If you have been spending a lot of time online to learn more about how to give the perfect gift, you probably have realized by now that almost all discussions seem to revolve the act of gift giving around the ideas of economics and money. And, rightly so, because almost everything material in this world involves spending.
To spotlight your giving on the dollar sign is to miss out on one of the most wonderful and most amazing journeys of all time—the journey into the self and towards self-mastery, during which course you awaken others to the awareness of their own selves and give them a chance at self-mastery. Nothing beats the knowledge and awareness of who one is, what one is here for, and why life happens as it does. If you want to give others the perfect gift, try seeking wisdom and self-mastery foremost of all.
But, who’s saying you can’t continue giving away those special gifts while learning something new about yourself? As a matter of fact, I stumbled upon an ancient framework that you can use to assess your level of creative loving by examining your gift giving behavior. In a sense, this framework allows anyone to track her or his ascent to the highest level of loving and generosity (i.e., the Eighth Level of Giving). The framework’s foundation rests solidly on the idea that your value is measured not by what you do, whom you know, who knows you, or what you have; rather, your value is measured by what, why, and how you give.
A Gift from Maimonides
The 12th-century rabbi and philosopher, Maimonides (Moses ben-Maimon, often referred to by the acronym Rambam, which stands for Rabbi Moshe ben-Maimon), wrote of eight levels of giving in the Mishneh Torah. He is one of the few philosophers who has given the world the perfect gift of knowing how to give in a manner that is meaningful.
Maimonides was obsessed with righteousness and justice (“sedaqah” in Hebrew). To him, giving or charity is an obligation and a duty that you must perform wherever you are on the economic ladder. As you shall understand in a little while, the highest level of gift giving, according to Maimonides, is a million times much better than mere philanthropy—because philanthropy is simply non-obligatory, non-compulsory, and 100% voluntary giving.
The list below is my version of Maimonides’ Eight Levels of Giving (also known as Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity), which he listed in Chapter 10:7-14 of “Hilkhot Matanot Aniyim” (Laws about Giving to Poor People) in the Mishneh Torah (Repetition of the Torah). Each level corresponds to a gift-giving type. Quoted text is from the English translation by Danny Siegel. Commentary is mine—ignorant, if I might say so. What type of gift giver are you?
The Eight Types of Gift Givers (Based on Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity)
- Pity Gift Giver. This is the lowest form of giving because it is based on pity for the person in need. Julie Salamon calls this the Level of Reluctance, in which the giver gives begrudgingly. Isaac Klein, who has another translation of Maimonides’ Ladder of Charity, calls it gift giving “with a frowning countenance.” (As a side note, you might be interested in Julie Salamon’s book, Rambam’s Ladder: A Meditation on Generosity and Why It Is Necessary to Give, which is available on Amazon.)
- Scanty But Willing Gift Giver. In this type of giving, you willingly and happily give to the poor person, but you do not give enough.
- Solicited Giver. This level is third from the bottom. When you give at this level, you give only after being asked by the person in need. In short, you do not give without being asked.
- Unsolicited Giver. The moment you give to a needy person without or before being asked, you step into the level of the Unsolicited Giver. Julie Salamon notes that this level of giving can potentially embarrass the recipient.
- Named Giver to a Nameless Recipient. This level of giving is less embarrassing to the recipient. You give to a poor person who knows you but whom you do not know. In a sense, this is public giving. In Maimonides’ time and earlier, the “great sages used to tie money in [linen] sheets which they threw behind their backs, and poor people would come and get it without being embarrassed.” You can also call this level the “Come and Get It, Stranger” type of giving the perfect gift that does not expose the needy person to humiliation.
- Anonymus Gift Giver to a Named Recipient. This is the case when the giver’s identity is intentionally kept hidden. You can call this private giving. At this level, you help a person in need, through your provision of the perfect gift for him or her, without revealing your identity. This usually leaves the receiver delighted, surprised, and grateful to a nameless benefactor. Maimonides notes of a usual practice during his time and earlier: “The great sages used to go secretly and cast the money into the doorway of poor people.”
- Mutually Anonymous Gift Giver. This is the second highest level of gift giving. In giving in a mutually anonymous way, your and your gift recipient’s identities remain secret. Maimonides describes this as “a religious act achieved for its own sake” and compares it to contributing to a charity fund. However, Maimonides encourages contributing to such a charity fund only if the fund administrator is trustworthy, “is a Sage,” and knows how to administer the fund properly.
- Freedom Gift Giver. This is gift giving of the highest order and degree. It is the supreme, superior, and ultimate form of gift giving. It is the kind of liberative gift giving that Mother Teresa of Calcutta had been practicing. At this level of gift giving, you assist the needy person in a manner that will take the needy person out of the cycle of want or neediness. That is the ultimate goal of the Freedom Gift Giver: to free the needy person from the bondage of want and neediness. According to Maimonides, this often requires “giving that person a gift or loan, or becoming a partner, or finding a job for that person, to strengthen the person’s hand, so that the person will not need to ask for assistance from others.” The perfect gift you give at this level is not the material gift itself, which is purely instrumental, but the gift of freedom.
Climbing the steep Ladder of Charity is a very personal journey. Yet, your ascent from the lowest rung of the ladder up to the highest (i.e., Freedom Gift Giving) can be the best gift that you can ever give to someone and to another. Assuming that everyone around you is needy in one way or another, can you think of any other perfect gift apart from freedom from need—material or otherwise?
- “Maimonides” on Wikimedia Commons