By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The Pesach season not only brings the purchase of matzos, the house cleaning, and the trip to the rabbi to sell chametz. It is also that time when we hear the appeals in shul for ma’os chittim. It is not just in shul; it is in the mail too, and also at the doorbell.
Ma’os chittim, of course, is providing for those local people who are struggling financially so that they can afford Pesach matzah and the other expenses associated with this yom tov.
Some questions arise. What is the source of this custom? Who must give? And who is considered to be 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 s’chach. Also, is it ordinary charity or is it some other obligation?
For Ma’os Chittim
The custom, at first glance, is not found in Tanach, nor the Mishnah. 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. The source is a Talmud Yerushalmi, all residents of the town must give to it, and the residency requirement is 12 months. In order to qualify as a local “financially struggling party” there is also a 12-month residency requirement.
Is it just a Yerushalmi, however? The Vilna Gaon (Kol Eliyahu, Parashas Bo 13:6) asks why the verse states twice the obligation to eat matzah 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 12 months and has signed a lease to that effect, then this too fulfills the residency requirement. The Be’er Heiteiv 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.
Tax Or Charity?
This Yerushalmi is cited by Rabbi Yitzchok ben Moshe of Vienna, author of the Ohr Zarua and teacher of the Maharam Mi’Rottenberg. He writes (Vol. II Chapter 255): “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 Zarua is cited by the Rema in the Darchei Moshe (O.C. 429:1).
We see from the wording of the Ohr Zarua 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 Zarua’s source for this wording. Rabbi Yair Bacharach in his Mekor Chaim also writes that it is a tax, not a tzedakah.
What is the difference whether it is a tax or a charity? One difference lies in whether maaser funds may be used. The poskim have ruled that the money for machatzis ha’shekel, matanos l’evyonim, and Yom Kippur kaparos 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 ma’os chittim in older times and nowadays. Back then it was an actual tax where each member of the community was assessed. This no longer is prevalent, and Rav Auerbach ruled that maaser moneys may be used.
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 Mishnah Berurah explains that the flour was given because it caused the benefit to be that much closer.
Why Just For Pesach?
The Mishnah Berurah in his Shaar HaTziyun (429:10) explains the reason for the mitzvah, which answers our final question as to why it is only for 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 ma’os chittim. Indeed, other meforshim have written that whoever excuses himself from this obligation, it is as if he has spilled blood.
All this brings up the question, why is this custom obligatory in its nature? Isn’t it just an auxiliary aspect of this yom tov? There is a fascinating Tanna D’Bei Eliyahu (Sh’mos, 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 b’ris among 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 Hashanah 16a) that on Pesach we are judged on the bounty as meaning 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 פסח (Pesach) is equivalent in gematria to קמח (flour) and also to the word יחלק, which means to distribute. v
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