Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Are there ways for a rabbi to accept gifts?

[Jack’s Gaza Update 16 is here.]

15 of my last 16 posts, going back to Saturday night December 27th, have been on the Gaza war. The war remains as significant as ever, but I have nothing new to say about it today (although this short piece on Israel and the media is starting something in my head). So, here goes with something else:

One of the truly vexing problems that comes with the rabbinate is this: How do you handle presents?

Yes, I know what you’re thinking: Some big problems you have, rabbi. No wonder you have so much stress. How about you send that problem my way?

But I’m actually serious: Gift-giving is a real problem for rabbis.

People are kind, and they like to display gratitude for the things the rabbi does. Maybe it’s because of a lifecycle event with which he helped, or some counseling he did, or a crisis he helped them weather, or one of any number of things... there are people who like to give the rabbi a gift, whether cash or an item or a service.

And I, for one, have a hard time accepting gifts, for several reasons:

First, I don’t want to have visions of reimbursal in my head when I help someone.
Can you imagine a kid making nice to his great-aunt as part of a plan to gain an inheritance? Yuck.
And lest I say I could accept the gift and remain neutral, I am reminded of the gemara in Sanhedrin (re: judges) warning that one cannot accept a gift and remain neutral.

Second, I don’t want anyone to think that I give special treatment to people who pay more.
I worry that if I were to accept such a gift, even without letting it affect me, people (whether the giver or anyone who heard about it) would assume that I had been affected by the gift.

Third, I don’t want anyone to have to feel like they need to pay me in order to get my assistance.
I am here to help, that’s it. Yes, the community pays me, so there is money involved - but no individual should ever feel like they have a lesser or greater claim on my attention, based on how much they have contributed toward that salary.

Fourth, I don’t want anyone to see me as a charity case.
I work hard, and make a good salary. Granted that some 40% of that salary then goes for tuition, but it’s no different from anyone else’s day-to-day struggle. So why am I getting unsolicited help?

On the other hand, people mean well when they offer these gifts. They aren’t trying to bribe me, or to gain some special advantage; it’s just an expression of gratitude or respect. Therefore, refusal can sometimes be viewed as an insult.
Worse, declining might sometimes be viewed as rejection of the person, instead of the gift.

Which leaves me trying to figure out what to do, every time this comes up. I usually demur, but there have been occasions when I have accepted, rather than insult a person.

So the other day I declined a generous offer someone had extended, and he said to me, “You know, rabbi, there are ways to give gifts, and ways to accept gifts.”

That has the ring of sage advice. But how? What are the ways?

I turn to you:
1) What are good ways to accept gifts?
2) And - please comment anonymously on this - what is your rabbi’s approach to accepting gifts?


  1. Hmm, the gifts we give our rabbi directly are usually things like mishloach manot.

    In general, our congregation encourages donations to the rabbis' discretionary funds, rather than directly to the rabbis. That way the rabbi knows they gave something, but not how much, and they can add a little note in the newsletter (anonymously or by name) with their thanks or appreciation or what-have-you and the rabbi spends it going to conferences or helping a poor family or buying new books or whatever.

    I think part of your discomfort may be that in offering to pay you with money, they turn a voluntary gesture of the heart you offered into an impersonal transaction - at least in the cases where you were acting outside your required duties in the congregation.

    If you really don't want to keep the gifts for yourself, you can set up a special fund yourself and just deposit all this money there, then once a year or whatever you tell the congregation what worthy group you are helping, with their assistance.

    If, on the other hand, the gifts are on the order of poorly knitted handmade sweaters, you have a much bigger problem on your hands. ;)

  2. Hi Tzipporah,
    Thanks for the feedback. I definitely agree that part of it is the sense that this is now an impersonal transaction.
    I do sometimes give it to the Benevolent Fund, or other tzedakah needs in the community. (But I never use Benevolent Fund money for conventions or other needs of mine; I believe that is not the intent of people who contribute to the Fund. I think I've blogged about this issue elsewhere, but I'm too lazy to look it up at the moment.)

  3. Ah, here we have a "Tzedakah v'Chesed" committee and fund that I think serves the same purpose as your Benevolent fund, and it's separate from the rabbis' discretionary funds.

    We've also got separate funds for the building, the library, the schools, etc. so that people can be as choosy as they want with their donations.

  4. i gave my rabbi an anonymous gift once -- it was a book about the history of the neighborhood with a note saying חג שמח, רב (it was around Sukkos i think), and i just left it on his chair in the shul.

    (luckily he doesn't read blogs)

  5. Steg-
    Cute - but I hope he knew it was a gift for him! I might have assumed it was a contribution to the shul's library.

  6. yup, he figured it out — i saw it on his bookshelf a month or few later :-)