It is a common Jewish practice to publicize the names of donors and to put up the donors plaques in their honor. Is this common practice permissible or is it better to give in secret (mattan baseter)?
Responsum: (All responsa quoted in this teshuvah are listed in the Bibliography below).
I) Opposition to Plaques and to Publishing Names of Donors
Rabbi Hershel Matt (1922-1987) was a saintly Conservative rabbi known for his high ethical standards. When he was rabbi in Troy, New York (1950-1959), he and his Board discussed the issue of acknowledging donations publicly either in the synagogue bulletin or from the pulpit. After discussing the matter, they issued the following statement:
As a synagogue, we must teach and preach that gifts are properly given out of thanksgiving, or as a private personal tribute to the living or in memory of the dead, or out of desire to help in holy work. In none of these cases, should we encourage the cheapening of a precious mitzvah by holding out the incentive of attaining glory, credit or publicity.
From then on, each donor was thanked in writing by the rabbi or by an officer of the congregation. The Board was convinced by Rabbi Matt that “deep in their hearts, our members will agree that it is a higher form of giving, to give without seeking public thanks or credit”.
This opinion of Rabbi Matt was based on personal conviction; it was not a teshuvah based on sources. I have found only one rabbi who built a careful legal case to argue against plaques and public recognition of donors (For some earlier sources in favor of giving in secret and opposed to taking credit in public for giving tzedakah , see Rabbi Eliyahu Hacohen, Sefer Me’il Tzedakah , ed. Lemberg, 1859, paragraphs 1292, 1328, 1553, 1666, 1676, 1681, 1744 which are summarized by Abraham Cronbach, HUCA 12-13 (1937-1938), pp. 671-673. Rabbi Eliyahu Hacohen died in Smyrna in 1729). Rabbi Eleasar Ottensosser (1798-1878) sent a halakhic question to Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer (1820-1899) in 1867. In his question, he made a strong legal case against donor recognition based on five sources to which I have added a sixth:
1) Proverbs 21:14 “A gift in secret pacifies anger”; this teaches that a gift in the open arouses God’s wrath.
2) Micah 6:8 “It is told to you O man, what is good. and to walk humbly with your God”.
3) [Rabbi Eleazar in Bava Batra 9b uses source No. 1 to teach: “A man who gives charity in secret is greater than Moshe Rabbeinu”.]
4) Bava Batra 10b: “Rabban Gamliel replied: ‘ Tzedakah exalts a nation. and the kindness of the people is sin’ (Proverbs 14:34). All the tzedakah and kindness that the nations do is reckoned as sin to them, because they only do it to display haughtiness and whoever displays haughtiness is cast into Gehinom (Hell).”.
5) Rabbi Moshe of Coucy (ca. 1236) ruled in his Sefer Mitzvot Gadol ( Mitzvot Assey , No. 162, ed. Venice, fol. 207b): “One who donates charity is required not to boast haughtily of the charity he gives, and if he should boast, he will not only fail to receive a reward for what he donated, but Heaven will actually punish him for it”. He then quotes the above passage from Bava Batra 10b.
6) Finally, Rabbi Otensosser paraphrases Rabbi Yosef Karo (1488-1575) from his mystical work Maggid Meisharim to Exodus 20:20 (ed. Jerusalem, 1960, p. 64): “You shall not make with Me gods of silver or gods of gold, you shall not make unto you”- this means that if you do something with Me, i.e. perform the commandments, you shall not derive any material benefit from their performance.
In his responsum, Rabbi Hildesheimer systematically refutes Rabbi Otensosser’s opinion, as follows:
1) The language of Proverbs teaches that a gift in the open does not pacify anger; it does not mean that a gift in the open arouses God’s anger.
2) So too regarding Micah 6:8: “Walking humbly with God” is certainly very good, but it does not mean that lack of humility is the opposite.
3) “A man who gives charity in secret is greater than Moshe Rabbeinu”, but that does not mean that a man who gives charity openly is a sinner.
4) and 5) Allowing one’s name to be listed or put on a plaque does not mean that one is boasting haughtily.
6) [Allowing one’s name to be listed is not “material benefit”.]
III. Sources and Precedents for Permitting Plaques and Publicizing the Names of Donors
Rabbi Hildesheimer succeeded in refuting Rabbi Otensosser’s sources, but, surprisingly, he adduced almost no sources to make a positive case for plaques and donor acknowledgment. The following sources and precedents show that these practices have been part and parcel of normative Judaism for almost 2,200 years:
Rabbi Yitzhak bar Maryon said: The Torah comes to teach you. that when a person does a mitzvah he should do it with a happy heart, for if Reuven had known that God will write about him (Genesis 37:21) “And Reuven heard [what his brothers plotted] and he saved him [=Joseph] from their hands”, he would have carried Joseph to his father on his shoulders. If Aaron would have known that God will write about him (Exodus 4:14) “and behold he [=Aaron] is going out to greet you.”, Aaron would have gone out to greet Moses with drums and dancing. If Boaz had known that God will write about him “and [Boaz] handed her roasted grain” (Ruth 2:14), he would have brought and fed Ruth fatted calves. Rabbi Cohen and Rabbi Joshua of Sikhnin said in the name of Rabbi Levi: In the past, a person would do a mitzvah and the prophets would write it, and now that there are no prophets, who writes it? Elijah and the King Messiah and God signs next to them as it is written ( Malakhi 3:16):”. The Lord has heard it and noted it, and a scroll of remembrance has been written at His behest concerning those who revere the Lord and esteem His name”.
This fascinating passage is not directly related to plaques or donations, but it teaches us that God Himself gives credit in writing for performing a mitzvah and that if people know that they will get written credit, they will perform the mitzvah in a much better fashion.
If an individual or a rabbi or a community wants to give matan baseter without donor recognition, following the opinion of Rabbi Otensosser and Rabbi Matt, they may certainly do so. But normative Jewish practice for some 2,200 years has been to record gifts and to inscribe the names of donors because this serves as a memorial to the donor and encourages others to give tzedakah.
Erev Parashat Terumah 5768
Rabbi Eleasar Otensosser in She’elot Uteshuvot Rabbi Azriel, Tel Aviv, 1969, No. 219 (in the question); this responsum was translated and explained by Rabbi David Ellenson in Judaism 45/4 (Fall 1996), pp. 490-496.
Rabbi Hershel Matt in Daniel C. Matt, ed., Walking Humbly With God, Hoboken, New Jersey, 1993, pp. 24-25
Rabbi Shlomo ben Adret, She’elot Uteshuvot Harashba, Vol. 1, Jerusalem, 1997, No. 581
Rabbi Moshe Isserles, Darkey Moshe to Tur Yoreh Deah 247, subpar. 2 and in his glosses to Yoreh Deah 249:13
Rabbi Moshe Schick, She’elot Uteshuvot Maharam Schick, Orah Hayyim, New York, 1961, No. 82
Rabbi Azriel Hildesheimer, She’elot Uteshuvot Rabbi Azriel, No. 219 (see above)
Rabbi Solomon Freehof, Recent Reform Responsa, 1963, No. 43
Rabbi Louis Jacobs, The Masorti Journal, No. 1 (1987), pp. 33-36
III. Additional Responsa
Rabbi Menahem Mendel of Nicholsburg, Zemah Zedek, Jerusalem, 1968, No. 50 (also quoted by the Hida, Birkey Yosef to Shulhan Arukh Orah Hayyim 154, subpar. 4 and by Maharam Schick).
Rabbi Aharon Shmuel Kaidanover, Responsa Emunat Shmuel, Bnai Berak, 1999, No. 35 (also quoted by Pithey Teshuvah to Yoreh Deah 249, subpar. 3)
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Prof. David Golinkin is President of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem. Feel free to reprint this article in its entirety. If you wish to abbreviate it, please contact Rabbi Golinkin at mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute
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David Golinkin is President of The Schechter Institutes, Inc. and President Emeritus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies. For twenty years he served as Chair of the Va’ad Halakhah (Law Committee) of the Rabbinical Assembly which gives halakhic guidance to the Masorti Movement in Israel. He is the founder and director of the Institute of Applied Halakhah at Schechter and also directs the Center for Women in Jewish Law. Rabbi Professor Golinkin made aliyah in 1972, earning a BA in Jewish History and two teaching certificates from The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He received an MA in Rabbinics and a PhD in Talmud from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America where he was also ordained as Rabbi. For a complete bio click here.