Q. For years I have been supporting my aged mother, but now my business is failing and I just don't have the means. Do I have to risk my livelihood?
A. Last week we explained that the primary obligation of honoring parents is on the level of personal care and concern, and not financial support. However, there is definitely an obligation to provide financial support to a needy parent when the means exist.
First of all, a parent is considered a legitimate charity recipient. Indeed, poor family members are always given precedence in charity giving, and a person shouldn't be giving more than nominal charity to strangers when he has poor relatives. This is learned from the verse "When you lend money to My people, to the poor with you, don't be to him like a creditor, don't take interest." (Exodus 22:24)
The verse refers to helping a needy person through an interest-free loan, the preferred method for strangers, but as the context makes clear it applies equally to direct charity. The Talmud infers from the expression "the poor with you" that we give precedence to those needy individuals who are closest to us:
Your poor and the poor of your city, your poor have precedence. The poor of your city and the poor of another city, the poor of your city have precedence. (1)
The Torah prescribes a concentric circle of concern for others, with the center in your immediate family.
Another source is the verse from Isaiah (58:7), "Extend to the poor your bread, and bring downtrodden poor people into your home; when you see the naked clothe him, and don't hide from you own flesh." "Your own flesh" refers to your relatives; the verse admonishes us not to ignore them when we give charity.
We see from these sources that a person must support his needy parents if he has any spare money available for charity. Only after his parents are taken care of may he give charity funds to any other purpose.
Despite this obligation, our sages tell us that it is a bad idea to turn your parent into a charity case. This can be demeaning if it is not absolutely essential. After all, when you were growing up your parents probably did not "donate" the money for your needs; you were an integral part of the household and the household budget. Likewise, parents should be supported whenever possible from the regular household budget. The Tosefta (a collection of early Rabbinical sayings parallel to the mishna) states:
A father and his son . . . may give each other their poor tithes. Rebbe Yehuda said, a blight is worthy for someone who gives his poor tithe to his father. (1) Tosefta Maaser Sheni 4:7
From this we see that when a parent is in need of support, if the child or children are able to support him or her from the regular household budget, this is the proper and dignified way to help.
If the only way to find the means is to support the parent from the charity budget, then one's charity should go to help the parent as long as the parent is needy.
What you seem to describe is a situation where there is not enough income to support the parent even from charity funds – not enough income to give charity at all. As we explained last week, in such a case the child does not have to reach a precarious financial situation in order to support the parent. Even so, it is worth considering carefully if a small decline in standard of living is really "precarious" if that is the price for helping an aged parent. Think also of the example you are setting for your own children; after all, perhaps you will need to rely on them in your own later years.
Your custom until now of supporting your aged parent from your household income is a praiseworthy one, and this is the ideal way of helping a parent according to our tradition. If this becomes impossible, then charity funds should be used for this purpose. But if you are unable to help you parent and still make ends meet, then you are not required to put yourself in a precarious financial situation in order to help your parent.
Taking financial responsibility for a parent need not involve spending your own money. Even if you can't give money, you should devote effort to ensuring that your mother has adequate means of support, for example from government or private programs she might be eligible for. Any poor person, and especially an older one, has difficulty finding the physical and emotional energy needed to locate and apply for such programs. Your comparative youth and energy can be used for this purpose without any direct expense.
Finally, as we explained at length last week, even if you are unable to give financial support, you can still show your concern and love for your mother by personal attention and emotional support.
SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 71a
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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.