In the previous Halachot, we have explained the primary aspects of the Mitzvah of Tzedakah.
If one transgresses any prohibition in the Torah and does not repent, for instance, if one is aware of the prohibition of shaving one’s beard with a razor and he nevertheless does so or one who desecrates Shabbat although he is aware that this is forbidden, there is no Mitzvah to give such a person Tzedakah. However, if one who transgresses prohibitions which many people commonly transgress as a result of not be so aware about their severity, it is still a Mitzvah to provide such a person with Tzedakah if he requires it. For instance, if one occasionally transgresses the sin of speaking Lashon Hara (slander and gossip), which is a sin many people who are Torah observant unfortunately transgress, it is still a Mitzvah to donate Tzedakah to such an individual.
The verse in Yirmeya (Chapter 18) states regarding the wicked people of Anatot who caused Yirmeya Ha’Navi much anguish and about whom Yirmeya prayed to Hashem about, as follows: “Hashem, You know all of their plans against me to slay me; do not forgive their iniquity and do not blot out their sin from your sight. May they be made to stumble before You at the time of Your anger deal with them.” Our Sages explain in the Gemara (Baba Kama 16b and Baba Batra 9b) that “stumbling before You at the time of Your anger” refers to even a time when the wicked wish to give Tzedakah, Hashem shall make them stumble by sending them people who are not worthy so that they do not merit fulfilling the Mitzvah of Tzedakah.
This means that if one donates Tzedakah to someone who is not worthy of it, such as a wicked or unjust person, one has not fulfilled the Mitzvah of Tzedakah; one requires great privilege to merit performing the Mitzvah of Tzedakah which is a great Mitzvah. It is for this reason that Yirmeya Ha’Navi prayed to Hashem regarding these wicked people that even if they would like to give Tzedakah, let them not have this merit by giving their money to people who are unworthy of it.
Unfortunately, nowadays, a great portion of Tzedakah donated by the Jewish nation goes to unworthy places, for there are many unworthy individuals who request Tzedakah when they really do not require it. Similarly, there are those who collect Tzedakah money and take forty-nine percent of the money they have collected for themselves. Afterwards, they pay for their lodging expenses, their driver, and the like until there is almost nothing left for the Tzedakah cause people donated money towards. Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l has told us that those who collect Tzedakah and behave in this manner are all thieves and he added that although he was aware that many people behave this way, there are also many thieves out there.
It is well-known that until approximately two-hundred years ago, there was no properly organized Ashkenazi community in the holy city of Jerusalem. Only Sephardic Jews resided and studied Torah in Jerusalem at that time. In those days, the livelihood of the residents of Jerusalem depended on Tzedakah funds collected from generous Jews in the Diaspora which were used to allocate stipends for the residents of Jerusalem and Hebron who would sit and toil in Torah.
Originally though, there were both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jews who lived in Jerusalem and the Ashkenazi Jews would live off of the donations of the Ashkenazi communities in the Diaspora while the Sephardic Jews would live off of the donations of the Sephardic communities.
Hagaon Ya’abetz writes that originally, the Ashkenazi community existed in a proper manner, for the Ashkenazi communities abroad were extremely generous and donated tremendous amounts of money to the Tzedakah collectors for the needy people of Jerusalem. However, this changed when the messengers would take a “fee” of a certain percentage after which they would send the remaining amount with a messenger who would take this back to Israel and this individual would also take a “fee”. When they arrived in Israel and handed the money to the treasurer, he would also take a “fee” until there was almost nothing left for the Ashkenazi residents of Jerusalem who almost died of hunger at which point they all fled back to the Diaspora and this is how Jerusalem became barren of its Ashkenazi children.
This just comes to show how evil were the actions of the messengers who behaved this way. Although they were considered individuals who brought merit to the public by collecting Tzedakah funds for the needy, they were actually the biggest thieves. This unacceptable behavior is unfortunately rampant nowadays as well.
One of the greatest Chassidic leaders and Mekubalim of the generation has recounted the following terrible story to us and he heard this from a certain Torah scholar who heard it directly from the righteous Rabbi Aryeh Levine zt”l. Once, the aforementioned Torah scholar was discussing with Rabbi Aryeh Levine the great benefits that a deceased individual enjoys when he is eulogized after his passing. Rabbi Levine told him that he has decided to instruct his children not to eulogize him after his passing. This Torah scholar asked Rabbi Levine, “Why is it that you do not wish to be eulogized? The Mekubalim write that this brings about great benefit for the deceased?” Rabbi Levine replied, “Let me tell you what happened to me during the first World War and then you will understand.”
“At that time, there was great poverty rampant in Jerusalem. Many residents of Jerusalem simply died of hunger. I had a relative living in the United States so I sent him a letter requesting that he send me some money, for my family was suffering the throngs of hunger and had absolutely nothing to feed them. From the day I sent the letter, three months passed and I did not receive a response. In my heart, I was actually angry with my relative how he could act so cruelly with me. I explained to him how we were hungry for bread and I knew he was living well in America, so how could he ignore me?!
Several days later, I received a letter from this relative of mine which I had hoped contained some cash. Not only was there no money inside, the letter was completely critical of me for my lack of manners, for he claimed that he had sent me money several times already while I had not written him any letters thanking him or even acknowledging that I had received the money.
I immediately understood that something was going on so I went to the postal office and inquired if any letters had arrived for me. The clerk answered that several letters had arrived for me from the United States but the policy was that any envelopes containing cash arriving from abroad were immediately transferred to the city’s Tzedakah treasurer who would distribute the funds directly.
I immediately went to the Tzedakah collector and asked him if my letters had been given to him. He replied that several letters had arrived for Rabbi Aryeh Levine, however, he told me that he could not give them to me until he ascertained that there were no other Aryeh Levines residing in Jerusalem since if there was, these letters might be for him and not for me. I told him that I was sure there were no other Aryeh Levines in the city and even if there were, I requested that he give me the money immediately and I would hand him a promissory note stating that I would repay the entire sum because I was extremely in need of the money since I had nothing to feed my family. The treasurer though would not hear of it claiming that there was no place for beating the system and that order was order and I would have to wait for my share patiently.
Hours and days passed until my little son began to suffer so much from hunger that his stomach became enlarged and he passed away amid terrible suffering.
After a while once the war had already passed, I heard that this treasurer had passed away and I decided to attend his funeral. When I arrived at the funeral, I heard how he was being eulogized and people were exclaiming how dedicated he was to the Jewish people and how he spent his entire life involved in Tzedakah and kindness. At that moment, I promised myself that I would not allow anyone to eulogize me.”
Thus, one must be exceedingly careful during our times to give one’s Tzedakah money only to worthy paupers or Tzedakah treasurers who are righteous and straight. Thankfully, there are straight and honest Torah scholars available almost everywhere who can distribute Tzedakah funds to truly needy individuals. One must nonetheless take care not to, G-d-forbid, become lax regarding the Mitzvah of Tzedakah because of the concern that the people may not be genuinely needy. Indeed, one who clenches one’s hand shut and does not donate Tzedakah is tantamount to having worshipped idols as our Sages (Baba Batra 9b) derive from verses. One should just donate one’s Tzedakah and Ma’aser money to honest and upstanding organizations as well as well-known Torah institutions who clearly require these donations and are not being robbed, G-d-forbid, by people who desire money and other thieves.