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While of course it is a mitzvah to give tzadekah, I have heard (though I don't have any attribution) that different kinds of giving are of different worth. Particularly, I have heard that giving anonymously is especially worthy. It seems fairly straightforward that this is because when someone gives anonymously, he/she does so without expectation of social gain and thus proves the selflessness of the act. I am curious if this logic applies to other situations.

A week or so ago, a colleague sent out an email that she had lost an earring at work and requesting its return if found. A few days ago I heard her discussing with someone else the possibility that it had rolled under a cubicle wall or some other piece of furniture. Being a young and able-bodied guy, I decided today, after work when everyone had left, to crawl around under her cubicle and search for the jewelry. Alas, I found it!

Of course I am going to return it to her, and it would be simple enough to present it to her at work tomorrow. However, I am tempted to leave it anonymously somewhere that she will see it (e.g. on her desk wrapped up with a note). Piqued by the moral conundrum, I thought I'd get the perspective from this site. So:

Is it a greater mitzvah to return an item anonymously?


Update: I returned the earring this morning in person. My colleague was very thankful. Thanks for all your input.

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Interesting question. On the anonymous-tzedakah part, you are probably thinking of the Rambam's eight levels of tzedakah. I haven't heard this applied to other mitzvot such as returning lost objects, but that doesn't mean anonymity isn't a factor there too. –  Monica Cellio May 7 '13 at 21:41
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I always understood that anonymous donation was so that the poor person didn't have to feel shamed by the giver. –  Double AA May 7 '13 at 21:59
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I've never seen alas used that way. Aside from that, I'm with @double aa. My understanding is that the goal is to avoid shaming the recipient, not to avoid praising the giver. Indeed, it is important to thank and honor someone who has done a good thing. –  Seth J May 8 '13 at 0:50
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I appreciate all of the comments and the answer. Though this clearly is not a major dilemma, it is nice to explore the bases for moral choices. –  AdamRedwine May 8 '13 at 2:44
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If you returned it anonymously the owner might think that someone had stolen it and was too embarrassed to admit it so returned it anonymously instead. It's probably better not to mislead the owner this way. –  Ariel May 8 '13 at 7:44
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up vote 3 down vote accepted

Anonymous tzedakah is valued because needing charity is embarrassing. If they know you're the donor (even if you don't know them), they'll feel weird when you're around; if you know they're the recipient (even if they don't know who gave it), you'll feel snide when seeing them. So anonymous is best.

I'm not aware of any reason to value anonymity when returning a lost item, as there's no shame involved. There are stories of people who tried to hide their piety in various ways, but at the basic level it should be fine to identify yourself. (Or not, if you prefer.)

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