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Pesach Guide – Wheat for the Needy: Halachos of Maos Chittin

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As the month of Nissan approaches, and as we move ever deeper into the ‘thirty days before the festival’ of Pesach, we turn our attention this week to a timely halachah: the giving of kimcha de’pischa, or maos chittin.

All of us have heard the expression maos chittin, which heralds the yearly charity appeal in advance of the Pesach festival. However, many are unaware of the fact that the collection of maos chittin is not a simple charity collection like all others, but involves an actual obligation, with a range of laws and definitions.

This week we will discuss the different halachic aspects involved in the mitzvah of giving maos chittin.

The Custom of Maos Chittin

The Darchei Moshe (Orach Chaim 429) cites from the Or Zarua (Pesachim 255), who sets out the halachah of maos chittin: “The custom of communities is to levy a tax on the community for the purpose of purchasing wheat, and to distribute it for Pesach to the town’s poor.” 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 Pesach.”

The source of the custom, as the Or Zarua writes, is from a teaching of the Jerusalem Talmud (Bava Basra 1:4): “Rabbi Yosi bar Bon stated: For the ‘Pesach wheat’ [one must live in the town for] twelve months, both for receiving and for giving.” Clearly, the matter of maos chittin is thus an ancient custom, which was already extant in Talmudic times.

In the wake of the ruling of Rema, this halachah is ruled by virtually all poskim, who mention further that this is the simple custom. In the words of the Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav (529:5): “It is the simple custom among all of Israel that every congregation levies a tax on its townspeople, for the purpose of wheat for Pesach. The money is used for purchasing wheat, and distributing it among the town’s poor.”

Custom or Obligation?

The sources mentioned above raise a question concerning the basic nature of maos chittin. As the Beis David (Rav Yosef David b. Shabti of Salonika, no. 136) notes, the ruling of the Rema mentions a custom to give maos chittin, whereas the Jerusalem Talmud, which is the source of the halachah, implies that making the donation is an obligation, which is coerced upon members of the community. How can the obligation implied by the Yerushalmi be reconciled with the custom mentioned by the Rema?[1]

The Beis David answers this question by stating that since the idea is not found in the Babylonian Talmud [and major rishonim such as the Rambam and the Rosh do not mention it], we may derive that the strict halachah does not follow the Yerushalmi in this matter. Yet, 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 of maos chittin.

The Mishnah Berurah (Shaar Hatzion 429:7), who also raises the question, offers a 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 give the poor wheat, brining the final product of matzah one step closer.

These resolutions, however, are somewhat strained in consideration of the wording of the Or Zarua, who quotes the Yerushalmi and directly derives the custom to collect maos chittin. How can this direct derivation be understood?

Tax or Charity?

We can suggest a further resolution after presenting an additional seeming contradiction in the rulings of the poskim. 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 demonstrate. Yet on the other hand, the Shulchan Aruch Ha-Rav himself (ibid.) concludes: “Even Torah scholars, who are exempt from taxes, are obligated to participate, because it is a contribution to charity.”[2]

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 would seem that the law is indeed founded on principles of tzedakah: Just as throughout the year, those with the financial means are responsible for providing the basic needs of those who lack the means for providing them. However, in order that the poor should have sufficient funding for Pesach, and in keeping with the special character of Pesach, 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. Out of an appreciation of the general obligation of charity, communities adopted the custom of levying taxes on members, to ensure that the Pesach needs of the poor are met.

In addition to this, the custom of giving maos chittin broadens the assistance offered the poor beyond the regular boundaries of charity (see below), and it is possible that the custom of levying taxes was established on account of this extension. The custom ensures 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 Pesach?

The Mishnah Berurah (Shaar Hatzion 429:10) questions why the halachah of maos chittin was enacted specifically for the festival of Pesach. The expenses of other festival times, such as Sukkos and Rosh Hashanah, are far from slight, yet the concept of maos chittin is unique to Pesach.[3] Why is this so?

The Mishnah Berurah suggests two responses to this question. One is that the enactment was made specifically for Pesach 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 that the celebration of other festivals.

As the Mishnah Berurah writes, “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 Pesach, 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 Pesach is special in that bread, the staple food of a person’s diet during the year, is prohibited. Because matzah is hard to purchase, which can lead to the poor people’s going hungry, or even to their transgression of the prohibition (Heaven forbid), it was enacted that they should be specially provided for.

Thus, according to the first rationale suggested by the Mishnah Berurah, the special nature of the Pesach celebration requires the unique collection of charity. According to the second explanation, it is not the celebration that necessitates the collection, but rather concern for what might arise due to the prohibition of chametz on Pesach.

Giving Beyond Tzedakah

Based on the first rationale mentioned by the Mishnah Berurah, which highlights the special nature of the Pesach celebration, we will be 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 aside the allocation of maos chittin from regular charity collections. For regular charity, only those poor who lack the means for fourteen meals may benefit from the town’s charity fund (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 253:1). According to the Mekor Chaim, this limitation does not apply to maos chittin (this rulingis quoted by Biur Halachah 429).

This halachah is well explained in the light of the above mentioned rationale. Because the celebrations of Pesach require a special degree of ‘freedom,’ we lower the standard by which a poor person qualifies for receiving donations. Even those who would not qualify for regular charity money qualify for maos chittin. Beyond the minimal expenses, we wish every Jew to experience the unique joy of freedom.

The Question of Shemurah Matzah

Another possible ramification of the same rationale is the question of shemurah matzah.

In the laws of Chanukah, the Mishnah Berurah writes (Biur Halachah 671, citing from the Chemed Moshe) that although local charity funds distribute candles to the poor for Chanukah, the poor should be given no more than the bare minimum—one candle per day. Those with the means can and should practice the mehadrin custom of lighting several candles every day; those who lack the means should not perform hiddurim at the expense of the community fund.

However, with regard to maos chittin, authorities do not apply the same principle. The consumption of shemurah matzah, meaning matzah that has been guarded from becoming wet from the time of harvesting the wheat, 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 considerably 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 ‘tighter’ handout of Chanukah, and the more ‘generous’ distribution of Pesach, indicating that the two rulings are not in conflict dispute with one another, but rather two halachos that somehow go together.

The discrepancy between Chanukah and Pesach can be explained by the special status of maos chittin, which derives from the unique nature of the Pesach celebration. A person used to stringent standards for matzah (shemurah matzah), and who is forced to eat matzah of a lesser standard due to insufficient means, will be unable to feel the elation of the Pesach festival. On Chanukah, however, the regular principles of tzedakah apply, by which a person is not provided with more than the bare minimum.

An alternative explanation would be to distinguish between the mehadrin practice of Chanukah, which is accepted as a hiddur, and the chumros of Pesach, which are seen as a concern for chametz. With regard to Pesach, hiddurim in matzos take on significance beyond those of other laws, and for this reason we are prepared to pay them out of the maos chittin fund.

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 Pesach tax should go towards wheat for the needy. In those times, it was 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, it is rare to find people (rich or poor) who 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 the uplifting atmosphere of Pesach, this would not be true for the higher living standards of our generation. Therefore, it has become customary to use maos chittin for all needs of the Pesach festival (Halichos Shlomo, Nissan, note 90; see also Shaarei Teshuva 429:3, who writes that leftover maos chittin should be used for other Pesach expenses).

As we find in the Shulchan Aruch (442:2), adorning the table with fine dishes is part of the cheirus (freedom) of the Pesach celebration, and the same applies to other expressions of grandeur and finesse. Therefore, it is fitting to make use of maos chittin for all Pesach requirements, including clothing, fine dishes, and so on.

Maos Chittin from Maaser Money

As we have noted above, the collection of maos chittin was enacted by means of a tax. As an obligatory payment, it would seemingly be prohibited to use one’s maaser moneys for donations of maos chittin, for maaser money may not be used in the payment of 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.

Today, however, Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach  (Halichos Shlomo, Nissan 2) ruled that one can certainly use maaser money for one contribution of maos chittin. This is because the power of the kehillah (community) has waned, and the payment of maos chittin is no longer forced upon the individual member. Furthermore, there is no longer any set sum that a person must contribute, so that one can certainly make one’s contributions from maaser money.

The Obligation (Today) of Maos Chittin

In previous generations, when the collection of maos chittin was made by means of a mandatory tax, clear criteria defined which residents were obligated in making the donation, and which were not. The Yerushalmi clarifies that only those residents who had lived in the town for at least twelve months were obligated in paying the tax, and similarly, only those 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 had occupied the town for only thirty days were 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 in paying the tax (Chok Yaakov 429:5; Mishnah Berurah 5).

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 from 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 Pesach 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 would apply to each individual according to his personal means. Even today, each person should contribute, according to his means, towards allowing the poor to share in the unique ‘freedom’ of the Pesach celebrations.[4]

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 Pesach] 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” stands the enactment of maos chittin, which ensures that the poor will be able to cater for the special needs of the Pesach festival. If we would give the same attention to the poor as we give our Pesach cleaning, they would 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.”

[1] A possible answer to this question is that the concept of maos chittin originated as a custom, but, like many community customs, was established over time as an obligation. However, the Beis David and others understood that the quotation of the Yerushalmi indicates an actual obligation, rather than a simple custom.

[2] The source of the ruling is a statement of Sheyarei Keneses Hagedolah (529:2), who writes that the custom in Constantinople is that even Torah scholars contribute their share. This halachah is quoted by the Eliyah Rabbah (529:5), and by the Mishnah Berurah (529:6), though the latter mentions the stance of Peri Megadim (Eshel Avraham 1) who disputes the ruling, and suggests that the custom applies to Constantinople alone.

[3] In fact, 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.

[4] Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita was asked by a somebody who had already fulfilled his obligations of giving whether he had to given maos chittin. Rav Chaim responded that maos chittin constitutes a separate obligation, and that even though he had fulfilled his obligations vis-à-vis maaser, he remained obligated to participate in giving maos chittin.

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