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The Jewish Ethicist: Borderline Poor

May 8, 2009 | by Rabbi Dr. Asher Meir, Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem

For poor families, some special expenses can be considered charity.

Q. I'm not exactly a needy person, but if I gave ten percent of my income to charity, I wouldn't be able to afford the basic needs of my family.

A. In last week's column, we described a dichotomy between families living at or below subsistence, who should give only a token amount to charity, and families with more resources who should be giving ten percent to those less well off. Jewish tradition in fact takes a more flexible view of matters. There are some expenses that a person can decide to "elect" as charity in case of need.

Here is an example. In general, poor family members are always given precedence in charity giving. 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 when possible. The Talmud infers from the expression "the poor with you" that we give precedence to those needy individuals who are closest to us – first family, then neighbors. (1)

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.

Yet the following ruling from the Tosefta (a collection of laws parallel to the mishna) seems to frown on giving charity to the parent:

Two brothers, or two partner, and a father and son . . . can give their poor tithes to each other. Rabbi Yehuda said, Misfortune befalls one who gives his poor tithe to his father. (2)

The explanation is that the father, whenever possible, should be supported from the regular household budget, and charity funds given to others. Giving charity funds to the father has two problems: it shows disrespect for the father, who is treated like a charity case instead of as a family member, and it stints on charity to other individuals.

But if the family has enough to support the needy parent but not enough to provide for other poor people, then the poor tithe should in fact be used for family members.

In case of great need, even your children can be considered "charity recipients". Consider the following Talmudic passage. (The word "tzedakah" in context refers to "righteousness," but the passage understands it in its other sense, "charity".)

"Happy is he who keeps judgment, who does tzedakah at all times". (Psalms 106:3) Is it then possible to do tzedakah at all times? The rabbis in Yavneh, or some say Rabbi Eliezer, say, this refers to one who supports his young children.

Obviously a normal person shouldn't consider what he spends on his own children as charity. If so, virtually every person would be exempt from helping the poor, since it is a rare family that doesn't spend ten percent of its income on the needs of the children. The above passage evidently refers to someone who can't afford to give charity in any other way.

The authoritative Shach commentary of Rabbi Shabtai Rapaport writes that there are other expenses that can also be considered charity if there is no other way to afford them:

Any mitzvah which presents itself to him, such as . . .to buy [Torah] books to learn from them and lend them to others to study from them, if he doesn't have the means and would be unable to do that mitzvah, he can buy it from his tithe. (4)

If you are not poor, but are totally unable to give ten percent to pay for charity expenses which are beyond your household needs, then you should still set aside ten percent of your income for charity. But you may use a portion of that ten percent for special good deeds (mitzvah expenses) that you pay for within your own household. The rationale is that a person should always be in the habit of separating out part of his income to charity to remind himself it is to be used in God's service, even if afterwards he needs to spend it for his own needs.

In any case, it is necessary to give some of the tithe to poor people outside your household, as we learned last week that even a family receiving charity has to itself give at least a token amount to charity.

SOURCES: (1) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 71a (2) Tosefta Maaser Sheni 4:7 (3) Ketubot 50a (4) Shach commentary Yoreh Deah 249:3

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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.

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