Thursday, February 3, 2011


Dr. Abner Weiss, Rabbi



And the Lord spoke onto Moses saying: ‘Speak unto the children of Israel that they may take for me an offering; of every man whose heart inspires him to be generous shall you take my offering. (Ex. 25:1-2).

This text introduces most of the remainder of the Book of Exodus, which is devoted to the contributions for, the design of, and the construction of the portable sanctuary, and of its furnishings and the attire of those who served in it. 

The sanctuary narrative begins with a call to the people of Israel to make voluntary gifts for the construction of the sanctuary.  As we subsequently learn, the appeal was extraordinarily successful.  More was given than was required.

The source of the gifts is not clearly defined in the Torah.  However the Mishnah delineates five categories of unacceptable contributors:

Five [classes of people] shall not contribute, and if they have contributed, their contributions are not [to be considered a legitimate] contribution—ha-cheresh[the deaf mute], ve ha-shoteh [the psychiatrically disabled], ve-ha-katan [the minor], ve ha-torem et she-eino shelo [one who has contributed something that does not belong to one], and a ha-nokhri ]gentile] who has contributed something owned by a Jew, even with permission. (Terumot 1:1). 

Although our text applies specifically to contributions for the portable sanctuary, the sages broadened its scope to include valid contributions to the priest.  The Jerusalem Talmud explains the technical reasons for the Mishnah’s exclusion of the five classes of individual:  “Rabbi Shemu’el Bar Nachman understood all these excluded classes from the implications of the Biblical text (Ex 25:1-3):  ‘Speak onto the children of Israel that they may take for me an offering’.  This excludes a worshiper of idols.  Of every man’s’ this excludes a minor.     ‘Whose heart inspires him to be generous’.  This excludes the deaf mute and the psychiatrically disabled.  ‘And this is the offering which you shall take of them.’  This excludes one who contributes that which does not belong to one. (J.T. Terumah 1:1).

Clearly, according to Rabbi Shemu’el Bar Nachman, the various parts of the text imply who may and who may not legitimately make acceptable offerings.  The prohibited classes are simply excluded by gezerat ha –katuv [Divine decree in the Torah] .

Although the Torah does not give the reasons for its decree, the exclusion of four of the five classes makes sense.  A gift must be conscious and rational if it is to be considered motivated by a heart inspired by generosity.

Before the advent of communication strategies such as sign language and lip reading, the cheresh [deaf mute] lived in a state of cognitive deprivation and isolation, and was considered incapable of making personal and considered decisions.  The gifts of  a cheresh could thus not be regarded as authentic free will offerings.

The shoteh [psychiatrically disabled] frequently lived in a world of unreality, motivated by paranoia, hallucinations and delusions.  During such states of cognitive confusion, the gifts of the shoteh could not really be offered consciously and responsibly.

Minors [ketanim] were excluded because they were deemed to be insufficiently mature and financially dependent on others to make offerings of their own.  They had not yet learned to appreciate the value of money and possessions, and could be easily manipulated to dissipate what they did own.

The exclusion of gifts that did not belong to the donor [she-eino shelo] requires no explanation.   Such gifts were regarded as abominations rather than offerings.  The sanctuary would be desecrated were it to accept unlawfully acquired contributions.

However, if four of the Mishnah’s excluded categories can be rationally understood, the fifth appears to make no sense.   An idolater’s contribution is welcome.  Yet the Mishnah excludes the gifts of Jewish property made by an idolater, even with the permission of the Jewish owner. This seems to make no sense. How can we  explain this part of the Mishnah? 

The late Rabbi Milton Steinberg resolved the difficulty by examining the excluded classes by idealistic spiritual criteria rather than by merely technical considerations. 

The Hebrew word for “offering” is terumah, from the root le-harim, [to elevate], as in the verse, ‘And you shall lift up [ve-harimotem] from it the offering of the Lord.”(Num. 18:26)  Understood in this way, the Mishnah excludes five classes of individual who are incapable of achieving spiritual elevation. 

The person who is incapable of communication [cheresh] is excluded because true spirituality is attained in association with other--either on the level of intimacy achieved in the reciprocal relationship of two people in a relationship of love, or as a participant in the endeavors of a caring community. Both require communication skills.

One of the symptoms used by the Talmud to identify a shoteh [psychiatrically disabled person] is ha-lan be-vet ha-kevarot [one who frequents a cemetery].  Metaphorically, this defines a person whose religious observance is limited to rituals for the dead, shivah, yahrzeit, yizkor and Kaddish, or who is fixated on death.  

The katan [minor], in a metaphorical sense, is a person who believes that religion is a necessary element of the educational process of young children only.  It is not necessary for the day-to-day lives of mature, busy adults. They are too involved with such serious preoccupations making a living to waste time on religious practice.  They send their children to synagogue, religious schools, and even
Day Schools, unaware of the incongruity of what their children learn there with how the family lives at home.

 The exclusion of ha- torem et she-eino shelo [one who gives charity from ill gotten gains] requires no further elaboration.  Spiritual growth in the absence of   ethical behavior is a contradiction in terms. Moral practice and spiritual elevation are inseparable. 

The exclusion of a gentile, who gifts the sanctuary from the possessions of a Jew, albeit with permission, is particularly significant. A gentile’s gift from his own possessions is absolutely acceptable.  However, if he gives the impression of personal generosity when, in fact, his gift has cost him nothing personally, he is guilty of hypocrisy.  The Mishnah has effectively placed the hypocrite on a par with the thief. 

By excluding the gifts of these five classes of people, the sages imply a striking contrast between five spiritually inferior modes of being with five spiritually elevating ways of life.  Spiritual isolation and insensitivity are contrasted with unselfish reciprocal, sensitive and participatory spiritual practice.  Spirituality that centers on death, and glorifies it, is contrasted with life affirming spiritual aspirations.  Spiritual immaturity is contrasted with the mature spiritual practice of adults who aim for personal growth and transformation.  The cynical behavior of individuals who are punctilious in their practice of religious rituals and simultaneously immoral in their business practices and interpersonal relationships is contrasted with the life-style of individuals of personal integrity and uncompromising ethical standards.  Hypocrisy, the deliberate creation of a false impression of being different from who one really is, contrasts with the ideal of sincerity as the most important precondition for authentic spirituality.

In the last analysis, the sages of the Mishnah remind us that the gifts of people whose conduct and motivations are unacceptable are not welcome in God’s Holy House.   

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