Wednesday, April 09, 2008

The Parameters of Charity

I. Redirecting Money

The Shakh (Yoreh De'ah 256:7) rules that members of a community (or their representatives) may divert money earmarked for one charitable cause to any other necessary cause, even if it is not technically a mitzvah (devar ha-reshus). However, elsewhere (ibid., 259:1) he limits this ability of a gabbai to another cause that is a mitzvah.

R. Akiva Eiger (novellae to 259:1) quotes the Derishah (259:2) who explains that officials are limited in the latter case, where they can only divert charity funds to another mitzvah, because the funds were donated specifically for poor people. In the former case, the money was contributed to a general communal fund and therefore can be allocated according to need.

Click here to read moreR. Shlomo Eiger (R. Akiva Eiger's son), in his glosses to 259:1, suggests that communal leaders may allocate charity funds to any cause they choose but the mere official (gabbai) in charge of disbursing the funds is limited in his ability to divert money from one cause to another.

If I understand this correctly, according to the Derishah money donated for poor people may only be allocated to causes that constitute a mitzvah. However, according to R. Shlomo Eiger, community officials can divert funds to any cause they choose regardless of its halakhic merit.

II. Early Debate

This is actually a matter of debate between Rabbenu Tam and his nephew Ri (of Dampierre). According to Rabbenu Tam, the community in general (through its representatives) can divert charitable funds to any cause they want. According to Ri, they are limited to only other mitzvah causes (cf. Tosafos, Bava Basra 8b sv. u-le-shanosah, Arakhin 6a sv. mi-she-bas; Mordekhai, Bava Basra 85c no. 491). [The Rosh (ch. 1 no. 29) quotes the Ri Migash who holds that funds allocated to poor people may only be spent on other poor people, not even other mitzvos.]

III. The Nature of Charity

I'd suggest that perhaps the debate is about the nature of tzedakah. Rambam discusses charity in Hilkhos Matenos Aniyim beginning with chapter 7. If you read those chapters carefully, you will find that -- as the title of the section indicates -- the Rambam only discusses giving charity to poor people (with one exception, 8:11). Also in Sefer Ha-Mitzvos (aseh 195, 197; lavin 232, 234), Rambam only discusses giving to the poor as tzedakah. Perhaps we can say that charity, the technical mitzvah of tzedakah, is only supporting to poor people. While there are other mitzvah causes that require individual funds, those are elements of other mitzvos and not tzedakah (e.g. supporting Torah or maintaining the community).

The Semag (aseh 162) includes in his discussion of the mitzvah donating to a synagogue, but like the Rambam that might only be incidental. However, the Sefer Ha-Chinukh counts charity as four separate mitzvos: 67, 68, 478, 479. Significantly, he specifically says (479) that charity is not only for the poor but, rather, is for anyone in a situation where he needs assistance.

IV. Conclusion

Maybe we can suggest that the debate is about the nature of tzedakah: Is it only about helping poor people or about giving to any mitzvah cause. According to the Ri, tzedakah includes giving to any mitzvah cause and therefore the community can divert money from one cause to another -- it is all tzedakah. According to Rabbenu Tam and the Ri Migash, though, tzedakah is only for poor people. Donating for other causes may fulfill another mitzvah but it is not charity. That is why the Ri Migash does not allow diverting funds away from the poor. And Rabbenu Tam only allows diverting funds because people donate having in mind that the community can do whatever it wants with it, which is why the community can even divert the funds to a non-mitzvah purpose.

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