This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

It's the Thought That Counts*

When the Book of Proverbs observed that "he who hates gifts shall live," the wise author was probably referring to bribes rather than to the normal exchange of tokens of affection. Nevertheless, there are few among us who have not been moved at times to dread the prospect of gift-giving, and to feel intimidated by the grave responsibilities involved in selecting and delivering appropriate gifts.

The ancient Jewish sages were well aware that the attitudes and body language that accompany a gift can at times be more meaningful than the gift itself.

As it was so effectively put in Avot deRabbi Natan, "If a person bestowed upon somebody all the gifts in the world, but his gaze was fixed awkwardly on the ground, scripture does not credit him with having given anything. But on the other hand, if one received a person hospitably, even without actually giving him anything, scripture esteems him as if he had given him all the most wonderful gifts in the world."

In their search for guidance in the art of gracious giving, the rabbis of the Talmud turned to the finest of role models--by carefully studying how the Almighty himself performed acts of generosity for our biblical ancestors.

Using this approach, the third-century Babylonian teacher Rav observed that, before bestowing upon Israel the precious gift of the Sabbath, God made a point of declaring "that ye may know that I the Lord sanctify you."

From that precedent Rav inferred that mortal gift-givers should emulate their Creator in revealing their identities. In contemporary terms, this could mean something as simple as making sure that there is a legible card fixed solidly to the package so that it will not be discarded with the wrapping paper.

Rashi observed that this course of action is much more dignified than the alternative of leaving a mysterious package on a person's doorstep, since it provides the donor with an opportunity to prevail over any misgivings that the recipient might express about accepting the gift. If the primary motive of giving is to express affection or esteem, then anonymity would defeat that purpose.

Some commentators emphasize that Rav was urging prospective givers to provide advanced notification of their intentions. In this way there will still be time to avert awkward surprises, if the recipients end up refusing the gifts.

The Tosafot were careful to remark that the avoidance of anonymous gifts only applies to tokens of friendship between social equals. In the case of philanthropic donations, however, the opposite approach would be preferable, since people who have fallen on hard times and are compelled to accept charity are more likely to be embarrassed by confrontation with their benefactors.

The Talmud objected that the Creator did not seem to be entirely consistent when it came to notifying the beneficiaries of his generosity. After all, when he bestowed upon Moses the spiritual radiance that caused his face to shine, Moses was not given any notification. Rabbi Hama bar Hanina deduced from this that benefactors are under no obligation to inform the recipients.

The Talmud resolves the apparent contradiction between the two passages by observing that in the case of Moses' shining face, the benefactor's identity would inevitably have ( come to light.

A grave danger that often accompanies gift giving is the possibility of causing offense to people who do not receive such generous presents.

Notwithstanding their usual praises for our righteous biblical forebears, the talmudic sages took Jacob to task for his inequitable treatment of his children, as evidenced most conspicuously in the special Technicolor coat that he gave to his beloved Joseph.

The lesson of Jacob's error was spelled out ominously by Rav: "A man should never give preferential treatment to one of his children; for on account of the two selas of fine wool with which Jacob favoured Joseph over his other sons, the siblings were roused to envy, causing our ancestors to be exiled to Egypt."

The commentators were careful to object that the enslavement of the Hebrews had been decreed long before that incident, as part of the divine covenant with Abraham. Nevertheless, they pointed out that the terms of the original covenant left considerable room for flexibility with respect to the precise location, extent and intensity of the enslavement. It was Jacob's poor parental judgment that set in motion a particular chain of events that had such disastrous consequences for his offspring.

Given the severity of Jacob's conduct, and the resulting suffering that was inflicted on Joseph, the Talmud was exasperated by Joseph's own treatment of his brothers. After revealing his identity to his brothers, he distributed gifts to all of them: "To all of them he gave each man changes of raiment; but to Benjamin he gave three hundred pieces of silver, and five changes of raiment."

This preferential treatment of Benjamin prompted the following outraged response from the Talmud: "Is it conceivable that that righteous man should commit the very same mistake that had caused him so much suffering in the first place?!" Should not Joseph, of all people, have been sensitive to the damage that can be occasioned by displays of favouritism?

In the end, the rabbis could not be assuaged until they were assured that Benjamin's special treatment was not an expression of Joseph's partiality, but rather was intended to convey a deeper symbolic lesson; as a foretelling of how Benjamin's descendant Mordecai would one day be privileged to don majestic robes in the Persian royal court.


As we have come to expect, Jewish tradition has much useful advice to offer about the delicate art of gift-giving. Ultimately, however, the capacity for gracious expressions of benevolence remains very much ...a gift.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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