Neil Janes
Rabbi, Scholar, Writer, Educator and Leader

Public Office and Money: Lessons from the Bible and the Rabbis

In II Kings 12, we read of King Jehoash in the 9th century BCE who requires the monies brought into the Temple to be spent on the upkeep of the Temple and overseen by the priests. The problem this biblical story goes on to narrate is that twenty-three years into his reign he discovers that no repairs have been made to the Temple.

But in the twenty-third year of King Jehoash, [it was found that] the priests had not made the repairs on the House. (II Kings 12:7)

So ensues the first description of the charity box – the pushke – and financial audit in Jewish history. We’re told that the priest Jehoiada took a box and bored a hole in its lid and placed it by the altar for officials to place donations in as soon as they were received. When the box was seen to be full the royal scribe and a priest – two people – would come and take the money, count it and redistribute it to the overseers who would then pass it on to the labourers involved in the upkeep of the Temple.

This becomes one of the foundational sources in Judaism for the responsibility of those in public office to ensure that they were completely scrupulous in their conduct, allowing no possibility not just for wrong doing but even for the suspicion of wrong doing. This was particularly applied to the collection of the charitable donations in antiquity – in which the Talmud describes the collection and redistribution needing to be conducted by at least two or three people at all times. This gathering and redistribution, effectively an early system of audit and financial oversight, was to avoid any suspicion. Bava Batra 8b relates for example:

Charity collectors may not separate from each other…If a charity collector found coins in the market, he may not put them into his own pocket, but rather he must put them into the charity purse, and then later when he comes home, he may take them. Similarly, if the charity collector was owed one hundred dinars by another, and the latter repaid his debt in the market, the collector may not put the money he received into his own pocket, but rather he must put it into the charity purse, and then later when he comes home, he may take it. (Bava Batra 8b:16)

In other words – if you hold public office in which the public purse is being managed both in collection of the equivalent of communal taxes and donations and their redistribution you should go to extraordinary lengths to avoid even the possibility of suspicion of mishandling of funds. To the extent of not giving the impression that you are ‘trousering’ some of the monies – even whilst you are legitimately owed the money by your fellow or simply ‘found’ coins in the market. Anything that could give the idea to onlookers that you are benefiting from money that might be legitimately thought to be given for redistribution must be avoided. In fact, the Talmud goes on to describe other mechanisms for redistribution that include not exchanging money in the ‘pot’ for different denominations on your own and the reallocation of funds should not be done in a way that might give the impression of private benefit and neither should money be counted in ‘twos’ but coin by coin.

The rabbinic community of late antiquity used the failure of King Jehoash’s administration to ensure that funds were being used for the correct purpose, as a reminder to think about how to protect the equivalent of public funds from future possible usage violations, errors in judgement by public officials and the community’s loss of faith in the system as a whole.

I often think of these texts when I listen to the news stories which are currently front pages of the UK press about the UK Members of Parliament and their earnings from second (and in some cases what appears to be first) jobs. Those in public office are rightly held to different expectations and standards. These high standards of public office are required because the system requires trust which must be protected (aside from whether politicians should even be allowed to have additional income on top of their parliamentary salaries). It took King Jehoash 23 years of his rule to realise money was not being used for the purposes it was collected, which led to inspiration for rabbis some centuries later to create frameworks to avoid failure of trust even whilst no actual breach of rules had taken place – perhaps it will be further inspiration for our situation here in the UK in 2021 too.

About the Author
Rabbi Janes is the rabbi of South Bucks Jewish Community, one of the fastest growing Liberal Judaism communities, enriching Jewish life in Buckinghamshire and Hertfordshire. He a School Rabbi of a Jewish primary school where he teaches Jewish Studies and faculty member at the Leo Baeck College teaching Talmud and Midrash. Ordained by the Leo Baeck College in 2006, with degrees in Psychology and Education, Hebrew and Jewish Studies. He has studied at Cardiff University, Leo Baeck College, Haifa University, and the Conservative Yeshiva in Jerusalem. In 2022, he was an M² Jewish Pedagogies of Wellbeing Research Fellow. He is researching for a PhD at King's College London in Rabbinic Literature.
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