Walking above the maddening crowds (Daf Yomi Shekalim 11)

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Correct placement, is necessary for offerings to be valid.”

Somewhere along the way of this journey through the pages of the Talmud, I picked up on the fact that the Rabbis were critical of the priests who ran affairs during the time of the Temple. By the time the Talmud was transcribed, that mantle was handed to the Rabbis. Today’s Daf Yomi portion provides a good view into how the Rabbis perceived the priests from previous generations.

The red heifer was the star attraction of purification rituals when the Temple was standing. The priests built ramps to transport the precious red heifers from the Temple where they were collected to the Mount of Olives where they were slaughtered. The red heifer, which was raised for the purpose of purification, could be in danger during the journey through the city of Jerusalem of becoming contaminated from a source of impurity. After the slaughter, the priests had to carry the slaughtered heifer back to the temple for the purification ceremony, without becoming contaminated themselves.

In order to protect against contamination during the transport of the red heifer the priests constructed ramps that allowed for safe transport back and forth. This process appears to have become a spectacle in and of itself. We are told that the “High Priests” who Rabbi Hanina said displayed “great haughtiness” spent more than “sixty talents of gold” on constructing ramps to carry the heifer back and forth, even though the “previous ramp of the heifer was still standing.”

Each priest constructed his own ramp rather than taking “out his heifer on his fellow’s ramp.” He would demolish the old one and build a new one, with the suggested purpose of displaying his wealth and station in life, much like someone might buy an expensive car, when a mid-range model might be just fine.

Rabbi Ulla raised an objection to the characterization of the priests as “haughty.” He challenged the construction of the ramps as a display of priestly self-grandeur. He reminds the collective chorus of Rabbis that the High Priest Shimon HaTzaddik constructed a ramp in order the perform the “rites of two heifers” and he was beyond reproach.

Ulla asks a rhetorical question: “Is it possible for you to say Shimon HaTzaddik was haughty?” We all know the answer to that question is “no.” Ulla tells us that in fact, Shimon constructed a new ramp, because it a “higher standard” and a “higher level of honor” was required for the ceremony of the red heifer.  I can hear the chorus of the Rabbis in the background saying, “Ok Ulla, maybe that was true for the righteous Shimon, but not for all those other highfalutin priests who were no better than any of us.”

We are also provided with insight into how money was invested during the time of Talmud. There were limited investment options. There were no exchanges where shares could be bought in companies or commodities. Income could be earned through lending and charging interest, but usury was prohibited. We are told that when funds left to orphans were invested with bar Zemina, he was told by Rabbi Mana that he could invest the funds – presumably in loans – if he was willing to take any loss as his own and split the profits with the orphans. The notes of the Koren Talmud explain that this was an exception granted for the protection of funds left to those whose parents died while they were still young.

This Tractate is all about money: how it is collected, spent, used for communal purposes, protected, invested, put on display. I am left with the vision of priests in long white robes walking through the city of Jerusalem on elaborate planks in order to display the trappings of their wealth. They walked on those planks above the everyday goings on as they led the red heifer to the Mount of Olives, and then carried the sacrificial offering back to the Temple.

The priests were up there in the rarified air walking above the maddening crowds displaying their fancy ramps, and robes, and pure animals. They were either a symbol of purity and sanctity or excess and superiority. We are provided with two perspectives today. I will leave it to you to decide which one it could be.

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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