Rosh Hashanah 4

Self-interested charity.

The Gemara has been exploring how we count the years of the reigns of kings and wonders if the methodology that is used for kings of Israel is also applicable to foreign kings. This leads to a conversation about Cyrus the Great, the Persian king who, according to the Bible, ended the Babylonian captivity and allowed Jews to rebuild the Temple. The rabbis debate whether Cyrus did so for noble purposes, or for his own self interest (see Ezra 6:10) and cite the following teaching as part of the conversation:

If one gives charity, saying: “I give this sela for charity in order that my children may live,” or: “I give it in order that through it I may merit life in the World to Come,” — they are still considered to be a full-fledged righteous person.

Many of us intuitively feel that tzedakah (charity) in its purest form is altruistic. We should share what we have with those in need out of a sense of responsibility, because it’s what we are supposed to do — and not for self-serving purposes. We might expect the Talmud to agree with us that those who are motivated to give because of what they’ll receive don’t deserve the same credit as those who give for the sake of giving.

But it doesn’t. The Talmud states that one who gives in order to secure their own future, or that of their children, is fully righteous. The charitable act is charitable even if motivated by self interest. 

The talmudic commentators are uncomfortable with this notion, especially because the teaching seems to contradict a mishnah from Avot (1:3):

Antigonus, a man of Socho, used to say: Do not be like servants who serve the master in the expectation of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve the master without the expectation of receiving a reward.

Rashi suggests that the teaching from today’s daf applies only to those who are habitual givers. In other words, those who give regularly for self-serving purposes are deemed fully righteous, but one-time self-interested givers do not earn the same designation. Why might this be so? Perhaps because regular givers can be counted on and this mitigates their less noble motivations.

Another commentator, Rabbenu Hananel, notes that some suggest the text should be read slightly differently — “this is considered to be full-fledged charity” — describing the gift and not the giver as righteous. Read this way, the Talmud does not equate a self-serving donor with a selfless one, but a gift is still a valuable gift, regardless of the motivations of the donor.

But what if Rashi and Rabbenu Hannanel are wrong and the Talmud is trying to tell us exactly what it seems to be saying: that the self-interested giver is as righteous as the altruistic giver? What if the message is that we should appreciate gifts and those who bring them, no matter their motivations? Or that we should not try to judge givers’ motivations at all? Or what if the Talmud wants to free us from the guilt that we have not been purely altruistic in our giving? Or to free us from the uneasiness of accepting a gift from someone who is giving for a self-interested reason? 

In this case, instead of adjusting the text to conform with our ethical sensibilities, as Rashi and Rabbenu Hananel seem to, perhaps we should live with the dissonance and think about it. There might be a lot to gain.

Read all of Rosh Hashanah 4 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on October 13th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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