Parshas Terumah

Parshas Trumah:
A Penny (or Maybe More) for Your Thoughts


By: Rabbi Tzvi Price





As a rule, Jews give a lot of charity. Whether it be to yeshivos, chesed organizations, hospitals, political action committees, you name it, Jews can be counted on to reach deep into their pockets and give. This wonderful quality of generosity goes way back. In this week’s Parsha, we see that even at the earliest stages of their national development, the B’nei Yisroel were called upon to donate a significant portion of their wealth to build the Mishkan, a portable sanctuary made of the most expensive materials. It was the first “building campaign” in Jewish history, and it was a huge success. And since then, donating to a good cause has been part of the collective Jewish psyche.
While generously giving to charity may be a natural part of the
Jewish soul, knowing the laws of the Torah which govern that generosity must be learned. It’s not innate knowledge. And while the desire to give charity is certainly the essential ingredient, applying the Laws of Charity, Hilchos Tzedakah, to one’s charitable contributions is also necessary. It is the difference between giving and giving optimally. The Torah’s directives as to when, how, how much, and to whom to give ensure that one’s good and proper intentions translate into good and proper action.
Let’s give an example. Commonly, going to minyan provides many opportunities to give tzedakah. However, sometimes it can get rather confusing. In some shuls, there are often numerous charity collectors walking back and forth through the rows and isles asking for charity, all while you are trying to concentrate on davening.


Sometimes it can even happen that a certain collector will ask you for a donation and you will not be able to give him money because you are in the middle of a prayer which according to the halacha cannot not be interrupted by talking or other actions. However, in your mind, you clearly decided to give the person a few dollars. After coming to a place in your davening where interruptions are permitted, you look around for the collector to give him the money. Then you realize that you’re not sure which collector in the room is the right one since you didn’t get a good look at him while you were davening. Sometimes you know what he looks like, but he is nowhere to be seen, having already dashed off to collect at another minyan. Now what do you do? Presumably, most people would shrug their shoulders and forget about the whole thing. Let us see what Hilchos Tzedakah says about the issue.

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To answer this question we must understand the nature of a pledge to give charity. The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 6a) considers a promise to give tzedakah to be a full-fledged vow, a neder, and the laws of nederim in all their severity apply. Therefore, if someone makes an appeal in shul and you announce that you’ll give three hundred and sixty dollars, but you do not qualify your statement by saying that your words should not be construed as a vow (b’li neder), then you are obligated to keep your word as would be the case with any neder. Beis Din can even physically force you to pay (although it is highly unlikely that a present-day beis din would go that route).
The Talmud goes even further regarding vows to charity. It states that even a firm decision to donate though it had never been expressed verbally may at times obligate the person to carry through on the decision. In other words, an unspoken, mental vow is also a vow. Rashi in Shavuos 26b explains that when the B’nei Yisroel were donating the materials to build the Mishkan, a simple, unspoken decision to donate an item was considered to be a vow. The pasuk hints to this by stating, “…All people with generous hearts brought…” (Shemos 38,22). How could it be that all generous-hearted people without exception brought their donations? Was there not at least one generous-hearted person who had a change of heart and did not carry through on his initial feelings of generosity? The implication is that once that decision to be generous was made in the heart, the person became obligated to carry out that decision.

In Choshen Mishpat 212:8 the Mechaber cites a difference of opinion among the early authorities regarding the obligatory nature of an unspoken, mental vow. Some authorities see this halacha as a stringency that only applies to the very serious step of consecrating (in Hebrew, to consecrate: makdish, a consecrated item: hekdesh) an item to the Mishkan or Bais Hamikdash, the Holy Temple. According to this opinion, a mental vow which does not relate to hekdesh, (e.g., a mental vow to donate money to the poor) does not need to be kept. However, other authorities rule that mental vows must be kept even in cases that do not involve hekdesh. According to this opinion, even mental vows to donate money to the poor must be kept. The Rema states that normative halacha is to follow this stringent opinion.
Now let us return to our case of the money collector who can no longer be located. A simple application of the Rema’s ruling tells us that since clearly a mental vow was made, that vow must be kept. Shrugging one’s shoulders and forgetting about the whole thing would not be the correct course of action.
This leaves us in a quandary. How feasible is it for him to keep his vow, given the fact that the charity collector can no longer be found? Actually, it turns out to be quite feasible. True, the initial intention was to give the money to the specific charity collector who had asked for the donation. However, in order to fulfill the requirements of the vow, the money can be given to a diffferent charity.
The later authorities explain that a vow which has not been verbalized remains a simple vow to donate a few dollars to charity in general with no specific charity having any more legal right over the money than any other charity. However, once the vow is verbalized, it is as if the money has been handed over to the charity that had been singled out in the vow, and that specific charity now has legal rights over the money. Therefore, in our case, since the vow was not verbalized and had remained a mental vow, the collector to whom those few dollars had been originally intended does not have any legal claim to the money. The person who made the vow can fulfill his obligation by donating the few dollars to a different charity. However, it is important to note that with respect to fulfilling the requirements of a vow to give to a specific type of tzedakah, it is not necessarily true that all charities are considered by the Torah to be valid replacements for all other charities.

Hopefully, our application of Hilchos Tzedakah to this common scenario will serve to demonstrate the fact that one cannot give charity in accordance with the Torah without being cognizant of these halachos. There are a myriad of other examples that could be brought to further prove the point

(and there would also be some fascinating halachic discussion generated in the process). However, the basic point would not change. Giving charity in the correct way involves more than just being generous. It involves knowing the halachic issues that govern that giving. There’s plain giving and there’s giving according to the Torah, and the difference between the two is the difference between doing it and doing it right.

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