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Gifts and Halachah: To Hate or to Accept?

Gifts are part of every culture and society. Today, we are used to birthday and wedding gifts, and to gifts that express gratitude or regret for something. In ancient times gifts were likewise prevalent, and the book of Bereishis is replete with them.

In Parashas Chayei Sarah we find Eliezer giving gifts to Rivkah and her family, and later we find Avraham Avinu sending away the children of Keturah with gifts. In the previous Parashah, Vayeira, the Pasuk says, “Avimelech took sheep, cattle, slaves and maidservants, and gave them to Avraham; and he returned his wife, Sarah” (Bereishis 20:14).

Indeed, when Avraham was forced to make the descent to Egypt, Avraham told his wife Sarah (Bereishis 12:13): “Say, please, that you are my sister, in order that I will receive 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 to receive gifts through Sarah contrasts with Avraham’s refusal to receive gifts from the king of Sedom, as he declared: “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” (Bereishis 14:23). Indeed, Rabbeinu Bachya (Bereishis 24:13) explains that Avraham desired to purchase the Cave of Machpeila, for he “hated gifts.”

In the present article we will explore the halachic and Torah concept 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 advised to despise gifts, and what is the practical approach to the issue?

After discussing these questions, we will address the matter of Avraham Avinu’s refusal to accept gifts from the kin of Sedom on the one hand, and his acceptance of gifts from Pharaoh and Avimelech on the other.

One who Wishes to Derive Benefit

The Pasuk in Mishlei (15:27) teaches us, “He who hates gifts shall live.” Chazal further deride receiving gifts, writing,  “When those who receive gifts became numerous, the days became few and years short, as it is written, ‘He who hates gifts shall live'” (Sotah 47b). Several Talmudic sources likewise indicate that one must be careful not to receive gifts.

Yet, Chazal also make the following statement: “One who wishes to derive benefit should do so like Elisha; one who wishes to refrain from deriving benefit should refrain as Shmuel” (Berachos 10b). The teaching implies that Elisha and Shmuel represent two different views on the issue of accepting gifts. What is the basis for the different approaches?

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: Didn’t 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

Concerning the question of why we ought to hate gifts, we find various reasons given by the Rishonim that might have halachic ramifications. Commenting on the verse in Mishlei, Rashi writes, “If he hates gifts, all the more so will he hate theft.” Rabbienu Yonah (Mishlei 15:27) writes similarly, “This disposition is a fence to distance one from coveting, and saves one from the pitfalls of flattery.”

According to these commentaries, the purpose of hating gifts is 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 people who receive gifts must flatter those who give them (see also Rabbeinu Yonah on Avos 2:2). 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 to negative traits and dispositions, or to a position in which the receiver is unable to admonish the giver. For these reasons, the verse states, “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 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, “It is middas chasidus (the way of the pious) to refrain from receiving any gifts, but rather to trust Hashem to provide 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 demonstrates a lack of faith in Divine providence.

Two Ways of Elisha and Shmuel

Divrei Shalom (Vol. 1, no. 37) suggests that the two approaches concerning receipt of gifts presented by the above Gemara 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 of property which raises concern of theft, flattery, and coveting, but not to somebody who merely accepts an invitation. Elisha saw no flaw in Emunah in 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.”

As noted above, the Gemara 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.

Halachic Considerations

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 fully 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 to receive 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 period every day) instead. The rationale behind the advice was the verse, “He who hates gifts shall live.” Rav Yaakov explained that if a person will become accustomed to accepting presents, he will ultimately be drawn to 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 does not apply to non-Jews. Likewise, it is possible that the concern for coveting does not apply, for the prohibition of coveting is stated specifically concerning “your fellow’s house” (and not of a non-Jew) – 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 applies even to gifts from non-Jews.

Itis 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 receiving gifts does not involve an actual prohibition, but that refraining from doing so is a matter of middas chasidus, pious 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 middas 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 “his generation,” but it appears that the same principle applied and applies throughout the generations. This point is made by Shut Shevet Halevi (Vol. 6, no. 229), who rules that one need not be concerned for gifts that children receive from parents, because people are not particular about this. He adds that there is certainly no room for concern where (even) a slight mitzvah is involved (such as bringing people closer to 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 (Chazal criticize somebody who derives benefit from a wedding feast without bringing joy to the newlyweds. We also find in the Gemara that gifts were given at weddings).

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 sent after the completion of the Sheva Berachos, arguing that this is no longer a special wedding gift, but an ordinary gift that one should refrain from accepting.

It is certainly permitted to receive gifts where the acceptance of the gift does a favor to the giver. This is true of a distinguished individual, whose acceptance of the gift brings honor to the giver. The 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 they who take honor from his attendance (note, however, that Rabbi Pinchas b. Yair refused an invitation even where his acceptance would have much honored his host; see Chullin 7b).

The Gifts of Avraham Avinu

In his refusal to accept the gifts of the king of Sedom, Avraham stated, “You shall not say: I have brought wealth to Avraham” (Bereishis 14:23). This statement corresponds to the rationale of reliance on Hashem, as Rashi explains: “Hakadosh Baruch Hu promised 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, in 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 intimacy with Sarah. They therefore involved no flaw of receiving gifts, for it is the way of the world to receive such remuneration, and it is thus 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 on it. However, as we have seen this is not the way of the Torah. If we find ourselves reaching out for gifts, there is room to work on the trait, and to appreciate the virtue of refraining from reliance thereon.

At the same time, we have seen that there is no actual prohibition of accepting free gifts, and the principle is a matter of middas chasidus, whose application depends on circumstances. Yet, we should certainly seek to internalize the idea that the love of gifts so common to our surroundings is not a positive trait. Refraining from their receipt, and certainly from jumping at every opportunity, can actually bring us much good.

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6 Comments

  1. Thank You
    Very well written, The Pasuk in Mishlei (16:27) teaches us, “He who hates gifts shall live,
    the Posuk is 15:27

  2. Hi, I gave a gift to my rabbi and he quoted me the pasuk u discussed. And he did not accept it.
    I feel that he gives me gifts by teaching me and allows me to utilize the Shule to pray in etc etc.
    so if I were to learn from him that a person should not accept a gift (worth less than 50.00),
    then I should not accept his gifts to me and therefore I should pay for any services I derive from the shule..

    1. It is very nice that you have such feelings of gratitude towards the Rabbi and the shul. It would be great if everyone would have such feelings!
      In theory you are right, but not in this situation. Even a person that normally won’t accept gifts, however he can accept gifts when it is something that he needs, such as when traveling and he needs a place to eat. In your case, you need the shul and the Rabbi’s torah knowledge to help you grow spiritually. Besides, this idea is only for the very pious, or for someone in the Rabbi’s position that for what ever reason does not want to accept gifts from his congregants. However there are many other ways for you to show your appreciation for the Rabbi and the shul, such as verbally thanking him, helping in the shul, and keeping your eye out for when he may actually need something that you can help him with.

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