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.