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Is There a Problem with Plaques? Responsa in a Moment: Volume 2, Issue No. 5, February 2008

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donors plaques

Yoreh Deah 249:13

Question:

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.

  1. A Refutation of Rabbi Otensosser’s Opinion

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:

  1. The Talmud ( Bava Batra 133b) relates that the early Sage Yosef ben Yoezer (first half of the second century b.c.e.) donated one ilita of dinars to the Temple. Ilita is usually translated as “an attic full”, but Prof. Y. N. Epstein proved in 1912 on the basis of the Elephantine papyri that ilita was a measure of gold coins (Y. N. Epstein, ZAW 32 (1912), p. 128 (German) = Studies in Talmudic Literature and Semitic Languages, Vol. I, Jerusalem, 1983, p. 375 (Hebrew)). Yosef’s son later donated six ilitas to the Temple. They [=the Temple treasurers] stood and wrote: “Yosef ben Yoezer contributed one and his son contributed six”. It is not clear where this was written, on a plaque or on a list, but these large donations were nonetheless recorded.
  2. Similarly, we learn from a number of sources that a Jew from Alexandria named Nicanor donated one of the large gates leading to the Temple courtyard and it was called Sha’ar Nicanor, the Gate of Nicanor, in his honor (Mishnah Midot 1:4; Mishnah Yoma 3:10; Yoma 38a; Encyclopaedia Judaica s.v. Nicanor’s Gate, Vol. 12, cols. 1133-1135).
  3. We have learned in the Talmud Yerushalmi ( Megillah 3:2, ed. Venice, fol. 74a = ed. Vilna 24a) that a person who pays for a lamp or for a menorah for a synagogue, as long as the donor’s name is not forgotten, you may not change them to another place. “Rabbi Hiyya said in the name of Rabbi Yohanan (d. 279 c.e.): ” If the name of the owner was carved on them, it is considered as if their name is not forgotten”. This passage teaches us that there was a common custom in Eretz Yisrael in the third century for a donor’s name to be inscribed on the object he donated to a synagogue.
  4. The last source from rabbinic literature which hints at this practice, is found in Midrash Leviticus Rabbah which was edited in Eretz Yisrael in the fifth century (34:8, ed. Margaliot, pp. 790-791 = Midrash Ruth Rabbah 5:6, ed. Vilna 9a-10a):

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.

  1. We now know from over 500 inscriptions discovered in ancient synagogues in Israel and the Diaspora during the past century that it was common practice to write the names of donors on the object or the section of the building which they donated. The inscription – in Greek, Aramaic or Hebrew – mentions the names of the donors, the object donated and even the amount paid (See Yosef Naveh, Al P’ssifass Va’even, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1978, pp. 7-12; Joseph Naveh in Lee Levine, ed., Ancient Synagogues Revealed, Jerusalem, 1981, pp. 133-139; Leah Roth-Gerson, The Greek Inscriptions From the Synagogues in Eretz Yisrael (Hebrew), Jerusalem, 1987, pp. 150-152; Lee Levine, The Ancient Synagogue, New Haven and London, 2000, pp. 273, 347-350, 479-481).
  2. This custom continued during the Middle Ages down to modern times. Synagogues from Spain to Italy to Prague to Poland contain plaques and inscriptions which mention the donor and the object donated.
  3. The earliest responsum allowing such synagogue inscriptions was written by the Rashba (R. Solomon ben Adret, Barcelona, 1235-1310), one of the most important halakhic authorities in the Middle Ages. He was asked about “Reuven” who turned his entire house into a synagogue and wanted to inscribe his name as the donor at the entrance, but some members of the congregation prevented him from doing so. The Rashba allowed the donor to write his name for four reasons:
  4. a) If he donated his own house to God, who can prevent him from writing his name on his own property?;
  5. b) This is the custom in some congregations in our place to write such dedications on the wall of the synagogue;
  6. c) The Torah gave credit where credit is due, as we learn from Midrash Ruth (quoted above);
  7. d) The precedent from Bava Batra 133b (quoted above). “From this you learn that they used to write the names of the donors to Heaven to be a good memorial for them of mitzvot [which they perform] and to open the door to those who do mitzvot”. In other words, writing the names of donors commemorates a donor’s  mitzvah and encourages others to do mitzvot.
  8. R. Moshe Isserles (the Rema, Cracow, 1525-1572) in his glosses to Shulhan Arukh (Yoreh Deah 249:13) rules, following the Semag quoted above, that if a person boasts about tzedakah that he gives he is punished, “but, in any case, a person who dedicates something to tzedakah is allowed to write his name on it that it should be a memorial to him and it is fitting to do so”. This last line is based on the responsum of the Rashba as the Rema clearly states in his Darkhey Moshe (to Tur Yoreh Deah 247, subpar. 2; cf. Taz, Nekudot Hakesef and Beiur Hagra to Shulhan Arukh ad loc.)
  9. The custom of giving credit to donors gave birth to the widespread practice of prenumeranten or pre-subscribers who would donate money to publish a book in which their names were listed when the book appeared. Sefer Haprenumerantn by Berl Cohen (Kagan) (New York, 1975) lists almost 2,000 Jews (mostly Rabbis) and almost 8,800 Jewish communities which appear in almost 1,000 books published from the late 18th century until the Holocaust. A number of these lists begin with explicit references to the Responsa of the Rashba and to the Rema in Yoreh Deah . Shlomo Katzav continued the work of Kagan, indexing an additional 390 books which contain such lists of pre-subscribers (Sefer Hahatumim, Vols. 2-4, Petah Tikvah, 1986-1995).
  10.  Maharam Schick (R. Moshe Schick, Hungary (1807-1879) concurred with the Rashba.
  11.  R. Azriel Hildesheimer allowed donors to list their names as we have seen. He added two more points:
  12. a) Publicizing donors increases donations and, if it is forbidden, how did our ancestors allow people to donate explicit amounts of money when they had an aliyah?! What difference does it make if there is publicity in the congregation or in the world at large?
  13. b) Even if this practice includes a small sin, “great is the sin done for the sake of a mitzvah ” (Horayot 10b).
  14.  R. Solomon Freehof (United States, 1892-1990), a leading Reform posek (halakhic authority), permitted listing the names of contributors on the basis of the Rashba and the Rema if the purpose is to safeguard the gift and especially to encourage others to give “to open the door to the other doers of good deeds”.
  15.  Finally, Rabbi Louis Jacobs (England, 1920-2006), a leading Conservative rabbi, permitted the practice described on the basis of the Rashba and the Rema. He added that a congregation can forbid plaques as a takkanat kahal (a local enactment) if the abundance of plaques is too garish or distracts from the mood of worship. He urges the congregation to be consistent so as not to cause hard feelings and to maintain shalom in the community.

Conclusion

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.

David Golinkin
Jerusalem
Erev Parashat Terumah 5768


Bibliography

  1. Rabbis Opposed to Plaques

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

  1. Rabbis who Allow Plaques

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)


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:golinkin@schechter.ac.il [1]. The opinions expressed here are the author’s and in no way reflect an official policy of the Schechter Institute

Image Credit: Or Zaruaa Synagogue Jerusalem Israel, Alon Yeda