Question: I gave some of my ma’aser money to someone who claimed to be very poor. I found out later that it is well-known that he is a swindler and is not poor. Does that mean that I must give ma’aser again?
The answer to your question depends on two issues. The first issue is whether in general one who intended to give tsedoko but mistakenly gave it to someone who was not qualified to receive tsedoko, fulfills the mitzvo of tsedoko based on his intentions. The second issue concerns ma’aser specifically: Must one who didn’t distribute his ma’aser in the proper manner give ma’aser again?
This article will discuss the first issue and next week be’ezras Hashem we will discuss the second issue.
In two places (Bava Kama 16B, Bava Basra 9B), the Gemara explains a pasuk in Yirmiya to mean that Yirmiya davened that when the people of the city of Anosos (who were wicked and tried to kill him) try to give tsedoko, Hashem should arrange that they will give the tsedoko to people who are not worthy to receive tsedoko, “so that they will not receive reward.” The same Gemara also explains that if one tries very hard to fulfill the mitzvah of tsedoko, Hashem arranges that the recipients of his tsedoko will be qualified, “so that he will receive reward for giving tsedoko.”
Another Gemara (Succa 49B) explains a pasuk in Tehillim (Chapter 36) that states that chessed is precious as meaning that one has to try very hard to give tsedoko to worthy people in order for Hashem to arrange that the recipients of his tesdokko will indeed be worthy people.
In fact, the Yad Rama (Bava Basra 9B) states explicitly that one who gave to an unworthy recipient did not fulfill a mitzva, “From here one can deduce that one who gives tsedoko to unworthy people does not fulfill the mitzvah of tsedoko.” Likewise, the Chida (Parshas Kedoshim) understood that these opinions maintain that one who gave to an unqualified person did not fulfill a mitsvo of tsedoko. He just adds that in his opinion there is a dissenting opinion in the Gemara.
Similarly, the Har Hatsvi (Orach Chaim 1, 35) understood that one did not fulfill the mitsva and gets no reward. He therefore, asks why this doesn’t contradict the Gemara (Kiddushin 40A) that states that one who intended to fulfill a mitzvah but was prevented from doing so due to circumstances which were beyond his control receives reward as if he performed the mitzvah. He answers that the latter Gemara only applies if one tried his best to perform the mitzvah and yet was not successful. But, if one could have tried harder, he does not receive a reward. As we saw earlier, if one tries very hard, Hashem makes him successful in finding qualified recipients. Therefore, the one who in fact gave to unqualified people clearly didn’t try his best and as a consequence, he will not receive any reward.
However, there are other opinions that maintain that one does fulfill the mitzvah even if he gave to an unworthy individual. The Nemukai Yosef (Bava Kama 6B) says in the name of the Rama that one only fails to receive any reward if he knew he was giving to an unqualified individual. If he wasn’t aware that the recipient was unqualified, he receives reward because he intended to perform a mitzvah.
These Gemoros and commentaries are not discussing specifically people who are not poor, just that they are unworthy recipients. However, it would seem that the halachos are equivalent since the same arguments apply for someone who is not poor as one who is poor but unqualified. Therefore, it would seem that there is a dispute whether you fulfilled a mitzva of tsedoko when you gave to this swindler who was not poor.
Now that we know that there are opinions that you did not fulfill the mitzvah of tsedoko, we must now address the question whether according to these opinions you have to set aside ma’aser again and bear the loss of money.