For many years Mr. Jacobs served as gabbai tzedakah. In addition to a general tzedakah fund that he managed, he also collected for the local yeshiva and Hatzalah. Every day he would place three separate pushkas in shul. At the end of each month, he would count the money and deposit it in the designated accounts.
One day, after counting the donations, Mr. Jacobs put the money in his coat pocket and headed to the bank. But when he reached the bank, he put his hand in his pocket and realized the money was gone.
“It must have fallen out along the way,” he thought. Mr. Jacobs retraced his steps but could not find the money. He panicked. There was over $1,000 of general tzedakah; old Mr. Katz alone had contributed two hundred in honor of his father’s yahrzeit. There was almost $400 for the local yeshiva, and $300 for Hatzalah.
Mr. Jacobs came home with a glum look. “What happened?” His wife asked. “You look terrible!”
Mr. Jacobs related what had happened. “I always put the money in my attaché case,” he added, “but I didn’t have it today so I stuffed it in my coat pocket. It’s $1,700 down the drain.”
Mrs. Jacobs thought for a moment. “Are you held accountable for the money?” she asked. “It’s going to be very hard for us to cover such a sum.”
“I was wondering the same,” answered Mr. Jacobs. “I was careless. On the other hand, I do this as a volunteer; I don’t get anything for being gabbai. Furthermore, nobody’s keeping track of the money except for Mr. Katz; he asks me every day if I distributed it already.”
“But you know that you lost the money,” retorted his wife, “and God knows!”
“I was just wondering what the halacha is,” apologized Mr. Jacobs. “I’d like to discuss the issue with Rabbi Dayan.”
When Rabbi Dayan heard the story, he said: “You must pay the money that was collected for specific causes, namely the yeshiva and Hatzalah. On the other hand, nobody can claim the unspecified tzedakah from you, not even Mr. Katz, but according to some you have a chiyuv b’dinei shamayim, a halachic obligation toward God, to make good to the poor.”
Rabbi Dayan then explained: “A gabbai tzedakah is responsible for negligence the same as any other person who is entrusted with money. If he is paid for his services, he would be accountable even for theft. Nonetheless, the Shulchan Aruch [C.M. 301:6] holds that one who was negligent with unspecified tzedakah is ‘exempt,’ since nobody can claim the money from him. The donors cannot claim the money, since they never expected the gabbai to return it to them, but rather to distribute it to the poor. Each individual poor person also has no claim, since the gabbai can choose not to give the charity to him, but to some other needy person. However, if the money was earmarked for specific people or organizations, they have a definite claim to the money, and the gabbai is fully accountable to them if he was negligent.”
“And what did you mean by a chiyuv b’dinei shamayim about the unspecified tzedakah?” asked Mr. Jacobs.
Rabbi Dayan continued: “The Chavos Yair explains that even when the money is not earmarked for anyone specific, the gabbai is only ‘exempt’ in the sense that neither the donor nor an individual poor person can demand the money from him. However, the gabbai has a halachic obligation, albeit not enforceable by beis din, to give the money to the poor. His commitment to handle their money is no less a commitment than one made by a person who pledges to them [Pischei Teshuvah 301:6].” Maharam Shick, though, exempts even latzeis y’dei shamayaim if the gabbai did not actively damage” [C.M. 14].