In this week’s parashah, Vayeira, after Avimelech discovers that Sarah is the wife of Avraham, the pasuk narrates (Bereishis 20:14): “Avimelech took sheep, cattle, slaves and maidservants, and gave them to Avraham; and he returned him his wife, Sarah.”
The concept of receiving gifts, also in the context of Sarah, is likewise found when Avraham was forced to make the descent to Egypt. At the time, Avraham told his wife (Bereishis 12:13): “Say, please, that you are my sister, in order that I will have goodness on your account, and I will live because of you.” Commenting on the words “in order that I will have goodness on your account,” Rashi explains: “I will receive gifts.”
The intention of Avraham to receive gifts through Sarah, and the gifts that he indeed received from Pharaoh and from Avimelech, are cause to consider the halachic issue of receiving gifts. In the previous parashah (Lech Lecha), we find that Avraham refused to receive gifts from the king of Sedom, as he stated (Bereishis 14:23): “If from a thread unto a shoelace, and if I shall take from anything that is yours—and you shall not say, ‘I have brought wealth to Avram.” Moreover, Rabbeinu Bachya (Bereishis 24:13) explains that Avraham desired to make a paid purchase of the Cave of Machpeila, for he “hated gifts.”
How, in the light of this principle, did Avraham plan to receive gifts on account of Sarah, and take gifts, seemingly without qualm, from Avimelech?
We will seek to find an answer to this question by means of investigating the general halachic subject of receiving gifts. When does the principle of “he who hates gifts lives” apply? When is there no problem of receiving gifts? Why are we instructed to despise gifts, and what is the practical approach to the issue? After discussing these questions, we will please G-d return to the question of Avraham Avinu in our parashah.
One who Wishes to Derive Benefit
The pasuk in Mishlei (16:27) teaches us that “he who hates gifts shall live.” Chazal further deride the idea of receiving gifts, writing that (Sotah 47b) “When those who receive gifts became numerous, the days became few and years short, as it is written, ‘he who hates gifts shall live.'” Likewise, several Talmudic sources indicate that one must be careful not to receive gifts.
Yet, Chazal also make the following statement (Berachos 10b): “One who wishes to derive benefit should do so like Elisha; one who wishes to refrain from deriving benefit should refrain as Shmuel.” The dictum implies that Elisha and Shmuel represent two different view on the issue of accepting gifts: Is this worthy practice, or not?
Commenting on the first half of the Talmudic teaching, Rashi explains that there is no prohibition in receiving gifts: “One who wishes to derive benefit from others should do so, and there is no prohibition in this matter.” The Maharsha finds this comment of Rashi difficult: Surely, Chazal clarified their negative position on receiving gifts in several places, relying on the passage “he who hates gifts shall live”?
Because of his question, the Maharsha interprets the teaching of the Gemara in a different light (possibly meaning to explain the words of Rashi). Rather than sanctioning the receipt of gifts, the meaning of the statement is that even somebody who wishes to derive benefit from others, should only do so as Elisha, who only derived benefit as a guest while journeying—and in no other way.
How can we resolve the words of Rashi, according to their simple interpretation, from the question of the Maharsha?
Why We Should Hate Gifts
In the question of why we ought to hate gifts, we find a dispute among rishonim, which possible has halachic ramifications. Rashi writes, commenting on the verse in Mishlei, that “if he hates gifts, all the more so will he hate theft.” Rabbienu Yonah (Mishlei 16:27) writes similarly that “this disposition is a fence to distance coveting, and saves one from the pitfalls of flattery.”
According to these commentaries, the concept of hating gifts means to distance bad traits and deeds including theft, coveting, and flattery.
A similar interpretation emerges from the words of the Sema (249:4), who explains that the problem of receiving gifts is that those who receive gifts must flatter those who give them. Because of this, the receiver is unable to chastise the giver and point out his crooked ways.
According to these opinions, it appears that there is nothing wrong with receiving gifts per se; the problem is only that those who receive gifts can be easily led negative traits and dispositions, or to a position in which the receiver is unable to admonish the giver. For these reasons, the verse states that “he who hates gifts shall live.”
By contrast with this position, the Metzudos David (Mishlei loc. cit.) explains that hating gifts is an expression of a person’s trust in Hashem. Hashem gives life to those who demonstrate their faith in Him by shunning gifts. A similar interpretation is given by Rabbeinu Bachya (Kad Ha-Kemach, Chanufah), who explains that disdain for gifts is reached by means of strengthening one’s faith in Hashem.
This interpretation is also implied by the wording of the Tur (Choshen Mishpat 249) and the Shulchan Aruch (249:5), who write that “It is midas chasidus (the ways of the pious) to refrain from receiving any gifts, but rather to trust Hashem in providing one’s sustenance, as it is written, ‘he who hates gifts shall live.'” According to these opinions, there is an inherent flaw in accepting gifts, which demonstrate a certain lack of faith in Divine providence.
Two Ways of Elisha and Shmuel
The Divrei Shalom (Vol. 1, no. 37) explains that the two approaches presented by the above Gemara concerning receipt of gifts can be traced to the two ways of understanding the precept of hating gifts.
Elisha understood the concept of hating gifts as meaning to distance negative traits, such as theft and coveting. Based on this understanding, he reasoned that the negative aspect of accepting gifts applies only to somebody who takes concrete items into his property, which raises concern of theft, flattery, and coveting, but not to somebody who merely accepts an invitation. Elisha saw no flaw in Emunah to accepting gifts, attributing the gift itself to the hand of Hashem.
The prophet Shmuel, however, believed that the principle of hating gifts reflects a flaw in one’s faith in Hashem, and therefore applies even to deriving benefit by being somebody’s guest. Indeed, we find in the Gemara (Chulin 44b) that Rabbi Eliezer was not only careful to refrain from receiving gifts from Bei Nesiah (the ruling family), but even avoided their invitation, because “he who hates gifts shall live.”
The Gemara, as noted above, states that a person has the right to choose either way, and it is possible that the matter depends on individual circumstances: If a person feels that accepting a gift will imply a flaw in his faith in Hashem, he should refrain from accepting it; if, however, he feels no such flaw, but perceives Divine Providence in the gift itself, he does not have to reject it.
There are a number of possible halachic ramifications that emerge from the explanations above:
- Receiving gifts when the identity of the giver is unknown: If the rationale behind “hating gifts” is that the receiver will be unable to admonish the giver, it follows that where the identity of the giver is unknown, there is no concern. However, if the rationale is related to the negative traits of theft and coveting, or a lack of faith in Hashem, the principle will apply equally to an unknown giver. Imrei Yaakov (1:9) writes that one can act leniently in this case, and this is also implied by the Gemara (Chulin 134b), which states that when a monetary donation was sent to the Beis Midrash, Rabbi Ami took the money for himself. The Gemara does not raise the issue of receiving gifts.
- Receiving grants from corporations or the government: The Shoshana Ha’amakim (Rafo Yerafei 57) addresses a question of parents to newborn triplets, who are able to send in requests to various stores and companies with a copy of the birth certificate, and receive free gifts of food, clothing, diapers, and so on. Is doing so proper practice? In response to the question, Rabbi Yitzchak Zilberstein stated that although the rationale of flattery and future admonition will not apply here, the concern for coveting, and the question of faith in Hashem, applies equally to corporations.
It is worth noting in this respect that Rav Yaakov Kaminetzky advised a Kolel-man to avoid making use of the vouchers allocated by U.S. Welfare, counseling him to work for a short time (verifying the kashrus of mezuzos) each day instead. The rationale behind the advise was the verse “he who hates gifts shall live,” Rav Yaakov explaining that if a person will become accustomed to keeping things that are not his in his property, he will ultimately be drawn to the prohibition of theft.
- Gifts from non-Jews: Orchos Matanah (Chap. 14) writes that according to the rationale mentioned by the Sema (gifts will prevent the receiver from admonishing the giver), it follows that the principle will not apply to non-Jews. Likewise, it is possible that the concern for coveting will not apply, for the prohibition of coveting is stated specifically concerning “your fellow’s house”—though it is possible that the concern is not for the prohibition, but for the negative trait of coveting others’ property. Certainly, the rationale of concern for theft, or reliance on Hashem, will apply even to gifts from non-Jews.
It is interesting to note that the Riva, in his commentary to the Torah (Bereishis 12:13), writes that the intention of Avraham to receive gifts through Sarah does not run contrary to the principle of hating gifts, because this principle is limited to Jews (see also commentary of the Ra’av).
Permission to Receive Gifts
The wording of poskim clearly implies that there is no full prohibition on receiving gifts, but that refraining from receiving gifts is a matter of midas chasidus, a pious manner of behavior. The Rambam (Zechiah U-Matanah 12:17) thus writes that this is the way of the “absolutely righteous” (see also Talmud Torah 3:11), and the Tur and Shulchan Aruch (249:5) mention that this is midas chasidus.
Because the matter is not a full prohibition, but rather a matter of pious conduct, it follows that there are circumstances in which one can (and even should) receive gifts.
An example of this is found in the writings of the Chida (Chaim Shaal Vol. 1, no. 74, sec. 42), who was asked concerning somebody who needed to sell a Sefer Torah in order to get married, but was able to avoid the sale by receiving a gift from a generous donor. The Chida writes that the questioner should certainly receive the gift, for “in our generation hatred of gifts is a mere stringency, and the great majority of people are happy to receive gifts.”
The Chida mentions “this generation,” but it appears that the same principle applied and applies throughout the generations, as the Shevet Halevi (Vol. 6, no. 229) writes, ruling that one need not be concerned for gifts that children receive from parents, because people are not particular about this, and adding that there is certainly no room for concern where (even) a slight mitzvah is involved (such as bringing people closer with one another).
Rav Moshe Sternbuch (Teshuvos Vehanhagos Vol. 3, no. 404) addresses the question of wedding gifts, explaining (according to one possibility) that their main purpose is to permit guests to enjoy the wedding meal—for Chazal criticize somebody who derives benefit from a wedding feast without bringing joy to the newlyweds.
He also mentions an anecdote according to which Rav Yitzchak Ze’ev Soloveichik (the Rav of Brisk) refused (on behalf of his children) to receive a wedding gift that was send after the completion of the Sheva Berachos, arguing that this is no longer a special wedding gift, but an ordinary gift, which one should refrain from accepting.
It is certainly permitted to receive gifts where the acceptance of the gift does a favor with the giver, such as for an important person, whose acceptance brings honor to the giver. This principle emerges from the actions of Rabbi Zeira (Chulin 44b), who did not accept gifts but did accept the invitation of the ruling family, explaining that it is them who take honor from his attendance.
The Gifts of Avraham Avinu
In his refusal to accept the gifts of the king of Sedom, Avraham stated that (Bereishis 14:23) “you shall not say that ‘I have brought wealth to Avraham.'” This statement corresponds with the rationale of reliance on Hashem, as Rashi explains: “Hakadosh Baruch Hu promised me to bring me wealth, as it says, ‘I will bless you.'”
The Gur Aryeh (Bereishis 12:13) explains that the gifts given by the king of Sedom were not included in the blessing of “I will bless you,” because there were not given wholeheartedly, but only because Avraham saved him. The gifts of Avimelech, by contrast, were given wholeheartedly, and are therefore included in “I will bless you.”
Alternatively, we can suggest that the gifts given by Pharaoh and Avimelech were given in exchange (to some degree) for Sarah, and they therefore involve no flaw of receiving gifts, for it was the way of the world to receive such ‘remuneration,’ and it is therefore included in “I will bless you.” The gifts of the king of Sedom, however, were not part of the ‘way of the world,’ and therefore could not be included in Hashem’s blessing. Avraham thus refused to accept them.
In modern society, when something is offered for free, it is socially accepted to jump! As we have seen, there is no actual prohibition of accepting free gifts, and the principle is only a matter of midas chasidus, whose application depends on circumstances. However, we can at the very least internalize the idea that “love of gifts,” so common to our surroundings, is not a positive trait.