World of the Sages: The gift of giving

When we give gifts, the recipient, may not be the only beneficiary; any giver - regardless of his wealth or social status - also gains.

The Mishna tells us that if someone built a new house or purchased new items a blessing is called for: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who has kept us alive [sheheheyanu], sustained us and brought us to this time" (M. Brachot 9:3). The Talmud records a dispute regarding which type of new clothes warrant the sheheheyanu blessing (B. Brachot 59b): According to one opinion, the blessing is recited only when the recipient does not have clothes of that nature. Thus a first suit would justify the blessing, but a second suit would not. A second opinion suggests otherwise: Even if the owner already has a suit, the acquisition of a new suit warrants the blessing. One commentator explains that this dispute refers to items inherited; new items just purchased always deserve the recitation of the blessing (Rashi, 11th century, France). In the Talmud Yerushalmi, the term "new" is further clarified: The garment need not be brand new; the sheheheyanu blessing is recited even if the clothes were previously worn as long as they are new to the buyer, that is, subjectively new (Y. Brachot 91a). After clarifying this aspect of the blessing over new clothes, the Yerushalmi continues with an innovative distinction: The blessing is only recited over new clothes that were purchased; if the new garments were received as a gift, a different blessing is called for: "Blessed are You, God, our Lord, king of the universe, who is good and does good [hatov vehameitiv]." The Babylonian Talmud records no such distinction between the purchase of new clothes and the receipt of new clothes as a gift. Moreover, the hatov vehameitiv blessing is prescribed in the Babylonian Talmud for situations were there are at least two beneficiaries. Thus, for instance, a new wine brought to the table only warrants the blessing if it is to be drunk together with others. One commentator sought to explain the position of the Yerushalmi in light of the hatov vehameitiv parameters delineated in the Babylonian Talmud (Rosh, 13th-14th centuries, Germany-Spain): Indeed the blessing is only recited when two people accrue benefit; however, the giving of a gift of new clothes may indeed benefit two people. For instance, if the recipient is poverty-stricken, then the giver is thankful for being fortunate to be in the position of assisting the needy. On later commentator suggested a talmudic passage that supports the idea of a giver also benefiting from the gift (Ma'adanei Yom Tov, 17th century, Bavaria-Bohemia-Moravia-Poland; B. Kiddushin 7a): The halachic act of betrothal normally involves a man giving something of monetary value - most commonly today, a ring - to a woman. The Talmud cites a case where the woman gives money to a man and says: "Take this money and I will become betrothed to you." Surprisingly, the Talmud states that if the man accepts the money and declares that she should be betrothed, the act is halachically valid. Under normal circumstances, when the woman is not the recipient but the active party in the transaction, the law does not recognize this deed as an act of betrothal (B. Kiddushin 5b). Why is this case different? The Talmud explains that we are talking about a specific scenario: The male recipient is a distinguished person and the woman indeed is the recipient in that she accrues benefit from the fact that her gift was accepted by such an important person. In lieu of that benefit that she receives, she commits herself to become betrothed. Thus we have a second example where the giver is also the beneficiary. Perhaps we can broaden the scope of benefit accrued by the giver rather than limiting the possibilities to the two examples cited: A wealthy person helping the needy and a gift accepted by a person of importance. When we give gifts, the obvious beneficiary, the recipient, may not be the only beneficiary; any giver - regardless of his wealth or social status - also gains. On a simple level, the giver has satisfaction that the gift has been accepted. More significantly, the giver is filled with a sense of delight that the gift has brought someone happiness, that he picked the right present for the right person and that he brought a smile to the face of another. Thus a gift granted is a joyous occasion for both the recipient and the giver. This is reflected in the position that the hatov vehameitiv blessing be recited upon receiving clothes from another. There are of course those who find it difficult to accept gifts from others. For such people the biblical verse "He that hates gifts shall live" (Proverbs 15:27) has become almost a principle of faith. Perhaps it comes from an overdeveloped sense of independence that bars any thought of accepting from another. Without addressing the psychological needs of such people, perhaps the hatov vehameitiv blessing of the gift of new clothes can offer some insight: Accepting gifts is not just for ourselves; we allow the giver to extend a hand of friendship, to become part of our lives. Thus accepting a gift is also a form of giving. In the silver-screen version of Shalom Aleichem's Tevye the milkman, he proffers a hearty piece of cheese to Perchik: "Have a piece." "I have no money and I'm not a beggar." "Ah, take it. It's a blessing for me to give." "Very well, for your sake." Perchik takes the gift and quickly devours it in a manner suggesting that he may not have eaten for some time. Tevye understood that Perchik would not accept a gift; the political principles of the student revolutionary from Kiev precluded the idea of begging for food. While Tevye does not quote - or for that matter misquote in his inimitable but irresistible manner - the talmudic position advocating the hatov vehameitiv blessing for the receipt of a gift he recalls this idea. Indeed, it is a blessing for us to give. The writer is on the faculty of Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies and is a rabbi in Tzur Hadassah.