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Question: When a stranger approaches a congregant in shul asking for tzedakah, should the congregant verify that the person’s need is genuine? Furthermore, what constitutes tzedakah? Is a donation to a synagogue, yeshiva, or hospital considered tzedakah?

Zvi Kirschner
(Via E-Mail)

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Summary of our response up to this point: We noted that one never becomes impoverished from giving charity. We also explained the importance of giving charity, especially via a loan so as not to embarrass one’s fellow. The Gemara (Kettubot 67b) discusses the lengths to which one must go to accommodate the needs of a poor person who formerly was wealthy.

We sought to determine who is classified as an impoverished person and thus entitled to charity funds. We also noted the dispute (Baba Batra 9a) between R. Huna and R. Judah regarding one how one verifies that one is needy.

We delved into two differing sources (and views) regarding the economics of poverty (a mishnah in Pe’ah and a mishnah in Eruvin). The Aruch Hashulchan explains that the mishnah in Pe’ah refers to earlier times. We also cited Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss (Responsa Minchat Yitzchak) who discusses this matter in detail and cites the Chatam Sofer who connects the monetary measures set forth by our sages to leket, shikchah, and peah, which we no longer have. The Chatam Sofer connects our charitable giving to the recipients’ most basic needs.

We noted that there are sinners might not be entitled to our largesse, namely sinners. The Mechaber notes that there is a difference between one who transgresses due to an insatiable desire – mumar l’te’avon – and one who does so out of spite – mumar l’hash’chit. We are more lenient with regard to the former, and today there are few today who can be considered sinners out of spite.

We discussed to whom we should give our charity funds first; gabba’ei tzedakah; and the propriety of giving tzedakah funds to institutions like yeshivot and hospitals. We noted that a person should give charity relative to his means. We also discussed whether one may use one’s charity money for another mitzvah.

We then sought to define the annual amount of tzedakah one must give. The Mechaber, based on the Gemara (Bava Batra 9a), says the minimum is a third of a shekel. The Shach, in the 17th century, says it is one Polish zloty. Perhaps the requirement to give this minimum amount is why many shuls have the minhag of having the gabbai circulate the synagogue, collecting charity. In this manner, everyone is sure to at least give the minimum amount over the course of a year.

We also noted the importance of giving tzedakah in a good frame of mind and never turning anyone away empty handed. We also went through the eight levels of charitable giving and noted the importance of maintaining the right temperament when giving charity.

We cited from a related article by my uncle HaRav Sholom Klass, zt”l. He was asked, “Until what age is a father to support his children and may he use his charitable donations for their support as well as paying for their Torah education?” He cited the Gemara to the effect that one must support them until age six; if he is wealthy, he must support them after that as well. The Rambam, based on the Gemara, notes that a father who refuses to support them should be shamed into doing so.

Rabbi Sholom Klass also discussed supporting children from one’s charitable funds and cited many authorities who permit doing so. We cited authorities who disagree. Even Birkei Yosef who claims that it is permitted discourages doing so. The Aruch Hashulchan claims that one who deprives the poor of support by using charitable funds for one’s own children. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein notes that social conditions have changed in that children today remain dependent for much longer thus obviating use of ma’aer kesafim for their support.

We cited from Responsa Me’ah She’arim, where Rabbi Yitzchak Silberstein relates an incident involving a fundraiser who asked an elderly Rav Dovid Karliner for funds for the famed Navharodoker Yeshiva. After having received the elderly gaon’s donation he was caught by surprise when the gaon offered to give him another donation, having forgotten that he had just, moments earlier, given him money.

We cited the Rambam (to Avot 3:5) who writes that merits are attained according to the number of one’s deeds. Thus, giving a small sum to many poor people is better than giving one large sum to one needy person. The Chofetz Chayim adds that acting in this manner accustoms a person to giving charity.

We noted that giving numerous times to the same individual also helps a person overcome his yetzer ha’ra. We noted the Chazon Ish’s view that if a giver has the wherewithal and the receiver has the need, he must give him. He notes, though, that our sages caution not to impoverish oneself through giving. Rabbi Silberstein also stresses that a person who asks for funds numerous times from the same individual is guilty of wrongdoing since he deprives other poor people of funds. He notes that it is imperative for a fundraiser to remind an elderly person that he gave him once before. Otherwise, he is guilty of geneivat da’at.

We referred to a unique application of the dictum of Avot 3:15:“Everything is [measured] according to the preponderance of one’s actions” and the Rambam’s explanation that “merits are not attained by a person according to the magnitude of a single action but rather according to the preponderance of the number of one’s many actions.” A person who donates a mezuzah to a synagogue entrance, we suggested, will reap the merits of those who enter and depart each and every day.

We noted, citing Tractate Arachin, that once money reaches the possession of the gabbai tzedakah it no longer belongs to the donor. We presented a dilemma presented to the Noda BiYehuda regarding a charity donation that became mixed with the gabbai tzedakah’s mundane money. He ruled that the gabbai must go to great lengths to determine what the donor might have given.

Last week we discussed a case that came before the Chatam Sofer: someone pledged money “to one of the charities of the city” but did not specify which one. The Chatam Sofer ruled that must give every one. At the very least, he should place the sum before all of them and quickly depart and let them deal with the matter.

* * * * *

Rabbi Moshe Stern, the Debrecener Rav (Responsa Ba’er Moshe vol 4:92), was asked the following question. Normally, one may not refuse someone charity since the Torah says: “lo t’ametz et levov’cha v’lo tikpotz et yod’cha me’achicha ha’eveyon – you shall not harden your heart or close your hand against your destitute brother” (Deuteronomy 15:7). What is the law, though, regarding a solicitation letter? Must one give every time one receives one? And if the answer is yes, does this also apply to letters that come before the Yamim Nora’im from rabbis offering high holiday greetings, which don’t explicitly ask for money but which nonetheless are sent for the purposes of raising money?

The Debrecener Rav rules that a solicitation letter signed either by a bet din or a rabbi of impeccable repute is the equivalent of a needy person standing before us asking for money and one is required to give. One is not required to give, though, in response to high holiday letters from rabbis which are sent in the hope that one will donate.

The Debrecener Rav explains how he arrived at his ruling. At first blush, it would seem that a solicitation letter is not comparable to a needy individual making a request in person. The Chatam Sofer (Yoreh Deah, Responsum 220) writes that the Torah was explicit that testimony must be from the mouths of the witnesses, and not from their pen. Why? Because someone can more easily get away with a lie in a written statement than in person. When someone testifies in person, the judges can watch his face intently to see whether he is lying. For this reason, one would assume that a solicitation letter is not like an individual standing before us asking for charity.

Indeed, the Gemara seems to only be talking about an someone asking for money in person when it states, “Kol ha’maa’lim einav min ha tzedaka k’ilu oved avoda zara – Whoever turns his eyes away from charity is as if he served strange gods” (as he is turning away from the person before him) (Bava Batra 10a). And yet, the wording of the Gemara’s statement is a bit odd. Shouldn’t it have said, “Whoever turns his eyes away from a needy individual…” rather than “Whoever turns his eyes away from charity…”? Does this unexpected wording perhaps imply that there is no reason for the poor individual to actually be standing before us?

(To be continued)

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass, rav of Congregation K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush, Brooklyn, is Torah Editor of The Jewish Press. He can be contacted at yklass@jewishpress.com.