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Your Money and Your Life

By: Rav Uri Cohen

By the time the ba’al korei gets up to the last perek of Vayikra, we are reeling from the long and harsh tokhachah, and we just want keriat haTorah to be over. No wonder we are happy to gloss over the list of directives of how to evaluate pledges to the Beit HaMikdash. Nevertheless, before the Torah discusses the erkhin (evaluations) <1> of animals and fields, it mentions something that should make us sit up and take notice the erkhin of people! It starts like this: 

When a person makes a vow (yafli neder), of the value of a life (erkekha nefashot) for Hashem, the value (erkekha) of a male from 20 to 60 years old should be . . . (Vayikra 27:2-3) 

The Torah proceeds to prescribe an erekh for each of eight categories of people whose value has been pledged – males and females of four different age groups. Now, there are meforshim who try to work out logically why each amount of money is appropriate for the group to which it is assigned.<2> The problem, as Ibn Ezra and Rav Yehudah Nachshoni point out, is that all the explanations seem convoluted and not especially convincing. The two of them suggest that the details here are simply a gezerat hakatuv and are beyond us. In any case, there is a more intriguing question on the erkhin of people: is it a good thing or not to pledge people’s value? Let’s examine both a negative and a positive answer to this question. 

A Bad Idea 

The Netziv picks up on the unusual verb that introduces the erkhin of people. The word “yafli” (éÇôÀìÄà), while usually translated as “make a vow,” is related to the word “pele” (ôÆÌìÆà), which means amazing or astonishing. According to the Netziv, the Torah means it is absolutely astonishing that a person would obligate himself in something that Hashem doesn’t want! He notes that the midrash here (Vayikra Rabbah 37:1) cites a pasuk which declares it is better not to vow than to take a vow and not fulfill it (Kohelet 5:4). According to Rabbi Yehudah in the midrash, that pasuk means you should never obligate yourself with a vow; if you want to donate a sheep to the Beit HaMikdash, skip the vow and just bring it.<3> 

Other meforshim elaborate on why a vow to donate someone’s value is an especially bad idea. Abarbanel argues that if the Torah had followed the logical implication of a person’s erekh and had instructed the kohanim to appraise each person individually, that would be a degradation of human beings – “as if they were a horse or donkey.” Furthermore, it would lead to jealousy and resentment. If one person were evaluated high because of his intelligence, and another person were evaluated low because of his age, the first person would pride himself unjustifiably at the second one’s expense.<4> It’s not hard to see how easily relationships could be poisoned over such comparisons. Fortunately, as Rav Hirsch explains, the Torah decides otherwise: 

Erekh, and especially erkekha, is the expression of an ideal, imaginary value, the expression of the imaginary value a person has to God and His Sanctuary. This value is given as a fixed one; it has absolutely nothing to do with physical, spiritual, intellectual, moral, or social qualities, and rises or falls purely according to sex and age. This universal equality is already expressed in the term erkekha nefashot; it is only the nefashot as such which are to be considered and every living person is a nefesh (see Arakhin 2a).<5>  

A different problem with people’s erkhin relates to our tzelem Elokim. According to the Biur (a work which Nehama Leibowitz a”h quotes regularly), if people want to pledge to the Beit HaMikdash, they can pledge silver or gold. Hashem does not want pledges of people, because it is simply impossible to put a monetary value on an individual human being. For this reason, if someone insists on doing this astonishing thing and says “Erko alai” (his value is on me), the Torah refuses to treat the case as one of damim, actual monetary value.<6> Rather, according to the Ra’avad, an erekh falls into the halakhic category of kenas (a fine).<7> This is a subtle way of telling us that Hashem is not happy with putting a value on a human being. More explicitly, according to Rav Elchanan Samet, the reason that the Torah assigns an official erekh based on nothing but the actuarial criteria of age and gender is to convey the message that a donation cannot correspond to an individual’s true value – the true value of a human life is infinite.<8> 

There is yet another reason why the Torah makes people’s erkhin depend entirely on two objective factors. Abarbanel mentions in passing that if a father pledged the erekh of his son, and the kid were very bright, an individual appraisal by a kohen could be so high that the father would go bankrupt! We know the Torah is concerned with poor people’s ability to pay an erekh, because it devotes a pasuk (27:8) to telling the kohen just to charge whatever meager amount the poor person can afford. So too, Hashem wants to minimize the possibility of the poor suffering in any way because of erkhin. True, it’s not a bright idea to pledge something whose value may be way out of your budget. But the Torah has rachmanut and says not to worry – it defines people’s official values for this purpose as fixed and relatively affordable. 

All the above explanations assume that pledging the erkhin of people is a bad idea. 

A Good Idea 

Alternatively, two contemporary rabbis suggest that there is something good about people’s erkhin. They focus on the psychological motivations for donating someone’s value. Rabbi Phil Chernofsky, associate director of the OU Israel Center in Yerushalayim, suggests in Torah Tidbits: 

If donating the value of a male child between 5 and 20 years of age, for example, is equivalent to a pledge of 20 shekels, then why not just donate 20 shekels? What is the significance of labeling certain amounts as the “value” of a person?  

Part of the answer seems quite obvious. We psychologically relate much more strongly to our giving the value of person to the Beit HaMikdash than we would with a mere sum of money. This would be especially so if the person were ourself or a loved one. Modern fundraising psychology borrows this idea. Compare the emotional connection of contributing, let’s say, $100 to a charitable cause, compared with the same $100 which is called “foster a child” for a certain period of time. The money is the same. But the emotional response is quite different.<9> 

Along the same lines, Rabbi Dr. David Mescheloff of the Talmud Department of Bar-Ilan University suggests that the Torah’s system, with eight categories of people for erkhin, has an advantage over our current system of donating in someone’s honor: 

The use [in Vayikra 27:23] of the term with the definite article (äÈòÆøÀëÌÀêÈ) suggests that the Torah is dealing with a known concept. I suggested that it was, indeed, a standard way of announcing a sum one wanted to donate, much as “chai” has been used in recent centuries. On the one hand the use of such symbolic indications of a sum is convenient because one can donate various multiples (like “twice chai” or “half chai,” etc.), and while donating one thinks of the symbolism of the meaning of the word “life.” 

The Torah’s system for allowing “fixed-sum donations” (as opposed to “variable sum donations” of “damim”) is far richer than the pale system we have been using in recent centuries. Multiples of 18 cannot compare to a system with multiples of 3, 5, 20, 30, 50, etc. Furthermore, our system, which has only one symbolic value – “life” for all – cannot compare to a system which has more personalized fixed sums for different age and gender groups. With the Torah’s system, a person can give a fixed donation with his son or daughter (or a friend’s son or daughter), of various ages, or his wife or parents, etc. in mind with a fixed sum that is personal to the one for whose recovery, gratitude, memory, etc. he is donating.<10> 

To sum up, we have seen two types of approaches to the subject of pledging people’s value to the Beit HaMikdash. Perhaps the two do not need to contradict each other. The negative approach focuses on the danger of thinking that one can place a value on a human being. On an objective level, every individual is priceless. The positive approach focuses on the possibility of personalizing one’s donation through different symbolic amounts, without implying anything about the true value of a human being. On a subjective level, giving a donation with a personal connection can be very meaningful. As long as we keep both approaches in mind, we can make sure that our tzedakah donations are both infinitely valuable and personally meaningful. 

NOTES 

1. The correct pronunciation is arakhin, but I am using the conventional pronunciation of erkhin. 

2. These meforshim include Akeidat Yitzchak by Rav Yitzchak Arama (1420-1494), Don Yitzchak Abarbanel (1437-1508), Rav Moshe Alshikh (1508-1593), Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), and Rav David Zvi Hoffmann (1843-1921). More recently, Rav Amnon Bazak (1966-) has presented another such approach (http://www.etzion.org.il/vbm/archive/10-parsha/33bechukotai.rtf). 

3. Rav Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (1817-1893), Ha’amek Davar on Vayikra 27:2. For elaboration, see the gilyon of Dr. Nehama Leibowitz (1905-1997) for Behar-Bechukotai 5726. Available (in Hebrew) at http://www.nechama.org.il/pages/959.html 

4. Abarbanel, Commentary on Vayikra, Chapter 27 (p. 177). 

5. Rav Hirsch, The Pentateuch (translated by Isaac Levy), Leviticus 27:2 (p. 812). 

6. Rashi (1040-1105) on 27:3 notes that “erekh” (value) is different from “damim” (monetary value). As the Rambam (1138-1204) spells out, if someone says “Demei zeh alai” (“His monetary value is on me”), then and only then do we evaluate the person’s actual monetary value, as defined by how much he would bring on the slave market (Mishneh Torah, Erkhin VeCharamin 1:7). As Rav Hirsch puts it, “[A]s long as slave-dealing exists, there can be a cash value for a person; one can estimate the cash value of a person by his ability to work, just as one values the utility value of any other object.” It seems to me that this is the Torah’s concession to a person’s having obligated himself to bring some kind of monetary value. Slave value is the lowest possible monetary value for a human being. The equivalent today might be to calculate the chemical and mineral composition of the human body, which would bring a value of several dollars at most (see http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=1191738). 

7. Ra’avad (1120-1197), Hasagot to Mishneh Torah, Erkhin VeCharamin 3:9. Cited in Rav Naphtali Hertz (Hartwig) Wessely (1725-1805), Biur (Chumash Netivot HaShalom, published in 1835) on Vayikra 27:2. 

8. Rav Elchanan Samet (1953-), “Erekh Nafsho Shel Eved Mi Yeda?,” in M’at Min HaOr, Mishpatim 5764 (http://www.tora.co.il/parasha/mishpatim_64.doc). Compare Rav Elie Munk (1900-1980), The Call of the Torah (Mesorah, 1994), Vol. 3, p. 331: “Here the Torah speaks of the holiness inherent in the individual Jew, a holiness which is independent of any corporal value such as his value as a slave, but on the ‘value of his soul’ (áÌÀòÆøÀëÌÀêÈ ðÀôÈùÑÉú). Since there can be no way for us to assess such a value, the Torah assigns different amounts depending on age for the purpose of offering a donation.” 

9. Rabbi Phil Chernofsky, Torah Tidbits, #420 (B’chukotai 5760), May 26-27, 2000 (http://www.ou.org/torah/parsha/torah-tidbits-parsha-summary/aliya-aliya-parashat-bchukotai-5760). A precedent for this idea is in the Ralbag (1288-1344): “People might often think of donating someone’s erekh to Hashem, so that Hashem will take care of him and keep him alive.” See Peirushei Ralbag al HaTorah, Vol. 3 (Mosad HaRav Kook, 1997), p. 407, s.v. hato’elet hasheni.

10. Rabbi Dr. David Mescheloff, email on May 15, 2003. After I posted a query about erkhin to the Lookjed email list for Jewish educators, he emailed me with a summary of his shiur.

 

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