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Parshas VaYakheil (5771)

Tzedakah: Inscribing Your Name on a Building

A visitor to Israel attended a recital and concert at the Moscovitz Auditorium. He was quite impressed with the architecture and the acoustics. He inquired of the tour guide, "Is this magnificent auditorium named after Chaim Moscovitz, the famous Talmudic scholar?" "No," replied the guide. "It is named after Sam Moscovitz, the writer." "Never heard of him. What did he write?" "A check", replied the guide.

All kidding aside, it is fairly common to see Jewish names inscribed on the walls of hospitals, synagogues and other buildings all across Israel and in Jewish communities all around the world. In fact, the synagogue in which I pray every Shabbos has inscribed on its front entrance the words: Kehillas Mishkan Noach: The Dan Family Village Shul and the Friedmann and Berg Families Aish HaTorah Learning Centre.

It might therefore come as a surprise to you to learn that the practice of recognizing a donor by inscribing his name on a building (or on any other donated object) was questioned by some rabbis, and there were those who felt that it was Halachically objectionable for various reasons.

Some felt that it is best to give anonymous donations, where there is less likelihood that the donor will be giving the charity in order to achieve honor and recognition.

Another reason why some rabbis were not in favor of giving name recognition to donors is because it is a fundamental idea in Judaism that everything we have - be it money, talent, time, a great smile etc. - was given to us by G-d to use part of it for ourselves and to share the rest with others. So that when a person gives Tzedakah (charity) to the poor or to a hospital etc., he is really just ‘passing on’ what was given to him to give to others.

This teaching is echoed in many places in the Torah, but it is most starkly stated in Pirkei Avos (3:8), where Rabbi Elazar of Bartosa says: “Give Him from His own, for you and your possessions are His.” The Rav explains this mean that man should not withhold his money from being used to fulfill the wishes of Heaven (e.g. giving charity, etc.) because it is not really ‘his’ money. All that he has belongs to G-d; hence, he gives not his own, but is merely returning to G-d what is His.

The medieval scholar and philosopher Rabbeinu Bachya ibn Pekudah writes in his classic work of Jewish ethics Duties of the Heart (in the ‘Gate of Trust’ Chapter 4): “I am always amazed when I see a man give to his friend that which G-d requires that he give him, and then he reminds his friend about the good deed that he did for him, and asks for recognition”.

It therefore becomes difficult to justify inscribing a donor’s name on a building when, in fact, he isn’t even giving his own money but G-d’s! Better to put the true donor’s name on the building … like maybe the Al-mighty G-d Cancer Research Wing or the Benevolent G-d Main Sanctuary (sounds kind of Christian, doesn’t it? ).

So I bet you’re wondering why almost every single shul, hospital or community center has donors’ names plastered on every inch of wall space if it seems to run counter to the spirit of Jewish law.

The answer can be found in the Code of Jewish Law, otherwise known as the Shulchan Aruch, in the section dealing with the laws of Tzedakah, where the Rem”a writes the following: “One [who donates charity] should not boast haughtily of the charity he gives, and if he should boast, he will not only fail to receive a reward for that which he donated, but Heaven will actually punish him for it. However, a person who dedicates something to Tzedakah is allowed to write his name on it so that it should be a memorial to him - and it is fitting to do so" (Yoreh Deah 249:13).

This ruling of the Rem”a is based on a Responsum (published Halachic decision) of the Rashb”a who cites precedent from the Talmud “that people used to write the names of the donors to Heaven to be a good memorial for them of mitzvos [which they perform] and to open the door to those [others] who do mitzvos".

In other words, whereas normally it would be better to do good deeds anonymously for the reasons stated above, it is worth publicizing the name of the donor and giving him recognition because it encourages others (and especially his children) to follow his example.

This idea is reflected in a verse in the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, Parshas Vayakhel, where the Torah discusses the contributions that were given by the Jewish people to help build the Tabernacle.

As the Torah tells us: “Moses said to the entire assembly of the Children of Israel, saying: ‘This is the word that G-d has commanded, saying: Take from yourselves a portion for G-d, everyone whose heart motivates him shall bring it …” (Exodus 35:4-5).

The Hebrew word leimor (“saying”) is repeated many times throughout the Torah and is difficult to explain. Some commentators say it means “to say to others”. However, as Nachmanides points out in his commentary to Exodus 6:10, this explanation falls short in many places in the Torah where the word is used. Nachmanides himself suggests that the word leimor means a “clear, definitive statement”. Either way, it is difficult to understand why the Torah repeats the word leimor twice in the verse quoted above.

The Otzar Chaim suggests, based on the ruling of the Rem”a mentioned above, that the Torah is repeating the word leimor in this verse dealing with charitable contributions to the Tabernacle to teach us that even though it is generally better to do good deeds without recognition, “G-d has commanded [to give charity to the Tabernacle] - leimor - saying it to others”, i.e. these charitable contributions should purposely be ‘said to others’ and publicized so that others will be encouraged to follow their example.

[Sources: Otzar Chaim on Shemos 35:4]

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