From a Jewish historical standpoint, “Chanukah is not primarily about gifts,” noted Rabbi Eli Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom. “The gift-giving custom is a fairly modern invention to try to compete with Christmas.”
Recently, I visited a friend and her young son, bearing as a gift two books purported to be wildly popular with the toddler set. “Oh, I already have these,” said the 3-year-old upon tearing open the package. “But that’s OK — I can always regift them.”
When a neologism emerges from the mouth of a babe, you know that verb is firmly in our lexicon. Merriam-Webster cites 1995 as the year “regift” was formally defined as the act of passing along an unwanted gift to another, presumably unwitting recipient — a date that probably owes less to etymologists than to a famous Seinfeld episode about a regifted label-maker. But Rabbi Chaim Goldstein, who oversees Chabad at Drexel University, pointed out that the phenomenon is at least as old as Moses, whom the rabbi called the original regifter for passing along tablets God had already given him.
Moses was pretty upfront about the tablets’ provenance — but in the 21st century, the implications of regifting make a lot of people squirm. This, despite the fact that regifting is as much a part of
December as latkes and Mariah Carey, if decidedly less heralded.
And from a Jewish historical standpoint, “Chanukah is not primarily about gifts,” noted Rabbi Eli Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom. “The gift-giving custom is a fairly modern invention to try to compete with Christmas.”
But good luck telling that to your kids. While modern Jewish families increasingly incorporate charitable rituals into the winter holiday, the pressure to proffer shiny new prizes continues unabated — and a lot of those prizes get rewrapped, despite the fact that regifting can feel cheap, furtive, even ignoble.
So is this moral discomfort justified? From a Jewish perspective, is the act of regifting ever ethical — or is the person just a schnorrer? Do we have an obligation to disclose a regift? And which is morally preferable: keeping an unused item, tossing it out or passing it on to someone who might put it to better use?
The bottom line, according to the experts we spoke with: It really is the thought that counts. “The issue with giving a gift is intentionality,” said Rabbi Eric Yanoff at Congregation Adath Israel, noting that the Talmud interprets Jewish laws of giving for various situations. “So before you can talk about regifting, you have to think about what it means to give a gift.”
Like all the rabbis we spoke with, Yanoff took a fairly positive view of regifting, since Judaism regards the spirit behind a gesture as paramount. “Sometimes, there are very valuable gifts that are given without thought, while others are very modest from the point of view of finance but might be quite touching, like a drawing from a child,” the rabbi explained. “It’s not clear to me that the act of placing value on a gift is tied up in spending money on it.”
As an example, the rabbi cited a hypothetical person who receives a second copy of a book he loves, and decides to regift it to someone else he believes would love it, too. “You’re saying, ‘I wanted you to have the experience of reading this book,’ ” elaborated Yanoff. “The idea that this will mean so much to you — there’s a mindfulness to that that I think is really lovely. I don’t think there’s anything ethically problematic about it.”
At Main Line Reform Temple Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, Rabbi Geri Newburge considered whether the Seinfeld episode was ethically problematic. Was Elaine’s boyfriend Tim, who regifted a label-maker she had bought him to Jerry, acting shamefully? “Or is it derech eretz, a sign of courtesy or respect, wanting a gift to find a better, happier home?” the rabbi wondered. “I would be delighted to receive something that a friend or family member thinks I would enjoy.”
Certain items fall more easily into this category than others: duplicate gifts, books you already own, foods you can’t eat due to diet or allergy. “That type of regifting feels very ethically sound,” opined Yanoff. He and his wife designate one night of Chanukah for tzedakah, another for books and so on, hoping to avoid pointless, perfunctory presents for their three children. “And we teach our kids that the first thing you say, no matter what, is ‘Thank you,’ ” he added.
For Elisa Goldberg, who recently took over as interim rabbi at the Reconstructionist Kol Tzedek in West Philadelphia, honesty is what makes regifting kosher. “We are blessed to live in a world with lots and lots of stuff,” said the rabbi, who, like others, cited the Jewish commandment of bal tashchit — “do not waste” — as a powerful argument against superfluous items shoved in the back of the closet. (Rabbi Freedman noted that this commandment is based on a verse in Deuteronomy about not destroying fruit trees when waging war on a city — an example with little practical application in present-day Philadelphia, but a fine rationalization for disposing of clutter nonetheless.)
“The larger question here is how much stuff we have, and how much we’re obligated to give — it’s crazy,” said Goldberg. She pointed out that the avalanche of obligation can become a financial burden in what are lean economic times for many families — and sometimes, a nicely wrapped regift may be the only affordable price of admission to a classmate’s party.
But as a general rule, tacit regifting “doesn’t feel quite right,” admitted Goldberg, even if it theoretically reduces waste. “You’re not just giving the gift, you’re giving the sentiment.” The rabbi favors donating unwanted gifts, or else passing them on as openly secondhand items, as she does with her 9-year-old daughter on their annual Chanukah Goodwill run.
The honesty approach finds its fullest expression at white elephant parties, in which participants wrap frankly unwanted oddball items (“white elephants”) for a game of exchanges — the funnier and less practical, the better. I used to attend an annual Christmas Day white elephant party in Brooklyn, and the fights that broke out over the more hilarious items — a set of “Heroes of the Torah” drinking glasses from Fishs Eddy stands out in memory — could be epic. My sister, who has hosted white elephant Chanukah parties in San Francisco for years, recalls a hideous clown table lamp that resurfaced year after year, perennially regifted, until it finally went missing in 2014.
Irony was presumably not the motive for a memorable regift gone awry at the birthday party of Rabbi Anna Boswell-Levy’s daughter. The rabbi at Kol Emet in Yardley, Boswell-Levy recalls unwrapping a dress clearly intended for a baby at her daughter’s third birthday. The giver was a child whose mother also had a newborn at home, and without so much as a card attached, “it was very obviously a regift,” the rabbi recalled. Clearly, this was not the frazzled mother’s finest hour. But Boswell-Levy said nothing, had her daughter write a thank-you note, and donated the gift.
From a Jewish perspective, the rabbi is inclined to look charitably on regifting as a practice that reduces waste in a consumerist society — “using everything you receive to its best purpose,” a view that finds support in the Talmud, which stipulates obligation on the part of the receiver. “But ideally, a gift should be inappropriate to somebody, and a gift from the heart,” Boswell-Levy added.
And in most cases, honesty is the best policy, said Rabbi Freedman of Congregation Rodeph Shalom. “However, we are also taught that dignity and not embarrassing someone are also of utmost importance, and re-gifting could hurt feelings” if made known to the recipient, the rabbi observed. He noted religious precedent for telling a white lie in order to preserve shalom bayit, peace in the home: “Actually, in this week’s very parsha, God tells a white lie to preserve Abraham and Sarah’s relationship.”
Whether Abraham ever regifted to Sarah is unclear — but Freedman confesses to having contemplated the practice to preserve peace in his own home. The gift in question is a toy puzzle he and his wife received for their infant daughter; it theoretically emits animal noises when the pieces are correctly placed, but in practice disturbs their shalom bayit with random moo’s and baa’s at all hours. “Like in the middle of the night, at bedtime, nap times,” complained the rabbi. “My wife and I have been talking recently about who we don’t like that we will regift it to.”
Freedman swears he is just kidding. But if he caves and regifts the much-loathed toy, he can take comfort in the fact that Jewish ethics are probably on his side.
Hilary Danailova is a longtime contributor to the publications of the Jewish Exponent.