SALT - Tuesday, 12 Adar 5778 - February 27, 2018

  • Rav David Silverberg
            One of the obligations of Purim is matanot la-evyonim – the requirement to give charitable gifts to at least two poor people (Shulchan Arukh O.C. 694:1). 
Rav Yosef Engel, in his Gilyonei Ha-Shas (Shabbat 10b), finds it halakhically significant that Megilat Ester (9:22) refers to this mitzva with the term “matanot” – “gifts.”  A “gift,” Rav Engel writes, differs from ordinary charity.  The Gemara in Masekhet Shabbat (10b) and Masekhet Beitza (16a) comments that when a person gives his fellow a gift, he must inform the recipient.  The example given by the Gemara is the case of a person who feeds somebody else’s child.  The Gemara establishes that the person must ensure a way of informing the parents that he fed their child for them that day.  (The exception to this rule, as the Gemara notes, is where the recipient will in any event find out about the gift, in which case the giver is not required to inform the recipient about the gift.  According to Meiri, in such a case the giver should specifically not make a point of informing the recipient, as this would appear arrogant.)  Rav Engel cites the Maharal as explaining that a “gift,” by definition, requires both a benefactor and a beneficiary.  The concept of a gift is not merely the transfer of some asset from one person to another, but rather the forging of a bilateral relationship of sorts, nurturing the bonds of friendship between the two parties, and this requires that both the giver and the recipient are aware of the gift.
            If so, Rav Engel writes, then we must, necessarily, distinguish between a regular gift and charity.  Tosefot (there in Masekhet Shabbat) write that although one who gives a gift must notify the recipient, when it comes to charity, the opposite is true: it is preferable to donate charity anonymously, in order to avoid embarrassing the recipient.  Rav Engel explains that charity is intended solely for the purpose of providing financial support to a person in need, whereas a gift serves to facilitate social bonding and friendship.  Accordingly, when one gives charity to the poor, the key concern is that the funds or goods reach those in need, not to facilitate emotional bonding; to the contrary, such bonding is to be discouraged in the context of charity, due to the embarrassment this would cause the recipient.  A gift, however, is intended not merely to give somebody something he could use, but to strengthen bonds of friendship, and this requires informing the recipient of the gift.
            On this basis, Rav Engel arrives at a surprising conclusion regarding the obligation of matanot la-evyonim on Purim.  Since the Megila formulates this requirement with the term “matanot,” referring to this donation as a “gift,” we should apparently treat it not as charity, but rather as a gift.  In Rav Engel’s view, matanot la-evyonim differs from ordinary charity in that it must be given as a “gift,” and thus one must inform the recipient.  As opposed to other charitable donations to the poor, which should ideally be kept anonymous, matanot la-evyonim requires that the beneficiary knows from whom he received the gift.
            This is also the view of Rav Chaim Kanievksy (cited in Pardeis Yosef Ha-chadash – Purim, p. 324), who claimed that matanot la-evyonim resembles the obligation of mishloach manot – giving food packages to one’s fellow on Purim.  Both requirements, Rav Kanievsky maintained, are intended to engender a feeling of friendship and affection among Jews, and this can be achieved only if the recipient knows the identity of the benefactor.
            A different view, however, is taken by Rav Asher Weiss (Minchat Asher – Moadim), who notes several sources indicating that matanot la-evyonim is required in order to enhance the joyful spirit of Purim.  For example, the Rambam (Hilkhot Megila 2:17) famously writes that it is preferable to spend more on matanot la-evyonim than on the other mitzvot of Purim, and explains, “because there is no greater or more glorious joy than bringing joy to the heart of the poor, the orphans, the widows and the foreigners…”  The clear implication of this remark is that matanot la-evyonim serves the purpose of enhancing the feelings of joy on Purim.  (This point is made even more explicitly by the Ritva in his commentary to Bava Metzia 78b, as Rav Weiss cites.)  If so, then it stands to reason that the gifts to the poor should be given in a manner which maximizes the recipients’ joy, which would seemingly be an anonymous gift, which helps to preserve the recipients’ dignity and protect them from humiliation.
            This view, that matanot la-evyonim should preferably be given anonymously like ordinary charitable gifts, is also taken by Rav Yechiel Michel Goldshlag, in his work Imrei Emet (cited by Rav Asher Anshel Schwartz, Ma’adanei Asher, Purim 5778).
            Rav Weiss concludes his discussion with an interesting suggestion for satisfying both views.  He writes that one may fulfill the obligation of matanot la-evyonim by giving food products to two needy people, who will assume that the gifts are given for the purpose of mishloach manot, as opposed to matanot la-evyonim.  This way, one is able to give matanot la-evyonim in a manner whereby the recipients know who gave them the gifts, but without causing them shame.