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.
It’s not obvious to me at all what Rabbi Goldfeder’s contribution to the post is. Could you please clarify?
Is there any halachic difference in the definition of “poor” on Purim for Matanot L’evyonim and the rest of the year for ongoing tzedaka (like tuition scholarships, etc)?
R. Goldfeder didn’t contribute. His name appeared here by accident. Sorry.
There used to be a few beggars who hung around YU. Once, the Commentator did a big story on them, interviewing them and so on. As part of the article, they asked R’ Schachter for halakhic guidance. He pointed out, first, that the stories had been investigated and did not check out, and that YU had tried to help them to no avail (if I recall correctly). Further, though, he said that there is no obligation to give a certain person tzedaka at any time- except on Purim, when you have to give everyone. Presumably (I add), they have a right to take.
While it depends on the policy of each school (or other scholarship granting body), in most cases this is not considered Tzedakah and does not follow the same rules.
Years ago, when we were in a difficult financial situation but somehow – with our parents’ help – making ends meet, we found an envelope of cash in the mailbox on Purim day. We felt rather odd about this and asked our rabbi what to do, and he said to keep it. And the truth is, it was a big help with Pesach expenses.
Wow, you mean Orthodox Jews still exist who are ashamed to accept charity? That’s nice to know. I bet anyone from Lakewood reading this post would have no idea what this guy’s reluctance is.
…I’ve been begging R’ Broyde to publish his teshuvot for years.
Maybe its finally on the horizon.
Wait, this guy lives off $5500 per month(after health care and taxes!!!) and is taking tzedakah? Tell him to move to Eretz Yisrael, he’ll be the richest guy around!
Seriously, why can’t he make ends meet on that budget? His kids don’t have cell phones? No Cable TV? These are necessities that have to be covered by tzedakah? While I admire him that he doesn’t want to take the money, and that he consulted with Rav Broyde, I must disagree that this person should not be taking tzedakah. If the only expenses he can’t meet are tuition, then have the people donate the money to the schools where his kids go. Also according to the Terumas Ha-Deshen the purpose of Matanos la-evyonim is so that everyone will have enough for the Purim seudah- this person says he has enough to cover his food, so why is it muttar to give him Matanas la-evyonim?
I understand that Joe is now struggling, and it is unfair to expect him to sell his house. But perhaps he should have thought twice before buying a house in a well to do neighborhood. And, perhaps, since his job is not that well paying, he and his wife should not have had nearly a “basketball team of kids,” which I assume means seven or eight. How about four or five?
He never said he lives in a mansion. Even in the fanciest of Jewish suburbs there exists lower income housing. If his family is somewhere around 6-8, just feeding them could cost quite a large chunk of that on a kosher diet, even without too much meat. The number of kids he has could also require a larger residence which also drives up the cost of anywhere he would likely be living, and that would take up a large portion of the paycheck. Not to mention the expenses of car/gas/phones/clothes/tuition (almost entirely on scholarship probably still means a few hundred per kid).
Dam L’chaf zchus, not much left I would think. The bigger question would be if he wife works.
Difficult Questions: This man is getting by on his own and is not asking for tzedakah. I don’t think he needs to answer any questions.