Brachos 6b and Admur 90:18. [Now, although this matter is seemingly an obligation, nonetheless, we do not find anywhere that this obligation is connected with purchasing the area, and one can establish a set place for standing by Shemoneh Esrei anywhere he wants that is available in the Shul, whether he paid or not, and hence buying the area is an extra Hiuddur and not an obligation] c) The seat is not really purchased and acquired by the member, and hence it does not have the Halachic status of being inherited. [Shaareiy Tzedek ibid] Certainly, this allowance applies if there are many available unpurchased seats in Shul, or one would in any event have a seat, and one’s entire intent is to give a donation and assist with the upkeep of the Shul.
Other opinions: Some Poskim rule that one may never use Maaser money to pay for Shul membership. [Shraga Hameir 8:54; Sefer Maaser Kesafim 17:4; Emes Liyaakov 249] Other Rabbanim limit it only to cases where there are many unpurchased seats anyways available. This is due to several reasons which are independent of each other: a) As one may not use Maaser money for a Mitzvah and it must go to paupers. [See other opinions above; However, in truth we do not rule like those opinions]; b) As one is receiving a seat in the Shul in return and is hence receiving a physical benefit and item with market value. [However, in truth, receiving benefit in return does not invalidate the use of Maaser, as stated in Taz 249:1 regarding an Aliya; See also Taz ibid regarding buying Sefarim, however there the Sefer remains belonging to Maaser, and he must lend it to others if asked] c) As the benefit received [a seat] is not a Mitzvah, as there is no Mitzvah for one to sit in that seat in Shul. [However, in truth Davening with Kavana, and having a set place to Daven is a Halacha in Shulchan Aruch 90 and hence certainly is considered a Mitzvah. Now even if one were to say that the Mitzvah is only by Shemoneh Esrei, where one stands, nonetheless, just as building a Shul is a Mitzvah, certainly participating in the Minyan is a Mitzvah, and thus buying a seat is to facilitate one’s participance. Vetzaruch Iyun if having a set place in Shul is defined as an obligation to the point that one cannot purchase a seat for that purpose. See above in reason of Matirim] Some Rabbanim rule the following way to help escape some of the issues mentioned above: The Gabaiy and donor stipulate with each other that if Maaser money is being given for the seat, then it is considered like a mere donation, and the seat is being given as a present from the Gabaiy with no liability.
 The reason: As the money has already become a personal debt, and it is forbidden to use Maaser money to pay for a debt. [Taz ibid]