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Shabbat Parashat Shelach| 5763
Ask the Rabbi
Question: As a gabbai who deals with various tzedakah collections, a few questions have arisen regarding changes in the recipient.
1. May one who intended to give to a certain institution but put the money in the wrong box take out the money and switch it?
2. Money was collected for a certain need (i.e. Maot Chittim for Russian Jews) but was not distributed on time. Can it be used for other needs or do you have to find a way to return it to the donors?
3. What happens if an institution put out a tzedakah box but never came to pick it up?
Answer: Indeed a gabbai tzedakah must get extra sachar for all the complications that arise. We’ll deal with each question separately, although there are some unifying concepts.
1. There are two elements to the binding nature of a donation. One involves an explicit or implicit neder (oath) to give tzedakah. The other involves acquisition (kinyan) of the donation by or on behalf of the recipient(s). Each element has rules as to when it is binding and when a mistake renders the donation void. The Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh Deah 258:6) does rule that one cannot back out of a donation, even with sh’eila (the tzedakah equivalent of hatarat nedarim), once it reaches the hands of the gabbai. There is a complex discussion as to whether and when a tzedakah box is considered like the hands of the gabbai (see discussion in Tzedakah U’mishpat 8:(25)). However, if the money was placed in the box because of a full-fledged mistake, the rules of kinyan b’taut (acquisition based on a mistake) apply, and the money may be removed and put in the intended place without problem (ibid.). Tzedakah is not like hekdesh, and its money does not have intrinsic kedusha (Rama, Yoreh Deah 259:1). Therefore, it doesn’t matter if one takes back the coins or bills he put in or different ones.
2. Assuming that we’re talking about the same group of needy people or that the group was never clearly defined, there is no problem giving the money for similar needs. Although we find that money collected for a Purim seudah should not be switched to other purposes (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chayim 694:2), this halacha is interpreted by most poskim as an exception, not the rule. Certainly, when the money will be used by the same pool of poor people, under similar circumstances, the gabbai may make the changes as needed (see Nikdash Bitzdakah 342). If the need totally disappears, the money should be given to other recipients, preferably with similar needs (see Tzedaka U’mishpat, ibid.; Tzitz Eliezer 16:29).
3. When receiving tzedakah boxes from people and institutions, it is best to stipulate that you are planning to give the money to them specifically only if they come to receive the money within a set amount of time. Even if you did not make such a stipulation, but you cannot track down the recipient, you, as gabbai, are not required to watch the money indefinitely and may transfer it to other charities of that type. If you put your own money in without a stipulation, you should preferably do sh’eila (ibid.).
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