The Shabbos before Passover is traditionally known as Shabbos HaGadol (lit. “The Great Sabbath”). One of the many reasons given for this special title is that on this Shabbos, it is customary for the Gadol (“The Great One”, i.e. the rabbi and leader of the community, not Wayne Gretzky!) to deliver a lengthy and intricate drashah (sermon) to his congregation expounding upon the basic laws and major themes of Passover.
The famed and beloved Chassidic Rebbe, Rabbi Naftali Tzvi Horowitz of Ropshitz (1760-1827) was known for his profound wisdom and sharp sense of humor, among other things. One year, when many in his community in Galicia were particularly hard-hit financially and were suffering from a lack of food and basic necessities for Passover, he delivered a Shabbos HaGadol Drashah with a clever twist and a powerful lesson that would not soon be forgotten by all those in attendance.
In his sermon, Reb Naftali Ropshitzer raised an apparent contradiction in the rulings of the Ramba”m (an acronym for Maimonides’s Hebrew name: Rabbi Moshe ben Maimon) in his Mishneh Torah (Code of Jewish Law):
"In the Laws of Chametz and Matzah (7:7), Ramba”m rules that everyone - even the very poor - must drink the Four Cups of wine at the Passover Seder.
“On the other hand, he also rules in the Laws of Theft (1:2) that anyone stealing anything worth even a penny is guilty of violating a negative commandment of the Torah.
"We are now faced with a serious contradiction. The poor are obligated to drink the Four Cups this Passover as per the ruling of the Ramba”m, yet they have no money with which to purchase wine. Nor can they steal it since the Ramba”m rules that this is against the Torah. How can we reconcile these two seemingly contradictory laws of the Ramba”m?
“My friends”, said Reb Naftali with a grin, as he turned to the wealthier members of his congregation, “I think that only you can answer this contradiction. You, who have the means to do so, should give ma’os chittim (lit. “money for wheat” – see below) generously, and in this way the contradiction between the two Ramba”ms will be resolved."
[It is told that when Reb Naftali Ropshitzer returned home after the drashah, his Rebbetzin asked him if he had succeeded in his attempt to gain funds for those in need. To which he humorously responded, “I have succeeded halfway… the poor have agreed to accept donations!”]
The ma’os chittim that Reb Naftali Ropshitzer referenced in his sermon is a long-standing Jewish tradition before the Passover holiday to contribute generously towards funds that ensure that everyone who is in need has the necessary provisions for the holiday—food, matzah, wine, festive clothing, etc. This special Passover fund, originally intended to provide the poor with matzah, is known as ma'os chittim, "the wheat fund," or kimcha d'pischa, "Passover flour."
The Rabbis explain that the tradition to give ma’os chittim before Passover is not sourced in the requirement to give tzedakah (charity) to the poor, which is a year-round obligation. Rather, it is unique to Passover. Since on the night of Passover we celebrate the exodus from Egypt and our freedom from slavery, we must make sure that all our brothers and sisters have what they need for the Passover Seder as well, for how we can experience true freedom when some of our fellow Jews are starving?
The Ramba”m echoes this very Jewish idea when he discusses the mitzvah of rejoicing on the Jewish holidays in his Mishneh Torah in the Laws of Yom Tov (6:18):
What is implied [in the mitzvah of rejoicing on Yom Tov]? Children should be given roasted seeds, nuts, and sweets. For women, one should buy attractive clothes and jewelry according to one's financial capacity. Men should eat meat and drink wine, for there is no happiness without partaking of meat, nor is there happiness without partaking of wine. When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut. And with regard to such a person [the verse, Hoshea 9:4] is applied: "Their sacrifices will be like the bread of mourners, all that partake thereof shall become impure, for they [kept] their bread for themselves alone." This happiness is a disgrace for them, as [implied by Malachi 2:3]: "I will spread dung on your faces, the dung of your festival celebrations." [Translation of Hebrew text courtesy of www.chabad.org ]
In fact, this beautiful, age-old tradition during the joy-filled holidays to be sensitive to the needs of our less-fortunate brethren has spilled over into other joyous occasions in our lives. At Jewish weddings, it was always the custom to set out a table for poor people during the wedding meal. This is still done today in some Jewish communities around the world. Additionally, there are those Jews who will donate the entire cost (or a part thereof) of a wedding for a poor family in Israel as they pay for their own children’s lavish wedding in the Diaspora.
Let us remember as we sit down at yet another joy-filled Passover Seder this year the powerful lesson that Reb Naftali Ropshitzer taught us about our responsibility towards those less fortunate than ourselves - and just how blessed we truly are that we have such beautiful customs and traditions.