You’ve been too busy to open your mail. When you finally do, it is overflowing with bills and letters. Solicitation letters from the Jewish hospital, a gemach (interest-free loan fund), the yeshiva and the synagogue. As you walk into the great, resplendent synagogue, you are approached by a downtrodden beggar who solicits you for money. And as you look at the name plaques on the wall, you wonder whether that money should have gone to the needy and the sick. Should charity be prioritized according to the perception of need or is it first come first served?
All poskim agree that if you are as wealthy as King Solomon, you should respond generously to all worthy solicitations. But if you have limited financial resources, then according to many authorities the first check should go to those who are poor or dangerously sick. This takes precedence not only over the building of a synagogue but even over the building of the Temple.
Why did King Solomon not use King David’s gold and silver to build the Temple? Why did he lock it up in the Temple treasury and use his own money instead? Because, explains the Midrash, a famine had ravaged the land of Israel during the three years that King David accumulated money to build the Temple. King Solomon felt this money, which should have gone to save the lives of the hungry, was tainted. He did not want to build a Temple on the backs of the poor and hungry.
The Talmud Yerushalmi in Shekalim 15a relates that Rabbi Chama and Rabbi Hoshia were strolling past the beautiful synagogues of Lod.
“Look up,” said Rabbi Chama. “See how much capital my family has invested in this splendid synagogue!”
“And how many bodies has your family buried here?” responded Rabbi Hoshia. “ Were there no sick people dying in hospital corridors, or poor Torah scholars who needed help? ‘And Israel forgot its Maker and built palaces.’ ”
It is noteworthy that despite his opinion that the first check goes to those whose lives are at risk, the Maharam of Rothenburg, who was incarcerated for seven years in a German fortress because of his religious beliefs, refused to accept ransom money raised by his community.
The second check should go to the yeshivot and the third to the synagogue. If, however, the gemach is soliciting on behalf of poor but healthy people, or poor people who, though surviving, could do with more, then according to the same poskim the synagogue gets paid before the poor. So the order would be first the yeshivot, then the synagogue, then the poor.
The Vilna Gaon disagrees and maintains that the poor, even the healthy poor, always come ahead of the synagogue, so the order would be first the yeshivot, then the poor, then the synagogue.
The Aruch Hashulchan, however, suggests that where there is no synagogue in town, all would agree that building a synagogue takes precedence over charity to the poor but healthy.
Rabbi Shmuel Landau, in his work Ahavat Zion, suggests that Moses sought guidance on this very issue from God. “If we are to look after the poor,” asked Moses, “how will we have enough money to pay for Your Sanctuary?”
“By splitting your funds,” God responded. “The rich may not give more than this half shekel.” In this way there will enough money for God’s house and enough money for the poor. Yes, you must build a synagogue, suggests Rabbi Landau, but it is your duty to look after the poor. Neither has precedence over the other. The beauty of the synagogue lies not only in the splendor of its structure but also in the survival of its congregants.