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The Jewish Ethicist: Anonymous Giving

The Jewish Ethicist: Anonymous Giving

When is it better to give in secret?

by

Q. In a recent column you wrote that it's actually good for a recipient to publicize the name of the donor. Doesn't this contradict the ideal of anonymous giving?

A.The topic of anonymous donation is a complicated one, so I'm happy for the opportunity to clarify and expand my earlier column.

The reason I made such a point of emphasizing the importance of recognizing donors is because many people have a misunderstanding of this topic. They think that acknowledging a donor is somehow distasteful or disgraceful. This is a wide-spread sentiment; the responsum I cited in the original column was written by the renowned authority Rabbi Shlomo Adret in response to a congregation who were reluctant to fulfill the demand of the donor of a synagogue to have his name appear next to the entrance. Rabbi Adret corrects this sentiment and explains that on the contrary the appropriate instinct of the recipient should be to publicize the good deed of the donor.

There still are good reasons for giving anonymously, but we need to put them in perspective.

Maimonides is famous for enunciating eight distinctive levels of charitable given. Giving anonymously occupies a high position; the second level of giving is "where the donor doesn't know to whom he gives and the recipient doesn't know from whom he receives". But this "double-blind" giving is still only second; the highest level of giving is someone who establishes a personal relationship with the needy person, helping him with a loan or a partnership in a way that doesn't make him feel subordinate. (1)

Part of the value of anonymity valued in this scheme is indeed due to modesty, as Maimonides writes that an anonymous gift is "a commandment fulfilled for its own sake", rather than done in order to obtain honor. But an equally important consideration is to avoid shaming the recipient. Maimonides writes that giving to a reliable charity fund, which is not anonymous from the point of view of the fund administrators, is also a valid way of fulfilling this level of charity. This is because the "double-blind" giving means that any given poor person doesn't feel shame before a donor since no one but the administrator really knows who gave to whom.

Is it wrong to give charity in order to obtain honor? There are contradictory sources on this issue. Many sources indicate that there is no problem with this. Indeed, one of the most widespread methods of collecting charity is precisely to sell honors, such as the Torah readings in synagogue, and even so this is considered to be a perfectly legitimate form of giving. (2) Also, normally the guardian shouldn't give charity from the inheritance of orphan children; the disposal of the money should be left for the child himself, when he is grown up. But it is permissible to give the money if it will provide honor or status. (3)

Yet the Talmud tells us that giving charity in order to boast about it is actually a sin! (4)

We can resolve this paradox by examining the motivation. A person who is motivated by the desire to help others deserves to be honored for his efforts; it follows that he is perfectly permitted to enjoy the honor, in a modest way. Even a person who seeks only honor but decides to obtain it by helping others is still showing concern, though at a lower level; it is certainly better than trying to gain recognition by pride or excess.

But if the original motivation is only to obtain recognition, and there is no concern whatsoever for the needy individual, the gift is not "charitable" at all. The donor is exploiting the recipient's state more than he is trying to alleviate it.

Let us summarize our conclusions:

  • Anonymity towards a needy person is always appropriate, since it minimizes his embarrassment.

  • When a person gives to a charity fund, there is no reason to remain anonymous from the fund administrator; indeed, many scrupulous charity funds refuse to accept totally anonymous donations for fear that the money may be tainted or that there may be hidden "strings attached". Rav Amital, the founder of the Har Etzion Yeshiva, told us once that when he was first trying to find minimal funds to start the yeshiva, he was approached with a truly huge donation from an anonymous donor. Describing the great need, he said: "Do you think we didn't have a penny in our bank account? We didn't even have a bank account!" Even so, Rav Amital was not willing to accept the donation; rather he trusted in God to provide the funding for Torah learning from sources which he knew were proper.

  • Keeping the gift anonymous from the general public is in general an advantage; as we saw, Maimonides states that such a gift testifies to the fact that the good deed is performed for its own sake. But such anonymity is certainly not a requirement, and it is perfectly legitimate for a donor to expect that his contribution be publicized and acknowledged in an appropriate, though not excessive, fashion.

But when keeping the donor secret is likely to lead to speculation that the money is tainted, I think it is best to insist that some way be found to acknowledge the donor in some way which will remove suspicion from the institution.

SOURCES: (1) Rambam Mishneh Torah Matanot Aniim 10:7-8. (2) See Taz commentary on Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 249:1. (3) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 248:3. (4) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 10b; see Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 249:13 in Rema.

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

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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.

Published: June 4, 2005


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