Torah Portion: Behukotai
Book of Leviticus
June 3, 2016
The biblical obligation for annual giving is 10% of one’s income. The ancient Israelites were farmers and shepherds. They determined their gifts by the size of their harvest or flock. Today, most of us determine our yearly “bottom line” by the amount of income we receive. Question: Does one taking the obligation of charitable donations seriously determine the 10% tithe according to income before or after taxes? And what if one is unable to afford a 10% donation? It’s tough. It was no easier in biblical times as this particular section of Torah bears witness!
The ancient Temple in Jerusalem depended on the collection of annual tithes to maintain itself and support the priests and levites who worked there. Realizing the financial difficulty some may face being required to annually donate 10% of their income to the Temple, an alternative was suggested:
“If anyone consecrates his house to the Lord, the priest shall assess it. Whether high or low, as the priest assess it, so it shall stand; and if he who has consecrated his house wishes to redeem it, he must add one-fifth to the sum at which it was assessed, and it shall be his.” (Lev. 27:14-15)
One could choose to consecrate his fields, animals, or even himself, to the Temple and then later redeem it. Sounds a lot like pawn broking! The history of pawn broking preceded even the Bible. Someone had a debt and no cash; they traded something of value for cash. Later, they could choose to return and buy back the object they had “pawned”, but at a higher price than what they originally received for it. Debts were paid and the economy churned on.
Leviticus simply elevates this practice to a higher level. The Kotzker Rebbe taught, “True holiness sanctifies the seemingly mundane. . .” There is holiness to be found in a home, a field, a precious object, and, of course, oneself. Their worth was highly valued by the ancient Temple and the Jewish community. The major difference between using one’s home or field to pay an annual debt to the Temple and exchanging property for cash with a pawnbroker was one did not vacate their home or give up their field when they consecrated them to the Temple. Rather, when they were more financially able or in accordance with a set schedule of payments, they redeemed what, in fact, they never gave up. In the end, the Temple received the necessary cash flow to maintain itself in addition to the dignity of its contributors.
Rabbi Howard Siegel