Q. I want to put aside a certain sum each month to help my nieces and nephews, since my sister's family barely makes ends meet. Is this considered a charitable contribution?
A. Your regular donations to your family members are not considered charity, but they are considered a wonderful mitzvah nevertheless.
When the Torah commands us to give charity, it naturally stipulates that we should help the needy: "When there will be a needy person from one of your brothers in one of your gates in your land which the Lord your God gives you, don't harden your heart and don't close your hand from your needy brother. Surely open your hand to him, and lend him enough for his needs, which he lacks." (Deuteronomy 15:7-8).
Based on this verse, the Shulchan Arukh (authoritative Code of Jewish law) rules: "It is a great commandment to lend to the poor of Israel, and it is a commandment even greater than charity. And a poor relative has precedence over other poor." (1)
In the laws of charity, we find a precise definition of who is considered "poor"; a family whose income covers their needs, even if they have nothing left over ("barely make ends meet") would not be considered "poor". So your aid to your less fortunate relatives would not strictly speaking be considered "charity".
However, the Shulchan Arukh then continues: "And even a wealthy person who needs to borrow, it is a mitzvah to lend to him on occasion, and to help him out with advice." While some people have a strict definition of being needy, any person can be in need of help, and it is always praiseworthy to help them.
The source for this ruling is given as the following passage in the Talmud:
Acts of kindness are greater than charity in three ways: charity is only with money, where as acts of kindness can be done with one's self or with one's money. Charity is only to the poor, but acts of kindness are to both poor and rich. Charity is only to the living, but acts of kindness are to both the living and the dead [to provide them a dignified funeral]. (2)
There are other cases where we find the rules of charity extended to others who are not quite poor. From the verse above, which starts with "from among your brothers", the Talmud learns that charity to family members has precedence over charity to other. (3) This is also learned from the verse in Isaiah (58:7) "And don't hide yourself from your own flesh". (4) But this verse is also used to teach that in general we should look out for the welfare of family members. (5)
The help you are want to give your poorer relatives can not technically be considered charity, and should not be taken from your charity budget (typically a tithe). But it is a wonderful display of human kindness as well as family solidarity with your siblings and their children.
If you cannot commit to give a stipend indefinitely, be sure to stipulate that you are giving it for a set period of time – perhaps a year. Otherwise the recipient is likely to figure it into his or her budget and feel deprived if you can't continue. Make sure to give any regular aid recipient realistic expectations.
SOURCES: Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 97:1 (2) Babylonian Talmud Sukkah 49b (3) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 71a. (4) Jerusalem Talmud Ketubot 11:3 and elsewhere. (5) Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 52b
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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.