With the beginning of the month of Nissan, we turn our attention to a timely halachah: the giving of kimcha de’pischa, or maos chittin.
Many of us have heard the expression maos chittin, which describes the yearly charity appeal in advance of the Pessach festival. However, it is important to realize that maos chittin is not just a charity collection, but is an obligation with a range of laws and conditions.
This week we will discuss the different halachic aspects involved in the mitzvah of giving maos chittin. When and where did the custom originate? Is it a tax or is it a charity contribution? Why was it enacted specifically for the Pessach festival? What must be given to the poor, and how is the obligation fulfilled today?
These questions, among others, are discussed below.
The Origin of the Custom
The Darchei Moshe (Orach Chaim 429) cites the Or Zarua (Pessachim 255), who sets out the basic halachah of maos chittin: “The custom of the communities is to levy a tax on the inhabitants for the purpose of purchasing and distributing wheat to the town’s poor for Pessach.”
This halachah is ruled by the Rema (429:1): “The custom is to purchase wheat and to distribute it to the poor for the needs of Pessach.”
The Or Zarua explains that the source of the custom is a ruling of the Jerusalem Talmud (Bava Basra 1:4): “Rabbi Yosi bar Bun stated: For the Pessach wheat [one must live in the town for] twelve months, both for receiving and for giving.” Clearly, maos chittin is thus an ancient custom, which was already practiced in Talmudic times.
Virtually all poskim follow the ruling of Rema. They add that this is the common custom. In the words of the Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav (429:5): “It is the prevalent custom that every congregation levies a tax on its townspeople, for the purpose of supplying wheat for Pessach. The money is used for purchasing wheat and distributing it among the town’s poor.”
Custom or Obligation?
The sources mentioned above raise the question of the basic nature of maos chittin.
The Beis David (Rav Yosef David b. Shabti of Salonika, no. 136) notes that the Rema mentions a custom to give maos chittin, whereas the Jerusalem Talmud, which is the source of the halachah, implies that the donation is an obligation upon the members of the community. How can the obligation implied by the Yerushalmi be reconciled with the custom mentioned by the Rema?
A possible answer to this question is that the concept of maos chittin originated as a custom, but, like many community customs, later evolved into an obligation. However, the Beis David and others understood that the wording of the Yerushalmi indicates an obligation by enactment, rather than a custom. He, therefore, explains that since this obligation is not mentioned in the authoritative Babylonian Talmud, we may derive that the halachah does not follow the Yerushalmi in this matter.
Thus, although the donation of maos chittin is not obligatory, it is customary to follow the ruling of the Yerushalmi, and to establish a communal fund for maos chittin.
The Mishnah Berurah (Shaar Hatzion 429:7) offers a very different resolution. In his opinion, the obligation found in the Yerushalmi can be fulfilled by giving the poor money, rather than wheat. The custom however, as ruled by the Rema, is to extend the obligation and to give the poor wheat, bringing the final product of matzah one step closer.
Tax or Charity?
Another seeming contradiction in the rulings of Poskim relates to the nature of maos chittin as a tax or as charity. On the one hand, authorities write that the halachah of maos chittin is a tax levied on the community, as the above-quoted words of the Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav indicate. On the other hand, the Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav himself (ibid.) concludes: “Even Torah scholars, who are normally exempt from taxes, are obligated to participate, because it is a charity contribution.”
The obvious question that arises concerns the nature of maos chittin: Is it a tax collection, or a contribution to charity?
In resolving this question, it seems that the law is indeed founded on principles of tzedakah. Throughout the year, those with the financial means are enjoined by the mitzvah of tzedaka to provide the basic needs of the poor. However, in order to ensure that the poor have sufficient funds for Pessach, and in keeping with the special character of Pessach which is the festival of freedom (see below), it is customary to collect this charity donation by means of a mandatory tax (see article of Rav Rubin in Mibeis Levi 1, p. 129-130).
According to this understanding, the Yerushalmi itself means to present a custom that evolved out of an obligation. As a result of the general obligation of charity, which applies universally, communities adopted the custom of levying taxes on their members to ensure that the Pessach needs of the poor will be met.
Furthermore, the custom of maos chittin broadens the assistance offered the poor beyond the regular boundaries of charity (see below). It is possible that the custom of levying taxes was established on account of this extension, so as to ensure that the poor will receive the extended assistance of maos chittin, which goes beyond year-round allocations of charity.
Why is Maos Chittin Special to Pessach?
The Mishnah Berurah (Shaar Hatzion 429:10) questions why the conceptof maos chittin was enacted specifically for Pessach. The expenses of other festivals, such as Sukkos and Rosh Hashanah, are far from slight. (Indeed, Shut She’elas Yaavatz (no. 7) writes that the obligatory donation towards maos chittin applies to all festivals. This, however, is a daas yachid, an opinion to which other authorities have not agreed, and which is barely mentioned in halachic discourse.) So why is the concept of maos chittin unique to Pessach?
The Mishnah Berurah suggests two reasons. One is that the enactment was made specifically for Pessach on account of it being the “Festival of Freedom” (chag ha-cheirus). The annual commemoration of our redemption from Egypt obligates us in a special mode of celebration, which goes further than the celebration of other festivals.: “It is dishonorable to Hashem that the poor of Israel should be hungry and thirsty at this time. Therefore, we give them all the flour they require for the duration of Pessach, so that they will be able to recount the tale of the Redemption with joy.”
The second reason suggested by the Mishnah Berurah is that the festival of Pessach is special in that bread, the staple of a poor person’s diet during the year, is prohibited. Because matzah is expensive, the poor may go hungry, or even violate the prohibition, if we don’t provide them with Matzah.
Thus, according to the first rationale suggested by the Mishnah Berurah, the special nature of the Pessach celebration requires the unique collection of charity. According to the second explanation, however, it is not the celebration that necessitates the collection, but rather concern for what might arise as a result of the prohibition of chametz on Pessach.
Giving Beyond Tzedakah
Based on the first rationale of the Mishnah Berurah, which highlights the special nature of the Pessach celebration, we are able to explain two laws that are unique to the collection of maos chittin.
One halachah, which is stated by the Mekor Chaim (429, chiddushim 3), sets the allocation of maos chittin aside from regular charity distributions. During the year, only those poor who lack the resources for fourteen meals of the week may benefit from the town’s food fund (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 253:1). According to the Mekor Chaim, this limitation does not apply to maos chitin. (This rulingis cited by Biur Halachah 429.)
This halachah is well understood in the light of the above mentioned rationale. Because the celebration of Pessach requires a special feeling of freedom, we lower the standard by which a poor person qualifies for receiving donations. Even those who do not qualify for regular food money do qualify for maos chittin since we wish every Jew to share the feeling of freedom (a poor person qualifies for charity even if he has 14 meals).
The Question of Shemurah Matzah
Another possible ramification of this same rationale is the question of shemurah matzah.
In the laws of Chanukah, the Mishnah Berurah writes (Biur Halachah 671, citing the Chemed Moshe) that we are required to give the poor only the minimum amount of candles, one candle per day. Even though one who has the means should practice the mehadrin custom of lighting several candles every day; the community fund does not need to enable the poor to practice hiddurim.
However, authorities do not apply the same principle to maos chittin. The consumption of shemurah matzah, meaning matzah that is produced from wheat that was guarded from becoming wet from the time of harvesting, is a hiddur, and not obligatory. Nonetheless, a poor person who consumes shemurah matzah, either because he is a learned Torah scholar, or because this is a custom he has already performed (making the chumrah a neder), is given matzah according to his level of observance. In spite of the extra expense involved (shemurah matzah is more expensive than regular matzah), his hiddur is paid for out of the maos chittin fund (Pischei Teshuvah 429, and several poskim who cite the ruling).
The Kaf Hachaim (429:14 and 671:4) mentions both the more restricted handout of Chanukah, and the more liberal distribution of Pessach, indicating that the two rulings are not in conflict. Rather, the two halachos somehow go together.
The discrepancy between Chanukah and Pessach can be explained by the special status of maos chittin, which derives from the unique nature of the Pessach celebration. A person used to stringent standards for matzah (shemurah matzah), who is forced to eat matzah of a lesser standard due to insufficient means, will not feel the elation of the Pessach festival. On Chanukah, however, the regular principles of tzedakah apply, by which a person is not provided with more than the minimum.
An alternative explanation is the distinction between the mehadrin practice of Chanukah, which is accepted as a hiddur (enhancement), and the chumros of Pessach, which stem from concern for chametz, which is a possible violation of Pessach laws. We use tzedaka to ensure that people avoid violating (and even the chance of violating) a law, but not to go beyond the requirements of the law for an enhancement.
What is Purchased With Maos Chittin?
As the name maos chittin or kimcha de’pischa suggests, the original enactment of maos chittin was that the money raised by the Pessach tax should go towards wheat for the needy. It was once common practice for each person to grind his own wheat, and to bake his own matzos from the resultant flour.
In later times, after people stopped grinding their own wheat, the custom of maos chittin was changed from distributing wheat to distributing flour, from which the poor could directly benefit (Mishnah Berurah 429:6). Today, few people bake their own matzos, and the common custom is therefore to distribute matzos (Kaf Hachaim).
Moreover, whereas in previous generations an abundance of matzah was perhaps sufficient cause for creating an uplifting atmosphere on Pessach, this is not true with our higher standard of living. Therefore, it is customary to use maos chittin for all needs of the Pessach festival (Halichos Shlomo, Nissan, note 90; see also Shaarei Teshuva 429:3, who writes that leftover maos chittin should be used for other Pessach expenses).
Maos Chittin from Maaser Money
As we have noted above, maos chittin was collected as a tax. As an obligatory payment, it seems that one may not use his maaser money for maos chittin, since maaser money may not be used to meet financial obligations.
Yet, there is also room to argue that because the foundation of the enactment is tzedakah, as explained above, it follows that one may use maaser money in paying the tax, despite the obligatory nature of the payment.
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Shlomo, Nissan 2) ruled that nowadays one may certainly use maaser money to contribute towards maos chittin. This is because the power of the kehillah (community) has waned, and the payment of maos chittin is no longer compulsory upon the members. Furthermore, in most cases there is no longer any set sum that a person must contribute, so that one can certainly make his contribution from maaser money.
Today’s Obligation of Maos Chittin
In previous generations, when the collection of maos chittin was by means of a mandatory tax, clear criteria defined which residents were obligated to make the donation and which were not.
Thus the Yerushalmi states that only those residents who lived in the town for the prior twelve months were obligated to pay the tax. Similarly, only the poor who had lived there for the same period could receive the donations. This halachah is ruled by the Or Zarua, the Rema, and other authorities.
Over the years, the enactment was broadened, and authorities write that even those who have only resided in the town for thirty days are obligated to participate in the collection (Semak 247; Magen Avraham 429:2).
Poskim add that these criteria apply specifically to those who have not yet made the town their permanent dwelling place. If somebody arrives to make his permanent residence in the town, he is immediately obligated to pay the tax (Chok Yaakov 429:5; Mishnah Berurah 5). – The Magen Avraham (429) adds that even a poor person who has recently moved into town (less than 30 days before Pessach) should nonetheless be given the most basic contribution of matzos for Pessach.
Today, as mentioned above, the communities do not have the same standing they once had, and it is no longer customary to levy a tax on members of the community. Yet, there are numerous worthy organizations, both local and international, which collect money for maos chittin, and distribute the funds to the poor for Pessach requirements.
One should therefore make every effort to fulfill this ancient enactment in its modern embodiment. As the Mishnah Berurah (429:6) rules, the community tax applies to each individual according to his personal means. Even today, each person should contribute, according to his means, towards enabling the poor to share in the unique freedom of the Pessach celebrations.
As Nissan Arrives
In conclusion, it is worth citing the words of Maharil, in his customs for the month of Nissan: “When the thirty days [before Pessach] commence, it is customary to clean the rooms and wash the dishes, and above all to purchase wheat for the poor.”
The first half of Maharil’s statement is assiduously fulfilled by every Jewish household. Yet, in Maharil’s words, “above all” stand the maos chittin, which ensure that the poor will have the special needs of the Pessach festival. If we give the same attention to the poor as we give to our Pessach cleaning, they will surely be in good shape!
In the merit of this great mitzvah—the mitzvah of tzedakah upon which the Redemption stands (Bava Basra 10a)—may we speedily see the fulfillment of the promise (Michah 7:15): “As the days of your coming forth from Egypt, I shall show you wonders.”
 The source of the ruling is a statement of Sheyarei Keneses Hagedolah (429:2), who writes that the custom in Constantinople is that even Torah scholars contribute their share. This halachah is quoted by the Eliyah Rabbah (429:5), and by the Mishnah Berurah (429:6). The latter also mentions the stance of Peri Megadim (Eshel Avraham 1) who disputes the ruling, and suggests that the custom applied to Constantinople alone.