Matanot Le-Evyonim: Gifts for the Poor

  • Rav Avihud Schwartz
            The mitzva of giving gifts to the poor (matanot le-evyonim) is the last of the Purim-related mitzvot mentioned in the book of Esther. At first, the Jews in every province and in every city made Purim a day of feasting and gladness. Later, they added the practice of sending portions to one another (mishloach manot). Mordekhai’s last enactment added the mitzva of giving gifts to the poor:
 
And the other Jews that were in the king's provinces gathered themselves together, and stood for their lives… on the thirteenth day of the month Adar, and on the fourteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness. But the Jews that were in Shushan assembled together on the thirteenth day thereof and on the fourteenth thereof; and on the fifteenth day of the same they rested, and made it a day of feasting and gladness. 
Therefore do the Jews of the villages, that dwell in the unwalled towns, make the fourteenth day of the month Adar a day of gladness and feasting, and a festival, and of sending portions one to another. 
And Mordecai wrote these things and sent letters to all the Jews that were in all the provinces of the king Achashverosh, both nigh and far, to enjoin them that they should keep the fourteenth day of the month Adar and the fifteenth day of the same yearly… days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor. (Esther 9:16-22)
 
            The gemara in Megilla (7a) dedicates only a few words to the mitzva of sending gifts to the poor, addressing only the extent of the mitzva:
 
R. Yosef taught: "And sending portions one to another" – two gifts to one person. "And gifts to the poor" – two gifts to two people.
 
Charity or Gladness?
 
            The Yerushalmi (Megilla 1:4) cites a well-known halakha related to the mitzva of matanot le-evyonim:
 
We do not investigate with regard to the mitzva of Purim. Rather, anyone who extends his hand to take, we give to him.
 
Why do we "not investigate with regard to the mitzva of Purim?" Is it possible to imagine that the manager of a charity fund would distribute money to anyone who extends his hand, without thoroughly investigating whether or not that person really needs charity?
 
Because of this objection, the Ritva explains (Megilla 7a, s.v. garsinan) that the foundation of the mitzva of matanot le-evyonim is not "the law of charity," but rather a "law of gladness":
 
It is explained in the Jerusalem Talmud that whoever extends his hand to take, we give him. That is to say, we give to every person, without investigating whether he is poor and fit to receive. For this giving is based not only on the law of charity, but also on the law of gladness, for we send portions even to rich people.
 
            If the mitzva of matanot le-evyonim were based on the law of charity, it would be appropriate to investigate the poor person's level of need, as is the practice in general with regard to charity. However, since the mitzva is not based on the law of charity, the ordinary laws of charity do not apply. The law of matanot le-evyonim is based on the law of gladness, and the aim of the mitzva is to bring joy to anyone who asks for such a gift. Just as mishloach manot are distributed to all people, even if they can afford to purchase for themselves whatever they will need for the Purim feast, matanot le-evyonim are similarly given to anybody who extends his hand to take, it being unnecessary to clarify whether or not he is truly poor.
 
The Purim Collections Must be Utilized for Purim Only
 
            The gemara in Bava Metzia (78b) discusses the procedures related to collecting and distributing matanot le-evyonim, and it cites a Tannaitic dispute on the matter:
 
R. Eliezer said: The Purim collections must be utilized for Purim [only], and the poor may not buy [even] shoe straps with that [money], unless it was stipulated in the presence of the members of the community [that such shall be permitted]; this is the ruling of R. Yaakov in the name of R. Meir. But R. Shimon ben Gamliel is lenient [about the matter].
 
R. Eliezer asserts that the Purim collections must be utilized for Purim only; the charity managers are not authorized to take money that was given for the purpose of matanot le-evyonim and use it for other communal ends. This is in contrast to other charity money, which the Halakha has determined may be rerouted to further additional objectives – for example, the redeeming of captives. This ruling was accepted by all and was codified by the Shulchan Arukh: "The money collected for Purim may not to be diverted to another charity" (Orach Chayyim 694:2).
 
R. Yaakov adds to R. Eliezer's ruling that even the poor person himself is not permitted to use the money that was given to him for any other purpose that is not connected to the joy of Purim. According to him, a poor person may not pay a shoemaker for his work with the money that he received for Purim; rather, he must use the money exclusively to enhance his enjoyment of the holiday and for the Purim feast. R. Shimon ben Gamliel disagrees and maintains that the poor person may use the money he receives for matanot le-evyonim however he sees fit.
 
Ostensibly, this disagreement is also based on the question we raised earlier. If the mitzva of matanot le-evyonim is based on the law of charity, the poor person should be allowed to use the money for any purpose, as is the case with any other money received as charity. But if the mitzva is based on the law of gladness, the poor person should have to use the money exclusively for the enhancement of his joy on the holiday, and specifically for the Purim feast.
 
It is, however, possible that all the Tanna’im agree that the mitzva of matanot le-evyonim is based on the law of gladness; the disagreement between them relates to the scope of this gladness. R. Yaakov maintains that matanot le-evyonim should be used exclusively for the Purim feast because is it in this feast that the joy of Purim is realized in the most striking manner, as it is stated: "And they made it a day of feasting and gladness" (Esther 9:17). In contrast, R. Shimon ben Gamliel maintains that the goal of matanot le-evyonim is to bring joy to the poor – whether through the purchase of food items for his Purim feast or for the repair of his shoe straps that tore. The poor person's joy cannot be complete if his shoes are torn, and therefore he may utilize matanot le-evyonim for their repair.
 
If this is correct, we can connect the two sister mitzvot that apply on Purim – the mitzva of mishloach manot and the mitzva of matanot le-evyonim. The Chatam Sofer (Responsa, Orach Chayyim 1:197) offers two possible reasons for the mitzva of mishloach manot: concern that the poor should have what they need for the Purim feast or increasing joy, love, peace and friendship. According to R. Yaakov, who maintains that the joy of Purim is focused exclusively on the feast, mishloach manot is meant for the needs of the meal, and matanot le-evyonim should similarly be used exclusively for the Purim feast. According to R. Shimon ben Gamliel, the joy of Purim extends to other needs as well, and therefore matanot le-evyonim can be spent on these needs. Even mishloach manot are meant to increase the feelings of friendship and brotherhood, and not just to cover the needs of the meal.
 
Is a Poor Person Obligated in the Mitzva of Matanot Le-evyonim?
 
            The Acharonim disagree on the question of whether a poor person who has no money is obligated to give matanot le-evyonim. The Taz (Orach Chayyim 694:1) writes in the name of his father-in-law, R. Yoel Sirkes, author of the Bach:
 
My revered father-in-law writes that even a poor person who is supported by charity [is obligated in matanot le-evyonim], as is the case with the four cups of wine on Pesach, and as opposed to other charity….
 
In contrast, the Peri Chadash writes that a poor person is exempt from this mitzva:
 
There are those who write that even a poor person who is supported by charity is obligated to give matanot le-evyonim. But this makes no sense. Rather, it stands to reason that he is certainly exempt.
 
If the mitzva of matanot le-evyonim is a mitzva of charity, there is indeed no reason to obligate a poor person, who himself lives off of the donations of others. Those Poskim who maintain that even poor people are obligated to give matanot le-evyonim understand that this mitzva is not the ordinary mitzva of charity, but rather a special mitzva of increasing joy on Purim, which applies even to poor people.
  
The Joy of Matanot Le-evyonim 
 
            The Rambam (Hilkhot Megilla 2:17) writes in praise of the mitzva of matanot le-evyonim:
 
It is preferable for a person to be more liberal with his donations to the poor than to be lavish in his preparation of the Purim feast or in sending portions to his friends. For there is no greater and more splendid happiness than to gladden the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the converts. One who brings happiness to the hearts of these unfortunate individuals resembles the Shekhina, which is described as having the tendency "to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive those with broken hearts" (Yeshaya 57:15).
 
The mitzva of charity brings twofold joy: the joy experienced by the giver for the blessings he received from God, which allow him to give to others, and the joy experienced by the receiver from knowing that he has not been forgotten or left with nothing.[1] All of the mitzvot of Purim are meant to increase joy and gladness, and the mitzva of matanot le-evyonim achieves this goal in a two-fold manner – through the joy of the giver and the through the joy of the receiver.
 
The joy of the giver and the joy of the receiver is joined by the joy of God Himself, as is explained by R. Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev (Kedushat Levi, Purim):
 
On this day, one should liberally distribute gifts to the poor with great joy and gladness. Even though one should at all times and every day distribute charity liberally and with great joy, today on Purim one should rejoice exceedingly when he fulfills the mitzva of matanot le-evyonim. For just as the Jew gives charity to the poor and clothes himself in the attribute of lovingkindness and acts in a loving manner with the poor person, so he causes God to clothe Himself in the attribute of lovingkindness and bestow bounty with his love… and be very happy with this mitzva.
One should not instruct the members of his household to give the money to the poor. Rather, he himself should hand it over generously and good-heartedly to the messenger through whom he is sending the gifts to the poor. It is best to send his matanot le-evyonim by way of his young sons and daughters in order to train them in the mitzvot. I remember that when I was a child, my father sent gifts to various poor people through me, and not through a servant, in order to train me in the mitzva. And it should all be done with joy and a good heart.
 
(Translated by David Strauss)
 

[1] According to the Ramban in his addenda to the Rambam's Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (negative commandment 17), the Torah commands one to give charity with joy, and not with a narrow heart, as it is stated: "You shall surely give him, and your heart shall not be grieved when you give him" (Devarim 15:10). So too rules the Shulchan Arukh (Yoreh De'a 249:3): "One must give charity with a favorable disposition, with joy and with a good heart… But if one gives charity with a sullen and angry face, he forfeits the credit [that is otherwise] due him."