[By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times]
A prominent Rav once gave the following update to a moshol from the Dubno Maggid:
Imagine for a moment, a wealthy gvir wanting his family to get together. Although a seasoned businessman, our gvir is not so familiar with Travelocity and Orbitz. He gives Chaim, one of his sons in Eretz Yisroel, his credit card to arrange for everyone to come to New York. They will all get together in a luxurious hotel. Chaim purchases first class bookings for himself, his wife and children. His brother Yaakov and family from Kiryat Sefer were booked on Delta with a 12 hour stop-over. Brother Dovid and family from Beit Shemesh were booked on Ukrainian Airways through Kiev, saving his father thousands of dollars. Shimshi and family were booked on a fabulous deal on Turkish Airlines.
When Chaim’s father went to pick him up from JFK, he asked where everyone else was. Chaim answered, “Well, Yaakov is on Delta, arriving tomorrow, Shimshi is on Turkish Airlines arriving Tuesday night and Dovid will be here Thursday morning from Ukrain-“
“What?? I gave you the credit card so that everyone could come. Instead you booked yourself on First Class so that you could live in luxury while your brothers are struggling on two bit air fares!”
“But Ta, I saved you money!”
“I am reversing the charges on your airfare, Chaim! Pay for those tickets yourself!”
The Dubno Maggid explained that regarding our obligation to give Tzedakah, it is not that we are the owners of our money and we choose to give it to the needy. No. We are mere messengers of Hashem to give this money that He gave us to His other children. When we eat on Yom Tov, but our brethren do not – it is an abuse of the system no different than the moshol expounded above!
Maos Chittim, of course, is providing to those local people who are struggling financially so that they can afford Pesach Matzoh and the other expenses associated with this Yom Tov.
*** Give Maos Chittim to an Almanah and another Single Mom***
Some questions, of course, arise. What is the source of this custom? Who must give? And who is considered as “struggling financially?” And why only Pesach? Sukkos is also a rather expensive Yom Tov, with lulavim and esrogim commanding a heavy premium, aside from the cost of sukkah panels and schach. Furthermore, is Maos Chittim charity or is it some other obligation?
The custom, at first glance, is not found in Tanach verses, nor the Mishna. It would seem that the original source for this custom is found in the Jerusalem Talmud (Bava Basra 1:4). There, Rabbi Yossi Ben Rabbi Boon states: “Twelve months for Pesach wheat, whether to take or to give.”
With this one statement, according to the commentaries, we have an answer to the first three of our questions. It is a Talmud Yerushalmi, all residents of the town must give to it, and the residency requirement is twelve months. In order to qualify as a local “financially struggling party” there is also a twelve month residency requirement.
Is it just a Yerushalmi, however? The Vilna Gaon (Kol Eliyahu Parshas Bo – Shmos 13:6) asks why the verse repeats the obligation to eat Matzah twice and why in the second clause it uses the passive form of eaten rather than the command form of eat. He explains that the passive form indicates that there is an obligation to make sure that each poor person fulfills this Mitzvah.
As far as the residency requirement, the Chok Yaakov (Chapter 429) writes that if the person intends to stay there for twelve months and has signed a lease to that effect, then this too fulfills the residency requirement. The Be’er Heitev states that one merely needs to show that one is staying in the community for over 12 months.
All this brings us to further explore the nature of this obligation.
This Yerushalmi is cited by Rabbi Yitzchok Ben Moshe of Vienna, author of the Ohr Zaruah (Vol. II Chapter 255) and teacher of the Maharam M’Rottenberg. He writes: “It is a custom in all communities to place a tax on the community for the purposes of providing wheat for Matzos for the poor of the city as it states in the Yerushalmi.” The Ohr Zaruah is cited by the Ramah in the Darchei Moshe (OC 429:1).
TAX RATHER THAN CHARITY
We see from the wording of the Ohr Zaruah that it is viewed, in fact, as a tax rather than a form of charity. The juxtaposition of Pesach wheat in tractate Bava Basra alongside the obligation to partake in the building of the city wall is perhaps the Ohr Zaruah’s source for this wording. Rabbi Yair Bacharach in his Mekor Chaim also writes that it is a tax not a tzedaka.
What is the difference as to whether it is a tax or a charity? One difference lies in whether Maaser funds may be used to this end. The Poskim have ruled that Machtzis HaShekel, Matanos L’Evyonim, and Yom Kippur Kaparos Tzedakka cannot be deducted from one’s normal Maaser obligation (See responsa of Maharil Diskin and others cited in Ahavas Chessed by Rabbi Avidan p. 154 for further sources). Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach distinguishes between the obligation of Maos Chittin in older times and nowadays. Back then it was an actual tax where each member of the community was assessed. This no longer is so prevalent and Rav Auerbach ruled that Maaser moneys may be used.
THE MITZVAH HAS CHANGED
We also see from the sources cited earlier that the original custom was to distribute the wheat itself, and not to distribute ground up flour. It seems that the nature of the Mitzvah has evolved from wheat to flour to Matzos to money. The Mishna Brurah explains that the flour was given because it caused the benefit to be that much closer.
The Mishna Brurah in his Shaar HaTziyun (429:10) explains the reason for the Mitzvah, which answers our final question as to why it is only Pesach and not Sukkos. He writes that since Pesach is the holiday of our freedom where we all sit around and celebrate our freedom in joy it is not kavod Hashem, honor to G-d, that poor people are hungry and thirsty.
Rabbi Ben Tzion Abba Shaul (Ohr L’tzion Vol. III 5:2) writes that even in our times, one may actually force members of the community to give to Maos Chittim. Indeed, other meforshim have written that whoever excuses himself from this obligation it is as if he has spilled blood.
WHY IS IT SO OBLIGATORY?
All this brings up the question – why is this custom so obligatory in it’s nature? Isn’t it just an auxiliary aspect of this Yom Tov? There is a fascinating Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu (Shmos chapter 23) which indicates that far from being auxiliary, it lies at the very essence and core of why we were, in fact, redeemed. It states that when we were to leave Egypt they enacted a Bris between themselves that they would always perform acts of chessed toward each other. It is for this reason that they merited redemption, states the Midrash.
A few further thoughts: The Zohar (Zohar Chadash Bereishis 18) understands the statement of Chazal (Rosh Hashana 16a) that on Pesach we are judged on the bounty – the intent is how much charity we have distributed in the past year. Based upon this Zohar the Kav HaYashar (chapter 91) writes that the entire month of Nissan we should contemplate whether we have fulfilled our charitable obligations in light of the blessing that we have received from Hashem.
One last thought: The word “Pesach” is equivalent in Gematria to “Kemach” – flour and also to the word “Yechalek” which means “distribute.”
*** Give Maos Chittim to an Almanah and another Single Mom***
The author can be reached at [email protected]