My student asked me two tsedoko questions that he had as a result of the present campaign in Gaza. One activity that this student became involved in was to help bury those killed in the massacre. He knew of one family that needed three thousand dollars to bury a family member. He e-mailed several people and without identifying the one who needed the funds he asked for a donation of three thousand dollars for this purpose. In response, one person sent a check of five thousand dollars and wrote that the money is for the burial costs. Not knowing what to do with the extra money he used it for other tsedoko purposes. After the fact, he asked if he did the correct thing.
This student also became involved in helping several soldiers with their needs. One of the people who knew about this activity heard also that soldiers needed helmets and he sent him helmets. The student checked with the soldiers that he was helping and they all said that the IDF had issued them proper helmets and they didn’t need his helmets. Since he didn’t need the helmets, he sold them and with the money he bought other things to help these soldiers. Again, he asks whether he acted properly.
The issue in both of his questions is what to do with money that was designated for a purpose that did not need the money. This is a general issue but the halacha depends on the specific situation and one must be very careful since there are many subtle differences.
One differentiation that is made is based upon who wants to re-purpose the money, whether the donor, the recipient, or the gabbai (the one who collected the money). Your student was a gabbai for the soldiers. It is similar to the situation that is discussed in the Gemara where each town had gabboim who took care of the needs of that town’s poor people. His situation is slightly different since he was self-appointed, whereas in the Gemara others appointed the town’s gabboim. An additional difference is that the town’s gabboim took care of all the poor of the town whereas your student only took upon himself to help several people who were in need. However, for these questions, these differences are insignificant. Therefore, to arrive at the answer we have to study the halacha of a gabbai who received superfluous funds.
The basic Gemara that deals with your issue is the Yerushalmi in Shekalim (2, 5). The Mishna rules that if a collection was made to raise money to free several captives and more money than necessary was received, the excess money is given to those captives, even though the money will not be used to free them from captivity. Similarly, if there was only one captive the excess goes to that captive to use however he sees fit. If more money than needed was collected to bury one person the excess goes to his heirs.
The Gemara following the Mishna discusses what to do with money that was collected for someone who was thought to be poor but, after the money was collected, it became known that the person was not poor. The Amora, Rav Yirmiyo, opined that from the Mishna we can deduce that the one, on whose behalf the money was collected, is entitled to the money because this is also excess money. However, his comparison was refuted by Rav Iddei who argued that one cannot deduce a ruling for this case from the Mishna since there is a big difference between the two cases.
Many commentaries (e.g., Korban Ho’eido, Sheyorei Korban) explain that the difference is that in the case of the Mishna the need was genuine and the donation was not given based on incorrect information. It was just that too much money was received. Therefore, the donation was given with the full intention and consent of the donor. However, in this case all the money was given based on incorrect information. Had the donor been aware of the correct information he would not have donated. Therefore, the money should be returned to the donor and only if this is not feasible, the money should be used for others who have a similar need. (In this case it should support other poor people.)
The consensus (Bartenuro in his commentary to this Mishna, the Rosh (res. 32, 6) and others) is that the halacha follows the opinion of Rav Iddei. According to the Gra (YD 253, 14) this is also the ruling of the SA.
The case that was discussed by the Rosh (whose decision is ruled by the SA and according to the Gra shows that the SA rules like Rav Iddei) concerned money that was collected to free a girl who was kidnapped by Moslems. However, before they could pay the ransom and free her, they found out that she had converted to Islam and had a child from her Moslem husband. The Rosh ruled that her family is not entitled to the money since it stands to reason that had people known the facts they would not have given any money.
The Chasam Sofer (res. YD 237) asks that it would seem that the opinion of Rav Yirmiyo should be correct since excess money that was received was also received in error. Why should there be a difference between the case where all the money was given in error and the case where only the excess was given in error?
He prefaces his answer with the basic principle that the basis for all these rulings is the Rabbis’ understanding of the desires of the donor. This is stated as well by the above-cited Rosh and stressed by the Gra.
He bases his answer on a ruling of Rav Chaim Cohen that is cited by the Ohr Zorua (Tsedoko 7) and the Mordechai (Kesubos 176) and is ruled by the SA (YD 253, 7). The question concerned money that was raised in order to marry off an orphan, who died before her wedding. Her heirs claimed that the money should go to them since it is extra money. But the donors said they should receive their money back.
Rav Chaim sided with the donors. He explained that when more money is collected than is needed, for example if they had collected more money than they needed to marry off the orphan, all the money that was collected is pooled and used to marry off the orphan. Since all the money was pooled, it is as if all the money was used to marry off the orphan. However, if the orphan died before her wedding, nothing was used to pay for her wedding and therefore the donors are entitled to have their money back.
The Chassam Sofer says that the rationale of Rav Chaim explains the authoritative opinion of Rav Iddei in the Yerushalmi: since the person was not poor, no money was used to support him and all the money should be returned.
The Imrei Yosher (1, 159) applied the rationale of Rav Chaim to a case where a local rabbi made a public appeal for funds on behalf of a poor family who needed a thousand gold coins to save their house from being taken away by their creditors. There was a massive response to the rabbi’s appeal and even after the gabboim realized their goal, people kept donating. The rabbi asked whether the poor family was entitled to the excess funds like the ruling of the Mishna.
The Imrei Yosher responded that this case is different from the Mishna since the gabboim were aware at the time that the funds were given that the excess funds were not needed by the poor family. Therefore, those extra funds are considered as if they were given in error and the poor family was not entitled to additional funds that came in after the goal was achieved.
The question was also posed to the Levushei Mordechai (YD 2, 111). The Levushei Mordechai also ruled that the family is not entitled to the extra funds. He begins by citing a dispute among the Rishonim (R. Chaim Cohen, mentioned previously, and the Ra’avyo) whether in every case that the donor’s decision is based on an error his donation should be returned to him. He says that the consensus is that whenever it is reasonable to believe that the donation was based on incorrect information, the donation must be returned to the donor if it is feasible. He further cites the ruling of the Mahari Ben Lev who ruled that the family of the one on whose behalf money was collected cannot even say kim li like those who rule that they are entitled to the entire donation. Thus, even if they already received the money, they must return it to the donors.
He also brings another part of the Mishna in Shekalim that was cited earlier, which rules that if a person on various occasions set aside money for the half shekel that he was obligated to give annually to the Beis Hamikdosh for sacrifices and afterwards discovered that he had set aside more than half a shekel, he can keep the extra money for himself. The reason he may keep the money and need not give it to the Beis Hamikdosh is because the amount to be given was fixed. The person may keep any money above half a shekel since it was set aside in error. Similarly, in the case at hand, since they needed a fixed amount, a thousand coins, the poor family was not entitled to the excess.
We have seen that where a donation was received in error the donation should be returned to the donor if that is possible. In both cases that were asked about, the donations were based on an error. In the case of the helmets the donor mistakenly thought these particular soldiers needed helmets. Since they did not, your student was not entitled to keep his donation and use it to buy other things. Therefore, your student should have asked the donor if he could sell them and give the proceeds to these soldiers.
Similarly, your student should have consulted the donor who gave five thousand dollars instead of the three thousand dollars needed to bury the victim. It may be that the donor made a mistake. This is very similar to the case mentioned in the Mishna that was cited by the Levushei Mordechai where the person set aside more money than necessary to buy sacrifices for the Beis Hamikdash.
Since it is still possible to consult the donors, your student should do so now and ask them if they mind what he did.