Q: I'm struggling to succeed in a small business. Often people put pressure on me to do jobs free or at a discount, especially if they are friends or for worthy causes.
A: Of course there is nothing wrong with doing a favor for a friend or donating your services to a worthy cause. It's not unusual for business people to do casual favors for friends without charge, for example, a professional such as a lawyer or accountant sharing a little bit of his or her expertise with a friend without giving true professional advice. It's also common and praiseworthy for business people to give charitable donations in the form of professional services, and Jewish law views these donations just like any other kind of contribution. In fact, they are an especially praiseworthy kind of contribution because they demonstrate personal involvement. (1)
But I have heard from a number of small business operators that the requests they get are quite beyond this pattern. Friends may request not friendly advice, but rather full-blown professional editing or public-relations services. It's certainly not customary for someone to provide his precise professional service as a casual favor. Worthy causes may pressure service providers whom they would otherwise not think of approaching for a donation, given their means or orientation.
While acts of generosity are always good, they should always be done out of your own free will, and not because of pressure or duress. And in Jewish tradition, pressure or duress does not necessarily mean some kind of harmful threat; the threat of unjustified embarrassment is also a kind of threat.
Maimonides writes: "Someone who eats from a meal which is not enough for the host is akin to robbery. Yet he imagines that he has done nothing wrong, saying, Did I eat anything without his permission?!" Indeed the permission was given, but it wasn't true "informed consent". Everyone likes to host guests, and it's embarrassing not to be able.
It's not only improper to solicit help from someone who can't really give it; one should avoid getting into the awkward situation to begin with. The great Talmudic sage Pinchas ben Yair, in his many travels, went out of his way to provide for himself to avoid imposing on eager but impecunious householders. (3)
The case of charity is slightly different, but basically the same principle applies. The difference is that it is unseemly to solicit gifts, as the Scriptures tell us, "One who despises gifts, will live." (Proverbs 15:17) Whereas it is proper to solicit charity for a worthy cause; indeed our sages tell us that someone who inspires others to give charity is as praiseworthy as the giver himself. (4)
But even when it comes to charity, Jewish law still prohibits crossing the line into duress and pressure tactics. Again, Maimonides writes: "A soft-hearted person who gives more charity than he is able, or stints for himself and gives to charity so as not to be embarrassed, it is forbidden [for the collectors] to demand and collect money from him. And if a collector shames him and asks him, God is liable to requite him."
The Talmud states that this behavior is referred to in the Biblical verse (Jeremiah 30:20), "And I will requite all who oppress them." (6)
You can be grateful that you have a unique talent and ability which is much in demand not only among your clients, but also among friends and worthy organizations. Of course you may choose to share these talents with others on a voluntary basis. But it is wrong for others to pressure you to do so beyond what is affordable for you and customary for business owners, and you should feel no embarrassment in politely refusing requests for inappropriate freebies.
SOURCES: (1) Cyril Domb (ed.), Maaser Kesafim pg. 130 (2) Maimonides Code, Teshuva 4:4 (3) Babylonian Talmud Chullin 7b. (4) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 9a (5) Maimonides Code, Matanot Aniim 7:11 (6) Babylonian Talmud Bava Batra 8b
The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.