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Shabbat Parashat Nitzavim| 5765
Ask the Rabbi
Question: A hospitalized patient who does not get visitors has repeatedly asked me to visit him. The hospital is so far away that travel costs are about $100 a visit. Can I use my ma’aser money (10% of one’s earnings, customarily set aside for charitable causes) to defray the costs?
Answer: We will begin with background on the uses of ma’aser before showing how this case differs from much of the classical, halachic discussions.
The Rama (Yoreh Deah 249:1), based on the Maharil, rules: “One should not use his ma’aser for matters of mitzva like candles for a beit knesset or other matters of mitzva; rather he should give it to the poor.” On the other hand, the Shach (249:3) and others bring the Maharam, who says that one can use ma’aser for a variety of mitzvot, including making a brit milah or wedding for someone else if he couldn’t/wouldn’t have done so otherwise.
Some Acharonim make distinctions that allow these rulings to coexist. The B’er Hagoleh (ad loc.) says that the Maharil applies only in a case where one wants to use the money for a mitzva he is obligated to do. Then there is a rule that one cannot “kill two obligations with one stone” (see Beitza 20a). However, he could use ma’aser to enable a mitzva, which is not his personal obligation, tobe performed. The Chatam Sofer (Shut Yoreh Deah 231) proves that the Maharil considered diverting money set aside for charity to help someone perform a mitzva a form of stealing from the poor. He makes a different distinction, though. If one began the practice of giving ma’aser by giving it only to the poor, then using it for mitzvot is like stealing. However, if he specified when adopting the proper practice of ma’aser that he will use it for other mitzvot,he may do so. The common practice is that people do use ma’aser for a variety of mitzvot, although it is better to state one’s intention clearly from the outset, as the Chatam Sofer says.
At first glance, the application of these rules is as follows. If you specifically are obligated to visit the sick person, then you cannot use ma’aser to fulfill your obligation, unless the expense goes beyond the amount one needs to pay for mitzvot (see Rama, Orach Chayim 656:1). We do not have enough information to try to determine the extent of your obligation.
However, there is an important rule that we have been taught by our teacher, Harav Zalman Nechmia Goldberg, shlita. The Torah requires one not only to take the time and make the effort to perform mitzvot bein adam lamakom (between man and his Maker) but also to pay significant amounts of money to do so. Regarding mitzvot towards one’s fellow man, one is required to make the effort, but he is not obligated to lose money to do so. This is derived from the mitzva of returning a lost item, where the gemara (BavaMetzia30a) derives that one does not have to lose money to return a lost item (see Shurat Hadin, vol. VII, pp.377-444). There are cases where we are obligated to spend money to help others, but that is included in the overarching mitzva of tzedaka. But tzedaka has its own rules, including ma’aser,that the average person is expected to give 10% of his earnings for various forms of the mitzva. Therefore, even if you are obligated to visit the person in question, the costs may be included in and taken from tzedaka.
The only question is as follows. If the patient can afford it, he should pay for the transportation costs, as the charity part of the mitzva is for those who cannot afford to pay for their necessities. What happens if he has the money to pay, but does not think of paying or does not want to do so? The gemara (Ketubot 67b) says that when one can support himself but refuses to do so, we are required to give him charity and worry later about getting back the money. So too here, if asking for money will upset the patient, ma’aser can be used to ensure that his physical and emotional needs are not compromised.
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