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Collecting Tzedakah in Halacha – Part I


The coming articles will focus on tzedakah organizations. We will take a look at the historic evolution that these uniquely Jewish financial institutions have undergone. What is the essence of the communal obligation to set up a tzedakah fund? How did the fund operate in Chazal’s times and in later generations? Today, communities have local tzedakah funds. What is the optimal method for operating them? Can a private person establish a second fund if it will negatively affect donations to the original community fund? Who oversees distribution and solicitation? How many people must oversee the fund? Do family members suffice?


In this week’s parasha we read about production of the bigdei kahuna – uniforms of “honor and glory”, worn by kohanim when serving in the Mishkan. The materials used for them were very expensive: “They shall take the gold, the blue, purple, and crimson wool, and the linen…” (Shemos 28:5). The Gemara (8b) learns from the plural form in this pasuk [“they”] that a minimum of two people must be appointed to monitor public finances. Both Betzalel and Oholiav had to be present when they collected the donations of gold and wool (Rabbenu Avraham ben HaRambam, shut 110; Nimukei Yosef, Bave Basre 8b; Prisha, YD 251:1).

How should a public financial organization operate? Can one person serve in key positions alone?

Solicitating Alone

The Gemara (Bave Basre 8a) writes that no position involving public money can be filled by less than two people. When a position involves deciding how to spend public money, at least two people must be involved in making the decisions. Therefore, when collecting tzedakah monies for a public fund, at least two people must be present.

When they collected the materials for building the Mishkan, both Betzalel and Oholiav had to be present. The Gemara clarifies this is in no way linked to trustworthiness – even a single person can be trusted to run a public fund properly. Even Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi hired two bothers to run a tzedakah fund, even though blood relatives are seen, in many other aspects of halacha as one person. The reason two people must be hired for the job is because it contains an element of authority – a tzedakah solicitor has the authority to collect tzedakah by force from one who refuses to donate his share.

The Gemara asks: If a person cannot be forced to give tzedakah, how are communal solicitors permitted to exhibit force in collecting tzedakah? The Gemara answers that while a regular person, although obligated to give tzedakah, cannot be forced to give, a wealthy individual can be forced to donate, and it is a mitzva to force him to donate.

In order to clarify the issue, we will outline the different funds that existed in early times and the halachos pertaining every position involved in running them. Then we will compare past to present and point out the relevant issues today.

Historic Tzedakah Funds

Chazal instituted that every city with Jews must have two tzedakah funds:

One, called tamchui,  was a food distribution. This was a large platter in which the gabbai collected ready-to-eat items from community members to feed hungry travelers and beggars. The gabbai had the authority to determine how much food every homeowner had to give this fund, based on the present needs, while taking into account the resident’s financial situation. Every city resident was obligated to contribute to this fund.

The foods were then distributed to both residents and passersby who didn’t have food for the day.

This daily distribution took place alongside a regular collection of a second fund, which was called Kupa Shel Tzedakah. Every resident donated to this fund once a week, on Erev Shabbos. Donations to this fund were either money, or dry goods such as wheat. The content of the fund was distributed to the city poor according to their needs, so they had money for the coming week. Money in this fund went only to the local poor people, for whom the local residents were responsible.

The importance of these funds can be deduced from the Gemara (Sanhedrin 17b) that rules that a talmid chacham may not live in a city that lacks a tzedakah gabbai. This appears in the Rambam as the halacha (De’os 4:23).


The Rambam (Matnos Ani’yim 9:3) writes: “We have never seen (800 years ago) nor heard of a Jewish community that does not have a charity fund. A tamchui, by contrast, exists in some communities, but not in others. The common practice is that the trustees of the fund circulate among the community and collect money every day, dividing the proceeds between the poor every Friday.”

This halacha also appears in the Shulchan Aruch (YD 256:1).

The Chochmas Adam (147:4) writes that nowadays (200 hundred years ago), whereas we don’t have an established tzedakah fund as in early times, every community must appoint a tzedakah overseer to ensure that the needs of the poor are met and to collect the necessary funds.

The Aruch Hashulchan (YD 256:1) describes the situation in his times (120 years ago): “And now, we have no fund, nor do we have a tamchui, because due to the stresses of parnassah and increase in the number of poor, it is impossible. But every single Jewish person gives tzedakah… And the poor beggars have increased to the thousands, and every person gives a slice of bread or coin, and in every city there are multiple cases for which two people go around collecting donations every week. And although there is an increase in tzedakah in our times, these crumbs are not enough, and we heard that some cities instituted funds which run slowly.”

Today, tzedakah gabbais don’t have the legal authority to enforce donations as they did in Chazal’s times, but communities do establish their own local tzedakah fund and caretakers make an effort to collect for the local poor, either via standing bank order or solicitation from locals and other Jews around the globe. A standing bank order is preferable in its steadiness, allowing the gabbai to inform the recipient of a regular stipend.

In most cases, the fund cannot fulfill its obligation in full accordance with halacha, which requires providing every poor person the full amount he needs for rehabilitation and finding proper employment, or to help the ill to recuperate without financial worries. However, the better established the local tzedakah fund is, the better it is able to care for local tzedakah cases.

Independent Tzedakah Fund

The Chochmas Adam (147:24) writes that wherever a local tzedakah fund exists, independent solicitors may not demand donations. They can, however, convince people to donate their tzedakah through them, even if it effectively reduces donations to the local fund.

The Chochmas Adam adds that during the famed Vilna Scandal (presumably involving the local rabbinate) he collected tzedakah himself. The local fund trustees tried to prevent him, but the Vilna Gaon told him to ignore them, and not even share the details of his recipients. The Gra even asked for some of the funds so he could support poor people he knew, who, in his opinion, were not receiving adequate support.

Board of Trustees

The Gemara (Bave Basre 8b) writes: “Money for the charity fund is collected by two people and distributed by three people. It is collected by two people because one does not appoint an authority over the community composed of fewer than two people. And it is distributed by three people, like the number of judges needed in cases of monetary law, since those who distribute decide who receives money and who does not, as well as how much each person receives. Food for the charity platter is collected by three people and distributed by three people.” How to allocate tzedakah funds must be decided by a committee of at least three.

The Yerushalmi (Pe’ah 8:6) asks why three suffice for distributing tzedakah funds, if more for one and less for another could spell death for a poor person, and a beis din of 23 is necessary for adjudicating capital cases? The Yerushalmi answers that indeed, it would have been proper to have a 23-member court for ruling in these matters, to allow for saving as many souls as possible, but we are concerned that until the 23 members convene the poor person may die of starvation. Therefore, Chazal settled for a three-member court in this case. This ruling illustrates the weighty responsibility a tzedakah gabbai carries in his decision how much to give every case. He is responsible to see that every poor person has enough to eat, and every sick person receives the proper medical attention he needs.

Collecting, though, is different – for a tzedakah fund, at least two people must go together, while for food distribution – three must work together.

Two are necessary for collecting funds because collection is a position of authority that allows for, at times, forceful extraction of money – when a wealthy person refuses to donate the amount community leaders demand of him. For food collection, Rashi explains (Bave Basra 8b) a third person is necessary because food is distributed and collected simultaneously. Chazal didn’t want the food to go bad or distribution to be disrupted. Therefore, food is always collected by a group of three.

Most Rishonim (Rif, Bave Basre 8b; Rambam Matnos Aniym 9:1; Tosefos Bave Basre 8b; Yad Rama, Bave Basre 8b; Rosh, Bave Basre 1:29) though, see this differently: in their opinion, since the amount every person must donate is determined by the community board, the collectors, who do not have the authority to determine how much people must donate, can go collecting in pairs. But the food collection, with its dynamic nature – the number of poor travelers cannot be determined ahead of time — requires three people since determining the amount each person must give is in their hands.

The Shulchan Aruch (YD 256:3) follows the majority opinion of Rishonim, but the Gra (ibid) and Chasam Sofer follow Rashi’s opinion.


The Gemara (Bave Basre 8b) writes that a single person can serve as the treasurer of a tzedakah fund alone. Multiple persons are necessary only for collecting and distributing because a position of authority is never given to a single person.



The Tur (YD 256), Drisha (7), and Shach (5-6) rule that two brothers can be selected to collect monies for a public tzedakah fund because although they are halachically seen as one, for serving in a public position they are seen as two people.

The Shulchan Aruch (YD 256:3) only mentions that two brothers may serve as treasurers, leading the Ohr Hachaim (Rishon Letzion) and Aruch Hashulchan (13) to deduce that unlike the Tur, the Dhulchan Aruch maintains that two brothers should not serve as collectors, and can only serve as treasurers.

Tzedakah Collection Nowadays

Many poskim (Meiri, Bave Basre 8b; Radvaz, Matnos Aniyim 9:6; Beis Yosef, YD 256:3; Rishon Letzion; Chasam Sofer) write that today, since we lack the authority to force donors to donate the sum they are obligated to give, a single person may be chosen to solicit. However, this ruling does not appear in the Shulchan Aruch.

The Radvaz (Matnos Aniyim 9:6) and Chasam Sofer (Kovetz Teshuvos 83) add that when the solicitor comes with a prepared list of people and the sums they have to donate, he is no more than a messenger and may collect alone. Furthermore: the Chasam Sofer permits for the collector to be a relative of the person deciding the levies. The only requirement the collector must meet is trustworthiness.

Betzel Hachochma (II chapter 36) and Shevet Hakehati (VI 339) write that nowadays the custom is to rely upon the lenient opinions, because we don’t have authority to forcefully extract monies from citizens who refuse to donate. Therefore, even a single collector can go collecting tzedakah funds for a private fund.

Private Tzedakah Funds

All the above refers to choosing collectors for a public tzedakah fund. However, when the monies in a fund belong to a single person, he can certainly appoint one person to run his private charity fund and give him the right to make all the decisions regarding the fund. There is a question in case an individual donated a sum of money to open a private tzedakah fund for a specific community and gave authority to two trustees but subsequently one of the trustees died or gave up the position. The issue is that the community demands that the appointment of a successor but the remaining trustee claims that he was hired to do the job by the donor, and the community has no right to hire another worker.

The Rama (YD 258:5) rules that the single trustee has the authority to continue running the fund alone and the community does not have the authority to hire another trustee to oversee his job. But the Taz (105) disagrees with him in light of the Rashba’s remark that nowadays the trustworthy people are few and far between. To prove it, he notes that many a legal guardian used up the orphans monies they were entrusted with safekeeping. Therefore, where two trustees were assigned originally, the community has the right to demand that another trustee be appointed to replace the one who died or left.

Next week’s article will cover other halachos involving tzedakah fund managers – when they can be trusted and when they are obligated to issue reports. We will complete the issue with contemporary halachos regarding tzedakah monies and other public funds such as group funds, class funds, union monies, and others.

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