When are gifts appropriate (for example, from family for a birthday vs from someone you are dating, and how expensive or elaborate is okay) according to Jewish thought?
I applaud your recognition that gift-giving involves serious ethical issues, and that Judaism may have important guidance to offer about those issues. I also applaud your desire to share and give. Reasonable generosity is a wonderful virtue. However, profligacy is a vice, and one must consider the effects of gift-giving on others as well as on oneself. Judaism applauds or even mandates gift-giving in a variety of contexts. Many of these straddle the blurry line between charitable donation and present, but on Purim, there is an explicit mandate to send gifts of food to even wealthy friends and neighbors. Gift-giving can exemplify gemilut chassadim = acts of graciousness or lovingkindness and symbolize and concretize the profoundest depths of relationship, and as such fulfill the central religious obligation to imitate G-d’s ways. One Jewish understanding of the purpose of Creation is that G-d wanted to express His generosity, to give to an Other, and Jewish tradition frequently describes the Torah as a gift. Jewish tradition also recognizes that gifts can engender unhealthy as well as healthy competition; create dependency; embarrass the recipient and other gift-givers; create unwanted obligations to reciprocate; and raise expectations falsely. Perhaps the most dramatic illustration of these issues is the story of Cain and Abel. Cain offers a gift to G-d, and expects that in return G-d will love him; but G-d ignores his gift, and instead shows favor to his brother Abel’s gift. Cain is disappointed in G-d, and jealous of Abel, and the result of course is fratricide. None of this generates clear mechanical rules for gift-giving. Rather, much depends on intentions and expectations, and on one’s knowledge of the recipient. One should, for example, be careful not to give gifts to friends or family that would make you angry if they failed to reciprocate, or that might make the recipient feel compelled to reciprocate to a degree they can’t really afford. Gifts given during dating are often a beautiful expression of a relationship’s development, but they can also make the recipient feel compelled to demonstrate an affection that has not (at least not yet) actualized. Jewish law concretizes this concern by raising the possibility that a gift in the context of romance may be intended and received – however monetarily - as a token of marriage, such that the couple may require a divorce. Couple should therefore be clear about their intentions, and seek to ensure that giver and recipient see the gift in the same way. This is in any case excellent practice for marriage. In summary: Judaism cannot tell you precisely when gift-giving is appropriate or inappropriate, or how much to spend on bridal gifts – those answers depend on social and economic contexts. But Judaism can help you develop a checklist that will empower you to make thoughtful decisions about gift-giving. The Rabbis say that one who seeks to express generosity will have his intentions rewarded by giving him or her the means to express them; may this blessing come to fruition in your life.
Traditionally, for Jews, gift giving is a rather limited affair. We have definite traditions associated with Purim and Passover (specifically to the poor, and on Purim gifts of food to friends, for example), as well as other holidays, and gifts to children as marks of affection, and as opportunities to teach them about our traditions. Birthdays were not traditionally celebrated by Jews (although whether it is permissible is debated, and rabbis have come down on both sides of the matter) at all.
That said, American Jews, who live in a secular society, have developed the habit of observing occasions such as birthdays with gifts. Given that reality, we should seek guidelines from the general approaches to human interaction which the Torah mandates: Minimally, we should be modest (tzniut) in our exchanges, not being extravagant and showing off our purchasing power - therefore, even if you are wealthy, showy gifts should be avoided (as should showy clothes, homes, or boastful speech).
Gifts to children and friends should be in the spirit of showing that you value them, rather than that you want to impress them. Finally, gifts to people one is dating should be chosen with care: even secular etiquette rules against giving gifts that are expensive or too personal, as it demonstrates a relationship which either one might not have with that person, or boasts of intimacy, or creates a sense of obligation. So much the more so should a person who lives a Jewish life avoid implying these things. If you value someone you are dating to the extent that you wish to provide them with extravagant or elaborate gifts, it is probably time to consider whether you want to live your life with them and build a home together.
As you can read in the responses of my Orthodox and Conservative colleagues, there is no Jewish tradition of gift giving that parallels our American practice. A review of the CCAR Responsa (responses to religious questions) finds no entry for gifts, even for Bar or Bat Mitzvah, birthdays or anniversaries. The few references in the Tanakh refer to mandated gifts to the poor or to the Temple and its officiants. The sole exception that comes to mind is the Purim custom of shlach manos,sending gifts to friends as well as the poor (Esther 9:22).
The Musar tradition does have something to say about the attitude with which one gives of oneself. Alan Morinis writes on the subject of generosity:
When you encourage your hand to open, you strengthen the quality of generosity in your heart. Jewish thought tells us that our spiritual lives center on relationships – between a person and his or her own soul, with other people and with God. Being generous enhances the key relationships in your life, even with yourself; it is actually a key process in creating those relationships. Give to whom you would love. (Every Day, Holy Day, pg 246)
Gift giving, one form of generosity, is a good practice as long as it is done with the proper intention.
There is a warning, however, given by the Sages. It is not a matter of expense or how elaborate the gift may be, rather it has everything to do with the thought behind it.
If a person gives to another all the good gifts of the world but does so with a grumpy demeanor, the Torah regards it as if he had given nothing. But if he receives his neighbor cheerfully and kindly, the Torah regards it as if he had given him all the good gifts of the world. (Avot D'Rabbi Natan, 23b)
I would add, that if the gift is given for an ulterior motive, to create some form of obligation on the part of the recipient, it is a questionable gift.
Contemporary social research agrees that there is a benefit to giving freely to others. A recent NYT article [“Don't Indulge. Be Happy.” Sunday Review, 7/8/12, pg 1 & 7] describes an experiment in which some people received $20 and a slip of paper telling them to spend the money on themselves by the end of the day. A second group received the $20 but were told to spend the cash on someone else. Which group was happier?
“It's not even close. When we follow up with people who receive cash from us, those whom we told to spend on others report greater happiness than those told to spend on themselves. And in countries from Canada to India to South Africa, we find that people are happier when they spend money on others rather than on themselves.”
As Alan Morinis noted in the citation above, giving enhances the key relationships in your life, even with yourself.
So give gifts to those whom you love. Let them be a free expression of your soul; a way to build the relationships that matter in your life.
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