Purim: giving without due diligence, Part 2

I knew I had seen a reference to the Rav’s thoughts on this matter.  I’ll paraphrase R’ Schachter in דברי הרב.

To understand the connection between the מצווה of  צדקה and specifically the Yom Tov of Purim, we need to to understand the general מצווה of צדקה. The Rambam in the beginning of the tenth chapter of הלכות מתנות עניים exhorts us to be more careful in the degree of our observance of the מצווה of  צדקה than all other positive commands. This is because  צדקה—vis a vis the propensity to give—is an identifying trait of Avraham Avinu. As the Pasuk in בראשית יח יט states:

כִּי יְדַעְתִּיו לְמַעַן אֲשֶׁר יְצַוֶּה אֶת בָּנָיו וְאֶת בֵּיתוֹ אַחֲרָיו וְשָׁמְרוּ דֶּרֶךְ ד’ לַעֲשׂוֹת צְדָקָה וּמִשְׁפָּט לְמַעַן הָבִיא ד’ עַל אַבְרָהָם אֵת אֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר עָלָיו

“For I have known him, that he commands his children, and his house after him and they have kept the way of Hashem, to do Tzedaka and judgment, that Hashem may bring on Abraham that which He had spoken concerning him.”

The Rambam’s statement is extraordinary. We could be forgiven for thinking that the defining characteristics of a Jew is seen through the Mezuza on their door, or through their observance of the Mitzvah of Tzitzis, Tefillin, Kashrus, and similar. Giving Tzedaka, however, is a universal humanistic value that is not just the domain of Jews, so why did the Rambam specifically choose Tzedaka as the characterising hallmark of the Jew?

In the second סעיף the Rambam goes on to say that if someone exhibits cruel or uncaring characteristics, then we might suspect that persons יחוס (intrinsic DNA) as a Jew. As is well known (and more recently popularised in Avraham Frieds’ ביישנים song) , the Gemara (יבמות מט) says

“סימני ישראל האומה הקדושה: בישנים, רחמנים וגומלי חסדים”

“The signs of the holy nation of Israel are that they are milquetoast, pitying, and bestowers of kindness.”

The Rambam stresses that all Jews are siblings and if one sibling does not look out for another, who will?

In this regard, the Megillah states the inspiring words:

 

וירא המן–כי אין מרדכי, כרע ומשתחוה לו; וימלא המן, חמה. ויבז בעיניו, לשלח יד במרדכי לבדו–כי הגידו לו, את עם מרדכי; ויבקש המן, להשמיד את כל היהודים

that Mordechai refused to cow tow to Haman. Haman was enraged, and whilst he would ordinarily have materialised his rage solely through punishing Mordechai, once he realised that (consistent with the Rambam’s view) Mordechai was an iconic symbol conjoined with Jews, כי הגידו לו, את עם מרדכי as a unified whole, then ויבז בעיניו he despised Mordechai more, and decided that he’d take it out on all Jews—להשמיד את כל היהודים.

This is also what Mordechai reminded  Esther of when he said:

״אל תדמי בנפשך להמלט בית המלך מכל היהודים כי אם החרש תחרישי בעת הזאת ריוח והצלה יעמוד ליהודים ממקום אחר ואת ובית אביך תאבדו

“Do not imagine that you in the king’s palace can escape any more than all the Jews. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance will arise for the Jews from another place and you and your father’s house will perish.’’

Mordechai was stressing to Esther that Jews are responsible for each other; they are a singleton. It cannot be that a Jew’s fate is detached from other Jews anymore than a Jew can absolve themselves from their responsibility to another Jew. This theme, of the unity of the proverbial Jewish body is also channeled to a prospective גר. After detaching themselves from any prior nation or peoplehood,  the גר is informed that they will now face anti-Semitism in the same way as any born Jew. The proverbial Jewish body has absorbed the גר and they are now a vital component.

This message—the importance of perpetuating the unity of the Jewish nation—as echoed by the מגילה and מרדכי and המן himself, motivated the Rabbinic enactment of the מצווה of מתנות לאביונים.  Enveloped with this theme,  the מצווה is not simply one of צדקה but is now the materialistic expression of a unifying act which by its purpose is consistent with not checking the credentials of the person one is giving the money to. On the contrary, the body is in tact, knows no difference, discerns no hierarchy and for this—the theme of כל ישראל עריבים זה לזה and אחדות—it is consistent to give to any Jew and not to question their bona fides.

Purim: giving without due diligence

The three weeks and nine days, during the months of Tamuz and Av respectively, are popular in Melbourne.  The days are short, it is winter, and as a result we attract many Meshulachim, Hunters and Collectors (MHC). If you spend Tisha B’Av in Melbourne it’s certainly an easier fast than in Yerusholayim or להבדיל Monsey or New Square. The community in Melbourne is relatively small and tends to live in proximate enclaves.  MHCs are generally ferried from house to house by local drivers equipped with potential donor lists made available (sometimes for a fee) to those MHCs who haven’t formulated their own list. Local drivers levy a percentage of the takings and tend to be exclusively from the Hungarian Charedi community of Adass because most MHCs seem to be of the Charedi persuasion. The local vans are  generally strategically stationed 2 or 3 houses down from the house the MHC is visiting so that the home owner won’t see the local driver. During the high seasons, one can easily have 2-6 MHCs in an evening.

Meshulach

There are different approaches employed when dealing with an MHC.

  1. Some good-hearted souls make time and sit down and listen to the MHC’s story and read their recommendation letters, offer a drink, give a donation from their M’aaser allocation for Tzedaka and then send them on their way, with or without a receipt, sometimes with cash and other times via a cheque
  2. Some will do the same as 1., but do it quickly by not listening to the particular MHC
  3. A new system has evolved in Melbourne whereby MHCs are able to get Chesed certificates which attest to their legitimacy. Many will now only give to MHCs who make the modest effort to obtain a Chesed certificate. Such systems exist in many other countries in the world and are designed to lessen the chances of fraudulent crooks masquerading as MHCs.
  4. Some only donate to people or causes with whom they can identify. For example, they will not give to an anti-zionist kollel or to someone from Toldos Aaron or a Meshichist etc
  5. Some will tell the MHC to “go and work for a living like I do”. After a while, they no longer get MHC visitors. These people can also be seen running out to the driver warning him not to bring such MHCs to their house again.
  6. Others choose to pre-allocate their Maaser to chosen charities and have little left for casual MHCs.
  7. I know of one Jew (wasn’t frum at that time) who used to have a large nude painting at the doorway of their home. Their clientel dropped dramatically after that expose.
  8. I know of another Jew who suggests that the MHC  “sing Hatikvah” as a precondition to his donation.

The last two approaches, and variations on such themes, are not recommended, despite their effectiveness 🙂

MHCs themselves can be convivial. Sometimes they are rude and uncultivated. We all have stories about the MHC who abused us or our wives because we didn’t “give enough”; or we “gave more last year”; or we refused to answer the door after the MHC woke up the family, pressing the doorbell after 10pm.

Most MHCs are “he”, although I have struck the odd (sic) “she”. In my case, I’m pretty sure she was fraudulent.

For over two decades, my personal approach was to

  1. rarely listen to what they were collecting for (I didn’t need the justification)
  2. never let someone leave empty-handed
  3. give everyone a modest sum.

When the Chesed certification was mooted, I was opposed to the concept; I didn’t need to know anything about an MHC. Even if they were involved in chicanery or deceit, I concluded that they were a Nebech since they felt compelled to travel from door to door collecting. Most Melbourne Rabbis signed on to support Chesed, with the notable exception of some Charedi Rabonim. Those Charedi Rabonim provide their own letters it would seem which makes their behaviour incongruent unless their policy was to support “anybody”.

After some time, and after hearing stories about MHCs who had fleeced members of the community of many thousands of dollars, I began to slowly come around to the concept of giving exclusively to those who had allowed themselves to be scrutinised by the Rabbis of Chesed. I do make exceptions for those whom I know personally, of course, but will encourage them to obtain the certification nonetheless.

With Purim approaching there is a well-known מצווה of מתנות לאביונים. This is derived from the פסוק in the מגילה

כַּיָּמִים, אֲשֶׁר-נָחוּ בָהֶם הַיְּהוּדִים מֵאֹיְבֵיהֶם, וְהַחֹדֶשׁ אֲשֶׁר נֶהְפַּךְ לָהֶם מִיָּגוֹן לְשִׂמְחָה, וּמֵאֵבֶל לְיוֹם טוֹב; לַעֲשׂוֹת אוֹתָם, יְמֵי מִשְׁתֶּה וְשִׂמְחָה, וּמִשְׁלֹחַ מָנוֹת אִישׁ לְרֵעֵהוּ, וּמַתָּנוֹת לָאֶבְיֹנִים

What is the nature of this מצווה? Does it have the same strictures as the מצווה of צדקה? Is it different מצווה functioning under its own rules? The Aruch Hashulchan in סימן תרצד סעיף א notes, based on the Rambam in the second perek of Hilchos Megila and Chanuka:

ואין מדקדקין במעות פורים, לומר “זה ישר” ו”זה רמאי ואין צריך ליתן לו”. אלא כל הפושט יד ליטול – נותנין לו, ואינן צריכין לדקדק אחריו

  • We don’t exercise due diligence with our Purim Gelt.
  • We don’t scrutinise so that whoever stretches out a hand, we do give them something.

Why is Purim different? Is it so difficult to find two people who are genuinely in need of the monetary equivalent of two portions of food (the Gemara learns this out from the use of plural מתנות and then the plural אביונים) in the פסוק.

Note that for מתנות לאביונים a husband and wife or family is considered one unit for this purpose. A man is able to  fulfill the מצווה through the prior donation of his wife, and vice-versa. On the other hand,  if one gives two portions to a single husband and wife unit, then one has not fulfilled the מצווה because it is as if it was given to one entity.

The מצווה of מתנות לאביונים is considered more important than משלוח מנות in that if one is wondering whether to put more into their סעודה or more into  משלוח מנות as a הידור then the הלכה states that it is preferable to spend more on מתנות לאביונים.

There is a cute apocryphal story about two Brisker בחורים who, as is well-known, are punctilious with the precise  mode of discharging of each מצווה. As Brisker they are accustomed to subjecting minutiae to considerable scrutiny. In their zeal to fulfil the מצווה of מתנות לאביונים they proceeded to scour the local village to find a truly poor person (אביון). Unhappy with one couple because that couple’s house seemed to be not shabby enough to be qualified as “poor”, they searched on. They were unhappy with another couple who did live in a suitably decrepit tent of a house but seemed to have a couch that was too “nice”  and hence under Brisker standards there was a question of the degree of their impecuniosity. Finally, at the very edge of the town, they chanced upon an old and sick couple living in a ramshackle abode, with the plainest of accoutrements. Now this was a “real” poor couple with all the הידורים according to כל הדיעות. With great joy, they informed the couple that they would present them with their money so as to perform the מצווה. Upon leaving, they were careful to also inform the couple:

“Please make sure that during the year, you don’t accept any money or help from anyone else so that next year we can come back and fulful the מצווה again through you!”

On Purim, there is a long-standing custom to give money to so-called כלי קודש: Rabonim, Chazonim, Shamoshim and the like (I wonder if that includes Kolel Yungerleit or not so Yungerleit these days!). Interestingly, the Aruch Hashulchan suggests that one does not fulfil מתנות לאביונים when passing on the envelope to this category of person because it is considered more of a חוב. There is an expectation as opposed to the more care-free and unpredictable mode of making somebody happy on Purim by providing them with enough money to make their Purim a happy one.

What if I want to use the money I have set aside for Tzedaka each year? Can one use their מעשר money, the money they have set aside for צדקה, and use this to fulfil מתנות לאביונים? This is an interesting question discussed by the מהריל. The  מהריל concludes that one may not use מעשר money for this purpose. מתנות לאביונים needs to come from a different proverbial pocket. This separation of מתנות לאביונים from צדקה is perhaps consistent with the other הלכה of not performing due diligence in ascertaining who is genuinely poor for מתנות לאביונים.

What about poor people themselves? Do poor people have to perform מתנות לאביונים? If we say they do have to perform מתנות לאביונים then we can infer that מתנות לאביונים is like any other מצווה and just like a poor person must perform any other מצווה they must also perform the specific מצווה of מתנות לאביונים. This is the opinion of the ט”ז in או”ח סימן תרצ”ד. On the other hand the פרי חדש opines that a poor person does not have to perform מתנות לאביונים because מתנות לאביונים is really just a special class of צדקה for the day of Purim, and just like a poor person doesn’t have to give צדקה they also don’t have to give מתנות לאביונים.

צדקה

Another הלכה is also germane in respect of whether מתנות לאביונים is its own מצווה or is really a specialisation of צדקה on the day of Purim. Is one able to fulfil מתנות לאביונים by giving the money to a non-Jew? The  Tur paskens that one can fulfil מתנות לאביונים by giving to a non-Jew. The Beis Yosef supports this with a quote from Gitin 61A where the מצווה of  צדקה can be fulfilled by giving to a non-Jew. We observe then that the Tur holds that מתנות לאביונים  is another example of the מצווה of  צדקה and therefore מתנות לאביונים enjoys the same details in the halachic effectuation of the מצווה. Many argue with the Tur, and opine that one can not fulfil מתנות לאביונים by giving the money to a non-Jew because מתנות לאביונים is a separate מצווה for Purim which is tied to the word רעיהו in the Pasuk, which means רעיהו במצוות.

Of course, I am not a Posek by any stretch of the imagination, but I am pretty certain that on Purim those of us who do submit to a determination of a poor person’s bona fides through a Chesed certificate, should suspend such considerations on Purim day itself.

Ask your own Local Orthodox Rabbi, of course (perhaps when you slip him an envelope on Purim 🙂