When the commandment is set forth to create the holiday of Purim, at the end of Megillas Esther, it is set forth as a “day of feasting and joy, of sending food to each other, and gifts to the destitute” (Esther 9:22). This verse is the source for many of the mitzvos of the day, including Matanos Levyonim, gifts to the poor.
Indeed, the Rambam (2:17 Megilla) writes that it is a greater mitzvah to increase gifts to the poor then to increase the festive meal or gifts of food to one’s friends. For, explains the Rambam, there is no greater or more glorious joy then to gladden the hearts of the destitute, the widow and the orphan. One who can create this joy is compared to the Shechinah itself!
All the mitzvos of Purim, including this one, are incumbent upon both men and women. This is explicit in the Shulchan Aruch (694:1) who writes that ‘everyone’ is obligated, and in the Rema (695:4) where he writes that both men and women are obligated in Mishloach Manos and Matanos Levyonim.
The Magen Avraham questions this as not being the custom, and writes that perhaps a widow or single woman would have to give, but with regards to a married woman her husband could give on her behalf. He concludes that it is good to be stringent, and she should give herself.
The Aruch Hashulchan writes that the husband and wife are considered a single unit, and can give jointly (two gifts to two people). Whether they give a total of two gifts or a total of four gifts a husband can give on behalf of his wife, much as he can bring a sacrifice that his wife is obligated in (Rav Nissim Karelitz).
Children above the age of Bar and Bas Mitzvah are obligated, even though they are supported by their parents.
The Bach is of the opinion that even a poor person who is supported by charity is obligated in Matanos Levyonim, like the Four Cups on Pesach, it is a mitzvah of the day. The Pri Chodosh disputes this, however the Magen Avraham, Taz, Mishna Berura and the Aruch Hashulchan all rule like the Bach.
What Should be Given?
One can give money or food. The idea is it should be used to gladden the Purim of the underprivileged, and therefore should be something that can be used to improve their Purim.
One may not give Matanos Levyonim from Maaser money, just as one may not use Maaser money for any obligatory mitzvah. However, one may use Maaser money for any donations beyond the obligatory two gifts.
The Magen Avraham (695:13) writes that the gifts to the poor should be given on Purim during the day, like Mishloach Manos. In 694:1 he quotes the Baal Hamaor that one should not give the gifts before Purim because they will be eaten before Purim. The Pri Megadim explains that for this reason they should not be given the night prior, even though it is Purim, because then the recipient might end up using it for something other than the Seudah. The Aruch Hashulchan states simply that it is a mitzvah of the day like Mishloach Manos, and therefore should be given during the day, like Mishloach Manos.
[However the Pri Megadim concedes that one can argue that it should be given to them specifically earlier so that they can properly prepare.]
Practilcally speaking, the Biur Halacha as well as the Aruch Hashulchan write that one should make sure he gives at least two poor people on the day of Purim in order to fulfill you obligation.
The Mahariach concedes that it would be sensible to give Matanos Levyonim before Purim, but Halachically it must be given on Purim, and therefore one should make every effort to give the funds as early in the day as possible. However the Makor Chaim dissents, since Mishloach Manos is mentioned first in the verse one should fulfill that mitzvah first.
One may designate a messenger before Purim to deliver the money on Purim, and this is the common setup with most ‘Matanos Levyonim Funds’.
If one is sending money to a poor person who keeps Purim on a different day, for example in Jerusalem or a vastly different time zone, the Purim is defined by the recipient, because you’re making his day, and gladdening his Purim. (Eishel Avraham).
The obligation is to give to two poor people. The Aruch Hashulchan writes that they have to be from two different households, otherwise they are considered as one. However the Chasam Sofer, Maharsha and Kaf Hachayim write that they can be considered two distinct needs.
How poor is considered poor? The term אביון (Evyon) generally denotes a greater level of poverty than עני (Ani) (See Bava Metzia 111b). however with regards to charity, in most cases they are equal, and this is true regarding Matanos Levyonim as well. (Aruch Hashulchan).
[The Mekor Chaim does recommend seeking out the greatest needs and the most poverty stricken to send Matanos Levyonim too, in order to fulfill the dictum of אביון as well.]
So the regular parameters of ‘poor’ as is explicated with regard to the regular mitzvah of Tzedaka apply. The contemporary Poskim write that anyone who doesn’t have the assets (a years’ worth of expenses) or the expectation of a stable salary to sustain the basic needs of their family on a day to day basis is entitled to receive charity funds.
Furthermore, one who has the expectation of unusual expenditures that year is entitled as well (Igros Moshe YD 1:148). One who has spent their money frivolously and now has no way of covering their expenses is considered eligible for Tzedaka funds, however it is said in the name of Rav Elyashiv that they are a low priority.
The primary difference between Purim and the rest of the year is that on Purim we don’t investigate the veracity of the claims of the recipient, and take him at his word.
If one is in the fortunate position of living in a city with no poor, he may keep the money for himself, and distribute it wherever he’d like. (Shulchan Aruch 694:4)
The Mishna Berura quotes the Ritva that one fulfills their obligation with just one Perutah (about a nickel) to each poor person. There are a large number of Poskim who rule that way (Mishna Berura, Eishel Avrohom and others), however there are numerous authorities who feel that one must give at least as much as one must give for Msihloach Manos, or enough to purchase a small meal (a roll and a drink). The Ben Ish Chai and others require a little more than that, enough to buy a significant amount of bread. It is said in the name of Rav Elyashiv that one should give a donation that is large enough to enable a person to purchase a respectable meal and be glad (this would be subject to locale, but probably between ten and twenty dollars in the United States).
May we all merit to fulfill the words of the Rambam, and be God-like in our ability to gladden the heart of the widow, the orphan, the poor and the broken of spirit.