This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Art of Gracious Giving*

This truth was succinctly stated in a rabbinic text: "If a person gives his fellow all the gifts in the world, but his face is staring awkwardly at the ground, Scripture counts it as if he had not given away anything. However, if he receives a person graciously, even if he did not actually give him anything, Scripture counts him as if he had given him all the most wonderful gifts in the world."

In their search for the guidance about the most effective way to exercise generosity, the rabbis of the Talmud consulted the preeminent source--they carefully studied the conduct of the Almighty himself when he conferred gifts on our biblical ancestors.

Following this method, the third-century Babylonian teacher Rav observed that, when giving Israel the precious gift of the Sabbath, God made a point of adding "that ye may know that I the Lord sanctify you."

This last superfluous-looking clause was understood as if God were issuing a prior notification to the Israelites of his intention: "The holy one said to Moses: I have a precious gift in my treasure house, called the Sabbath, and I wish to bestow it on Israel. Go now and inform them." It was deemed inappropriate to surprise the people, even with so magnificent a gift; Moses first had to inform them what lay in store for them. From this precedent, Rav inferred that mortal benefactors should also be careful to let the recipients know their identities.

In contemporary terms, this might mean something as simple as making sure that there is a legible card fixed solidly to the container so that it will not be discarded with the wrapping paper. Rashi observed that this procedure is much more dignified than leaving an unidentified package on a person's doorstep, since it provides the donor with an opportunity to overcome any misgivings that the recipient might have had about accepting the gift. If the primary purpose of the gift is to express affection or esteem, then anonymity would defeat that purpose.

Some commentators emphasized the need for advanced notification of the intention to deliver the gift. In this way, if the recipient should have tangible reasons for refusing the gift, there will be time to avert the awkwardness that would otherwise arise.

The Tosafot were careful to remark that this rule only holds true for gifts that are intended to convey personal friendship between two social equals. In the case of philanthropic donations, the opposite would be the case, since face-to-face encounters with their benefactors would prove embarrassing for people who have fallen on hard times and are compelled to accept charity.

Of course, the Sabbath was not the only gift that God conferred on humans. The rabbis found that if they looked to different examples, they would arrive at conflicting conclusions. They noted that God did not seem to be entirely consistent when it came to the policy of providing advance notifications of his gifts. When Moses ascended Mount Sinai to procure the second set of tablets, the Almighty rewarded him by making his face radiate with light. "And it came to pass, when Moses came down from Mount Sinai with the two tables of the testimony in Moses' hand, when he came down from the mount, Moses knew not that the skin of his face sent forth beams while He talked with him."

Basing himself on this biblical precedent, Rav Hama bar Hanina in the Talmud drew inferences about the proper etiquette for gift-giving: "If a person gives a present to his fellow, he is not required to notify the recipient." Rabbi Menahem Ha-Me'iri even remarked that for a person to vocally claim the credit for a deed that is already apparent smacks of vanity and bragging.

The Talmud was challenged to resolve the glaring contradiction between those two statements of Rav and Rav Hama bar Hanina, each of which was based on a biblical proof text. In the end, the sages decided that the circumstances of the two instances were not really identical. In the case of Moses's shining countenance, it was obvious where it had come from, and therefore there was no real need to attach a figurative greeting card to a gift whose donor would inevitably become known to the recipient. The source of the Sabbath, on the other hand, was somehow less evident to the Israelites, and it was therefore necessary to inform them of their benefactor's identity.

The commentators were not quite certain about why the Sabbath was depicted as less obvious than the light on Moses's face. The Talmud stated that it is not really the Sabbath itself that is unrecognized, but rather the reward that lies in store for those who observe it faithfully.

Even so, some scholars objected that the Torah does not tell of analogous notifications preceding the revelations of other precepts even though their performances also presumably earn rewards for those who keep them.

Rabbi Josiah Pinto understood that what is distinctive about the Sabbath is its daunting severity, as expressed in both the numerous stringencies that are associated with its observance and the severe punishments in store for those who violate it. Owing to the seriousness of the stakes, the people were entitled to a full disclosure that those difficulties and risks are more than compensated by the inexpressable rewards that await them in this world and the next.

Several authorities, including the Maharal of Prague and the Maharsha, pointed out that the relationship between the Sabbath and its rewards is fundamentally different from those of most other mitzvot. The uniqueness of the Sabbath lies in the fact that its weekly observance is indistinguishable from its reward, in that it provides Jews with a foretaste of the transcendent perfection that will be enjoyed by the righteous in the world to come. This sublime and precious truth cannot be appreciated by most ordinary people unless they are informed about it explicitly.

The art of gracious giving cannot be encapsulated into simple rules about whether or not to notify a recipient. The correct course of action must take into consideration the sensitivity of the recipient, the purpose and circumstances of the gesture, and the nature of the gift itself. When the generosity is accomplished with tact and thoughtfulness, it can be a powerful force for cultivating friendship and goodwill.


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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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