The Jewish Ethicist: Pauper Presents
Can I accept gifts from my grateful but impoverished clients?
Q. Clients at our social services agency often show their gratitude by giving presents to the social workers. It is alright to accept?
A. I'm happy to hear that your agency is doing such wonderful work, and that the clients are satisfied and grateful for your efforts. But we should make sure that they express their feelings in ways which don't create ethical problems. There are two main problems with the kind of gifts you mention.
A very serious problem is that gifts can create favoritism. Our tradition tells us that it is almost impossible to maintain objectivity after receiving a gift. When the Torah forbids judges to accept bribes, it doesn't mention that it is wrong to deliberately pervert justice. That's self-evident! Rather, the Torah tells us, "For bribery blinds the sighted, and distorts the words of the righteous." (Exodus 23:8.) Even a wise person, who intends to accept the gift but maintain objectivity in the case before him, will find that his judgment is distorted.
Our great Rabbis have always been very sensitive to this consideration. The Talmud tells of important Rabbis who disqualified themselves from judging cases because they were afraid they might be partial to one of the sides, because that litigant did something which we might consider a routine courtesy, such as giving the judge a steadying hand on a wobbly bridge or driving a bird from the judge's head.
Even if you can overcome this problem, you still need to cope with the appearance of favoritism. Some clients will see others giving gifts and they will think that they won't get adequate care without doing the same. This is a very unfair burden on your impoverished clients.
Finally, even in the case of an ordinary gift there is a problem accepting a present which is beyond a person's means. Maimonides writes, "Accepting hospitality from someone who doesn't have enough for himself is almost like stealing. Yet the person thinks that he has done nothing wrong, saying, 'Didn't I take only what he offered me?'"
Still, we don't want to prevent the clients from expressing their feelings. Sometimes accepting is the greatest form of giving! A good solution is to adopt a strict policy of not accepting any gifts worth more than some nominal value. Two dollars is enough to buy an attractive greeting card or an inexpensive novelty trophy but is unlikely to break the budget of a poor person.
SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Ketubot 105b; Mishna Torah, The Laws of Tshuva 4:4; Babylonian Talmud, Chullin 7b with Rashi and Meiri commentaries.
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