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Saturday, February 17, 2007

Oral Messorah? The etiquette of Tipping for Religious Services

I was at a mikvah meeting not too long ago where the subject of tipping the mikvah attendant came up. To make a long story short, I have never tipped the attendant (apparently the custom is 50/50), and I feel like I've been left out in the dark Now don't get me wrong, I'm not opposed to tipping, it just had never occurred to me to ask about such and no one ever informed me about such.

I took a top notch kallah class and the subject of tipping was never discussed. I have lived in various communities with different types of arrangements regarding the mikvah (full time mikvah manager, several paid attendants, and numerous rotating volunteer attendants or "buddies") and I have never heard the subject discussed. And if there is an oral messorah out there, I wish I knew about it because I don't want to be insulting an attendant by not tipping. . . nor do I want to be insulting an attendant by tipping.

I like to know what is expected. When I go to a restaurant, there is a place on the receipt labeled tip. So, I'm aware that a tip is expected. When I go to an ice cream shop or a coffee shop, there is usually a little jar by the cash register labeled tips. I'm aware that a tip would be appreciated, but that it isn't necessarily expected.

Our mikvah has a per usage fee of nearly $20 (reduced for kollel wives and students) and they regularly solicit for memberships and additional donations as the costs of running a mikvah are not covered in their entirety by usage fees alone. Yet I have never seen a word about other expected or appreciated gestures.

In general, we are the types to pay whatever we are asked, even if it is voluntary or not strictly enforced (so long as it is reasonable). Kiddush fund? Seudah Shlishit Fund? Eruv Fund? No problem, add it to our bill. The expectation that we are to contribute to certain funds is no secret. And, Baruch Hashem we are able to contribute and happily do so.

But why is it the tipping etiquette for a mikvah is a secret? If I should be tipping for certain religious functions, I would desperately like to be made aware of such. And, I'd also like to know what is appropriate? In addition, I think it would be helpful to set up the means to allow tips to be left in the most appropriate fashion, assuming I should be leaving them. And considering different communities have different standards, I don't want to be in another community and snub the attendant unknowingly.

Considering the fact that certain woman are unable to pay the full fee for the mikvah and the attendants are paid, albeit probably not much, it would probably be insensitive to post a note at the mikvah itself delineating appropriate tips since it would put everyone on the spot. And, I'm not sure it would be appropriate for those unable to pay the full usage fee to give "extras." Those who can pay the fee, but could only give a tiny tip would probably feel very uncomfortable handing it directly to the attendant (or leaving it in a way that it was obvious from whom the giver was). And on the flip side, a mikvah attendant could be put into a very uncomfortable position if someone over-tipped, especially if the tip was intended to help an attendent of lesser means. Most people don't want to feel like a tzedakah case, especially when they are working.

In short, if I should be giving a tip, I would really like to know. There are plenty of ways to put the word out: include a note in the next solicitation. Collect tips before Rosh Hashanah, Pesach, or Chanukah for all attendants are let the financial committee distribute them accordingly. Or, perhaps, in addition to a drop box for fees , there should be locked boxes labeled with the names of attendants (who wouldn't mind being tipped). Tips could be left discreetly and anonymously by those using the mikvah, and tips could also be left for a particular person at a later time also.

When I found out that tipping is prevalent, although not universal, my husband and I had a back and forth about the issue. As it turns out, the religious tipping issue is not just limited women, so men are welcome to add their comments. My husband tells me that men tip the Rabbi for selling their Chametz. We can't really understand why we should be tipping for this service. Our shul pays the Rabbi a very respectable salary (in the six figures) and we believe this is such a basic function of the Rabbi. So when I asked my husband how much people are giving in tips, he tells me he has seen some people are tipping with hundreds(!). Well, if a tip is really expected, we'd probably be happy to stop by bank and a few bucks, or even a $5 or $10 bill. But, when others are tipping in the hundreds, I honestly have no idea what is appropriate (although tipping with a hundred in public seems highly inappropriate). But at this rate I honestly have no idea what my husband should be tipping, if anything. And there is apparently also an oral messorah that one should tip when buying your arba minim from the Rav. Goodness, here to tipping never occurred to me (I write the check and usually end up picking up the arba minim, always an experience since I'm usually the only woman present). Who tips for retail?

And then there is the infamous Chanukah Gelt issue. There are schools out there that basically expect parents to pay the Rebbes directly at Chanukah (and I'm told there are some families that give gelt in the thousands). I haven't had experience with this phenomena but would invite a guest post on the issue. My take on this custom: it just ain't happening here. If we can find $15K plus per school age kid for many, many, many years to come that itself will be a Chanukah miracle. I appreciate that others give to the Rebbes, but direct gifts from parent to Rebbe have got to put the lesser givers in a terrible position, real or imagined. (Any guest posters out there?)

Do you tip? And what for? Comments? Thoughts? I'm open to hearing all feedback, positive and negative. And if you are confused too, welcome to the club.


themarykaygal said...

I've never tipped at the mikvah in LA or in Cleveland... I just pay what's asked of me (which of course is less in Cleveland than in LA!). Never thought to tip, and I'm not going to go against my minhag now and suddenly start tipping--- most of the mikvah ladies are neighbors I know and I don't want to offend...

I had this situation with Chananiah's bris though. Why does nobody tell you what to pay the mohel?? When the mohel came back the next day to check him, I had to come right out and ask him what we owe. I wish he had sent us a letter beforehand or handed us an envelope with a little bill or something. He said we don't OWE anything but a donation of $180 is appreciated. I wrote the check and told him it was worth every penny, no problem. I wonder how many people don't pay the mohel though? Isn't that his parnassah?

Ariella said...

Tipping can be confusing. My mother said that she didn't know about tipping and got broad hints from the attendant when she left exact change that "But that is what it costs." When I took a kallah class, the instructor said that everything is included in the fee, so that there is no need to tip (I suppose her frame of reference was the Far Rockaway mikvah).
I know that in the Washington Heights mikvah, women did tip, b/c I was on friendly terms with one of the part-time attendants there. At the time the charge was $15, so she was taken aback at a tip of $5 as it equalled a third of the fee. In Passaic, there was a sign "No Tipping" I once attempted a tip, which was rejected as the attendant pointed to the sign. But I did see anothe woman leave a tip once. So I don't know if the attendant's guard was down, or some other reason for the acceptance in that case.

On the mohel, that Marykay Gal referred to: My son (whose bar mitzvah is next month) had to have a Shabbos bris. As we were living in a one-bedroom apartment in Washington Heights at the time (as my husband was in the YU kollel), we had it hosted by my in-laws in Flatbush. The mohel said on Friday that he usually get $400, though on Shabbos sometimes people give him a little more (for the tircha of walking, I suppose). We gave him $400, and he was disappointed not to have the "little more," though, as I said, at the time we were a kollel couple. I was very disappointed in this mohel b/c he never came for a follow-up, and I had to take off the bandages myself with just a phone consulation. This was not just my first son but my first baby. I have to admit, I was relieved when the other children were girls (especially the one born on Shabbos) b/c the whole experience was not very pleasant for me.

SephardiLady said...

Hi MaryKayGal. You definitely jumped right in with a whole new monster. Mohelim. Messader Kiddushin. Levayas. . what do we pay them if they don't come out and ask?

I'd like to hear more from others on these religious functionaries. I imagine they keep their fee private so as not to make those who can't pay not embarrassed to pay less (the services are not optional). But, I too just prefer to know the fee.

Our brit milah was done by a new mohel who didn't have much. The other couples hadn't paid more than $75 or $100 (I happen to know) for his services, and we felt strongly about paying going rate because he deserved to get a good start in this "business" and get his name out there. He wasn't up to asking a price being so new to it and we felt strongly he should be paid properly. So we offered $500. I don't really care if we erred on the high side, hope we didn't pay too little either.

Here, maybe a sliding fee schedule might be appropriate. It could easily be attached to a letter with instructions for before and after a brit milah (we got 2 home visits, sorry to hear about your experience Ariella!) to make the exchange of money more comfortable for everyone.

Mohelim are necessary to a fully functioning community and they should be paid properly. Since some people are unable to pay full price, it seems appropriate for those of us who can pay full price or even a premium to do so when we can.

mother in israel said...

In my kallah class we were told to tip, I am almost certain. I lived in WH too and tipped. For our brit there we wrote the check to the tzedakah that the mohel requested (and he definitely came to remove the bandage, Ariella). He was the Breuer community mohel, but he may not have lived in WH. He was terrific. WIth the next one, in Israel, we tried to find out the fee by asking a young father who made a Shabbat brit in shul using the same mohel. We later realized the father was the mohel's son-in-law!! Eventually we got the right amount. I don't remember what happened with the other two, but we used four mohelim for four sons. Our last two were born in the summer, when the original one was on vacation. I think by that time they published the standard price for mohelim.

RR said...

In Israel, the mohel's follow-up visit is such a standard part of the service that many mohelim (but not all) don't expect to get paid until the follow-up. That was true for the mohelim we used and several that our friends used as well.

queeniesmom said...

My husband asked the mohel out right if there was a twin discount, thereby indicating we would be paying. I was annoyed because he didn't do a follow up and like Marykay, I had to change 2 sets of bandages. Major ick!! I also had no idea what I was looking at or doing as the 1st was a girl.

Mikvah never tipped, maybe I was just ignorant. now it's a moot point due to medical reasons.

In laws Lavayahs were a nightmare trying to find out if we should pay the Rabbim or give donations was insane. It took a few bank statments to realize that one Rav never cashed the check. Now the question was did he ever receive it, as we mailed it. Finally, my husband called and said it was a very uncomfortable conversation. I think the outcome was he cashed the check and donate the money. We never did find out if there is an accepted amount or not.

Hannukah gelt- at our yeshiva the PTA class mothers collect a set amount from each child in the class, so you end up paying X$ per child. they then buy something for the teachers or maybe they give the cash to the teachers. Not sure as I don't get involved. I'm just very greatful that I don't have to deal with the whole issue as it's one very large landmine.

Purim Shalach Manot - shul does a round robin and school does it by family

Selling the chometz - current Rav pockets the money. We give Chai to sell it. In prior years the money went to buy groceries for those who couldn't, so we gave whatever we could afford,usually in multiples of Chai.

As I'm typing this I realized how many extras there are that don't get figured into the monthly budget.

Warren Burstein said...

I think that odder than tipping the mikva lady or mohel is tipping the chazan. At least the first two provide individual service. I used to go to a shul where some of the people who used to buy themselves aliyot at auction would have announced during their misheberach (was that donation on top of what they paid for the aliya?) that they were giving X dollars to the shul, Y to the rabbi, and Z to the chazan.

SephardiLady said...

QueensieMom-Your list makes my head spin.

Warren-The chazan? Now that blows my mind. That is odd. I don't find tipping the mikvah lady so odd, I just never thought of it and don't like to be left out of this oral messorah. I'm just glad the custom is 50/50 because I would hate to be the only one not tipping.

I think that if I get involved more here I will ask that they set up a tips box so people can tip discreetly. Most of the attendants could use the extra money. But, I'm not ready to hand the money directly.

themarykaygal said...

queeniesmom-- our twins are a boy and a girl, so we only had a single bris. His sister got as much attention as he did though. :)

wow, we got off easy in cleveland at $180, eh? sounds like $400 to $500 is more common.

queeniesmom said...

marykaygal- you did get off cheadply. We did have a discount and it was $700 for both 7 years ago. I shudder to think how much it is now.

Sephardilady- sorry my list gave you pause. we won't discuss my tuition bill. Tahnks for some great discussions.

SephardiLady said...

I'm sure we will be discussing tuition again soon enough. The new schedules will be announced soon and we've already been priced out.

$700 for a Brit Milah seems huge. $180 is a bargain. Guess there is no question that we didn't underpay.

Bob Miller said...

In shuls I've belonged to, the rabbis have sent their proceeds for selling chametz to charities of their choosing.

SephardiLady said...

Bob-I would imagine that is the case in our shul too, although I hadn't thought of it. But, why wouldn't it be known public information and why wouldn't the shul have you write a (tax deductible) check to the Rabbi's discretionary fund in that case?

Jacob Da Jew said...

I asked DW, she never heard of this. She goes to the Syrian and Ashkenazi Mikvahs and no one said anything.

Perhaps its a WH thing.

With regards to Arba Minim- what the heck?

Chanuka Gelt- We only use a sitter and we dont tip her for the Holidays. I do buy her stuff once in a while.

Ari Kinsberg said...


"He said we don't OWE anything but a donation of $180 is appreciated."

it would have been MUCH cheaper for me to fly to cleveland and use your mohel. not that i minded. i was not taking any chances and i wanted the best my money could buy.

jacob da jew:

tipping for arba minim? we already get royally ripped off enough on that one (dare i say genevah), who would ever think of tipping?


my wife never heard of tipping the mikvah attendant.

the purpose of tipping in my opinion is (or at least should be) for service above and beyond what is expected. a waiter gets paid to take your order and bring you your food and for that he gets paid. if he is nice, quick, makes good recommendations, etc. he deserves extra for his effort. is there anything in the job of a mikvah attendant that distinguishes the performace of one from another?

Independent Frum Thinker said...

I’m chiming in late.
Tipping Rabbeim is a wonderful idea (in my opinion), but should not be institutionalized, since that would make poorer families do what they can not afford.

mother in israel said...

My husband's grandfather wrote that in Europe, if you didn't tip the rebbeim, they would paddle your children.

Selena said...

In my community, I am a mikveh lady and was the manager. I would say about 30-40% of the women tipped, generally the more modern ones. I had never heard of tipping before I came here. In Los Angeles, I certainly never tipped and never got the idea that I should be tipping.

Ariella said...

On tipping rebbeim: when it comes time for Chanukah gifts in my son's school, a set amount for general teachers and staff is collected, but rebbeim are to be given their gifts separately. So I have to give something, but I don't feel compelled to give on the high end b/c my son really is no trouble to teachers, and they enjoy having a quiet boy. (According to their own account of things and the "nachas calls" they offer) But I've heard that some give $100 or more. And I know that if someone has a son who really is a lot of trouble to the rebbe, they may feel obligated to offer a larger gift, which would be beyond the budger of some.

miriam said...

i've never know what's customary to pay for things like mezuzah or shaatnez checking.
last time my husband got a suit checked, te checker asked what he does for a living before naming a price - apparently, the price varies depending on whether he thinks you'll miss the money, which, when the total is so mall anyway, i think is fair.
as for the mikva, i've heard of it but never tipped because, not only am i not sure why or how much to tip, there's no discreet way to do so, as you said...

Anonymous said...

wow, i never even heard of tipping at the mikva
(not sure that means anything)