Evoking Divine Blessing for Livelihood in Pre-Passover Giving
The holiday commemorating the exodus from Egypt is one of Judaism's most beautiful yet most expensive holidays. During the weeklong celebration, Jews are forbidden from eating any leavened bread and in its place consume matza.
The purchase of matza (shemurah) alone for a family can easily cost $100. Taking all into account, the financial burden that the holiday places on a family is many times the cost of a regular week.
According the Jerusalem Talmud (Tractate Bab Batra 1:4), it was a practice from ancient times to make a pre-Passover collection to assist the poor in purchasing staples. This collection is known as Maos Hittim (money for wheat) or Kimcha D’Pischa (Passover flour).
Throughout Jewish history “the residents of Israel precede the residents of the diaspora (Shulchan Aruch YD 251)” in alms for the poor. This is based on the verse in Deuteronomy Chap. 15:7: “If there be among you a needy man, one of your brothers, within any of your gates, in your land which the Lord your G-d gives you, don’t harden your heart, nor shut your hand from your needy brother….”
In the above verse, the Torah explicitly singles out the poor of Land of Israel: “in your land which the Lord your G-d gives you.”
Several verses later, the Torah promises immense reward for the above giving: “…because of this thing [giving to the poor of Israel], the Lord your G-d will bestow blessing upon you, in all of your deeds and in your livelihood (Deut. 15:10).”
Thus, it became the practice for both Jews and Gentiles alike who sought to merit the blessing of the G-d of Israel in their deeds and livelihood to contribute money to the poor of Israel.
Jewish law puts a strange twist on the Maos Hittim custom: it wasn’t exactly a custom, rather an absolute imperative of every citizen who dwelt in the town for at least 12 months. In other words, Judaism doesn’t see helping the poor as a recommendation, but rather as a communal obligation and Divine command which is enforced.
How was giving charity possibly enforced?
In ancient times, representatives of the local court would assess the wealth of each Jewish family and dictate how much each gives. If a family refused, the court would send “police” to confiscate valuables, sell them and give the proceeds to the poor.
Coercing acts of charity seem to defeat its whole purpose. It is supposed to emanate from the goodness of one’s heart. Why does Judaism turn a good deed into law?
The medieval commentator Maharal from Prague (in his Torah commentary on Hukat) answers that the Torah didn’t want to wait for the goodness of man to be aroused to provide for the poor. Rather the Torah forces upon the community provisions for the poor and thereby arouses the goodness in man.
When one experiences the goodness of giving through coercion, chances are good that his compassion will be aroused, and he will learn to give on his own.
Finally, the Mishna Berura (429:Seif Katan 6) explains the degree of harshness when one evades his responsibility to help the poor before Passover: “the poor anxiously await to see these alms, and when they remain uncared for and hungry… it is as though one murdered them.”