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Laws of Tzedakah Part II: To Whom To Give First

Recent times have brought something of a revolution in charity giving. Instead of the personal, local giving that was always the basic norm for making donations, various tzedakah organizations (both local and nationwide) have attempted to convince charity givers nation- (in Israel) and world-wide to give them charity donations for distribution among the needy. The publicity and propaganda methods used by these organizations has been effective in raising awareness of charity needs and inspiring donations, yet has also caused a certain confusion with regard to the order of priority for making donations to charity, which is a strictly halachic issue. In this shiur we will describe the halachic order in which charity money should be distributed.

  1. Saving a life takes precedence over all other needs and requirements, ((Shulchan AruchYD 251:14, based on RoshKelal 6, sec. 2. The Maharshal (annotations to Tur) questions the priority of saving a life from an explicit statement of the Gemara (Megillah 16b): “The study of Torah is greater even that saving a life.” Perishah answers that the study of Torah takes preference only when the endangered life will be saved by somebody else, but does not take precedence when the study of Torah will lead to death. Derishah suggests a different approach; see also TazYD 251:6.)) including even the support of Torah study. ((We find in Shulchan Aruch (251:9, based on Yerushalmi) that the purchase of a quilt for a Torah scholar takes precedence over the life of an ignoramus. This appears to imply that the study of Torah comes before saving a life. However, the Chida (Shaarei YosefHorios 13a) writes that the word “life” does not refer to saving his life, but only to his general sustenance. Mareh Panim (commentary to Yerushalmi, quoted in Minchas Pitim on Shulchan Aruch) likewise expresses wonder at how a quilt can take precedence over somebody’s life. Although Beis Yosef interprets the Yerushalmi as referring to a literal life, Shach (YD 251:67) notes that today’s Torah scholars are not considered talmidei chachamim, and therefore the halachah of deferring a life for the sake of a scholar’s Torah would not apply. Many authorities dispute the opinion of Shach concerning the status of today’s Torah scholars, yet it may be joined together with the aforementioned interpretation of Chida is formulating the ruling that saving a life always takes precedence. This is also the ruling given by Harav Moshe Feinstein (Iggros MosheYD 1:144).))  The following are examples of saving lives: Redeeming a captive from his captivity; ((Shulchan AruchYoreh De’ah 252:1, based on Gemara, Bava Basra 8. The concept of modern imprisonment would not fall under this category, because it does not pose a threat to the captive’s life, though it is usually (but not always) a mitzvah to seek to free the inmate. If there is a chance that the inmate will forsake his faith, it no less severe than saving his life.))  aiding somebody whose poverty is so extreme that he is liable to die of hunger; ((Chochmas Adam 145:7.))  purchasing medicine for somebody in danger of dying of his illness.
  2. Supporting the study of Torah, for example the support of a kolel, a yeshiva, or a Torah elementary school, takes priority over the building of a shul and charity to the poor—so long as their poverty does not endanger their lives. ((Shulchan AruchYoreh De’ah 249:16; Chochmas Adam 142:7. Because of this, we also find that money donated for the purpose of building a shul can be used for the support of Torah study, but not vice versa.))
  3. Authorities dispute whether supporting an elementary school (cheider) takes precedence over supporting Torah scholars (a kolel), or whether the support of Torah scholars comes first. ((On the one hand, we find in the Gemara that the Torah study of children is more important even than that of Amoraim (because children are free of sin; Shabbos 119b); on the other, Chazal grant utmost important to the “gates of halachah” (Berachos 8a). Iggros Moshe (YD 3:94) writes that the support of Torah scholars takes preference if there is a need to establish a posek able to rule halachic decisions; once there are sufficient poskim, children take priority. Shut Maharia Halevi (YD 315, 3:243), however, writes that Torah scholars always take priority. On the other side of the spectrum, Mishpetei Shmuel (65) writes that children always take priority. Shevet Halevi (5:144) points out that a yeshiva student up to the age of twenty has the virtue of being “free of sin,” and remains inconclusive as to the order of preference.))
  4. Authorities dispute ((Maharik (Shoresh 128) implies that building a shul comes before regular donations to charity, and his opinion is quoted by Shulchan Aruch (YD 249:16). However, the Vilna Gaon (in his annotations, no. 20) writes that the proof on which the ruling of Maharik is questionable, and quotes an explicit ruling of Tosafos (Bava Basra 9a) to the contrary, i.e. that contribution to charity takes precedence over donations to shulChochmas Adam (145:7) cites the ruling of Shulchan Aruch, but Haamek She’elah (She’ilta 62) writes that the opinion of She’ilta concurs with the Vilna Gaon and Tosafos.))  whether the building of a shul and its maintenance ((Maharik (quoted above) discusses the lighting of candles in shul; the same issue (candles) is quoted Chochmas Adam (loc. cit.).))  takes precedence over charity to the poor (whose poverty does not endanger their lives), or whether charity takes precedence over the shul. Some write that where there are insufficient places in shul for town residence (but not where a specific group wish to have their own shul ((Shevet Halevi (9:199); Shevet Halevi adds that if the shul is also used for Torah study, it follows that donating to the shul has the virtue of supporting Torah, and even Vilna Gaon would concede that it takes preference.))  ), the shul certainly comes first. ((Aruch Hashulchan YD249:20, his reasoning being that the poor possess the bare essentials, whereas the shul does not. This position can be further upheld by comparing the two obligations: the obligation to build a shul is a personal obligation incumbent on each individual (CM 163:1), and halachah dictates (Rema YD 251:3) that personal obligations take precedence over donating to charity.))  Under such circumstances, it would be proper for the wardens of the shul to announce that charity should be donated to the building fund rather than to paupers collecting in the shul. ((Tzedakah U’Mishpat(chap. 3, note 15) is inconclusive concerning whether the wardens have the right to actually prevent paupers from collecting in the shul. However, they certainly have the right to instruct congregants to donate to the shul rather than to paupers.))  On the other hand, some write where the opposite is true—the donation to the shul is inessential (for example, only to beautify the building), whereas the poor lack basic essentials (though their lives are not endangered—for example, the lack of minimal means with which to pay for children’s weddings)—charity to the poor certainly takes preference. ((Shevel Halevi (9:199); it would appear that the ruling pertains to a case in which there are sufficient seats for town residents, and that there is therefore no dispute between Shevet Halevi and Aruch Hashulchan (quoted above).))
  5. Many authorities rule that poor family members take precedence over poor Torah scholars who are not relatives; ((Chacham Tzvi (no. 70), basing himself on Rambam (Matnos Aniyim 7:13): “A poor person who is his relative comes before all others.” The ruling of Chacham Tzvi is cited by Rabbi Akiva Eiger (annotations to Shulchan Aruch, YD 251:3), and is also ruled by Chafetz Chaim(Ahavas Chesed 6:7) and by Aruch Hashulchan (YD 251:8). ))  others maintain that Torah scholars take precedence over family members, ((Meishiv Davar (2:47), who argues with Chacham Tzvi (cited above); Ruach Chaim (of Rav Chaim Falagi, YD 251:3).It should be noted that catering for the requirements of (one’s own) children under the age of six comes before all donations of charity, because providing their needs is a personal obligation, and must be paid for with ordinary money and not with charity money. According to Iggros Moshe(EH 1:106) this law applies even to children above the age of six who live with their parents—but many authorities dispute this position.))  with the exception of one’s father. ((ShachYoreh De’ah 251:17.))  If there are others who are ready sustain the Torah scholars but not the relatives, it would appear that all concede that relatives take precedence, because the obligation to sustain them falls first and foremost on family members. ((Shulchan AruchYoreh De’ah 257:8 (a gabbai tzedakah has the right to refuse a donation to a pauper whose family has the means to support him, because the obligation to sustain him falls first and foremost on family).))
  6. Many authorities rule that the principle of “local poor come first” applies only when the financial condition of local poor and poor elsewhere is equivalent. However, if distant poor are worse off than local poor, for instance if local poor have enough money for food, whereas others cannot even pay for basic provisions, then distant poor take precedence over local poor. ((See Chasam Sofer(YD 234), who writes that the precedence of the poor of Jerusalem only applies when there are no better off than poor elsewhere. See also Chasam Sofer (YD 231). Although Iggros Moshe (YD1:144) does not concur with this ruling, writing that we do not find an obligation to investigate and compare the poverty levels of the poor (see also Tana de’bei Eliyahu (above, note 22), which also seems to contradict the chiddush of Chasam Sofer) many authorities quote the ruling of the Chasam Sofer.))  The same distinction applies to the precedence of Israel’s poor over the poor of other countries. ((Shevet Halevi (vol. 5, no. 135, sec. 4). ))  [In the next shiur we will plase G-d cover the application of the same principle to neighbors, family members, and Torah scholars.]
  7. Many authorities maintain that local poor take precedence over the poor of a different town even when the most distant poor are Torah scholars; ((Pischei Teshuva (YD 251:3) in the name of Shemesh Tzedakah (1:19); Aruch Hashulchan (YD 251:8); Chasam Sofer (6:27).))  some opine that even distant Torah scholars take precedence. ((Ahavas Chesed (chap. 6, Nesiv Hachesed no. 14), proving the case from a ruling of Chasam Sofer (234; this would mean that Chasam Sofer contradicts himself from the ruling quoted above); Divrei Chaim, Vol. II, Choshen Mishpat no. 68. [Ahavas Chesed brings proof to the ruling from the preference of Torah scholars with regard to redeeming captives (YD 252:4). However, the proof can be deferred by distinguishing between redeeming captives for large sums of money, which is only permitted for Torah scholars, and regular donations to charity.]))
  8. Local poor take precedence over poor from other towns and localities, ((Shulchan AruchYoreh De’as 251:3, and all poskim. This law is extracted by Sifri from the verse (Devarim 15:7), “from one of your brothers, in one of your towns.” ))  including the poor of the Land of Israel. ((ShachYD 251:6, citing from BachChasam Sofer 6:27; although Pe’as Hashulchan disputes this ruling, and opines that the poor of Israel take precedence, later authorities have not concurred with his view. See also Shevet Halevi vol. 5, no. 135, sec. 2.))  Therefore, where a charity fund exists for local poor, and there are insufficient funds, one may not contribute to the charity funds of a different fund—unless the poor of the other town are is a considerably worse condition. ((See below, no. 10.))
  9. Poor neighbors take precedence over the other poor of the town. ((Shulchan Aruch Yoreh De’ah 251:3; although Rambam (Matnos Aniyim 7:13) uses the expression “the poor of his house” rather than “neighbors,” Chochmas Adam (145:1) implies that there is no dispute in the matter (“poor of the house” refers to neighbors), as Imrei Eish(YD 101) states explicitly. See Tana de’bei Eliyahu(chap. 27), where the order of preference is given as: parents, siblings, family members, neighbors, people on the road, other poor of Israel. ))  A “neighbor” is defined as somebody living in the same building; ((The apartments of a single residential building are considered one courtyard (chatzer), or one mavui (road or alley).))  for somebody living in a private house, a “neighbor” is defined as the inhabitants of the three nearest houses. ((See Derech Emunah on Rambam (ibid).))  Some authorities discuss (inconclusively) whether business partners take precedence over neighbors. ((Imrei Eish (no. 101); see also Chochmas Adam (145), who writes that he once saw (in an ancient volume whose identity he did not recollect) a “neighbor” defined as somebody who one is close with, rather than someone who necessarily lives next door; see Derech EmunahZion Halachah 233, who explains that this does not mean to annul the virtue of a regular geographical neighbor, but only to state that a close partner (and the like) might take preference over a regular neighbor.))
  10. The poor of the Land of Israel take precedence over the poor of other countries. ((Sifri, Devarim 116 (cited in Beis YosefYD 151); Shulchan AruchYoreh De’ah 251:3. Chasam Sofer (YD 233-4) adds that the poor of Jerusalem take precedence over the poor of the rest of the Land of Israel. As Shevet Halevi (5:135, sec. 5) explains, this refers only to inhabitants of the Old City, a small fraction of today’s wider Jerusalem.))

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