A Righteous Question about Matanot Le’evyonim
Guest post by R. Michael J. Broyde
Rabbi Michael Broyde is a law professor at Emory University, was the founding rabbi of the Young Israel in Atlanta and is a dayan in the Beth Din of America.
Dear Rabbi Broyde, שליט”א
My shul rabbi told me to write to you asking what conduct was proper. Here is my situation. I live in a well to do area and I am, by communal standards, very poor. We have nearly a baseball team of children all under 20, one of who has always been ill, and I work at a fine job that pays much less than most people in our community earn. Our home is somewhat run down as we cannot afford to maintain it, and many of the things that other children have in the community, my children do not have (but want), most of which are toys and luxuries but some of which we would like to have, also. So, we all share two cell phones, we almost never eat red meat, have no cable television and borrow our neighbors’ Wi-Fi for internet use on our only computer. None of our children had nice bar or bat mitzvah celebrations, as we cannot afford them, and we have no idea how to pay for a wedding. We send our children to day school almost completely on scholarship. We live on about $5,500 a month after taxes and health insurance. On the other hand, thank G-d, we pay our mortgage, have food on the table for every meal, have wonderful children who are more or less happy, and we have a very nice life. We live better than my grandparents did 50 years ago, although not as well as my parents did when I was growing up.
Every year on Purim for years, people have given us very nice shalach manot which we always accepted and gave them back small shalach manot as we could afford. Starting around five years ago, we discovered that our local shul rabbi – a wonderful man – had started a hidden campaign to have people put money in our shalach manot as matanot le’evyonim for us. Last year, individuals in the community gave us more than $4,500 on Purim, which I gave back to the rabbi as we are not entitled to take charity. Last year and the year before, he refused to take the money back from us and told us that we must keep it. I wrote him a letter questioning this, and he told me that I could write to you to ask if we may keep the money or not.
Let me add one thing: my wife insists that we should keep the money and we do need it as we have many expenses that we ought to pay but cannot. I insist that we are not poor, and halacha thus simply prohibits us from taking this money on Purim, even as what is now close to an extra pay check would help make ends meet.
Joe [name changed]
I agree with your rabbi and your wife in this matter. The minhag follows the view of the Aruch Hashulchan (OC 694:3) that the obligation of matanot le’evyonim is fulfilled by giving to poor people, and the status of ‘poor’ here follows the view of the Rashba (Teshuvot 1:872) that a poor person is one who does not have enough means to support his and his family’s needs. I am inclined to the view of the Nitay Gavriel (Purim 67:note 2) that one can give such gifts to anyone whose financial situation is bleak, even if they have enough assets to support themselves if they liquidate their home. I recognize that such a person cannot take pe’ah or leket, for example, but I think that the modern application of hilchot tzedaka does not require that a person be homeless and without food before he can take from the community on Purim day. If your wife is of the view that such money is needed and proper, you should accept that her judgment is correct and follow it, particularly because your own rabbi agrees.
Let me add that your general view—that people ought to run away from taking charity that would allow them to better keep up with the Jones’—is admirable and correct, and you ought to be very proud of the fact that you are hesitant to take such money. Certainly, it is exceptionally commendable of you to ask such questions—but in this case, it is proper for you to accept the gifts that you did not ask for.
Let me add that while the halacha is that as a general matter one who hates gifts is praised, there is a value in accepting and receiving such gifts on Purim, as it allows others in society to function the way that they are supposed to and gives them the opportunity to perform a mitzvah. As Rashi notes in Chullin (7b) “All of Israel are holy and it is worthy to benefit from them.” The Sema (Sefer Meirat Einayim) in Choshen Mishpat 171:24, actually explains that according to the majority position, sonei matanot yichyeh does not pertain to a gift intended for the benefit of the giver, as is the case with gifts to the poor on Purim. When gifts are used to help foster relationships and to further a culture of giving and gemilat chassadim, everybody wins.
With warm regards and I look forward to hearing from you many more times.