Rabbi Meir Orlean
Aharon was visiting from abroad for the summer and traveling alone cross-country. He dozed off on the train one Friday afternoon and realized upon awakening that someone had walked off with his travel bag! In it were his wallet, money and credit cards, his phone, documents and clothes.
Aharon got off the train and approached the first Jewish person he stumbled upon. “I’m visiting from another country,” he said in broken English. “I lost my bag. With my wallet and my phone. I have no money. I need $100 to buy food and travel to where I’m staying for Shabbos. Is there a tzedakah fund here?”
“The gabbai tzedakah is Mr. Rabinowitz,” said the man. “He lives on the next block.”
The man took Aharon to Mr. Rabinowitz. “I’m traveling around the States; my bag with my wallet and phone was stolen,” Aharon told him. “I need $100 tzedakah for food and travel until I can get money.”
“You can use my phone to call your family,” said Mr. Rabinowitz. “Maybe they can help.”
“It’s already Shabbos where they live,” said Aharon. “I can’t speak with them until Sunday. I have no family here.”
“I see,” said Mr. Rabinowitz. “Do you want to borrow money or receive tzedakah?”
“I don’t know if I’ll be able to pay back the money,” said Aharon. “I don’t have any checks that I can give you, but I might be able to mail you money when I get some next week.”
“I could give you money as tzedakah, but I don’t know if it’s fair to the poor people of the town,” said Mr. Rabinowitz. “Let me ask my Rabbi Dayan.”
“A trekker lost his knapsack with his wallet and phone, and needs money,” said Mr. Rabinowitz. “Can I give him tzedakah from the shul’s fund?”
“The Mishnah (Pe’ah 5:4) addresses a similar case,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “A self-sufficient person was traveling and had no more money with him. He is allowed to take tzedakah – leket, shikchah, pe’ah and ma’aser ani.”
“Must he repay it when he returns home?” asked Mr. Rabinowitz.
“Rav Eliezer requires him to repay, whereas according to the Sages he does not have to, since he was poor at that time,” answered Rabbi Dayan. “Halachah is in accordance with the Sages; he is like a poor person who later became rich. Nonetheless, Rambam writes in his commentary to the Mishnah that it is righteous (middas chassidus) to repay. Similarly, the Shulchan Aruch writes that he is ‘not required’ to pay, which could indicate that it is nevertheless proper to do so” (Y.D. 253:4; Tosafos Rabi Akiva Eiger, Pe’ah 5:4)
“Whom should he repay?” asked Mr. Rabinowitz.
“Tiferes Yisrael writes that, according to Rav Eliezer, he can repay the poor of his own town, and does not have to repay the place where he received,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “However, Tosafos Anshei Shem writes that, according to Rav Eliezer, he must repay the city from which he took. Even he concedes, though, that for the middas chassidus of the Sages he can repay charity wherever he wants.”
“How much can he have?” asked Mr. Rabinowitz.
“A truly poor person can receive a large amount of charity at once, even beyond his needs,” replied Rabbi Dayan. “However, in this case, the traveler should only take what he needs for his sustenance” (Tzedakah U’mishpat 2:15).
“What if he can borrow?” asked Mr. Rabinowitz.
“Some write that if the traveler can borrow, he is not allowed to accept tzedakah,” said Rabbi Dayan. “In that case, he is not considered poor at that time” (Chut Hameshulash 1:17; Aruch Hashulchan, Y.D. 253:11).
“Thus,” concluded Rabbi Dayan, “if Aharon can take a loan, he should do so. If not, he may take tzedakah, and it is a middas chassidus to repay later to the charity of his choice. If he takes with the understanding that he will repay, then he is required to do so.”