1) HALACHAH: GIVING MORE THAN A FIFTH OF ONE'S MONEY TO TZEDAKAH
QUESTION: The Gemara describes the generosity of a man named Rebbi Elazar Ish Birasa. He was so benevolent that the communal Tzedakah collectors used to run away from him and hide so that he would not give too much Tzedakah and impoverish himself. The Gemara relates that on one occasion, Rebbi Elazar Ish Birasa was on the way to the market with a huge sum of money to buy a dowry for his daughter. He found the Tzedakah collectors and gave them all of his money, except for a single Zuz (with which he was able to buy one wheat kernel).
Why was Rebbi Elazar Ish Birasa justified in giving away all of his money to Tzedakah? The Gemara in Kesuvos (50a) relates that the Rabanan of Usha instituted that one may not give away more than one fifth of his assets to Tzedakah. (GEVURAS ARI)
(a) The CHAFETZ CHAIM (in AHAVAS CHESED 20:2, and footnote to 19:4) writes that the prohibition against giving away more than one fifth applies to giving to a general Tzedakah fund. It does not apply to a specific appeal made by a poor person who is in need of food or clothing. In such a case, one is permitted to give the poor person as much as he needs, and he is considered praiseworthy for doing so if he has the means. (The Chafetz Chaim bases this ruling on the RAMBAM in Perush ha'Mishnayos, beginning of Pe'ah, and the VILNA GA'ON in his famous letter to his family, "Alim l'Terufah." The ruling of the Rambam and the Vilna Ga'on is based on the Yerushalmi.)
(b) The RASHASH and BEN YEHOYADA point out that the Girsa of the DIKDUKEI SOFRIM and of many old texts of the Gemara is "Elazar Ish Bartosa," a Tana whose teaching is quoted in Avos (3:8): "Give to Hash-m what is His, because you and all that you have belong to Him." This is an apt teaching for the person the Gemara here discusses, who sought to give away all of his money to Tzedakah.
If he was a Tana, the Gevuras Ari's question is answered. The law that one may not give away more than a fifth of his assets was instituted by the Rabanan in Usha, after the Churban. According to this Girsa, the Tana whom the Gemara describes lived before the era of the Beis Din in Usha. Therefore, in his day there was no prohibition against giving away more than a fifth of one's money to Tzedakah.
(The Rashash suggests that the reason why the GEVURAS ARI asks the question is because he assumed that the person described in the Gemara was not the Tana of the Mishnah, since the Gemara does not call him "Rebbi" Elazar but just "Elazar.")
2) AGADAH: REBBI CHANINA BEN DOSA'S WORLDVIEW
QUESTION: The Gemara describes some of the miracles performed by the holy Tana, Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa. The Gemara in the end of Maseches Sotah states that he was the last of the "Anshei Ma'aseh" -- miracle performers (literally, "men of deeds").
Why did Rebbi Chanina merit to have the power to perform such extraordinary miracles?
ANSWER: RAV TZADOK HA'KOHEN points out that all of the descriptions of Rebbi Chanina in the Mishnah and Gemara are in the context of a narrative; only once is a Halachic practice quoted in his name. That single Halachic teaching is in Avos (3:9) where Rebbi Chanina teaches, "If one's fear of heaven precedes his [Torah] wisdom, his wisdom will endure... If one's deeds are more abundant than his [Torah] wisdom, his wisdom will endure." This statement is a fitting description of his own approach to the service of Hash-m. It was through the flawless fulfillment of this approach that he reached his unique spiritual heights.
The Gemara in Berachos (33b) teaches that "Rebbi Chanina said: The only thing Hash-m keeps in His treasury is Yir'as Shamayim, the fear of G-d." Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa rose to great levels of Yir'as Shamayim, and for this reason the Gemara in Berachos (61b) says that "it is for Rebbi Chanina ben Dosa that Olam ha'Ba was created!"