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Receiving Gifts

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Shabbat Parshat Korach

Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Tammuz

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In the Torah portion of Korach, we read how Moshe exclaimed that during his time as a leader he did not “take a donkey from a single one of them nor did he harm a single one of them.”[1] This means that even when he traveled from Midian to Egypt in order to redeem the Jewish people using a donkey to transport his wife and children, he did not ask the Jewish people to reimburse him for the donkey.[2]
The prophet Shmuel, when recounting his leadership to the Jewish people, echoed Moshe’s statement. “Here I am; bear witness against me before the L-rd and before His anointed. Whose ox did I take, or whose donkey did I take, or whom did I rob; or whom did I oppress, or from whose hand did I take a ransom, that I hide my eyes therewith, and I shall restore to you.”[3] Shmuel was referring to the donkey that he would ride from city to city while judging the Jewish people.[4] Shmuel could certainly have asked the Jewish people to pay for his donkey, yet he did not do so.[5]
In fact, according to our sages,[6] Shmuel was careful never to accept any favors from the Jewish people during his many travels. As the verse says,[7] “וּתְשֻׁבָתוֹ הָרָמָתָה כִּי שָׁם בֵּיתוֹ  And his return was to Ramah, for there was his house.” The Talmud says that “שָׁם בֵּיתו, his house was there,” means that wherever he went, he would take all of his household items with him rather than borrow them from other people.
This article will discuss the topic of accepting (or declining) gifts, as explained below.
He Who Hates Gifts Will Live
In the book of Proverbs (15:27), King Solomon writes, “He who is greedy for gain troubles his own house, but he who hates gifts will live.”
The commentaries offer various explanations as to what is wrong with accepting gifts and why the reward for refusing them is a long life.
  • Rashi says that one who does not accept gifts will certainly distance himself from taking money unlawfully. The blessing for long life is thus a reward for being exceedingly careful never to embezzle property from other people. There are occasions in which a gift can be considered stealing, for example, if the giver feels pressure to give the gift and does not give it with a whole heart.[8]
  • The Ralbag explains that a person who does not accept gifts is placing his full reliance on G-d. For this he is rewarded with long life, a gift only G-d can grant.[9]
  • Similarly, Rabbeinu Bachaye explains that one who does not accept gifts is successfully uprooting the negative trait of jealousy from his heart. He replaces it with absolute faith in G-d, that He alone will provide for all of his needs. If one relies completely on G-d, it is only fair that G-d fulfill his needs and grant him long life.[10]
  • The Maharal of Prague explains[11] that G-d is the source of all life and the ultimate giver who does not receive anything in return. One who gives to others but does not accept gifts from them is emulating G-d and deserving of the divinely endowed blessing of life.
  • The Maggid Mishna says[12] that this verse is teaching us to lead a simple life and not seek luxuries by accepting (non-essential) gifts from others. (It would seem that, according to the Maggid Mishnah one may accept gifts for his essential needs.) Our sages say that jealousy, lust and honor remove a person from this world.[13] A person who is satisfied with his lot (and does not accept gifts) is saved from those three evils and is thus not removed from this world but lives long.
  • The commentary of Me’irat Einayim (on Choshen Mishpat 249:4) explains that one who accepts gifts becomes beholden to his benefactors and will not be in a position to rebuke them for their shortcomings.
In the Mishna
The Mishna[14] writes, “All who need to take (charity), yet do not take, will not die from old age until they (become wealthy and are able to) provide for others from their portion. Regarding this, Scriptures states, ‘Blessed is the man who relies on G-d, and G-d will be his security.'”[15]
The Tiferet Yisrael explains that it is best to not accept charity (if at all possible) because charity is, after all, a gift, and it is best not to accept gifts.
In the Talmud
Based on the above verse, we find many sages in the Talmud who refused to accept gifts.
  • Rabbi Akiva once asked the great Rabbi Nechunyah “What did you do to merit long life?” Rabbi Nechunyah explained that he never accepted gifts, he never took revenge on anybody, and he always relented to the other side rather than have a monetary dispute.[16]
  • The Talmud relates that Rabbi Abba once purchased a field which Rabbi Gidal had been attempting to acquire. Generally, one who purchases an item which someone else is trying to purchase is called wicked, but Rabbi Abba was unaware of Rabbi Gidal’s efforts. When it was brought to Rabbi Abba’s attention, he tried to give the field to Rabbi Gidal. But Rabbi Gidal refused it in keeping with the principle that one who declines gifts will live. Rabbi Abba, for his part, refused to use it as, in retrospect, he had been wrong in purchasing it. So, the land remained unoccupied, and it was used by the Rabbinic students.[17]
  • The Talmud says that when people started to accept gifts, the life expectancy of the Jewish people decreased.[18]
In the Rambam
The Rambam writes,[19] “Perfect tzadikim (righteous people) and men of spiritual stature would not receive gifts from other men. Instead, they would trust in God, blessed be His name, and not in generous people as the verse states, ‘One who hates gifts will live.'”
In the Code of Jewish Law
The Shulchan Aruch writes[20] that it is exemplary behavior (midat Chassidut) to not accept gifts but rather to rely on G-d to provide for all of one’s needs.
Accepting Gifts Which Benefit the Giver
There are two opinions in the Talmud as to whether it is proper to accept gifts if doing so will also benefit the giver of the gift. This is evident from the following discussion.
When Rabbi Elazar (ben Pedat) was invited to the home of the Reish Galuta, the exilarch (leader of the Jewish people in Babylonia), he would not go. Nor would he accept gifts that they would send him. He excused himself to the Reish Galuta saying “Does the master not want me to live” (i.e., by not accepting gifts I will live longer, as explained)”? On the other hand, Rav Zevid would accept invitations from the Reish Galuta but would decline gifts. He explained that since they considered it an honor to host him (since he was a renowned Torah scholar), he was doing it for their sake. In his opinion, this type of gift was permissible.[21]  Whereas Rabbi Elazar believed that one should not accept even such a gift.
This explains another argument in the Talmud: If two partners own a field which is too small to divide as each parcel would be too small for any effective use, there is a dispute as to what they can do if they wish to dissolve their partnership. The sages say that one party may say to the other, “I will give you a larger portion of the field so that it is large enough for you to develop, and I will take the smaller portion.” Whereas Rabbi Shimon ben Galmliel says that the other partner may refuse to accept this proposal. The Talmud explains that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel’s argument is that the other partner can answer, “I don’t have the money to pay you for the extra piece of land, and I do not wish to accept it as a gift since one who refuses gifts will live.”[22] The commentaries explain[23] that the sages (who rule that one may force his partner to accept this arrangement) say that it is not a problem to accept this kind of gift since it’s for the benefit of the giver – so that he can dissolve the partnership. Both of these opinions are cited in the Code of Jewish Law, so it is not clear which is the final halacha.[24]
What About Avraham?
The Torah recounts how, when descending to Egypt to escape the famine in Israel, Avraham claimed that his wife Sarai was actually his sister. Before doing so, he explained to her that he was doing this “in order that it will be good for me because of you, and that I may live because of you.”[25] Rashi says that when he said “it will be good for me,” he meant that he would receive gifts. This seems to fly in the face of the above teachings.
The Tosfot explains[26] that the rule of not accepting gifts does not apply when accepting from gentiles. This would seem to follow the explanation of the Me’irat Einayim (cited above) that the purpose of not receiving gifts is so that one not be beholden to people and then be unable to rebuke them. Since there is no mitzvah to rebuke gentiles, the principle of not accepting gifts does not apply to gifts received from them.
The Derisha (by the same author of the Me’irat Einayim) explains[27] that Avraham’s reasoning was that by accepting gifts from the officers who would request the hand of Sarah in marriage he would enforce their belief that she was his sister. (In the end, as far as we know, it was only Pharaoh himself who sought to marry her.) Thus, this was part of the plan to save her life.
Later in the Torah we read that Avraham accepted gifts from the Philistine king Avimelech, after he returned Sarah to him.[28] The Derisha explains that Avraham accepted these gifts so that people would realize that Avimelech was returning her in an honorable manner – because G-d had instructed him not to abuse her but rather to return her immediately. Had he not accepted the gifts, people might have thought that Avimelech had abused her and was then sending her on her way as one might do to a prostitute.[29]
Accepting Hospitality
If one is traveling, it is not considered improper to accept invitations to eat or sleep at someone’s house. Nevertheless, one who can afford to not accept such invitations is encouraged to do so. This can be derived from the fact that Elisha, the prophet, would regularly stay at the house of the Shunamit woman who built a special bedroom for him. Certainly, Elisha would not accept gifts when he was at home. But while traveling, he had no choice as he could not afford to rent lodging. He therefore accepted these invitations and thus enabled the woman to fulfill the mitzvah of hosting guests. Shmuel, the prophet, would not even accept such invitations, as mentioned above. This is because he was wealthy enough to support himself while traveling.
Wishing you all a Shabbat Shalom and a Chodesh Tov and a long life!

[1] Numbers 16:15
[2] Rashi
[3] Shmuel I, 12:3. This is part of the regular Haftorah of Parshat Korach. This year we read the Haftorah of Rosh Chodesh instead.
[4] See Shmuel I, 7:16
[5] Rashi
[6] Berachot 10b and Nedarim 38a
[7] Ibid 7:17
[8] See Chullin 7b
[9] See also Metzudot David and Malbim
[10] Kad HaKemach, entry Chemda
[11] Netivot Olam, Netiv Ha’Osher, 1
[12] End of the Laws of Zechiya Umatana (12:17)
[13] Avot 4:21
[14] Pe’ah 8:9
[15] Jeremiah 17:7
[16] Megillah 28a
[17] Kiddushin 59a
[18] Sotah, bottom of 47b
[19] Laws of Zechiya Umatana, ibid
[20] Choshen Mishpat 249:5
[21] Chullin 44b and 45a
[22] Bava Batra 13b
[23] See Melo HaRo’im
[24] Choshen Mishpat, 174:10. See Shach 9 and Me’irat Einayim, 24
[25] Gen. 12:13
[26] In Pirush HaTosfot al HaTorah
[27] Tur, Choshen Mishpat 249:
[28] Gen. 20: 14 – 16
[29] See Shmuel II, 13:15-18
Wishing You all a Shabbat Shalom!
Aryeh Citron

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