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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)



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 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 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.

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.

Last week 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.

* * * * *

An interesting question was posed to the Chatam Sofer (Rabbi Moshe Sofer, Responsa Chatam Sofer, Yoreh De’ah 240). “An individual was given an aliyah at the Torah; at its conclusion he made the following charitable pledge: ‘I hereby pledge to give the sum of … to one of the charities in the city.’ It happened that there were many different charities in the city, one for the poor, another for the support of Torah institutions, another for the burial society, another to support needy brides, and yet another for bikur cholim.” And although he pledged to give to only one of them, he forgot which one.

The Chatam Sofer writes: “We are thus left with the following doubt – should we say that due to doubt he is required to give the amount of his pledge to each and every one of these charities, or should we absolve him of any payment for he is able to declare to each, ‘Bring proof that you are the intended recipient and I will pay you’?” Or perhaps he should just pay the sum he promised and let the various charities fight over it.

The Chatam Sofer notes that both the Rambam (Hilchot Ma’aseh Ha’korbanot 17:8) and the Mechaber (Yoreh De’ah 248:3), based on a case in Menachot (106a) that bears some similarity to this one, rule that if a person pledges money to charity but doesn’t remember how much, he must give up as much as it takes for him to be able to say, “Surely I did not give that large an amount.”

The Chatam Sofer continues: “We learned in Tractate Pe’ah (IV:11) ‘Grain found in ant holes while the corn is still standing belongs to the owner; after the reapers [have passed over them] those [found lying] uppermost [in the ant holes] belong to the poor, but [those found] beneath belong to the owner. R. Meir says: Everything belongs to the poor; for leket even when doubtful is nevertheless regarded as leket.’”

The Chatam Sofer goes further, “From the Jerusalem Talmud (Pe’ah) and all the authorities we see that the halacha follows R. Meir, and proof that doubtful leket is considered leket is derived from numerous verses. R. Shimon b. Nachman in the name of R. Yonatan cites Psalms 82:3: “ani v’rosh hatzdiku – vindicate the poor and impoverished.” [How do we] vindicate them? By justly giving them their matanot – their rightful compensation. R. Shimon b. Lakish in the name of Bar Kapara cites Exodus 23:6): “lo sateh mishpat evyoncha b’rivo – do not pervert the judgement of your destitute person in his grievance.” In his judgement you do not pervert [for his benefit – see Pnei Moshe’s commentary]; however, when it comes to those matanot that he is Biblically allotted we do ‘pervert.’ R. Yochanan cites Deuteronomy 24:21: “la’ger la’yatom v’l’almanah yih’yeh – for the proselyte, the orphan and the widow it shall be.” From the extra word yih’yeh we derive that we give him [where there is doubt] both from yours and from his.”

What we see from these citations is how strict we are when dealing with the needy. In the eyes of our sages their charity is sacrosanct. In conclusion, the Chatam Sofer rules as follows: This individual has to give the amount he pledged to each and every one of the city’s charity funds. However, it is clear that we cannot force him in this matter; therefore, if he so chooses he may leave the amount pledged before all of them and quickly depart, leaving them to deal with the matter.

(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.