By Rabbi Meir Orlian
It was almost Purim, and the bima in shul was covered with charity boxes for matanos la’evyonim and zecher l’machatzis ha’shekel. The boxes represented a full array of charity organizations, Torah institutions, medical foundations, and Eretz Yisrael causes. Prominent among the collection boxes stood one that read: “Local Community Charity Fund.”
Towards Purim, the local charity committee had received many requests for assistance. Most requests looked genuine, each one a story in itself, while a few looked suspect. The committee members tried to make some order of the requests. “Who is entitled to receive charity?” they asked.
The gabbai picked up some letters and read them:
“We took out a large mortgage five years ago, but recently lost both our jobs due to company downsizing. We are constantly running around trying to borrow money for the mortgage.”
“I used to be a great philanthropist. I invested heavily in the stock market and lost almost all my fortune in a risky buy and am now in tremendous debt.”
“I retired several years ago, and Social Security does not suffice to cover our needs. We don’t have large pensions and are afraid to liquidate the savings that we have.”
“I work at occasional odd jobs, but am not able to make ends meet.”
“Our jobs provide enough salary for general expenditures. However, we are about to marry off one daughter, and we also have a sickly child who requires expensive medical treatments.”
“We were recently married, and used our credit card freely to set up house. We now are in a spiraling cycle of debt and interest.”
“These are some the requests that we received,” the gabbai concluded. “I’m sure that each of you knows other families that are enduring financial hardship but are embarrassed to ask for assistance. We need to draft guidelines for distributing the money.”
“Let’s ask Rabbi Tzedek,” one of the committee members proposed.
“Excellent idea,” the gabbai concurred. “I’ll arrange a meeting with him.”
The committee met with Rabbi Tzedek. “We received many requests for charity and know of other people in need,” they said to him. “Who is considered ‘poor’ and entitled to receive matanos la’evyonim and charity?”
Rabbi Tzedek answered: “Nowadays, whoever doesn’t have a stable income or supplemental savings to provide sustenance for his family for the coming year is entitled to receive charity and matanos la’evyonim, although priority is given to those in greater need.”
Rabbi Tzedek then explained: “The Torah awards a number of agricultural gifts to the poor as charity: leket, shik’chah, pe’ah, and ma’aser ani. The Mishnah (Pe’ah 8:8) teaches that whoever has 200 zuz (silver coins) is not entitled to collect these gifts. This sum of 200 zuz was the amount of money necessary then to sustain a person for a year.
“Based on the Mishnah, contemporary authorities write that if a person does not have the means to sustain himself and his family for the coming year, he is entitled to receive charity, even if he is able to cover his immediate needs. However, if the person has a stable salary that suffices for his family or has sufficient savings to provide sustenance for the year, he is not entitled to receive charity.
“People who are in financial need because of medical care or overburdening loans are also entitled to charity. However, people who plunged themselves into poverty through an extravagant lifestyle or risky investing should not take charity, unless they have no resort through loans or private gifts. Even so, they are of low priority (HaGaon Rav Y.S. Elyashiv, zt’l).
“Furthermore, if the person will have exceptional expenditures that year, such as for marrying off children, he is entitled to receive charity even if his salary suffices for daily living” (Igros Moshe, Y.D. 1:148).
“What about a person who owns a house or a car that he could sell?” asked the gabbai.
“A person is not required to sell his house, even if he could buy a smaller house or live in a cheaper neighborhood,” answered Rabbi Tzedek. “However, if he has other spare or luxury items that he could sell at fair value, which would provide enough money to sustain the family for the year, he should sell them before taking from a communal charity fund” (Y.D. 253:1; Shevet HaLevi 2:125).
“Is there any difference between regular charity and matanos la’evyonim on Purim?” asked the gabbai.
“Although the Megillah states ‘matanos la’evyonim,’ ‘gifts to the destitute,’ the guidelines remain the same as for other charity to the poor, although the destitute take priority over others who are less needy,” answered Rabbi Tzedek (see Aruch HaShulchan, O.C. 694:3). “On Purim, though, we do not thoroughly investigate the needs of those who ask, but rather give to anyone who extends his hand for assistance” (O.C. 694:3). n
This article is intended for learning purposes and not to be relied upon halacha l’maaseh. There are also issues of dina d’malchusa to consider in actual cases.
Rabbi Meir Orlian is a faculty member of the Business Halacha Institute, which is headed by HaRav Chaim Kohn, shlita, a noted dayan. For questions regarding business halacha issues, or to bring a BHI lecturer to your business or shul, please call the confidential hotline at 877-845-8455 or e‑mail email@example.com. To receive BHI’s free newsletter, Business Weekly, send an e‑mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.