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Purim Charity: Halachos of Matanos La-Evyonim

The verses in Megillas Esther include the rabbinic enactments of Purim (9:22): “The days wherein the Jews had rest from their enemies, and the month which was turned for them from sorrow to gladness, and from mourning into festival; they should make them days of feasting and gladness, and of sending portions one to another, and gifts to the poor.”

In total, there are four mitzvos to perform on Purim: Reading the Megillah, partaking in the Purim feast, sending mishloach manos, and giving gifts to the poor. The mitzvah of Reading the Megillah is derived from the words nizkarim venaasim (Esther 9:28). How are these days remembered? – by reading the Megillah. (Megillah 2b)

The other three mitzvos, and the manner of their performance, are derived from the above mentioned verse in the book of Esther (9:22). Sending “portions one to the other” implies two portions to one person, and “gifts to the poor” (in the plural) implies two gifts to two poor people (Megillah 7a).

In this article we will focus on one of the four mitzvos: matanos la-evyonim, gifts to the poor.

Definition of the Mitzvah

The mitzvah of “sending portions one to the other”, or mishloach manos, is closely related to the Purim feast. Rather than spending all our efforts on our own feast, the mitzvah obligates us to share with others by sending items of food to one another. Is this also the purpose of matanos la-evyonim, meanning to ensure that even the poor should have sufficient food and means for the Purim feast?

The verse in the Megillah mentions donations of ‘portions’ to friends and ‘gifts’ to the poor. Based on the change in terminology, Terumas Hadeshen (111) writes that the mitzvah of mishloach manos requires donation of food items (portions), whereas matanos la-evyonim can be fulfilled by any act of giving. This implies that the purpose of matanos la-evyonim is not specifically for the Purim feast.

Likewise, the Rambam rules (Megillah 2:15-16) that for mishloach manos a person must give items of food, and for matanos la-evyonim one may give “a gift—money, or a dish, or food.” The idea is expounded on by the Ritva, who writes (Megillah 7a) that matanos la-evyonim is not a regular gift of charity, but rather a facet of the day’s joy.  He ends by stating that “the poor person can do with them [the donations] as he sees fit.”

Yet, although the basic purpose of matanos la-evyonim is to augment joy among the people, the Peri Megadim (as cited in Mishnah Berurah 694:2) writes that it is preferable to give gifts of food or money, so that the poor person will be able to enjoy the gifts on the day of Purim. However, it remains possible to fulfill the mitzvah by donating other items, such as clothing or goods.

When Must the Matanos be given?

The Mishnah (Megillah 4b) records the different days on which the Megillah is read, which include even the eleventh, twelfth, or thirteenth of Adar (for small towns where villagers congregated on Mondays and Thursdays). The Gemara states that even for those who read the Megillah early, the Purim feast and the mitzvah of mishloach manos are performed on the fourteenth of Adar. However, the mitzvah of matanos la-evyonim is fulfilled on the early date, whenever the Megillah is read. The reason for this is that the reading of the Megillah causes the poor to anticipate the alms of Purim.

According to the above halachah, we can easily discern the difference between the mitzvos of matanos la-evyonim and mishloach manos.. The mitzvah of mishloach manos is related to the Purim feast, and must therefore be performed on the same day as the feast itself. The mitzvah of matanos la-evyonim, however, can be performed early, for it relates to the joy of the poor, and not specifically to the feast of Purim.

In locales where the Megillah is read on the regular day of Purim (14 or 15 Adar), several authorities write that the mitzvah of matanos la-evyonim must be performed on the day of Purim itself—meaning that the gifts must be given to the poor on the 14th or 15th of Adar (Rema 695:4; Magen Avraham 13). The Vilna Gaon explains that the word ‘days’ of the verse refers to all the mitzvos of Purim, implying that the day (and not the night) of Purim is the time in which the mitzvah must be performed. Note that this does not mean that one cannot give the matanos to an envoy, or to the gabbai, before the day of Purim, but only that the gifts must be handed to the poor on the day of Purim itself.

Yet, we find in the Magen Avraham (694:1) that one who gives matanos to the poor before the day of Purim risks not fulfilling the mitzvah, for it is possible that the pauper will consume the gift before Purim. This implies that in principle, it is possible to fulfill the mitzvah by donating before Purim, provided that the receiver does not consume the gift before the arrival of the day. Indeed, some write that the gifts may be given early, in order to allow the pauper adequate time for preparation (Peri Megadim, 694, Eishel Avraham 1), and Machatzis Hashekel writes that the custom is to give the gifts early, adding that we rely on the fact that some matanos will also be given on the day of Purim itself.

However, other authorities, as noted, state that the matanos may not be given early, and this ruling is expressed by the Erech Shai (694), as well as others. In deference to the stringent opinions, the custom is that the charity collectors only give the money to the poor on the day of Purim itself.

Who is Obligated in the Mitzvah?

The Shulachan Aruch writes (695:4) that both men and women are obligated in giving matanos la-evyonim (Shulchan Aruch 695:4; see Peri Chadash, who writes that women are not obligated). This statement implies that even married women are obligated. However, the Magen Avraham (694:13) writes (concerning mishloach manos) that “I have not seen people being careful in this matter. It is possible that the ruling applies only to a widow, and not to a married woman, for whom the husband sends to several people.” The Magen Avraham concludes that one should be stringent, and a married woman should send her ‘own’ manos, rather than relying on her husband’s sending on her behalf.

The Aruch Hashulchan (695:18) likewise writes that a woman is obligated in all the mitzvos of Purim, stating further that even if she is married, she is not exempted by her husband’s giving. However, he writes elsewhere (694:2) that “a man and his wife fulfill their mitzvah with a single gift, for they are as a single body.” It is possible to resolve the seeming contradiction by distinguishing between a husband who gives on behalf of his wife, and informs her of this (by which the wife performs the mitzvah), and a husband who gives without specific intention for his wife (with which a woman does not perform the mitzvah).

Authorities add that even if a married woman is obligated to give matanos of her own, her husband can give the matanos on her behalf, and there is no need for the wife to actually take prior possession of the money. The reason for this is that with regard to sacrifices, we find that a man can bring his wife’s sacrifices (see Rambam, Shegagos 10:6). We thus derive that the same principle applies to gifts to the poor (see Iggeres Ha-Purim, Chap. 4, quoting from Rav Nissim Karelitz; Shaarei Yemei Ha-Purim p. 130).

Concerning children over the age of bar-mitzvah, who are supported by their father, the Magen Avraham (694:12) writes that there is no obligation of giving matanos—because children have no possessions of their own. He adds that nevertheless, one should be stringent in the matter, and instruct children to give. A similar principle is found in the Leket Yosher (customs of the Terumas Hadeshen), who records that the Terumas Hadeshen would train his children in sending mishloach manos, estimating that the children were “at most fifteen years old.” Unlike a married woman, a person should transfer possession of the money to his children, so that they can perform the mitzvah with their own money.

For children under Bar-Mitzvah, the Peri Megadim (695, Eishel Avraham 14) writes that there is an obligation of training one’s young children in performing the mitzvah. However, Eishel Avraham (Butshatch, 695) writes that there is no such obligation, and Rav Chaim Kanievsky is quoted as stating that “it is not customary to train children in this matter.”

Although some exempt children from the obligation of matanos for lack of private funds, this does not mean that poverty is a cause for exemption for grown adults. Even a poor person is obligated in giving matanos la-evyonim (Bach and Taz, 694:1). The reason is that the mitzvah is not the standard mitzvah of charity, but a special mitzvah of Purim. Although Peri Chadash disputes this ruling, the consensus of authorities is that the poor are obligated in the mitzvah, and this is also the ruling given by Mishnah Berurah.

To Whom Should Matanos be given?

The word evyon implies somebody who is worse off even than an ani. Therefore, it is correct to seek out the neediest of paupers, and to give one’s matanos to the truly deprived (Mekor Chaim 694:3).

However, the mitzvah of giving matanos is fulfilled even by giving to the ‘regular poor’ (see Aruch Hashulchan 694:30). A regular poor person is defined as one who does not have sufficient means for his (and his family’s) sustenance (see Rashba, 1:872). The Chazon Ish is thus quoted as ruling that matanos can be given to anyone whose financial situation is unstable, and Rav Moshe Feinstein is quoted as ruling that one who loses his income, yet owns property (in which he lives), can also be given matanos, for he is not obligated to sell his house (Nitei Gavriel, Purim, Chap. 67, note 2). The Aruch Hashulchan (694:4) adds that the mitzvah is not fulfilled by giving customary gifts to rabbis, teachers, etc., even if the rabbi is poor, for the custom obliges the community to give these gifts. The gift is therefore seen as ‘mandatory,’ and it cannot not be considered as matanos la-evyonim.

Another interesting issue concerns whether couple, or a poor family with children, regarded as two or several evyonim, or as one? The Aruch Hashulchan (694:2) writes that they are considered as a single evyon, a stance also found in Hisorerus Teshuva (3:47). However, a number of authorities see a poor group (couple, or household) as several individual evyonim (see Binyan Olam, Orach Chaim 36; Kaf Hachaim 694:10). According to this stance, which is also adopted by the Maharsha (Megillah 7a) and the Chasam Sofer (Derashos, Vol. 1, p. 140), a person can fulfill his obligation by giving two matanos to a father and son or to a husband and wife.

A final point to mention is that a person keeping Purim on the fourteenth of Adar should give his matanos to an evyon keeping Purim on the same day—on the fourteenth, and not on the fifteenth of Adar. The mitzvah is to bring joy on the day of Purim, and the days should therefore coincide (see Chayei Moshe, p. 202, quoting from a number of authorities).

Matanos La-Evyonim and Tzedakah

Aside from the particular halachos of matanos la-evyonim, many general laws of charity also apply to the giving of Purim donations to the poor. Therefore, in questions of which poor take precedence, the order would be determined by the regular order of distributing charity money: Torah scholars, local poor, the poor of Israel, and so on, are the categories that have the first claim to receive the money.

Yet, unlike general charity donation, in distributing matanos la-evyonim one does not investigate the worthiness of the poor person asking for charity, but rather gives him without checking credentials: “anyone who stretches out his hand is given” (see Shulchan Aruch 694:3).

The Yaaros Devash (2:9) adds that it is especially virtuous to give one’s matanos to Torah scholars. As Chazal state, the words “the Jews had light” refer to the light of Torah, and it would be hypocritical “if we were to sing the praises of Moshe and Mordechai, yet not learn from their deeds.”

Giving the basic amount of matanos la-evyonim is an obligation, and therefore the mitzvah may not be fulfilled by donating maaser money. However, money that is given beyond the basic obligation may be donated out of maaser money (Magen Avraham 694:1).

How Much Must One Give?

A frequently asked question relates to the amount one must give for matanos ma-evyonim. The Ritva writes that one must give the equivalent sum of one perutah, and the giving of two perutos to two evyonim would thus be sufficient to fulfill the mitzvah. This opinion is henceforth ruled by a number of authorities (Mekor Chaim 695:2; Eishel Avraham 694; Mishnah Berurah 694:2), and this is the basic halachah.

After the recent rise in the price of silver, today’s perutah is worth a little less than 15 Agurot, or less than five cents. On account of its small worth, some have questioned whether this donation suffices to fulfill the mitzvah, whose purpose is to bring joy to the poor.

Some authorities write that one should give a donation that would suffice for the purchase of a small meal of three beitzim (Zera Yaakov, cited in Shaarei Teshuvah 694), and some translate this into modern terms as a light meal of a roll and a drink. Although he writes that the basic halachah follows the ruling Ritva, Pekudas Elazar (694) writes that after seeing the ruling of Zera Yaakov, he began to follow it himself.

Another opinion requires the donation to be a “significant gift,” which will bring joy to the poor recipient. This opinion is stated by Maharsha (Megillah 7a), and has been cited in the name of Rav Elyashiv shlita.

The Virtue of the Mitzvah

We conclude with the words of the Rambam (Megillah 2:17): “It is better for a person to give more matanos la-evyonim than to spend more money on the Purim feast and on mishloach manos, for there is no joy greater or more glorious than bringing joy to the hearts of the poor, orphans, and proselytes, and one who does so is compared to the Shechinah, of whom it is written, “to raise the spirit of the low, and enliven the heart of the downtrodden.”

In the merit of the performance of the mitzvah, together with the other mitzvos of Purim, may we see days of joy and redemption, and know no more anguish and strife—speedily and in our days.

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  1. how is it possible to say that matanos l’evyonim is a roll and a drink, it’s one mana either roll or drink.
    you also did not explain what a large gft to make thepoor person happy is, it would seem very subjective.

    1. The idea of the roll and drink is not that one has to give a roll and a drink, but that one must give the equivalent value of a roll and a drink, so that the poor person will be able to purchase a reasonable meal with the matanah he received. Concerning making the poor person happy, the idea is not that we have to evaluate the individual needs and character of each evyon, but rather that one must give a gift that would generally (in an objective sense) make an evyon happy. If the particular evyon remains unhappy, this would not impact the fulfilment of the mitvzah.

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