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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 who comes seeking food: according to the former we verify that he is indeed needy, but if he seeks clothing we need not make inquiries. The latter posits the opposite: if he wants clothing, we make inquiries, but if he seeks food, we ask no questions. The halacha follows R. Judah.

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 aishnah 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 some poor people who might not be entitled to our largesse, namely sinners. The Mechaber, however 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. We also touched upon the concept of tinok sh’nishba as it applies in our day and age. In sum, there are few today who can readily be considered as sinners out of spite.

Last week, we discussed whom we should give our charity funds to first.

* * * * *

The Mechaber (Yoreh De’ah 257) discusses at length the role of a gabbai tzedakah, the communal officer entrusted with both the collection and disbursement of public charity funds. He writes, “After a person has given funds to the gabba’ei tzedakah, neither he nor his heirs have any control over them, and the community [through its gabba’ei tzedakah] should dispense them in accordance with what is proper in the eyes of G-d and man.”

The Rema notes: “But before the funds came into the possession of the gabbai, if he pledged the money to charity without stipulation, it should be given to the donor’s indigent relatives. We surmise what the person’s wish might have been – that he would have wished the money to be given to his poor relatives. We only give the money to his poor relatives, though, if they were poor at the time of his pledge; however, if they were well off at the time and became impoverished subsequently, we do not give the money to them. All of the above applies to money which he pledged personally. If, however, he disbursed the charity along with his townsmen, we assume that the money pledged should be dispensed in accordance with the dictates of his townsmen, and they may do as they see fit.”

The Pitchei Teshuvah (to Rema ad loc. 251:5 sv “d’omdin da’ato,” citing the Maharit) discusses a 16th century responsum, “An individual left his wealth to his heirs, plus a specific amount as a bequest to the city of Jerusalem and other charities as well. He wished the principal of the bequest to remain intact and the earnings to be distributed every year. It happened that one of his heirs fell on hard times, and there was a fear that he might resort to an improper path. A ruling was therefore issued that he be given from the earnings of the separate bequest based on the assumption that, undoubtedly, the donor wished that if ever one of his descendants become impoverished he should be supported [from those funds] but not from the principal since the gabbai tzedakah had already taken possession of it.”

We thus see that in the sixteenth century charitable giving had evolved to support “the city of Jerusalem and other charities as well.” We also see that officials in charge of charity dealt with bequests beyond the scope of dispensing to individual paupers.

Among them might have been bequests for the purpose of Torah education. The Talmud (Bava Metzia 21a) recounts the praises and accomplishments of R. Yehoshua b. Gamla, the sage who laid the foundation for our Torah educational system. He enacted that communities be responsible for the education of the youth who reside in their midst.

Though giving to an educational institution might not seem to necessarily constitute charitable giving, it has come to be looked upon as such since there are always those impoverished few in the community who are unable to afford to contribute to the communal plate and cannot afford to pay the teachers’ fees.

The individuals who manage these institutions – yeshivot and girls schools – are in effect gabba’ei tzedakah and, as such, are entrusted to use donations to support those students whose parents cannot afford tuition, thus enabling all children equal access to a Torah education. Indeed, the Mechaber (Yoreh Deah 249:16) writes: “There is an opinion (Maharik in the name of Tashbatz based upon the Jerusalem Talmud) expressed that the mitzvah to contribute to a synagogue is greater than the mitzvah to contribute to charity and that the mitzvah to contribute charity to young lads in order that they learn Torah or to those indigent who are ill is even greater that contributions to synagogues.”

We thus see that contributions to yeshivot and girls schools which facilitate the study of Torah, as well as contributions to hospitals which serve without discrimination those who are ill, are classified as tzedakah.

(To be continued)

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Rabbi Yaakov Klass is Rav of K’hal Bnei Matisyahu in Flatbush; Torah Editor of The Jewish Press; and Presidium Chairman, Rabbinical Alliance of America/Igud HaRabbonim.