By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
A couple of years ago, a wealthy individual from Lawrence wanted to produce a documentary on “meshulachim” and those who collect tzedakah in shuls. One of those to be interviewed was told that he would receive a rather large sum of money if he would merely answer a few questions honestly. It was an opportunity to earn significantly more than he was to make by soliciting funds. The arrangement was that, while he did not have to volunteer information, he did have to answer all of the questions to be posed in an honest manner. If there was any question as to his honesty, he would not receive the funds. The person readily agreed to the arrangement.
The exchange went something like this:
“Good morning. What are you collecting for?”
“Mazal tov! Whose hachnasas kallah?”
“Well, my own.”
“Mazal tov! When is the wedding?”
“Well, the date has not been established yet.”
“Okay. Where is the kallah from?”
“There is no kallah yet. I have not found her yet.”
“Oh, I see. How much do you collect on average per week?”
“Between $700 and $800 per week.”
We will stop at this point in the conversation to get to the halachic topic at hand. Is there a communal obligation to support an individual who purposefully chooses not to work, but rather to collect charitable funds?
There is a fascinating Sefer Chasidim (1035) which states: If you see a person that could learn Torah and he understands it, or a scribe who can write but they do not wish to learn and to write, I call upon them the verse in Isaiah (5:7), “Now the vineyard of Hashem . . . is the house of Israel and the people of Yehudah are the shoot of his delight; He had hoped for justice, but behold, affliction! For charitable acts, but behold, an outcry!” as it states (ibid. 27:11) “For it is not a nation of understanding, therefore its Maker will not show it mercy, and its Creator will not be gracious unto it.”
The Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 253:10) states as follows: “A wealthy person who starves himself, and he is stingy with his own money so as not to eat from it, we pay him no heed.”
In regard to this ruling, Rabbi Shmuel di Medina of Salonika (1506–1680) writes in his responsa (Teshuvos Maharshdam YD #166) that there is no obligation to provide charitable funds even to a poor person who has the capacity to work.
This view can further be buttressed with the explanation of the Kli Yakar (Shemos 23:5), “You shall surely help with him,” discussing the mitzvah of prikah and te’inah— assisting one’s fellow with a load:
“This [the words ‘with him’] teaches you that it is only when he is with you in his work and wishes to be established with you, then you are obligated to support him. However, if he sits and says, ‘Since the matter is upon you, you must lift it alone,’ it does not apply.”
He further writes: “From here we have a response to a minority of the poor among our nation who place themselves upon the community and do not wish to work in any area of work even though they are able to do so. And they cry foul if they are not given enough to sustain them. For on this, Hashem did not command, rather it states, ‘You shall surely help with him’ and you shall surely establish it ‘with him.’ For the poor person will do all he can find by himself to do, and if even then his hand cannot reach it, then each man of Israel is obligated to help him and strengthen him and give him what he is lacking . . .
even up to one hundred times.”
In Sefer Maalos HaMidos at the end of Hilchos Tzedakah, the author writes: “Nonetheless, it is worthy to refrain from giving him tzedakah and embarrass him and shame him until he repents and tries working again so that he not be shameful in the eyes of people.”
Another View. On the other hand, we also find the opinion of a Rishon, Reb Shmuel ben Reb Meshulam Yerundi, in his sefer entitled Ohel Moed (9:1) where he interprets the verse in Devarim (15:7), “Do not tighten your heart,” in the following manner: “Do not say, why should we help him? If he so wishes he can support himself. To this [attitude] the verse states, do not tighten your heart.” Reb Shmuel is occasionally quoted by the author of the Shulchan Aruch, and therefore we cannot assume that this is a lone opinion. This is also the view of the earlier Rabbi Yitzchok ben Rav Yoseph (1210–1280) of Corbel, France in his SmaK, mitzvah #20. These views are based upon the Midrash Rabbah in Devarim (34:4).
We may ask whether this is truly a contradiction between poskim or whether, in fact, we can reconcile the two opinions by assuming that the latter view is only when one does not know definitively that the person can work. In other words, the latter view could perhaps be that the Torah is forbidding us to be cruel and make the assumption that he could be working but isn’t and therefore not give tzedakah. But it is possible that if he could be working and we know that he has chosen not to do so, then the verse in Isaiah applies.
To be clear, there are three possible views here: Possibility A is that there is no obligation to give, and in fact, it is wrong to do so. Possibility B is that one must still give in this situation. And finally, possibility C is that it is wrong to assume that the person could be working, and thus one must still give in this situation (although one does not have to give a large amount—a quarter may suffice), but if one does some due diligence and finds out that the person could be working, then one should not give. In this author’s view this is the most logical way to reconcile these two seemingly opposing views.
What is the Shulchan Aruch’s view? In the laws of Purim (O.C. 694:3), he writes that we are not exacting on Purim and we give to whoever stretches out his hand. The implication is that at other times, we can and perhaps should be careful. It seems that the Shulchan Aruch may be subscribing to possibility A or C but writes that on Purim one should adopt possibility B. It seems more likely to this author that he does subscribe to possibility C and that on Purim he suggests following Possibility B.
The reader should consult with his or her own rabbi as to the correct approach to this issue.
What happened to the person that appeared in the beginning of this column? He got the money and earned it honestly, even according to the Maharshdam, Sefer Chassidim, and Kli Yakar. v
The author may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.