Parshat Pekudei – פרשת פקודי
March 9, 2019 – ב אדר שני תשעט
Exodus 38 offers a precise accounting of the metals used in the construction of the Tabernacle. The numbers are staggering: over 29 talents of gold, over 100 talents of silver, and over 70 talents of brass. (A talent equaled three thousand shekels.) This mass of wealth was voluntarily remitted by those Israelites whose spirits were moved to participate in the sacred endeavor of building a resting place for the Divine presence.
The tradition of spending inordinate amounts of money on an edifice designated for religious worship continued throughout Jewish history. Scripture records in great detail the extravagance of Solomon’s Temple. One verse, taken from this week’s Haftorah, is illustrative of the expensive character and sheer magnitude of Solomon’s undertaking: “And Solomon left all the vessels unweighed because they were exceedingly many; the weight of the brass could not be found out (I Kings 7:47).” Hundreds of years later, the Second Temple, following the renovations commissioned by Herod in the late first century BCE, was one of the architectural and aesthetic marvels of ancient world. The Talmud reminisces that “he who did not see Herod’s building never saw a beautiful building in his life (Baba Bathra 4a).” In the modern era, the newly emancipated Jewish communities of 19th century Europe spent lavishly on the construction of grand cathedral synagogues.
Is this what God wants? On the one hand, Jews’ willingness to part with hard-earned material resources for the sake of glorifying God seems to be an admirable trait. Donors demonstrate that they toil not merely to amass riches and afford the finer things, but also to recognize the importance of organized religion and the value in funding its institutions. On the other hand, money spent frivolously, even in the name of religion, seems objectionable. God does not need His earthly house to have ornate furnishings when much simpler and affordable items will suffice. The charitable money not spent on those items could be used, instead, for feeding, clothing, and housing the destitute, for Jewish children’s education, etc.
Every religious denomination needs to address this question, though often the answer is determined locally at the congregational level. The grandeur of St. Peter’s Basilica contrasts sharply with the plainness and simplicity of a Quaker Meeting House. All the faithful are trying to please the Almighty, but opinions vary on the propriety of spending consecrated money for physical luxuries in a place ostensibly devoted to spiritual advancement.
The Talmud enunciates two competing (and seemingly contradictory) dicta on this subject:
(1) “There is no manifestation of poverty in a place of opulence אין עניות במקום עשירות (Shabbat 102b).” The Temple is a place of physical and metaphysical richness, where the impression of stinginess, pettiness, or lack of resources should never be conveyed. The production of implements and the preparation of ingredients were done on a grand scale; small scale production would give the appearance of penny-pinching לא עשו דבר בצמצום (Rashi). Rabbi Akiba held that the Temple administrators should not invest excess funds in a foodstuffs business אין משתכרין משל הקדש (Mishnah Shekalim 4:3). To do so would diminish the dignity of the Temple and give the impression that it needed to engage in petty commerce to stay financially viable. If Temple vessels were broken they were replaced, not repaired כלי שרת שנפגמו אין מתקנין אותן (Zevahim 88a). Sullied priestly garments were discarded, not washed and reused בגדי כהונה אין מכבסין אותן כל עיקר (Zevahim 88b). The sheep designated as the daily burnt offering was given water to drink from a golden cup immediately prior to its being slaughtered. השקו את התמיד בכוס של זהב (Mishnah Tamid 3:4). Rava was incredulous; he interpreted this Mishnah to be an exaggeration. His colleagues insisted that the Mishnah be read literally, invoking the principle of forbidding any display of poverty in the Temple (Tamid 29a). A marble table stood in the Antechamber of the Sanctuary on which the Showbread was temporarily placed (Mishnah Menahot 11:7). The Talmud wondered how a marble table could be permitted. The principle of אין עניות should necessitate a gold table. The response was that hot bread on a gold table could lead to spoilage, but that, absent that practical consideration, the preference for opulence would have prevailed. (Tamid 31b).
(2) “The Torah has pity on the money of Israel התורה חסה על ממונם של ישראל (Hullin 77a).” God does not want to impoverish Israel through a financially crippling set of ritual obligations. Thus, certain precepts are performed ab initio using less expensive materials. The Midrash derives this principle from multiple Scriptural passages: (a) If a family is not large enough to consume an entire Paschal lamb then it need not pay for a whole animal but rather can join their neighbor’s Seder (Exodus 12:4). (b) Although it is forbidden to eat carrion or the flesh of torn beasts, it is nonetheless permitted to derive material benefit from the fats thereof (Leviticus 7:24). (c) The Kohen is bidden to instruct the owner of a leprous house to remove all portable property from the house prior to the Kohen’s official pronouncement of impurity. While this may seem like a devious strategy to prevent the impending ritual contamination of clothing and utensils, it is encouraged by the Torah. Had the owner not removed his possessions in time, he would need to immerse the clothing and metalware in a ritual bath. Only the earthenware vessels would be permanently ruined. Yet, to avoid even that relatively minor loss, the Torah countenances what some might consider quasi-chicanery (Leviticus 14:36). (d) God instructed Moses to speak to the rock “so that thou shalt give the congregation and their cattle drink והשקית את העדה ואת בעירם (Numbers 20:7).” The reference to cattle appears to be superfluous. The sages saw it as a hint that God cared not only about the lives of the thirsting Israelites but also about their property (Tanhuma Hukat 9).
God’s concern about spending is evidenced primarily by several Temple-related laws. The two communal trumpets used to call the Israelites to assembly were made of silver instead of gold (Midrash Aggadah Numbers 10). The mouth of the shofar used on fast days was covered with silver; only the shofar used on Rosh Hashanah was gilded. The Talmud questions why the principle of concern for communal funds is not invoked for all shofars. The answer given is that the honor due to holidays takes precedence (Rosh Hashanah 27a). The box from which lots were drawn for the two Yom Kippur goats was made out of wood. The Talmud expresses surprise that the box was not made of gold, or at least silver. The explanation offered is that the Torah has mercy on the communal treasury (Yoma 39a). The shovel that was used to scoop coals from the Outer Altar for the burning of incense was made of silver for year-round use. Only the shovel used on Yom Kippur was made of gold. This leniency was necessary because the heat of the coals would melt away the precious metal. To use gold every day would have been extremely expensive and wasteful, so the principle of התורה חסה was invoked to justify cheaper implements (Yoma 44b). The grain for meal offerings had to be purchased in the form of fine flour. An exception was made for the Showbread. Because of the large quantity required on a weekly basis, the Temple administrators were permitted to purchase far cheaper unprocessed wheat (Menahot 76b). Although the fuel for lighting the Menorah had to be pure olive oil, the oil for meal offerings could be of lesser quality. This leniency was necessary because, unlike the once-only daily lighting of the candelabrum, many meal offerings were brought daily; had pure olive oil been required to be used for all those meal offerings, its price would have skyrocketed and rapidly depleted the public coffers מפני החיסכון (Menahot 86b)
Are there guidelines for when to invoke the competing principles of opulent worship versus the Torah’s pity on Jewish money? None is readily apparent in the Talmud, though later rabbinic scholars attempted to infer them from the known case law. However, one example in the Talmud seems to prove the arbitrary and haphazard nature of these determinations. The Menorah was lit every day shortly before nightfall. The amount of oil used had to keep the flame burning until morning, even on long winter nights. The sages experimented with varying amounts before settling on the half-log measure. But there is a disagreement regarding how this conclusion was reached. One opinion says they began with a much larger measure and continued to reduce it until the appropriate volume was known. Although this resulted in discarding much excess oil during the discovery process, that was of no concern because we do not manifest poverty in the Temple and such insignificant losses can be overlooked. Another opinion says they began with a much smaller measure and continued to increase it until determining that a half-log was enough. In this manner, the Torah’s concern for Israel’s financial well-being was manifested (Menahot 89a). Were there rules specifying when to invoke which principle, this type of disagreement would not be possible.
Two further examples prove the inconsistent application of the two principles. (a) According to the Midrash, the High Priest was exempted from wearing gold vestments on Yom Kippur because the Torah has mercy on Israel’s money (Leviticus Rabbah 21:10). Yet the High Priest wore two white gowns on Yom Kippur; their total value was, at minimum, 2,000 zuz, and could be considerably more were he were willing to contribute personal funds to their purchase (Mishnah Yoma 3:7). (b) Although the Yom Kippur lottery box was originally made of wood, Ben Gamla fashioned a box of gold and the sages sang his praises עשאן בן גמלא של זהב והיו מזכירין אותו לשבח (3:9). On the one hand, God’s law is extolled for being affordable; on the other, in these two instances, those very observances were transformed into displays of wealth.
Striking an appropriate balance between the beautification of Divine worship and the prudent use of communal or personal funds is a challenging task. The regular use of gold vessels befit an exalted place like the Holy Temple. Additionally, it was a matter of national pride that the central house of Jewish worship was a wonder of the ancient world. But the level of extravagance found on Mount Moriah was not a result of Divine fiat. The Hebrew God is unlike the venal and corrupt deities of pagan mythology who demanded propitiation through expensive offerings lest they lash out against mankind with unbounded wrath. The King of Kings does not need our gifts of gold. He would much prefer we provide sustenance to those among His creations who are in dire need. Nevertheless, we often do adorn our synagogues with beautiful and expensive trappings, making our own subjective judgments about when further expense might be wasteful and when enough is enough.