by Rabbi Yair Hoffman for 5tjt.com
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The mitzvah of matanos evyonim on Purim is discussed in the Gemara at the bottom of Megillah 7a. The mitzvah is to give at least one gift to two different poor people on Purim. The plural form of the word “evyonim” appearing in the verse teaches us that it must be given to two people.
There is also a Gemara in Bava Metziah 78b which deals with the Purim charity plate. It is a debate among the Rishonim whether or not this Gemara discusses the mitzvah of matanos the evyonim, or whether it deals with a separate mitzvah of providing for the Purim needs of the poor.
Nature of the Mitzvah
There also seems to be another debate among the Rishonim as to the nature of the mitzvah. Is it a tzedakah mitzvah, or is matanos evyonim its own special Purim day mitzvah, a mitzvah associated with creating happiness?
We will see that this question will be the subject of further debate among the poskim. Because of this debate, there are a number of differences in halakha as to the nature of fulfilling this mitzvah.
- Can you fulfill the mitzvah with ma’aser funds? If it is tzedakah, then yes. If it is a mitzvah of happiness, it may not be fulfilled with ma’aser funds.
- Is an ani, a poor person, obliged to perform this mitzvah? If it’s tzedakah, then no. An ani’s obligation to give tzedakah is once a year. If he simcha, however, then he must give the matanos the evyonim.
Even a poor person who has himself reached a financial state that he has to ask for charity has to give.
Rav Alexander Ziskind of Grodno was one of only two individuals who ever received endorsement on a sefer from the Vilna Gaon itself. In his sefer, Yesod V’shoresh HaAvodah, (12:6), he recommends reciting a specific preamble before performing the mitzvah. From the text, it is clear that Yesod V’Shoresh HaAvodah understands this mitzvah to be tzedakah.
The Ramban (Bava Metziah 78b) explains that the main purpose of this mitzvah is to spread simcha, joy and pleasure.
How can this be achieved
This obligation can be fulfilled by any type of donation: money, food, drink or clothing. One should, however, try to give a substantial monetary gift. If money is used, ideally it should be enough to buy bread weighing at least three eggs – five slices, approximately. At the very least, however, one must give one perutah or its equivalent value to each of the two poor people. A perutah is equal to 1/1244th of an ounce of silver.
Many poskim, however, fear that giving the minimum amount will no longer cause the feeling of simcha among the poor. When these minimum amounts were calculated, the value of silver was significantly higher.
Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky, shlita, therefore decides that the minimum amount should be $1. The Shaarei Teshuva states that this should be the amount equivalent to the cost of a meal for a poor person. In modern times, this equates to about five dollars (Rabbi Shmuel Fuerst’s decision).
Spend more on Matanos L’Evyonim
The gedolei ha’poskim (see Mishnah Berurah 694:3) tell us that it is better to spend more on the mitzvah of matanos l’evyonim than on the mitzvah of michloach manos. The math, of course, includes food, packaging, and the value of the time and effort spent making the mishloach manos. For many people, this all equates to several hundred dollars. Thus, we should also give this amount for matanos the evyonim.
These gifts should be given during the day, after the reading of the Megillah. Matanos the evyonim should be above and beyond ma’aser. Therefore, ma’aser money should not be used, but can be added to it.
Some poskim argue that technically evyonim matanos can be given before Purim. However, due to fear that the recipients will spend it sooner, it is best given on the day of Purim. Others write that care should be taken to ensure that funds are only given on Purim itself and that where an intermediary is used they should be held as a bundle for the poor and not received on behalf of the poor. .
If we were thinking of giving to a particular poor person but were unable to facilitate it, we can give it to another as long as we have not verbalized it. If someone verbalizes that they want to give to that specific person, they should follow up (BaLeilah Hahu p. 16).
The money itself
Money set aside for matanos evyonim should not be changed into another tzedakah without the decision of a posek. This is based on the Gemara of Bava Metziah (78b), according to the Rishonim who learn that the Gemara deals with matanos the evyonim. Other Rishonim learn that this Gemara does not address matanos the evyonim at all, and therefore there is room for a posek to be lenient.
One is not too strict with the poor on Purim to determine whether they are really poor or not. Whoever reaches out, we give to him. According to the main poskim, however, this does not apply to organizations. Why is that? Perhaps because there is no simcha to make organizations happy – it is only making the truly poor happy that makes the simcha.
women and children
Women are also obligated to give gifts to the poor on Purim. A married woman can perform the mitzvah through her husband. Ideally, however, the husband should inform his wife that he has also given matanos la’evyonim for her.
Children who depend on their parents’ table must still give la’evyonim matanos themselves (Aruch HaShulchan 694:2). Even though they may be exempt from tzedakah, there is still the idea of simcha.
To whom we give
Originally, the mitzvah was to give to a true evyon, a poor person who did not have enough money to eat a meal on Purim. Nowadays, such a definition is indeed rare. The poskim have thus ruled that it can be given to any poor person who is eligible to receive ma’aser funds. The Chazon Ish (Terumos U’ma’asros quoted in Ba’Leilah Hahu p.12) wrote that it can be given to anyone who is not “mesudar b’parnasaso” as long as he can support himself and those of his family.
Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt’l, has ruled that one can perform the mitzvah of matanos l’evyonim with a check. This is true even if the check is post-dated. This is also the opinion of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l, quoted in Halichos Shlomo 19:23, and Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, quoted in Yismach Moshe (p. 140).
Rav Nissim Karelitz, shlita, on the other hand, is of the view that the check should be negotiable on Purim itself in order for one to perform the mitzvah. This can present a difficulty when Purim falls on a Sunday. In city centers where they have check cashing facilities open on Sundays, this would of course not be a problem.
There are those who have wondered if these rulings in Israel are applicable in America where one can place a “stop payment” on checks. The truth is that in both Israel and England a “stop payment” can be placed on a check as long as there are funds to cover it.
Although in general one does not give gifts to an avel, a mourner, one can give him matanos the evyonim because it is considered a tzedakah.
A mourner within twelve months must, of course, also give matanos the evyonim. This is also true for a mourner within the seven days of shivah.
An onein, someone who has lost a close relative who has not yet been buried, can give matanos the evyonim in merit of the neshamah of the deceased, according to Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, zt’l.
One can fulfill the mitzvah of matanos la’evyonim by giving the money even to a young child who is considered poor.
Matanos the evyonim can be given anonymously. This, in fact, is the ideal form of fulfilling the mitzvah.
Small amount to a lot or a lot to a little
There is some debate over whether it is better to give many poor people a minimal amount of matanos the evyonim or to give a few people a significant amount of matanos the evyonim. The Bach (Siman 695) writes that it is better to give more people the lesser amount. Rav Elyashiv, zt’l, is quoted (Shvus Yitzchak 8:2 as quoted in Kovetz Halachos, p. 92) that it is better to give fewer people a larger amount. Rav Elyashiv seems to emphasize the simcha aspect of the mitzvah. Since one fulfills the mitzvah anyway, one should fulfill it in the way one feels most inspired towards dveikus b’Hashem.
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