Wednesday, February 26, 2014


This week's Torah reading emphasizes the need for transparency in financial matters relating to the maintenance of our religious institutions. This reading concludes the Book of Exodus. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks calls it "the accountant's parasha" because it begins with the audited accounts of the donations received and materials used in the construction of the Tabernacle.

Depending on how the calendar works out, we often read Pekudei along with the special haftarah for Shabbat Shekalim, as we do this year. In ancient days, every male between the ages of 20 and 50 was required to give precisely one half shekel every year for maintenance of the Tabernacle and subsequently the Temple. (This tax also served as a census of sorts -- the Torah prohibits taking an actual census -- since the number of half-shekels received equaled the number of men who were considered of military age.) The tax was collected at the beginning of the month of Nisan (the month when Passover occurs) and so was announced on the Shabbat nearest the beginning of the prior month, Adar.

The Haftarah reading, from the book of Second Kings, describes a conflict which occurred between King Jehoash and the priests over the use of donations to the Temple. The priests were supposed to take any money donated and use it for repair and maintenance of the Temple. Jehoash discovered that, while they were taking the money, they weren't making the repairs. When Jehoash discovered this, he took responsibility for Temple maintenance away from the priests. They could continue to receive the tithes which the Torah mandated, which were necessary for their own support. But freewill donations for Temple maintenance and repair were now to go specifically to trustworthy and accountable men appointed by the king to oversee that function.

The Torah is quite clear on the need for transparency and accountability. When people are asked to give money, they have a right to know why the money is needed and how it is going to be spent. At times, leaders are afraid that such transparency will undermine the confidence of members or donors and make it harder to raise funds. But I believe the opposite is true. Greater transparency will only serve to give synagogue members more confidence that their money is being spent wisely. I am pleased that this is the path we have chosen at Kehilat Shalom.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

"Anyone Who Works on the Sabbath Shall Be Put to Death"

The beginning of this week’s Torah reading is another example of a text that would seem very harsh if understood literally. Exodus 35:2 says “On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a holy sabbath of complete rest before the LORD; anyone who does any work on it shall be put to death.”

Those who were present this past Shabbat may recall we discussed, among other things, two different phrases used for the death penalty in the Torah. One is “that soul shall be cut off from its people” and the other is “shall be put to death.” The first type, known as karet, “cutting off,” is understood by the sages as a death penalty to be carried out by God, not by humans. But the second is understood as to be carried out by human courts.

By the time of the late Second Temple Period, the sages had almost entirely eliminated capital punishment through a series of procedural and evidentiary requirements so stringent as to be virtually impossible to meet. We don’t know to what extent the death penalty for Sabbath violations was actually carried out in biblical times, though Numbers 15:32 - 26 tells the story of a man who was stoned to death for gathering sticks on Shabbat.

I’m quite confident that no one reading my brief weekly commentary would think it was a good idea to put people to death for working on Shabbat. So what are we to do with this commandment?

Our Etz Hayyim commentary gives us one helpful thought, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Eybeschutz (1690 - 1764) to the extent that a Jew who does not observe Shabbat “becomes dead to the spiritual dimension of life.” Jewish lore holds that we are given a neshama yeteira, an additional soul, on Shabbat -- “a person who makes no distinction between Shabbat and the weekday forfeits that gift.”

I think there is some truth to this. If we are “too busy” to observe Shabbat, we are probably busier than God wants us to be.