Protecting ‘the money of Israel’

How long will you waste the money of Israel?”

Rabbi Akiva asked that question of Rabbi Yochanan ben Nuri, who argued for what Rabbi Akiva believed was an expensive stringency. (See the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Bechorot 40a.)

Each year at this time, readers of this column expect what many call my “annual Pesach rant.” Critics of the “rant” — which usually focuses on how an ever-growing list of halachic stringencies have made Pesach far too expensive and burdensome — dismiss it as just another attempt at “liberalizing” Judaism by “dumbing down” its laws.

Actually, the “rant” has never been about Passover per se, or about liberalizing Judaism.

Rather, it is about the ever-growing cost of Jewish living fueled by halachic rulings made in complete disregard to an established principle of Jewish law for which Pesach is the paradigm.

In its pure form, the principle is, “The Torah protects the money of Israel.”

Here is an example. According to Torah law, a woman who gives birth has to bring two offerings — a burnt-offering (an olah) of a lamb, and a dove or pigeon as a sin-offering (a chatat). If she cannot afford the lamb, she brings two doves or two pigeons (see this week’s parashah, Tazria, 12:6-8).

Each time she fails to bring an offering, it gets added on to the next birth, and so on, until she brings all the offerings. That brings us to an incident reported in BT K’ritot 8a. Women, apparently, were not bringing offerings each time they gave birth, and so the number of offerings they owed mounted. Supply and demand came into play at one point, and the hawkers of these birds took advantage.

“It once happened in Jerusalem that the price of a pair of doves rose to a golden dinar,” the Gemara reports. “Said [the president of the Sanhedrin] Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel… ‘I will not go to sleep tonight before the cost is [only a silver] dinar!’ Then he…taught: ‘If a woman had five certain births or five certain issues, she only needs to bring one offering… she is not bound to bring the others.’” At that point, the price of the birds plummeted.

The principle plays out in at least two instances in Tractate Chullin (49b and 76b-77a), in which the Babylonian sage Rava ruled as acceptable foods that may not have been acceptable. The reason he gave was, “The Torah protects the money of Israel.”

Not just in the instance of a woman giving birth does the Torah demonstrate such concern, by the way. In a portion we read several weeks ago (Leviticus Chapter 5), it offers a more extensive version of this affordability clause, scaling down from an animal, to birds, to a little flour, depending on a person’s means.

That concern is not evident in Jewish life today.

There is another principle — not actually a law, but goal: “hiddur mitzvah.” The most accurate translation is “honoring a mitzvah.” Its point is that we should approach the performance of any mitzvah with an open heart and the desire to honor the mitzvah by performing it in the best way we can. The mitzvah could be doing something that shows respect for someone, or it could be making kiddush at a Shabbat meal by using a beautiful tune. Whatever the mitzvah, the more of ourselves we put into it, the more honor we give it — and the more honor we give to the God who gave us the commandment.

Hiddur mitzvah, however, is more commonly translated today as “beautifying the mitzvah,” and its meaning has shifted in a way that not only offers no protection for the money of Israel, but actually disdains it. The Talmud, in a discussion about showing respect to people, states that “honoring also means without monetary loss” (see BT Kiddushin 32b). This, too, is ignored today.

This is not being “anti-Orthodox.” It is a fact, as can be seen in an essay published in 2006 on the website by Rabbi Osher Chaim Levene.

He compares the observant Jew to a performance artist who uses only the best instruments possible with no care for cost — a pianist choosing a Steinway grand piano. In the same way, he writes, “the Jew sets out to obtain beautifully written tefillin and has no hesitation to purchase an expensive, flawless esrog…. His aim, like the musician, is to achieve the most exemplary result using the best instruments to render this in the most attractive way….

“He does not see it as a burden, but as a pleasure. He does not treat it as a yoke to dispense with or shirk off…. He is unimpressed just to get by with the minimum…. That he is not pushed off by the greater expenditure reveals his love of the mitzvah….

“A silver goblet upon which to recite the Shabbos Kiddush, for example, is testimony that we are not content with performing the act with due proficiency….Judaism is intrinsically beautiful. Accordingly, we want our relationship with God to be just as beautiful. Yes, Jewish living is ‘dear’ — in both meanings of the word. But we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

Rava, and Rabbis Akiva and Shimon ben Gamaliel, and countless other sages of blessed memory, all would respond to this in the same way: “How long will you waste the money of Israel?”

Pesach has become overburdened by stringencies that make little sense, but waste a lot of dollars. Pesach purchasing hurts people’s pocketbooks in a big way.

Rather than pushing the notion that the more money you spend, the more observant you are, imagine what would happen if a group of rabbis would do for the often excessive spike in food prices at Pesach time what Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel did for a pair of doves?

It can be done. It should be done. It is not about dumbing down Judaism. It is about elevating it by protecting the money of Israel.

Chag sameach v’kasher.

About the Author
Shammai Engelmayer is rabbi of Temple Israel Community Center, in Cliffside Park, and Temple Beth El of North Bergen, both in New Jersey. A former president of the North Jersey Board of Rabbis, he chose to work as a journalist after being ordained. That career helped him hone the skills that serve him so well on the pulpit, and helped him become a popular adult Jewish education teacher in Northern New Jersey.
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