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The Jewish Ethicist: Reluctant Recipient

The Jewish Ethicist: Reluctant Recipient

Only truly needy people should accept charity.


Q. Our family lives on a tight budget, but we always make ends meet. We have a wealthy relative who wants to give us charity. I don't want to take charity, but the money could help with the children's education.

A. Your reluctance to accept charity is easy to understand. Rabbi Yakov ben Asher, an authoritative 13th century rabbi, writes:

A person should always distance himself from [accepting] charity. He should afflict himself with discomfort rather than become dependent on others. And thus our sages commanded: Make your Sabbath like an ordinary weekday rather than becoming dependent on others. And even if he was an honored scholar and became impoverished, he should engage in his trade, even a less respected trade, and not became dependent on others. (1)

Likewise, perhaps your relative could have been more sensitive. The Tosefta (a collection of legal aphorisms from around the time of the mishna) teaches: (2)

Two brothers, or two partners, or father and son . . . can give their poor tithe one to another. Rebbe Yehuda said, misfortune befalls someone who gives poor tithe to his father.

A family member is a permissible and even a preferred recipient of charity; Judaism certainly affirms that "charity begins at home". Based on the verse that we should help "the poor person with you" (Exodus 22:24), the Talmud learns: "your poor take precedence over the poor of your city". (3)

However, any needy person should preferable be helped without giving charity directly, and this applies a fortiori to a parent. If at all possible, the father should be supported by the regular family budget, not from the charity budget which relates to him like a beggar. Maimonides writes that any poor person should preferably be helped by giving him a gift, or a job, so that he does not fall into the need for charity. (4)

While there is no reason for you to accept charity, there is no shame in having your son accept a gift from a relative for his education. Even the wealthiest people trade gifts. I think the best suggestion is to ask your relative to deem the money a gift to your son for his education, rather than as a charity donation. Since your relative can no longer take the money from his charity budget, that may make it impossible for him to help. But if the money can be given in a non-demeaning way and it can help you son's education I think that is the best solution.

SOURCES: (1) Tur Yoreh Deah 255 (2) Tosefta Maaser Sheni 4:7 (3) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 71a; see also Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 65b; Bereshit Rabba on Genesis 2:18. (4) Maimonides' Code, Gifts to the Poor chapter 10.

December 19, 2009

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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) SusanE, December 25, 2009 5:34 PM

Charity or Gift?

Why is there such a difference between charity and a gift? I don't understand why the relative could not simply give the amount or set up an account as a gift and never mention charity. Is there a big difference?

(2) Anonymous, December 24, 2009 2:11 PM

What happens when a relative constamt;y finds fault with a service you gave or berates you for a gift or service you did and

Our religion does indeed give guidelines that make your actions take into account the sensitvity or a recipeint relative, but what happens when that relative constantly reacts negatively no matter how you try to behave in a sensitive manner, belittling you no matter when. Interesting though that she never refuses a gift, only makes me feel badly that she had to take it.

(1) ruth, December 22, 2009 4:12 PM

ethics and issues of Jewish ethics

I love it that we, as a people, engage in deep and profound thought about ethics, and that we are torn by such questions, to take or not to take, and in this initial question, about our children, not having quite enough and knowing the children would benefit. I honestly believe, that yes, there are guidelines and that these and all commentaries should be considered, and if one asks, then one is requesting something of another, by way of wisdom. In the end, if we have no recourse to such dialogue, I say, gather the flowers that are in your garden, and follow your heart, because love is rarely an arrow that takes us to the wrong place, if it's inclusive and about others. And so I would have come to the same conclusion following my own route, and yet, we all do have our paths and our pathways, that often do bring us to the same place.

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