Beha’alotcha: Laws of Gifts

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Gift Box
11 Jun 2009

Rav Natan of Breslav begins his discussion of the laws of gifts with a surprising question: why are gifts appropriate at all? While we may not find anything unusual or objectionable in the practice of giving gifts, Rav Natan’s approach to Chasidut reveals two seeming paradoxes in this practice. We will discuss one this week, and the second IYH next week.

Rav Natan’s first difficulty with gifts is understandable in light of his general approach to monetary laws. Rav Natan, based on his teacher Rav Nachman of Breslav, views property as a unique expression of Divine providence, in which HaShem carefully allocates the world’s assets according to each individual’s special ability to perfect himself and serve the Creator. In this approach, theft is abhorrent because it interferes with HaShem’s will and His plan for human perfection. Stealing a person’s property is like stealing a bit of his soul!

Given this approach, it would seem to follow that giving a gift voluntarily is no better than stealing. After all, when all is said and done the gift has been willfully removed from the control of the owner and given to the recipient!

This question does not arise primarily regarding the giving of charity to the poor. Rav Natan makes it clear in many places that one of the best ways in which we can use our possessions to perfect ourselves and to do G^d’s will is precisely by emulating His ways and providing for the needs of the deprived. Rav Natan’s main focus is a gift between equals. (In this context it is noteworthy that Rambam, cited by the Shulchan Arukh, considers a gift among the highest kinds of tzedaka because it doesn’t carry the condescension of a charitable donation. The inherent nature of a gift is a friendly gesture among equals. See SA YD 249:6.)

Another way we use our possessions in Divine service is of course by spending money on our own mitzvot: buying the four species, paying tuition for Torah studies, and so on.

Beyond these specific mitzva-uses of money, to give charity or to perform personal commandments, the main way in which we can use our possessions to perfect ourselves is to use them to increase our appreciation of Divine beneficence through the enjoyment of material enjoyments which are uniquely suited to our character and spiritual level. We mentioned in a previous column that Rav Natan explains the after-blessing “borei nefashot” said on most foods as follows: we thank HaShem for creating “many spirits and their deficiencies” – our spirits have deficiencies which are filled by the delight of eating certain foods. Our money provides the opportunity for sanctified and fulfilling engagement in the world.

Rav Natan’s answer to his paradox is that a gift to a person who is not needy also fills this purpose. When we give a gift, the recipient generally requites with thanks and sincere friendship, which are a source of gratification and fulfillment for the giver. This sense of fulfillment is in many ways parallel to that attained by pleasures such as eating, and in fact is even greater because it is human fulfillment.

Of course Rav Natan never strays from the main point of his book, to explain the inner meaning of the law. He points out that his approach explains why many ambiguities in a sales contract are interpreted in favor of the seller but in a gift contract are interpreted in favor of the recipient. (One example is SA CM 214:9.) Since the entire purpose of a gift is to show magnanimity, it is logical that the giver has an attitude of generosity and excess, unlike a seller who is trying to maximize his advantage.

[Note that a gratuitous disposal of our property would still be a grave crime according to Rav Natan, since it depletes the giver’s property without strengthening his friendships. This accords with our explanation of the prohibition on gratuitous destruction, “bal tashchit”, as we presented it in a previous column.]

Rabbi Asher Meir is the author of the book Meaning in Mitzvot, distributed by Feldheim. The book provides insights into the inner meaning of our daily practices, following the order of the 221 chapters of the Kitzur Shulchan Aruch.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.