In this week’s parsha, the Torah commands us to open our hands and hearts to the poor, telling us: “If there will be among you a needy person, from one of your brothers in one of your cities in your land that Hashem is giving you, do not harden your heart and shut your hand against your needy brother. Rather, you must open your hand to him, and lend him sufficient for his needs, which he is lacking.”
Indeed, giving tzedakah is one of the traits for which Jews throughout the generations have gone above and beyond. This innate midah of tzedakah remained part of the collective conscience of the Jewish people, and even those who strayed from shemiras hamitzvos still maintain the wonderful quality of tzedakah. Just go to any hospital or museum, and you’ll notice that much of the funding for these institutions came from Jewish philanthropists.
One of the remarkable things about tzedakah is the willingness – from great gedolim to the simplest of Jews – to invest much time and energy into giving tzedakah and lightning the load of their brethren.
The Shirt Off His Back
“The rebbetzin of the Alter of Novardok,” writes Rav Chaim Zeitchik, “would relate that every erev Shabbos, after her husband would return from the mikvah, he was always missing his shirt.
“When she would ask him what had happened, he would give various explanations. Once, it was this, and another time it was that… The bottom line was that he would give his shirt to a destitute person. He literally gave the shirt off his back to the poor every week.”
Rav Chaim Brisker’s Tzedakah
Rav Chaim Brisker is perhaps best known for his unique derech halimud or his unusual yiras chet, but equally incredible was his devotion to tzedakah and chesed. Rav Yechezkel Abramsky, a close talmid, related, “I was once in Rav Chaim’s home when two wealthy residents of Brisk came by and handed him a sealed envelope.
“What was in the envelope? That week, the two had celebrated the wedding of their children and Rav Chaim had been mesader kiddushin. They came to give him a donation in honor of his efforts, as was customary in those days, whereby rabbonim would receive support as payment for siddur kiddushin. While they were there, a poor person entered and asked Rav Chaim for a donation. Without thinking twice and without even looking to see how much money there was inside, Rav Chaim gave the poor person the sealed envelope. The two wealthy individuals observed all of this, mouths open wide!”
Why Rav Chaim’s Salary Was Given to His Wife
Rav Abramsky continued, “Even when a regular beggar would come to Rav Chaim for a donation, he would always give whatever he had. Sometimes it was a gold coin, but when he didn’t have money, it didn’t stop the rov from giving either. He would borrow money and give tzedakah that way! Rav Chaim was once asked, ‘You have so many debts from giving tzedakah – how will you pay them back?’ Rav Chaim answered, ‘There are plenty of wealthy Jews in Brisk who can afford to support their poor fellow inhabitants of Brisk.’
“Indeed, it wasn’t uncommon for Rav Chaim’s own family to not have enough money to buy bread. When the heads of the community of Brisk realized that the rov’s family was starving due to Rav Chaim’s seemingly endless tzedakah giving, they decided that from then on, they would give the rov’s salary to the rebbetzin…”
“My Rebbetzin Collects Money at Weddings”
The phenomenal levels of tzedakah and chesed attained by Rav Naftoli Tzvi Halberstam, the Bobover Rebbe, attested to the import he attached to helping others – this, to him, was ruchnius.
Before he was rebbe, during a period when Bobover mosdos were millions of dollars in debt, a formerly wealthy man – who was not a Bobover chossid – came crying that he had lost money in a bad deal, and the people to whom he owed massive amounts were giving him no respite. The rebbe told the person that he would call him back shortly.
The man related, “I never thought I would hear from him again. When you ask someone for money and he says, ‘I’ll call you back,’ you know what that usually means… Forty-eight hours later, there was a knock on my door. A Jew stood there with an envelope containing $40,000 in cash. Astonished, I called the rebbe, explaining that I had only been expecting at most $5,000. How could the rebbe give so much? The rebbe replied, ‘It is fine. My rebbetzin collects money at weddings, and the funds are designed specifically for cases like these.’”
The man felt that it would be appropriate for him to thank the rebbetzin too, and he called her to do so. But the rebbetzin was so astonished that she blurted out, “What?! I don’t collect at weddings! We ourselves are penniless, and I just received a notice in the mail that our electricity is about to be shut off pending payment!” The man guiltily called the rebbe back, but Rav Naftoli Tzvi immediately replied, “I have been taught that personal considerations should play no part in preventing one Yid from helping another Yid, if he can.”
Another time, a chossid got himself into a messy situation, and was left with a choice of coming up with $100,000 immediately or facing serious ramifications. The rebbe could not bear to see the man’s tzoros, but he did not possess such a massive sum of money. Instead, he mortgaged his own house on 15th Avenue in order to extricate the man from his predicament.
For decades, Rabbi Chaim Michoel Gutterman has been the indefatigable director of Shuvu, the network of Torah schools in Eretz Yisroel established to serve the population that emigrated from the former Soviet Union, which now serves other communities as well.
Rav Gutterman once had plans to implement important programs in the network that would have a transformative impact on the students and their families. Since the campaign was dependent on being able to raise an astronomical amount of money, Rabbi Gutterman went to the Pnei Menachem of Ger to ask for a brocha that he should succeed in the undertaking and meet its financial obligations, and the rebbe gave him a warm, heartfelt brocha.
After Rabbi Gutterman left, the rebbe sent a gabbai to catch up and bring him back. When he returned, the rebbe said, “I want to be a partner in such an important undertaking, by giving from my own personal money as well.”
Rabbi Gutterman added, “The amazing thing about the rebbe’s brocha was that it was fulfilled almost immediately. An hour after I left his room, my phone rang. On the line was Mr. Zev Wolfson z”l, calling about a totally different matter. Once I had him on the phone, I told him about the new program that I had just discussed with the rebbe, and he covered the entire shortfall on the spot!”
The Rebbe’s Check to the Anti-Zionist Ideologue
The Pnei Menachem’s sensitivity to giving in a way that the receiver would feel good about accepting the money displayed his brilliance in understanding the human mindset. At times, he sent money to people ideologically opposed to the State of Israel, who would therefore decline any benefit from government funds.
In 1994, he sent a check to a talmid chochom from one of those communities, who was in a very precarious financial position. In a note accompanying the check, the rebbe wrote, “May Hashem help that your financial pressure should ease and you should no longer have to seek any assistance.” He added in brackets, “The money I am sending you is from my own private funds, and does not come from the government. You can use it without worry…”
Tzedakah and Shidduchim: Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky’s Segulah
On one of Rav Yaakov Kamenetzky’s trips to Eretz Yisroel, he met an old friend. During their conversation, the friend related that he would soon be marrying off his daughter but unfortunately, even after making every effort to procure funds and borrowing as much as he could, he was still missing the last $5,000 needed to close on the apartment for the young couple. Rav Yaakov commiserated and filed the information in his memory.
A few days after Rav Yaakov returned to Monsey, he was visited by a well-known philanthropist, who related that he had a daughter of marriageable age, but all the shidduchim suggested for her had not worked out for some reason. The man was exasperated, and told Rav Yaakov that he had tried everything and did not know what else he should do.
Rav Yaakov replied that although he could not think of a fitting shidduch, perhaps if he would help another individual marry off his daughter, it would serve as a segulah for him to be able to marry off his own. Rav Yaakov then told the philanthropist about his friend in Eretz Yisroel, who was missing $5,000 of the sum needed to marry off his daughter. “Perhaps,” Rav Yaakov said, “if you give that sum of money to him, you will have a zechus.”
The wealthy man agreed to write a check from his tzedakah account, but Rav Yaakov told him that if he really wanted the segulah to work, it was better to give the money from his personal account, not from funds set aside for tzedakah.
Within three weeks of the donation, the girl was engaged.
When Third Class Was First Class!
Rav Yitzchok Meir of Kapytshnitz would visit his chassidim all over Galicia, usually traveling by train. He would travel in the second-class compartment, because the cheaper third class generally contained lower elements of society who were often drunk and violent. When his son, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua, would travel, his father would also give him money for a ticket in second class.
What did Rav Avrohom Yehoshua do? He would buy a third-class ticket, despite the fact that it would be uncomfortable to travel among the uncouth individuals. The extra money, he would give to tzedakahh. On one of Rav Avrohom Yehoshua’s trips, one of his mechutanim once came to meet him at the train station in Galicia after a trip to Warsaw. The second he saw the mechutan, Rav Avrohom Yehoshua’s eyes lit up. “I am so glad you are here! Please distribute this money (the difference between the second-class and third-class tickets) to tzedakah before Shabbos.”
The Source of the Tzedakah of Rav Yeshayale of Kerestir
During the First World War, a large segment of Galician Jewry was displaced and fled to Hungary. Among them was the Koloshitzer Rebbe, Rav Chuna Halberstam, a descendant of the Divrei Chaim, who found refuge at the bais medrash of Rav Yeshayale of Kerestir. Rav Chuna was known for his tremendous devotion to the mitzvah of tzedakah, yet could not believe the level of tzedakah that he witnessed in Kerestir!
Hundreds of Jews would come daily to Rav Yeshayale’s bais medrash, where he gave them all abundant food to eat. In addition, he distributed astronomical sums of money to the poor. But Rav Chuna never saw wealthy people giving Rav Yeshayale money, and always wondered, Where did Rav Shayale get the money?
One day, Rav Chuna noticed an obviously wealthy person, dressed in expensive clothing, going in to Rav Shayala and spending a long time there. Finally, Rav Chuna thought, I found a big supporter who is giving him money. When the man left, Rav Shayala passed by Rav Chuna and, with a twinkle in his eye, said, “He also came to take money, not to give…”
When Rav Chuna returned to Galicia, he related, “Rav Shayala has the same source of siyatta dishmaya as my grandfather, the Divrei Chaim, who, whenever he needed money for tzedakah, somehow obtained it!”
“I Should Sit in a Warm Home While People Are Shivering?!”
One of the ways that the community of Brisk supported their rov was by providing him with firewood to heat the house in the freezing Polish winters. Once, when the community leaders were reviewing the expenses, they realized that Rav Chaim was using far more firewood than was necessary to heat his home. They looked into the matter and realized that Rav Chaim was giving away most of his firewood to the poor.
The community leaders decided to lock the woodshed so that he would not be able to keep on distributing wood to the poor. When Rav Chaim saw this, he became extremely upset. With a raised voice, he berated the community leaders. “Is this yashrus?! I should sit in a warm, cozy home while people in the city are shivering from cold?!”
How to Make Tzedakah Giving Easy
Every moment was important to the Imrei Emes of Ger. Even the waste of a second was an irreplaceable loss to him. So how did he find the time to reply to the scores of telegrams and letters arriving daily? Upon doctor’s orders, the Imrei Emes would take a short walk every day, accompanied either by his attendant, Rabbi Bunim Lebel, or his son-in-law, Rav Yitzchok Meir Alter. They would pull out one letter after the other, read the question to the rebbe and wait to hear his answer – an answer said quickly, concisely, without wasting a word. Rav Alter or Reb Lebel would write a shorthanded letter or word to remind themselves of the reply, which they would later write out fully and send to the petitioner.
Women would also send questions to the rebbe, which were given to the rebbetzin. When she brought the rebbe his lunch every afternoon, she would stop for a minute, read the questions, and receive the rebbe’s reply.
One day, the rebbetzin asked a fascinating question. A woman had written, “My husband makes minimal parnossah with great difficulty. Nevertheless, he is very careful to separate maaser from his earnings. That maaser, however, comes at the expense of being able to buy shoes and clothing for the children. Is my husband obligated to give maaser in such circumstances?” The woman made sure to note that her husband had given her full permission to ask the question, telling her that that as a chossid, he did not have the temerity to personally inquire of the rebbe.
The rebbe answered, “There are a number of opinions on whether maaser is a Torah-mandated commandment or not. It is unclear. One thing, however, is certain – I feel this with regard to myself as well – when one gives maaser, one gives with an open heart. When a person knows that this money is going to tzedakah and is not really his, it is much easier to give tzedakah with joy. In this way, a person will certainly fulfill the mitzvah d’oraisa of giving tzedakah, as the posuk (Devarim 15:10) says, ‘Let your heart not feel bad when you give [to the poor].’”
The rebbetzin realized that the answer was uncharacteristically long, understanding that it was meant as a lesson for her on how to approach tzedakah giving. But she remained with a question – “What should I answer the woman? She wants to know what to do.” The rebbe replied, “Write that there is no actual obligation, but there is a segulah that when one gives tzedakah with an open, happy heart, with a true desire to give, he fulfills the posuk of ‘Let your heart not feel bad when you give [to the poor].’ The posuk continues ‘because of this [giving without feeling bad] Hashem will bless you in all your deeds and in every undertaking.’”
Rav Avrohom Yehoshua Heschel, the Kapytshnitzer Rebbe, once visited chassidim in Galicia. In Tarnipol, many came to seek his blessing and left him a pidyon (money customarily given to rebbes upon seeking a blessing). Throughout the day, a large sum gathered and the rebbe had not found one person to whom he could distribute it.
At the end of the day, a couple who needed to marry off a child came to the rebbe, asking him to help with the expenses. The rebbe took the entire pile of money and gave it to them. When the chassidim saw this, they were amazed – the entire pile?! The rebbe, noting their astonishment, replied, “One cannot be ‘matzmiach yeshuos,’ cause salvation to sprout, until one is ‘zorea tzedakos,’ plants tzedakah. Tzedakah is the fertilizer that causes yeshuos to sprout forth.”
Rav Chaim’s Cow
When Rav Chaim was a young talmid in Volozhin, he was supported by his wife’s grandfather, the Netziv, rosh yeshiva of Volozhin. Part of that support was a cow, whose milk the family would drink every day. One day, the local blacksmith came to Rav Chaim and bemoaned his plight. He was destitute and his wife was sick. She required milk for her health, but he didn’t have even a drop of milk in the house. Rav Chaim felt bad for him, and told him, “Go to the barn and take my cow.”
A few hours later, the rebbetzin came to Rav Chaim, “A tragedy has struck – our cow has been stolen! It is gone, disappeared from the barn!” Rav Chaim didn’t say a word in response. After a bit of detective work, the family found out that the blacksmith had their animal, and accused him of being the thief. Rav Chaim was upset that the man should be wrongly accused, and admitted that he gave the cow away. The family went to the blacksmith, but he didn’t want to return it. “The rov gave it to me to keep,” he rightfully claimed. They negotiated with him and eventually bought it back for 10 rubles.
From then on, the Netziv spoke to Rav Chaim in halachic terms, which didn’t give him room to misunderstand. He said, “The cow belongs to me! I own it as a kinyan haguf. The only ownership you have is kinyan peiros, the benefit of the milk that it produces.”
Every Step Counts
The Pnei Menachem of Ger had a unique custom of trying to give money to a person collecting for tzedakah before that person actually asked for a donation. It was a special sight to see the speed and the alacrity with which he removed money from his pocket and placed it in the hands of a collector before the person even had a chance to ask or stick out his hand.
During Mincha, when the rebbe davened together with the public, he often noticed a poor person collecting tzedakah on the outskirts of the surrounding “wall” of chassidim observing him. As soon as he saw such a person, he would run over and place a substantial sum in his hand. One of the gabbaim once urged the collector to head towards the rebbe before the rebbe could reach him so the rebbe would not have to walk so far, but the rebbe would not hear of it – “Do you want to detract from my mitzvah? One receives schar for every single step!”
“I Take Maaser, I Don’t Give Maaser”
The Kapytshnitzer Rebbe once told one of his children, “I take maaser, I don’t give maaser!” A Jew once entered the Kapytshnitzer shul at about 11:00 p.m. When the rebbe heard noise coming from the bais medrash, he opened his door, and smilingly greeted the guest, much as he would a long lost relative. He ran over and exclaimed, “Reb Yid! I beg you to do me a great favor! Not one person came to me both today and tonight to ask me for tzedakah and I simply cannot go to sleep until I give tzedakah.” The rebbe took a number of envelopes and gave them to the man, saying, “I have filled these envelopes with tzedakah funds and I need to mail them. In this way, I will fulfill my obligation to give tzedakah. Can you please do me a favor and put these in the mailbox a few blocks away?”
Accessing the Bounty Bestowed Upon the Poor
When Rav Mechel of Zlotchov was a yungerman, before he even met the Baal Shem Tov, his piety and selfless nature were evident. After his wedding, he learned for a number of years while being supported by his father-in-law. At one point, he told his wife, “You know, your father gave us 2,000 rubles as dowry, but I’m actually jealous of other people who don’t have money put away.”
“Why?” his wife asked.
“Because every day, these people are zoche to get a new hashpaah from Hashem! Since we have funds in the bank, He doesn’t have to send us a new hashpaah, because the money is already there. I wish I could have that degree of closeness to Hashem where I would feel that new hashpaah every day!”
Rav Mechel then proposed, “Perhaps we could donate all of our money to tzedakah, and in that way, we can access Hashem’s greatness and actually witness how He bestows His brocha on us every single day.”
His wife agreed, and he gave everything to the poor, including his clothes – all to become a pauper.