Recently someone approached me with the following question. He gave $100 to a person on the premise that he was in need of tzedakah, but later found out that the person was very wealthy; did he fulfill his mitzvah of tzedakah or not? Is he required to give another $100 to fulfill his 10% obligation or do we say, as the Gemorah in Kiddushin (40), that “if a person thought of doing a mitzvah but was an ‘o’nes,‘ then he is given the credit as if it were actually fulfilled.”
“Choshov adom la’asos mitzvah ve-ne’enas velo asa’o ma’alo olov ha-kosuv ke’ilu aso’o.”
“This same question applies to all mitzvos,” I said to him. “One buys an esrog and later finds out that it is posul or one puts on tefillin and later finds out that he was scammed and they were posul etc. Does one get the credit as if he fulfilled the mitzvah, since after all he had the best of intentions, or not?”
He was quite disappointed when I told him that the mitzvah is considered unfulfilled despite the best of intentions. As proof I showed him the Gemorah in Mesechta Baba Basra (9:) that says that the prophet Yirmiyahu prayed to G-d that the wicked should give their tzedaka money to undeserving people in order that they not receive any reward.
“But what about the good intention?” he asked me.
“Gehenom is full of those who had the best of intentions,” I replied. “People who pray to idols may also have the best of intentions but that certainly doesn’t give them a place in Gan Eden,” I said.
“But then how do you explain the Gemorah in Kiddushin?” he questioned.
“Quite simple,” I said. “This refers to a case where a person was about to give his money to a bona fide, genuine poor person but then was held up and his money was taken away, or he wanted to put on a kosher pair of tefillin but someone forcibly took them away or he was handcuffed. Now he is considered an “o’nes” and therefore Hashem credits him as if he actually fulfilled the mitzvah. However, if someone mistakenly keeps Shabbos on Sunday, or puts on tefillin which turn out to be posul, he gets no mitzvah at all.
The key to the entire puzzle lies in understanding the difference between a “shogeg” and an “o’nes.” An “o’nes” means that he was forcefully prevented from doing a mitzvah, or forced to do an aveirah against his will. For example, if someone is locked up in prison and is, thereby, prevented from putting on tefillin or if someone else stuffs treif food down your mouth (or a doctor commands you to eat treif because of health reasons), then you are considered an “o’nes.” (the classic example of an “o’nes” in the Torah is the one of “Narah Ham’orasa” [Devorim 22:27].)
A “shogeg” refers to someone who commits an aveirah inadvertently, or mistakenly thinks he is doing a mitzvah but really is not. For instance, if someone eats a particular piece of fat which he thinks is permitted but later realizes that he was mistaken and actually ate a non-permitted piece of fat, then he is required to bring a korban no matter how innocent the sin. So too, if one eats food in a kosher restaurant and later finds out that it was treif, he is considered a “shogeg” and not an “o’nes” (no one forced him to eat it) and must do teshuvah for the aveirah even though it may be the Rabbi’s fault as well. (Note: There is another concept known as “Mis’asek” which I did not include in this article).
A person who puts on tefillin for his entire life only to find out that they are posul (even if they were checked a dozen times), is considered to be a “shogeg” and not an “o’nes.” True, it may not be his fault. Blame it on the sofer if you may, nevertheless he is still considered a “shogeg” and not an “o’nes.” (This would be true even if the Sanhedrin themselves had checked them and given their seal of approval but you later find a word missing. See Rambam Hilchos Shgogos perek 14, halacha 3, for a similar case.)
And so when one sends in contributions to what one thought was a legitimate tzedakah, but later finds out that he was scammed, he gets no mitzvah at all! Just as the Shulchan Aruch requires one to check out the validity of an esrog or a mezuzah, so too, one is required to check out the validity of a tzedakah. (The only time one is required to give a person tzedaka – no questions asked, is if he claims that he needs food. This may be life-threatening and there may be no time to investigate.)
This, of course, means that we just can’t do mitzvos haphazardly but must make every effort to make sure that we are not being scammed. Just as we carefully check out a person before entrusting him with our money, so too must we check out the reliability of a hechsher, a sofer or the person or institution to whom we give our tzedakah. And believe me, you’d better do lots of checking because there are lots of scams out there!