The Mitzvah of Matanot La'Evyonim

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February 19 2010
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The Mitzvah of Matanot La'Evyonim


One of the mitzvot relating to Purim is recorded in Megillat Esther 9:22 as matanot la'evyonim, gifts to the poor.  The Gemara, Megillah 7a, states that this means that one must give a gift to two different people.  In this issue, we will explore the nature of this mitzvah and how it relates to the mitzvah of tzedakah (providing to the poor).


 


The Nature of the Mitzvah


The Tosefta, Megillah 1:5, states two rules regarding the funds collected for matanot la'evyonim.  First, the funds may only be used for Purim related expenses.  Second, there should not be great scrutiny regarding these funds.  The Talmud Yerushalmi, Megillah 1:4, comments on the second rule that the practical application is that one should not question the recipients of the funds as to whether they are poor or not.  Anyone who asks for a portion of the funds should receive something.  Ritva (1250-1330), Megillah 7a, explains that the mitzvah of matanot la'evyonim is not a function of the mitzvah of tzedakah but rather a function of the obligation of simcha (happiness) on Purim.  Simcha can be accomplished even if the recipient is not poor as evidenced by the mitzvah of mishlo'ach manot.  Therefore, there is no need to scrutinize an individual to check whether he really needs the Purim funds.  Ritva then quotes an alternative explanation of the second rule of the Tosefta: one should not scrutinize the exact needs of the poor, but rather give a little more than he needs.


Regarding the first rule of the Tosefta, Tosafot, Erchin 6a, s.v. MiShebat, note that if tzedakah funds were collected for a specific purpose and the people of the city decide to divert the funds to a different cause, they are entitled to do so.  Tosafot then question the rule of the Tosefta that funds collected for Purim can only be used for Purim expenses.  Tosafot conclude that the rule of the Tosefta only applies to the gabbai (administrator of the funds).  However, if the people of the city agree to use the funds for something else, the funds may be diverted.  Tosafot, Baba Metzia 78b, s.v. Magevet, present a different answer to the question.  They claim that Purim funds are different than ordinary funds collected for tzedakah and one cannot divert the funds to a different cause, even with permission of the people of the city.


R. Avraham Yitzchak Sorotzkin, Gevurat Yitzchak, Purim no. 16, explains that the two opinions among the Ba'alei HaTosafot seem to be disputing the point made by Ritva.  If one assumes that the mitzvah of matanot la'evyonim is an obligatory form of tzedakah, it should be bound by the regular rules of tzedakah and one may divert the funds with permission of the people of the city.  However, if the mitzvah of matanot la'evyonim is a unique rule that one must give something to the poor on Purim in order to provide them with simcha, it is arguable that those funds cannot be diverted to another cause, even with permission of the people of the city.


Rambam (1138-1204), Hilchot Megillah 2:17, clearly views simcha as an aspect of matanot la'evyonim.  Rambam writes that it is preferable to spend money on matanot la'evyonim rather than on the festive meal or mishlo'ach manot because the highest form of simcha is accomplished when one provides happiness to those who are less fortunate.


 


Practical Differences between the Two Approaches


There are a number of discussions relating to matanot la'evyonim that connect to the question of whether the mitzvah is a function of the mitzvah of tzedakah or a unique obligation relating to Purim.  First, R. Yoel Sirkes (1561-1640), Bach, Orach Chaim no. 694, rules that a poor person must give matanot la'evyonim to other poor people just as he is obligated to fulfill all of the other mitzvot of Purim.  He notes that this is different from ordinary tzedakah where a poor person is technically not obligated to give to others.  R. Chizkiah de Silva (1659-1698), P'ri Chadash, Orach Chaim 694:1 writes that a poor person is exempt from matanot la'evyonim.  It is possible that P'ri Chadash disagrees with Bach regarding the nature of the mitzvah of matanot la'evyonimBach clearly states that the mitzvah is a function of the celebration of Purim and therefore, it is no different than the other mitzvot of Purim.  P'ri Chadash may be of the opinion that the mitzvah is an obligatory form of tzedakah on Purim and therefore, one who is exempt from tzedakah the rest of the year, is exempt on Purim as well.


Second, Maharil (c. 1365-1427), in his responsa (no. 56) discusses whether one can use money that was designated for ma'aser kesafim (giving one tenth of one's earnings to tzedakah) for the mitzvah of matanot la'evyonim.  Maharil notes that since there is a specific obligation to fulfill the mitzvah of matanot la'evyonim, one may not use ma'aser funds to pay for it.  R. Avraham S.B. Sofer (1815-1872), Ketav Sofer, Yoreh De'ah no. 112, notes that Maharil seems to view the mitzvah of matanot la'evyonim as an obligation to give additional tzedakah.  Therefore, one cannot pay two "debts" with the same funds.  However, if one views the mitzvah of matanot la'evyonim as a mitzvah to provide happiness to the poor, there is no reason why one cannot accomplish that by disbursing ma'aser funds on Purim.


Third, R. Avraham Gombiner (c.1633-1683), Magen Avraham 692:1, writes that when the beracha of Shehechiyanu is recited, one should have in mind that the beracha also includes the mitzvah of eating the festive Purim meal and the mitzvah of mishlo'ach manot.  He does not include the mitzvah of matanot la'evyonim.  R. Yosef Teomim (1727-1793), P'ri Megadim, E.A. 692:1, adds that one should also have in mind the mitzvah of matanot la'evyonim.  A number of Acharonim (see for example Teshuvot V'Hanhagot 1:404) allude to the fact that the question of whether one should try to have the Shehechiyanu cover matanot la'evyonim depends on the nature of the mitzvah.  If matanot la'evyonim is an obligation to give tzedakah, there is no reason to recite Shehechiyanu, just as one does not recite a Shehechiyanu when giving tzedakah the rest of the year.  If however, matanot la'evyonim is a special mitzvah related to Purim, its relevance to Shehechiyanu is similar to the festive Purim meal and mishlo'ach manot.


 


Must the Gifts be used for Purim Related Activities?


The Tosefta, op. cit., quotes the opinion of R. Meir that the poor person who receives matanot la'evyonim may not use the funds to purchase shoelaces.  The Gemara, Baba Metzia 78b, notes that R. Meir is consistent with his opinion that one may stipulate the conditions of use in a sale or a gift.  Since it is assumed that the one giving the gift wants the gift to be used for Purim, the poor person may not violate those implied conditions.  R. Shimon ben Gamliel disagrees and maintains that the money can be used by the poor person at his own discretion.  Rabbeinu Asher (c. 1250-1327), Baba Metzia 6:9, and Rama (1520-1572), Orach Chaim 694:2, codify the opinion of R. Shimon ben Gamliel.


The ability of the poor person to spend the money at his discretion does not necessarily indicate the intended purpose of matanot la'evyonim.  The true indicator is the type of gift that is acceptable as matanot la'evyonim.  Rambam, Hilchot Megillah 2:16, describes the mitzvah of matanot la'evyonim as giving money or food to the poor.   R. Meir Simcha of Dvinsk (1843-1926), Ohr Samei'ach ad loc., understands that Rambam's opinion is that one can only fulfill the mitzvah with food or money.  P'ri Megadim, M.Z. 694:1, writes that although one should ideally give money or food, if one gave other items, he fulfills the mitzvah.


The question of what is appropriate to give may be contingent on the nature of the mitzvah of matanot la'evyonim.  If the mitzvah is a function of simcha, it is understandable why one would insist on food that can be used at the festive meal or money that can be used for Purim related expenses.  If the mitzvah is a function of increased tzedakah, anything that would improve the poor person's predicament would be acceptable.

Halacha:
Purim 

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    Learning on the Marcos and Adina Katz YUTorah site is sponsored today by the Goldberg and Mernick families to mark the yahrzeit of Samuel M. Goldberg, R’ Shmuel Meir ben R’ Eliyahu HaCohen z”l and by the Ehrman Family for a refuah for R' Yitzchak Yonah ben Chana and Chaya Chana Chani bas Orna Adel בתוך שאר חולי ישראל and by Faye and Hillel Meyers in honor of the birthdays of their children Yair Meyers and Chaviva Meyers