Wednesday, 13 May 2015

Written by Rabbi Maurice Michaels

For the past few weeks, ever since Pesach, the sidrah read in Orthodox and Reform synagogues has differed.  This is because the eighth day of Pesach, celebrated by the Orthodox – and Masorti – in the diaspora, occurred on a Shabbat.  Reform Judaism follows the Torah calendar, as does Israel, and so that Shabbat had its own sidrah and we’ve had to wait to synchronise again until this coming Shabbat, when Orthodox shuls will read the double sidrot of B’har and B’chukotai and Reform shuls will read just B’chukotai, B’har having been read last week.  But at least that means by taking an aspect of sidrah B’chukotai I can write for everyone!

So which aspect to take?  Well, the sidrah is very short, just two chapters, the final chapters of the Book of Vayikra, Leviticus.  The first deals with the toch’cha, the warnings of the rewards and, mostly, the punishments that will occur depending on whether the ancient Israelites follow the Divine commands, the mitzvot or not.  The last chapter is thought by those who take a critical stance to Torah to have been a later addition, an essential matter for those involved in the running of the Temple – its funding.  The maintenance of the structure, the sacrificial materials – livestock and other – and the whole priesthood was a costly business.  As my background is in finance, I thought I’d look at that.

The chapter sets out the various sources of income for the sanctuary.  The first was the redemption of a pledge for a person to be dedicated to the service of the sanctuary.  The classic example of this was Hannah who promised God that if she were given a son, she would bring him to the Temple in Shiloh to remain in service all his days.  Indeed, when her son, Samuel, was born she did just that.  So pledging the equivalent of a life, according to a scale established by the priests, served two purposes: the spirit of the ancient tradition was preserved and the sanctuary received the necessary funds.  Clearly the pledge did not have to be redeemed, the person could serve the sanctuary; but for the most part what the priests wanted was the financial equivalent.

The scale as to the equivalent value of a person’s life took account of the age and gender of the person at the time of pledging and was based on the anticipated productive capacity of the person.  Although we might cry “discrimination”, it is nevertheless true that, in a society that saw production solely in terms of manual labour, there was indeed a differential between the productive capacity of men and women, old and young.  We should also remember, before we get too het up, that even in our days of so-called equality, there is still a great difference between the numbers of women and men in senior positions, there are still great inequities in payment for equivalent jobs, and there are many examples of older people being pushed out to make way for the young.

Funding for the sanctuary also came from the donation of animals.  Again it was possible to redeem the animal for money.  Of course, if it was an unclean animal – by that I mean one which could not be sacrificed – then certainly the intention was to pledge a monetary gift, but even an animal which could be offered on the altar could be redeemed.  The redemption of an animal involved a surcharge of twenty percent on top of the value which was assessed by the priest.  So the priest had to be a livestock valuer and there was no arguing with the price he set.  I must admit that seems a bit unfair, that one party to the deal should be able to determine the value and the other had to pay.  But I suppose it was all going to a good cause.  Even nowadays the members of the Synagogue don’t always get to approve the subscription levels that they have to pay.

It was also possible to consecrate possessions, such as land or a house, to the sanctuary and again a twenty percent surcharge was payable for its redemption.  Once again, it was the priest who was the valuer.  In the case of land which might have to be returned to its original owner at the Jubilee year, a calculation based on the years until the next Jubilee year was made.  If property was not redeemed it could be sold by the priests for the benefit of the sanctuary.  A similar situation exists today with bequests made to charities, including the favourable circumstances made available to people who donate shares to charitable organisations.  It is very much in conformity with the Jewish traditional concept – as seen in this chapter – of encouraging people to financially support religious and social institutions.

The text then reminds us that there are two other sources of income for the sanctuary, which, unlike those we have just described, are not voluntary.  These are the firstlings of all animals and the tithes of the land’s produce and cattle breeding.  The firstborn of every animal was by commandment to be brought to the sanctuary.  If it was a clean animal it had to be sacrificed to God.  An unclean animal could be redeemed – same markup – or sold by the priests.  The tenth part of all produce – of the land and the flocks – similarly belonged to God and had to be brought to the sanctuary, but was also able to be redeemed for its value, as assessed by the priest, plus the surcharge.

It really does make the setting of synagogue subscriptions quite easy in comparison!

Rabbi Maurice Michaels
Ordained LBC 1996

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.