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The Jewish Ethicist  - Self-Respect or False Pride

The Jewish Ethicist - Self-Respect or False Pride

Sometimes it's okay to accept a present.


Q. Our family can't afford bikes for all the kids. A neighbor whose kids are already grown wants to give us theirs, but my dad won't accept them. He says this is self-respect, but I wonder if it is false pride.


A. It is certainly a proper instinct to refrain from accepting gifts. The book of Proverbs (15:27) tells us, "A greedy person corrupts his house, but one who disdains gifts will live". On the basis of this verse, the Shulchan Arukh (authoritative Code of Jewish Law), mentions: It is a mark of piety not to accept gifts, but rather to trust in God to provide enough for his needs, as it is written, "One who hates gifts will live". (1)

Likewise, we find the sages of the Talmud using this verse as their basis for declining gifts. Rebbe Elazar in Babylonia refused to accept gifts from the Exilarch (secular authority of Babylonian Jewry), while Rebbe Zeira in Israel refused to accept gifts from the Nasi (Jewish governor). Both cited the above verse, "One who disdains gifts will live." (2)

Yet this is not the whole story. In other places we find that it is proper to accept gifts. We also find the following statement in the Talmud: "All [the promises of] the visions of the prophets refer to one who marries his daughter to a Torah scholar, and who does business with a Torah scholar, and one who gives a Torah scholar to benefit from his possessions." (3) And we find that Rebbe Elazar the son of Rebbe Shimon, one of the greatest sages of the period of the mishna, who just as his resources were dwindling received a gift from sixty sailors who brought him sixty purses filled with money. (4)

The issue of false pride also arises. Regarding charity, the Shulchan Arukh tells us that normally even a needy person should try to tighten his belt and avoid accepting charity. However, "Anyone who is truly in need and cannot live without aid, such as an old or sick person or one in great suffering, yet affects pride and does not accept, he is guilty of bloodshed and is mortally culpable". (5)

Of course this is an extreme case. But there is also a more relevant example. In a highly instructive story in the Talmud, we find a tense interchange between two of the greatest leaders in Jewish history. One is Rebbe Yehuda the Nasi (governor), who was simultaneously the leading Torah authority in the Jewish world (he was the redactor of the entire mishna), the leading secular authority (governor), and also one of the wealthiest individuals. The other is Rebbe Pinchas ben Yair, who was famous for his ascetic habits, his burning concern for the welfare of his people, and his zealous personality.


Accepting a gift can be a way of recognizing the status and beneficence of the giver.


Rebbe Yehuda invited Rebbe Pinchas to dine with him, and the latter refused, causing great consternation to Rebbe Yehuda. Rebbe Pinchas ben Yair saw that Rebbe Yehuda suspected him of declining invitations on principle, and felt obliged to reassure him:


He said to him, do you think I have forsworn benefiting from other Jews? Israel are a holy people! [The problem is that] some people are willing but don't have [means], while others have and don't want [sincerely] to give... You want to and also have [means], however right now I'm in a tremendous rush. (6)


Pinchas ben Yair rushed to deny that he refused to be a guest on principle. The reason he seldom stayed by others was that when poor people invited him he did not want to be an imposition, and when wealthy people invited him he often suspected the invitation was not sincere. However, "Israel are a holy people" and when he was convinced that the invitation came from a sincere person of adequate means he was ready to accept it.

What about the admonition "One who disdains gifts will live"? The leading commentators explain that the "gifts" mentioned in this verse refer to bribes, or gifts that are in the nature of bribes and are meant to affect a person's judgment. In fact, many translations translate the verse "he who hates bribes." Rebbe Elazar and Rebbe Zeira declined to accept gifts from the secular rulers because they were worried that it was meant to compromise their objectivity and align them with the rulers against the people and the scholars. When this concern is missing, as with the great Rabbi Yehuda the Nasi who was renowned for his integrity and scholarship, even Pinchas ben Yair who generally refrained from accepting invitations was fundamentally willing to accept.

The question of how to deal with offers of gifts is a delicate one. There is no question that our first instinct should be to decline -- out of a concern for self-sufficiency, for an unwelcome sense of obligation, or for a gift that may be a financial or social imposition for the giver.

However, as Rebbe Pinchas ben Yair acknowledged, accepting a gift is a way of recognizing the status and beneficence of the giver; refusing one may show that you are unwilling to owe a favor to someone. And of course in many cases the gift itself is welcome and needed. So when you are sure the offer of a gift is sincere, is not a burden to the giver, and is not meant in any way to create an unwelcome obligation, it is not improper to accept a gift.

SOURCES: (1) Shulchan Arukh Choshen Mishpat 249:5 (2) Babylonian Talmud Megilla 28a (3) Babylonian Talmud Berachot 34b (4) Babylonian Talmud Bava Metzia 84b (5) Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 255:2 (6) Babylonian Talmud Chullin 7b



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



February 23, 2008

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Visitor Comments: 4

(4) Anonymous, March 3, 2008 10:52 AM

What about the kids?

In the discussion of ethics it should be noted that the children and their needs were almost entirely dismissed. I am unsure of what the Torah says on the subject but I would think there is something to be said for the ethics of denying your children what has become a basic item that contributes to their health and enjoyment.
I believe that the parent in question is more concerned about being embaressed over not being able to provide his children with bicycles and is not accepting the gift out of a desire to save face. The child who asked the question probably hit it on the nose when s/he said it was their father's false pride.
It would be one thing if the father used the excuses to not accept a gift for himself, he is an adult and can choose to go without.
But the gift was to his children, not to him, and he should only be able to refuse it if the gift is innapropriate or dangerous to the children.
Perhaps the Torah also has something to say about keeping someone else from recieving a gift? Or forcing your children to be denied the basics?
I believe that denying children in this way could easily lead them to grow up resenting the religious world and eventually leaving it.
If Judaism is the reason I can't have a bike then the heck with it. We definately don't want that!

(3) Howard Gillman, February 28, 2008 7:05 AM

To take this one step further, the author states the line of thought from the Shulchan Arukh that Hashem will provide for us. Well, perhaps the neighbor offering the bikes is Hashem's way of providing for this family.

(2) Eliyahu, February 26, 2008 3:27 PM

Refusing gifts denies giver a mitzvah

It's worth remembering that if we refuse a gift of something we need, we're also denying the giver the opportunity to perform the mitzvah of tzedakah. People usually enjoy doing things to help their neighbors, and in this case, it puts to use something (the bicycles) which would otherwise just be collecting dust and taking up room he could use for other things. It also allows the neighbor to reap more benefits from the investment he made in the bicycles -- in this case, the pleasure of seeing them being used by someone who needs and appreciates them.

Perhaps a good compromise here might be for the kids to do some work for the neighbor in exchange for the bicycles?

In any case, we can't learn to give generously unless we have already learned to receive graciously. Otherwise, the children are likely to grow up thinking that no one wants to receive donations or gifts because their father didn't, and it'll inhibit them from giving to others.

(1) Natalie Kehr, February 26, 2008 11:11 AM

Refusing gifts denies giving the donor pleasure

If the situation was reversed and the poor father had bikes which he no longer needed, would he get pleasure from giving them away? If the answer is "Yes", then he has no right to deny the neighbour the pleasure of giving.

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