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The Jewish Ethicisit: Freebie Frustration

The Jewish Ethicisit: Freebie Frustration

If a charity sends me a gift, do I have to give a donation?

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Q. Charity organizations often send gifts as an inducement to donors. Is this practice ethical? If I keep the present, do I have to give a donation?

A. Jewish tradition acknowledges and esteems the power of gifts and the need to use them responsibly.

There is no question that giving a gift does, and should, create a certain feeling of obligation in the receiver. In fact, this is one of the beautiful things about gift giving; it is part of a larger process of creating bonds of affection, obligation and ultimately commitment among people.

It is for this very reason that Jewish law is so strict that judges should not accept any kind of gifts from litigants, as we pointed out in a previous column. [See: Pauper Presents] It is really inevitable that the recipient will look favorably on the donor.

In fact, the Talmud tells us that the sense of obligation is so great that when an influential person deigns to accept a present, it is as if he is bestowing a benefit to the giver! By agreeing to accept the gift, he is showing his willingness to be beholden to the donor.

Because of this expectation that the accepter will somehow requite the gift, Scripture tells us to be very selective in accepting gifts. “He who despises gifts will thrive” (Proverbs 15:27). A person should feel comfortable with accepting a sense of obligation or at least of gratitude towards the giver. Conversely, refusing a gift may be very awkward for the very reason that it may show a desire to avoid incurring such a feeling of obligation.

It is certainly legitimate for charities to try to create a feeling of good will and commitment among potential donors, and one way of doing this is by sending small gifts. But great care needs to be taken to make sure that this practice doesn’t create confusion and resentment among donors. For this reason, I would like to propose, as a suggestion only, a number of guidelines that can help make this subject more effective and reasonable.

1. Gifts should never be intrusive or demanding. If a donor receives a large Torah book, he may be delighted. But if not, then this very generous gesture on the part of the institution will obligate the recipient either to find extra room on the shelf or to make a trip to the geniza (because holy works should not be thrown out and need to be disposed of in this dignified way.) The institution should consider this matter carefully.

2. To the greatest extent possible, the gift should say something about the institution. First of all, this is the most effective way of creating genuine good will, and second of all it avoids the appearance that the gift is really just a kind of bribe. Many organizations send CD-ROM disks with an interesting movie about their activities; such a promotion is ideal because it really says something about the organization, requires almost no space, and doesn’t need any kind of special disposal.

If the faculty or students of the institution put together some kind of publication, it is best to send it to people who the organization is fairly certain are well-disposed towards it. To others it may be a burden.

3. To prevent feelings of frustration and confusion, the letter accompanying the gift should explicitly state that it comes with no strings attached and that the recipient is free to take it even if he or she has no intention of donating.

(I would also add a fourth ethical consideration: gifts like these shouldn’t be used to evade taxes. Sometimes the value of an expensive gift needs to be subtracted from the amount of the donation in calculating the tax deduction.)

In the final analysis, it is simply not practical to refuse or send back such a gift, and therefore the recipient should not feel that the use or acceptance of the gift creates any obligation to make a donation. Ideally, charity organizations should carefully choose the gifts and the recipients, so that the gift sends a meaningful message about the institution and creates a genuine desire to help.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 7a.

Send your queries about ethics in the workplace to jewishethicist@aish.com

The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of Aish.com and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at www.besr.org.

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

Published: January 25, 2003


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Visitor Comments: 3

(3) SusanE, May 14, 2011 4:16 PM

I receive address labels and tote bags.

I receive address labels and tote bags and other small things in mail that ask for donations. I've given to some. Others I've not. I have used the address labels of some that I approve of but can't give to. There is always an ad for their organization on the gifts they send. Their 'gift' is like a little business card ad of theirs that I show around. I feel OK using the gift and not donating.

(2) ruth Hurvitz, December 24, 2005 12:00 AM

12 step prayer on knees

12 step programs to treat addictions sometimes push a very Christian framework. I have been particularly troubled because in my groups (food addicts) we are instructed to pray on our knees as a sign of surrender to the addiction and a 'higher power.' My Jewish "program friends" often go along with and justify the behavior (I'm not relgious, it saves lives, I don't want to lose my sponsor etc.) but I feel strongly that I want a Jewish identity and relationship with God. Prayer on my knees seems like assimilation. Can you shed light on this controversy.

(1) Sarah, January 26, 2003 12:00 AM

a suggestion

If you receive a large Torah book and don't want it, consider donating it to a Jewish library; such books are always appreciated there.

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