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The Jewish Ethicist - Is It Charity?

The Jewish Ethicist - Is It Charity?

Kindness to others shouldn't be limited to the poor and needy.


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

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

November 15, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 5

(5) Dvirah, December 1, 2008 1:15 PM

Reply to Anonymouses of 17 and 19/11/08

Please note that Rabbi Meir specifically states that one SHOULD help one's relatives and that this is a great Mitzvah. He only notes that technically speaking it is not labled "charity" according to Jewish law. Otherwise this article is all encoragement in favor of such help - and even gives it precedence.

(4) Kayza, November 19, 2008 10:38 PM

Most charity cases DON'T manage

In fact, there are a surprising number of people who actually CANNOT make ends meet without help. I'm talking about families that have to make choices between basics - do we pay the electricity or replace the kid's broken shoes (and risk getting the electricity cut off) type choices.

(3) Kelly Woo, November 19, 2008 5:32 PM

I always wondered this......

and I was hoping you could help me. Should a person give to panhandlers? What about a panhandler that one sees every day? What if you strongly suspect the person to be a drug addict who uses panhandling in order to continue his lifestyle of drug use.

(2) Anonymous, November 19, 2008 4:53 PM

This is a problematic and dangerous article

Telling people that they can not give ma'aser to financially strapped relatives is wrong and dangerous. It is awkward to ask relatives if they are precisely making ends meet, before giving to them. Please ask a noted posek before allowing such articles on your site. I know firsthand that my relatives rely on me, and I know of friends that support their relatives as well. We try not to ask too many questions so as not to embarrass the relatives. It is wrong as a matter of public policy to post an article like this if it will lead to even one person cutting support to his or her relatives.

(1) Anonymous, November 17, 2008 6:05 AM

If giving to to them is not charity then what is?

There are not many people today that go starving. Most people considered charity cases are exactly those people who barely make ends meet.

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