Often one who wants to give tzedakah (charity) to collectors but lacks sufficient small change “makes change” from the synagogue’s tzedakah box. Many people are careful not to take full change but to leave a donation in the box. Is this required?
The gemara (Arachin 6a) says: “[If one declares]: ‘This coin shall go to tzedakah,’ before it reaches the gabbai’s hand (the one in charge of tzedakah), it is permitted to change it. Once it reaches the gabbai’s hand, it is forbidden to change it.” The gemara asks from the story of Rabbi Yannai, who borrowed tzedakah money after it reached the gabbai. It explains that he did so in order to tell others that there were no liquid funds, and people would give more. Thus, his borrowing helped the poor. Rishonim differ as to the meaning of “changing” money. Rashi and Tosafot (ad loc.) explain that the donor could lend the money to himself or to others before he gave the assigned money to the gabbai. The Rambam (Matnot Ani’im 8:4) seems to relate the gemara to switching the coins to different ones of the same cumulative value. The Beit Yosef (Yoreh Deah 259) finds difficulty fitting the Rambam’s explanation into the gemara and incorporates only Rashi’s into his halachic work (Shulchan Aruch YD 259:1).
There is much discussion among Acharonim on the questiion if the status of a tzedakah box is like that of a gabbai or not. Without delving deeply into this question, most treat it like a gabbai (see Tzitz Eliezer XVI, 29 and Tzedakah U’Mishpat 8:(25)). It might seem then that our question depends on the differing approaches to the gemara. According to the Rambam, it is forbidden even to switch the coins in a tzedakah box. According to Rashi, which the Shulchan Aruch accepts as halacha, perhaps it is forbidden only to borrow the money, but it is permitted to simply make change. After all, tzedakah money does not have intrinsic holiness, making it religiously forbidden to use (Rama, YD 259:1). Rather, the pauper(s) has rights to the money. On the other hand, the Rif (Bava Kamma 18b) seems to agree with the Rambam that after the tzedakah has reached the gabbai, its coins cannot even be exchanged. Furthermore, it is likely that the Shulchan Aruch argues with the Rambam only regarding the gemara’s interpretation, not regarding halacha (Aruch Hashulchan, YD 259:1). It is likely the same as using a friend’s money without his permission.
Indeed, is one permitted to use money that someone entrusted in his hands? The Shulchan Aruch (Choshen Mishpat 292:7) rules that it depends on whether the watchman is one who deals in coins regularly and on whether the owner hinted as to his feelings on the matter, but, as a rule, he may not borrow it. He does not explicitly address the question of exchanging coins, which Acharonim dispute (see Pitchei Choshen, Pikadon 5:(67)). Therefore, it is unclear if one can use a tzedakah box to make change even when we know of no specific reason that the recipients will thereby lose. This justifies the stringent practice you cited. When leaving even a small donation, the act is considered giving tzedakah rather than taking change, and it is permitted.
Besides the fact that not all agree to the stated reasons for stringency, additional factors play a role. Regarding a general tzedakah box which the shul’s gabbai administers at his discretion, there may be an understanding that the money can be used for such things as getting change (see similar cases in Netivot Hamishpat 301:9; Tzedakah U’Mishpat 8:8). This may depend on local practice. We should also recall the gemara’s idea that when the poor gain from the money’s use, it is permitted. The question is whether by using the tzedakah box to get several coins in order to distribute (some of) them to the poor one will give the poor more tzedakah. One must also factor in whether he has left behind enough coins to enable the next person to give a donation that requires change.
Thus we have seen the logic behind the stringent practice you reported and possible grounds for leniency, especially under certain circumstances.
[kollel eretz chemdah]