Ma’ot chittim, also known as “kimcha d’pischa”, refers to the obligation upon everyone to donate funds prior to Pesach in order to help the poor to cover their holiday expenses. Not only is Pesach the festival of freedom but it is also intended to impart within every person a feeling of royalty. As such, efforts must be made to ensure that even the poor can feel this way. It is for this reason that Pesach is the only holiday which merited having a charity collection dedicated entirely to it. While on most other holidays one is encouraged to invite the less fortunate to eat their holiday meals in one’s home, on Pesach one should rather ensure that every person has the means and ability to experience their own seder in their own home.
Everyone who has been living in a city for twelve months or more is obligated to contribute to that city’s ma’ot chittim fund. Conversely, anyone who has been living in the city for at least thirty days is entitled to receive such funds, though all poor people should be assisted in some manner. No one is exempt from contributing to the ma’ot chittim charity, not even the greatest Torah scholars who are generally exempt from paying taxes and other communal collections.
The origins of a specific Pesach fund are quite ancient and are even mentioned in the Talmud. It is taught that the origins of the ma’ot chittim project were as a response to the lack of availability of kosher for Pesach flour with which to bake matzot. As such, many less fortunate families were forced to make due without matza for much of the holiday. In some communities it was customary to distribute money, flour, wheat and/or matzaas part of the ma’ot chittim campaign. It is interesting to note that some authorities argue that providing flour is to be preferred over providing ready made matzot. This is because the effort that must be invested in order to turn flour into matza will make the poor feel as if they themselves were responsible for producing their own matza. In this manner, one also ensures that they maintain their sense of dignity. Indeed, everyone should make an effort to be personally involved in baking the matzot which they intend to use over the course of Pesach.
Today, ma’ot chittim has taken on a number of forms. In many communities, all sorts of food and supplies are distributed for free or at a great discount as part of ma’ot chittim campaigns. Only those who make an effort to help others have the right to begin their Pesach seder with the words: “Let all who are hungry come and eat with us”. Those who refuse to donate to the ma’ot chittim fund can be compelled to do so.
There is a wonderful story, whose source is attributed to a number of different great rabbis, of a woman who approached the local rabbi with a somewhat unusual halachic query. She wanted to know if one could use milk instead of wine for the “four cups of wine” at the seder, as she simply could not afford wine. He answered her by giving her a rather large amount of money in order to go buy wine. The rabbi’s wife was a bit confused and asked him why he gave the woman such a large amount of money to buy wine. The rabbi explained that if she is intending to drink milk at the seder it is clear that she has no money to buy meat for the holiday, either. Therefore, I gave her enough money to purchase both.