Publicizing the Donors

Is it proper to publicize the names of donors?

The practice of publicizing the names of those who make donations for charitable causes is quite ancient. The Talmud relates that it was publicized that Yosef Ben Yo’ezer made a generous donation to the Beit Hamikdash.[1] In fact, the famous “Nicanor Gate” of the Beit Hamikdash was so called in honor of an individual named Nicanor who lived in Alexandria and financed the construction of the gate.[2] Archeological findings throughout Israel continue to discover all types of donor plaques from ancient synagogues. A variety of synagogue accessories with inscriptions containing the names of those who donated them have also been unearthed. Indeed, the Talmud states that the names of donors were often engraved directly upon donated synagogue items.[3]

On the other hand, it can be suggested that the practice of publicizing the names of donors with the elaborate plaques and inscriptions that are common today is contrary to the spirit of modesty and humility. As King Solomon teaches: “A gift given in secret pacifies anger.”[4] Furthermore, we are taught that one who gives charity in secret is greater than Moshe Rabbeinu.[5] We are also taught that those who give charity for arrogant or haughty motives deserve to go to hell.[6] For these reasons, there have been halachic authorities in the past who opposed the practice of donor recognition.[7]

Nevertheless, the practice of erecting plaques and other forms of donor recognition is completely in order when done in good taste.[8] When donor recognition is handled tastefully, it might even encourage others to donate likewise, which is beneficial to all parties involved.[9] So too, donating items in memory of the departed, whose names appear prominently on such items, ensures that such individuals will not be quickly forgotten in the community.[10] One should never boast about the donations one has made. One who does so forfeits the rewards earned for his charity and will be punished for his brazenness.[11] There is a view that donations made to institutions should be publicized, while donations made to the poor and needy should not.[12]

While it is permissible to accept money from Reform, Conservative, and other non-halachic institutions, some authorities are of the opinion that we should not actively pursue such donations. So too, some authorities rule that donations from such institutions may not be publicized on a donor board, or the like.[13] According to most authorities, it is permitted to accept donations from non-Jews in order to construct a synagogue (and presumably for most other projects, as well),[14] though such donations should not be too obvious or prominent.[15] Nevertheless, we are advised not to accept donations from non-Jews for the construction of synagogues lest they ask us to reciprocate and assist them in the construction of their places of worship, which we may not do.[16] There is no problem with accepting tables, chairs, and other furnishings for a synagogue from non-Jews.[17] This is because such donations are reminiscent of the offerings in the Beit Hamikdash in which non-Jews participated and contributed, as well.[18]

As a general rule, once an individual donates something to a synagogue for a specific purpose, the synagogue may not later alter its designation. For example, if a person donated a parochet to cover the aron kodesh in the main sanctuary of a particular synagogue, the officers of the synagogue may not later move the parochet to a secondary, less-used sanctuary. Indeed, one of the reasons that names are inscribed upon donated articles is so that they cannot be easily moved, exchanged, or designated for another purpose.[19] Nevertheless, if there is a precedent in a specific synagogue to alter the usage, designation, or prominence of donated items, then the officers would be entitled to do so, and the original donor would not be able to protest.[20]

According to many authorities, one who merely makes a mental pledge to donate funds or items for charitable purposes is bound by his pledge even if it was never verbally articulated.[21] One who wishes to make a charitable donation in memory of a parent is advised to donate to an institution of Torah study and other causes that advance Torah education.[22]

[1] Bava Batra 133b.

[2] Midot 1:4; Yoma 3:10.

[3] Yerushalmi Megilla 3:2.

[4] Mishlei 21:14.

[5] Bava Batra 9b. See also Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 34:13.

[6] Bava Batra 10b.

[7] See Shu''t Rav Azriel 219.

[8] Shu''t Harashba 1:581; Rema, YD 249:13; Shevet Halevi 5:134:5.

[9] Teshuvot V’hanhagot 2:481.

[10] Yerushalmi Megilla 3:2; Rema, YD 259:3; Me’il Tzedaka 1.

[11] Sefer Mitzvot Gadol 162; YD 249:13.

[12] Teshuvot V’hanhagot 2:481.

[13] Yabia Omer 7:22.

[14] Erchin 6b; Bava Batra 10b; Rema, YD 254:2; B’tzel Hachachma 3:41; Teshurat Shai 1:15.

[15] Zichron Yehuda (Greenwald) 56. Rav Dov Lior permits the names of non-Jewish donors on public buildings and on items they donated. Devar Chevron 3:49, 50. See also Devar Chevron 3:8.

[16] Teshurat Shai 1:15.

[17] YD 259:4.

[18] Shach, YD 254:4.

[19] Rema, YD 259:3; Taz, YD 249:4.

[20] Machazeh Avraham 32.

[21] Rema, YD 258:13.

[22] Igrot Moshe, YD 4:57.