Jonathan Rosenblum’s craft is to inspire thought, so it shouldn’t be surprising that his recent piece on deception prompted some off-line questions concerning the permissibility of tzedaka collectors altering the facts. Is it ever permitted to make an otherwise legitimate need even more appealing to donors by playing fast and loose with the facts?
Although rumors to the contrary persist, the bottom line, I believe, is no.
The question itself would seem preposterous, were it not for a passage in the Gemara (Arachin 6B) concerning Rav Yanai (who would borrow tzedakah funds and pay back, so that in the interim he would be able to approach donors with the plea that the tzedakah cupboard was bare) and a purported decision of the Chasam Sofer. Different versions of the latter persist. (Thanks go to an anonymous reader and to my son Peysi in the Philadelphia Community Kollel for gathering some of them.) In general, they claim that the Chasam Sofer permitted the plight of an extraordinary talmid chacham (Torah scholar) he knew to be treated specially, based on passages in Chazal that liken a Torah scholar to a king, or to a bride adorned with the 24 ornaments of books of the Tanach.
It is difficult (if not impossible) to draw appropriate halachic conclusions from anecdotes that are missing full context and explanation, like that of the Chasam Sofer. Rav Wosner, shlit”a, says as much in Shevet HaLevi (vol. 2, Yoreh Deah #219). He concludes that deception is never permitted for the “good cause” of increasing charitable donation. (To me, it seems that all the Chasam Sofer provided was reason for the overseers of a charitable trust who exclusively channeled their funds to needy brides to make a single exception for a remarkable talmid chacham. He showed them that if they used their discretionary powers of gabbaim, they would not be so far off their usual track, since the talmid chacham could be seen as a bride. Such thinking, however, was merely the icing on the cake. They didn’t need it in order to legally use the funds for a different mitzvah.)
Rav Yaakov Blau, shlit”a, (Tzedakah U-Mishpat, 7:2:5) also concludes that there is never any license to deceive in order to raise funds for a worthy cause. The sole exception belongs largely to the Jewish past, and accounts for the passage about Rav Yanai. When community structures were in place, authorities had the power to tax the populace for charitable giving, and compel such donations. If deception was the path of least resistance to acquire what the tzibbur was legally entitled to collect, it could be defensible. Few readers of Cross-Currents, if any, live in such communities.