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 tithe!" (2)
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 Arukh Yoreh Deah 240:5, 251:3. (2) Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 32a. (3) Mishnah Avot 3:15
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