Sometimes you just need to pay up (Daf Yomi Shekalim 14)

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“We have a tradition from our fathers.”

Today’s Daf Yomi discussion considers the professions that supported the Second Temple when it stood in Jerusalem. We are introduced to Ben Bevai, who had a very particular skill, which was to braid shreds of discarded cloth into wicks for candelabrum. He was so good at his craft that he could calibrate the size and width of each wick so that it could burn an entire night.

When a group of prominent community leaders took offense at Rabbi Yosei’s request that they care for the needs of the community and oversee provisions for the poor, he berated them by stating that if a man as great as Ben Bevai could spend his life making wicks, they could take on the administrative duties requested of them which involved “life-sustaining matters.” The message is quite clear: we are all obligated to support our communities in the best way we can, and every task we do toward that goal is of importance. There is also a message to the men who thought they were too important to do this work to get over themselves.

Among those who contributed to the running of the Temple were the musicians and singers, because life would not be complete without music. The cymbal, which appears to be a different instrument according to the notes in the Koren Talmud than what we know today, was played loud and clear by ben Arza. Hugras ben Levi was responsible for singing and we are told that his voice was so pleasant that “all his fellow priests would lurch toward him when he sang.” In an odd detail, we are told that he amplified the timbre of his voice by sticking his thumb into his mouth.

There was a family at the time of the Temple that specialized in baking the shewbread that was placed on display and later eaten by the priests at the end of each week. The house of Garmu was known for its baking talent and responsible for the preparation of the shewbread. They appeared to have had the contract all tied up. We are told that they were protective of their franchise and “did not want to teach these skills to others.”

The sages brought in competition from Alexandria in an attempt to bust the Garmu bread baking monopoly. The imported bakers with the august international reputation, were unable to remove the shewbread from the ovens without spoilage. We are told that the shewbread had a “complex form” that made it very difficult to remove intact. An appeal was made to the Garmus to return to their ovens. However, they had the upper hand in the contract negotiations, and asked for double, and then four times, the price they had been charging.

When the house of Garmu was asked why they would not teach their skill to others, they answered, “We do not want to teach our method, so that others should not learn this art and unscrupulously perform it for their idolatry.” We are told that although their reason for not teaching others “was not accepted,” their bread was praised by the sages and they were scrupulous in keeping it within the confines of the Temple. Their bread was never found “in their children’s possession.” Although their excuse for guarding against idolatry might have been perceived by the Rabbis as rationalization, one cannot fault a small business owner for protecting his franchise.

We are told that the house of Avtinas were masters in the preparation of incense. They were believed to be expert in extracting incense from the smoke-raiser bush, which according to the notes in the Koren Talmud is believed to be related to the Leptadenia Pyrotechnica. Like the house of Garmu, the house of Avtinas refused to teach its incense making skills to others. Once again, craftsmen were brought in from the great city of Alexandria to usurp the local family.

The Avtinas had a special ability to make incense with smoke clouds that would rise up to the ceiling and spread out as it descended, filling the chambers with its musky scent. The artisans from Egypt were unable to replicate this effect. And once again, when the house of Avtinas was called back in, they doubled and quadrupled their compensation.

A few years ago, I put the cooperative apartment that I had lived in for thirty years on the market. It was dump after all those years of living in too small of a space. I set out to find a contractor who could renovate it into a saleable condition. I considered three different contractors who bid at different price points. One contractor brought me to an apartment that he had just renovated and the work he did was outstanding. It was evident that he took great pride in his work when he showed me perfectly aligned molding that he had installed. And I have to tell you, the edges of his molding were a work of art.

Of course, this contractor who I selected was the most expensive of the three, but I fell in love with his craftsmanship, down to how he laid tile in the bathroom, installed kitchen shelving and renovated closets. He came in on time and on budget after he started the renovation of my apartment, and unlike the horror stories that I have heard about home renovations, the entire project was completed without any problems at all.

If today’s Daf Yomi portion teaches us anything at all, it is to respect good craftsmanship. This includes making incense, baking bread, or installing molding along the floorboards of a New York City apartment. If you go for the low-priced option, you may pay more in the long run, like the sages who tried to find cheaper alternatives to the skilled craftsmen who provided services to the Temple. Sometimes, you just need to pay up for good work.

About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at
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