One of the important Misvot of Purim is Matanot La’ebyonim, which requires giving charity to at least two poor people. Does one fulfill his obligation by walking into a grocery store and paying off the debts owed by several poor customers? Is this considered Matanot La’ebyonim, or must one actually give something to a poor person?
Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Israel, 1910-1995) ruled that one cannot fulfill the obligation of Matanot La’ebyonim by paying off a poor person’s debt. Although this is certainly a worthy and generous charitable gesture, it does not fulfill the specific requirement of Matanot La’ebyonim on Purim, which requires giving poor people something new. Paying off a previous debt does not qualify as Matanot La’ebyonim, as the Misva is fulfilled only by giving something new to the needy recipients. By the same token, then, one does not fulfill the Misva by waiving a debt. If a person had lent money to a poor individual, he does not fulfill the obligation of Matanot La’ebyonim by informing him on Purim that he waives the debt, since the Misva requires giving him something new.
Rav Shlomo Zalman further ruled (in Halichot Shelomo) that when giving charity to the poor on Purim in fulfillment of this Misva, one may not impose any conditions. For example, one does not fulfill the Misva by giving a poor person money on condition that he use the funds to repay a debt. The recipient must have the right to use the money as he wishes, and if he is not given this right, the giver does not fulfill the Misva. Once the money has been given without any condition, the giver may certainly offer the recipient advice as to how to best use the funds, as long as the money was given unconditionally and the recipient is free to decide what to do with it.
A check may be used for the Misva of Matanot La’ebyonim. Even if Purim falls on Sunday (as it does this year, 5771), when the banks are closed and thus the check cannot be deposited or cashed, nevertheless, one fulfills the Misva by giving checks to two poor people. The reason, as Hacham Ovadia Yosef explains, is that the poor man can take the check to a store and the storeowner will then allow him to purchase on goods, seeing that he has a check.
One may fulfill the Misva of Matanot La’ebyonim by giving charity through a third party, such as by giving money to a Rabbi or Gabbai who then distributes the funds to people in need on Purim. Even though the recipient does not know who donated the money, and the donor does not know who received the money, the donor nevertheless fulfills his Misva in this fashion.
If a person gives money to a poor person and the recipient chooses to use the money to buy clothing or make other purchases that do not involve food products, the donor nevertheless fulfills the Misva. Even though Matanot La’ebyonim is intended primarily to enable the recipient to prepare a proper Purim feast, his decision how to use the money has no bearing on the donor’s fulfillment of the Misva. Once the donor gives the money without any conditions, he fulfills the Misva, regardless of what the recipient does with the funds.
Summary: One fulfills the Misva of Matanot La’ebyonim on Purim only by giving something new to two poor people; the Misva is not fulfilled by paying off their debt, or by waiving a debt. The Matanot La’ebyonim donation must be given unconditionally; the recipient must be allowed to do whatever he chooses with the money. It is acceptable to give a check for Matanot La’ebyonim, even if Purim falls on a day when the banks are closed. One may fulfill this Misva by giving money to a third party who then transfers the funds to people in need on Purim.