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Jewish World Review
Oct. 17, 2005
/ 14 Tishrei, 5766
Charity begins at home
Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir
Do family members have precedence in charity allotments?
Q. My charity budget is somewhat limited. Can I give
it to needy family members?
A. The answer to your question seems obvious.
Centuries before the English expression "Charity
begins at home" was coined, the prophet Isaiah (58:7)
admonished: "Shall you not break bread for the hungry,
and bring broken paupers home; clothe the naked when
you see him, and don't hide from your own flesh",
meaning your own family. Even earlier, the Torah tells
us "I command you, open your hand to your brother, to
your pauper, and to your needy person in your land".
(Deuteronomy 15:11.) An ancient Aramaic translation
explicitly renders "your brother" as "your relative."
As a result, Jewish law specifically provides that
family members have precedence over other needy
individuals or causes in our charity decisions. (1)
Yet there is another source which seems to suggest the
opposite. One of the tithes mentioned in the Torah is
designated for the poor; the Talmud informs us that we
may give this tithe to family members, but "misfortune
will befall one who feeds his father from the poor
The commentators explain this paradox very simply.
Ideally, support for our closest relatives shouldn't
be viewed as "charity" at all. Just as we don't
support ourselves from our charity budget, so we
should we view the basic needs of impoverished family
members as basic needs which need to be financed from
our core budget. Charity is exactly that money which
is beyond our own needs and left aside to take care of
the needs of others.
So a person who makes an impoverished parent into a
"charity case" instead of viewing him or her as part
of the household is worthy of condemnation. The result
is that the parent feels like a burden instead of an
honored family member, and at the same time other poor
people in the community are deprived of aid since it
is all used up on family members.
Yet the plain reality is that many households just
don't have the wherewithal to support poor relatives
and also extend a hand to other needy members of the
community. In this case it is not only permissible but
actually appropriate to set aside the money for
helping relatives as charity money. Charity is a habit
which needs to be cultivated and inculcated. The
Mishnah (3) tells us that "Everything is according to
the extent of our deeds"; and Maimonides explains that
a person should strive to do many good deeds in order
to develop good habits. In particular, he writes that
it is better to give a small amount of charity
frequently than to give a single large gift.
Likewise, if a person were to conclude that he just
can't give any charity this year because support for a
relative is eating up his budget, he would get out of
the habit of charitable giving. In this case, it is
better to designate the money as charity, but give
precedence to parents, children or other close
relatives in distributing the funds.
SOURCES: (1) Shulchan Aruch Yoreh Deah 240:5, 251:3.
(2) Babylonian Talmud, Kiddushin 32a. (3) Mishnah Avos
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JWR contributor Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, formerly of the Council of Economic Advisers in the Reagan
administration, is Research Director of the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, Jerusalem College of Technology.
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