Ma’ot Chitim, giving money to poor people to buy food (literally wheat) for use on Pesach, is one of the less well-known obligations of Pesach; however, its origins and development throughout the Halachic Mesorah are fascinating. This article will attempt to provide a brief outline of the history, origin, and scope of Ma’ot Chitim. The Mishnah in Bava Batra teaches that, unless one buys a house, one must live twelve months in a city in order to be considered a resident. Buying a house shows one’s intent to live permanently in the given city, so the status of a resident is immediately conferred. The Yerushalmi notes that if one stays in a city for 30 days, he is considered a resident for purposes of the community Tzedakah, and if one stays in a city for twelve months, he is considered a resident for purposes of “Pasim VeZimi’ot” - a term Rabbi Yosi interprets to mean Ma’ot Chitim. The twelve-month time period is first shortened to thirty days in the Semak, who records that the wait was shortened because the expulsions, pogroms, and other facets of daily life as a Jew in Europe, made it virtually impossible to live for twelve months in a single place. As for whether the time period applies to the givers of the funds or to the collectors of the charity, the Aruch HaShulchan interestingly writes that the time periods and the rule of intent to settle permanently apply to the poor people. However, nearly every other authority operates under the assumption that the time periods discussed in the Yerushalmi are for those who are to donate the money. The Maharil (Sefer Minhagim) writes that thirty days prior to Pesach, people begin to examine the Halachot of Pesach in order to ensure that they will not violate the Issur of Chametz, an Issur Karet. He writes that at that time, people begin to clean for Pesach, but “BeRosh Kol Davar,” one must buy wheat for the poor. This phrase could be interpreted to mean either “most importantly” or “before doing anything else.” The latter interpretation makes more sense; a poor person would most likely appreciate knowing where his Pesach food is coming from earlier rather than later. This would imply that one is supposed to give Ma’ot Chitim thirty days before Pesach, in contrast to the presumed view of the other early authorities, who apparently hold that the Ma’ot Chitim merely need to be distributed in time for Pesach. In terms of the extent of the obligation, the Or Zarua writes that it is a Minhag (and not a Mitzvah) for communities to levy a Mas, a tax, on their constituents to collect wheat to give to the poor for Pesach. The Sha’ar HaTziyun questions the use of the word Minhag, for Minhag usually connotes a law not found in the Gemara, and Ma’ot Chitim are explicitly mentioned in the Yerushalmi. He answers that the Or Zarua knew that the Yerushalmi mandates the collection of the money; the Minhag is to distribute the funds in the form of wheat, in order to be “Mekareiv Hanayata,” “bring the usage closer.” The Vilna Ga’on believed that Ma’ot Chitim are, in fact, a Torah-level obligation, since the Torah writes “Matzot Yei’acheil,” “Matzot shall be eaten,” in the imperative - everyone is obligated in ensuring that all Jews eat Matzot on Pesach. As for whether Ma’ot Chitim is a Mas, as the Or Zaru’a wrote, or a form of Tzedakah, the Ba’al HaTanya writes that both exist simultaneously - a Mas is placed on everyone to give Tzedakah. This is the basis for a debate of whether Ma’ot Chitim is deductible from Ma’aser. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach rules that since there is no mechanism to collect Mas anymore, it is deductible. However, Rav Kanievsky rules based on this ruling of the Ba’al HaTanya that there is still a Mas component, and thus Ma’ot Chitim is not deductible from Ma’aser. The final question is why an obligation to provide the meals of the poor only exists in full on Pesach. This can be answered by explaining that Pesach is the formative holiday of the Jewish people, and thus all Jews, rich and poor, need to be included. Additionally, one can answer that Pesach is a Z’man Cheirut, time of freedom, and we should exhibit extra sensitivity to those who are still in various forms of bondage, financial in this case. Lastly, one can make the argument that Pesach is especially hard on poor people, for they must dispose of all of their Chametz and must restock completely in a short span of time.*
*I am grateful to Rabbi Daniel Fridman for giving over the shiur upon which this article is based.