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There Are Thieves in the Temple. Or Are They Sacred Messengers?

Daf Yomi: The Talmud provides the Jewish version of well-known Christian gospel about money-changers

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James Tissot, The Merchants Chased from the Temple (Les vendeurs chassés du Temple), 1886–1894. (Collage Tablet Magazine; painting courtesy of the Brookyln Museum)
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The mention of darkonot points the way to another set of questions. The name of the currency used by the Israelites was the shekel, and shekels are also used by the State of Israel today. But in the Roman Empire, Jews used a variety of other local currencies. How could they determine which of these coins equaled a biblical half-shekel in value? In the mishna on Shekalim 6a, Rabbi Yehuda observes that “for shekels there is no real fixed value.” Just after the return from the Babylonian Exile, Yehuda says, the tithe was paid in darkonot, gold coins from Persia; later, under Greek rule, Jews paid with a sela, a silver coin, and still later with a tiva. Finally, some Jews tried to get away with paying only a dinar, but this was ruled to be not valuable enough to equal a half-shekel, and the sages “refused to accept it.” The only constant, according to the mishnah, is that everyone must pay the same amount, however it is denominated.

The struggle to calculate the exact worth of a half-shekel even takes on a mystical dimension. In Shekalim 4b, Rabbi Meir says that when God originally instructed Moses about the half-shekel tithe, he showed him “a kind of coin of fire”—the Platonic original of the half-shekel, showing exactly what volume and weight it was supposed to be. In order to make sure that the Jews’ tithe did not fall short of this original, the Temple authorities instituted a “premium,” a small extra payment that had to be made along with the half-shekel. This premium, or kalbon—from a Greek word meaning a small coin—ensured that the tithe would be the right value; it was also used to pay the money-changers for their work. The rabbis go into some detail about exactly who is liable to pay the premium and under what circumstances.

Finally, toward the end of Chapter 2, the Gemara returns to a favorite topic, the respect due to great rabbis—in particular, to rabbis who have died. Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel teaches that “One does not construct monuments for the graves of righteous people, as their words are their memorial”: A Torah sage is to be remembered for his teaching, not for his splendid tomb. Indeed, the Talmud is scrupulous about attributing every opinion to the sage who originally stated it, often getting into long debates on the subject.

To drive the point home, we hear a story about Rabbi Yochanan, who complained that his student Rabbi Eliezer “did not say a halakhah in my name”—that is, he taught a law without adding that he had learned it from Yochanan. To appease Yochanan, another rabbi, Ya’acov bar Idi, came up with a clever biblical comparison. In the Book of Joshua we read that Joshua taught the Israelites the whole Torah, which he had learned first-hand from Moses. But “is it possible,” Ya’acov asks, “that with every statement that Joshua made while sitting and expounding to the Jewish people he would say: Thus said Moses?” Of course not; rather, everyone knew that Moses was the source for each one of Joshua’s statements. Just so with Eliezer and Yochanan: Eliezer didn’t have to attribute his statements to his teacher one by one, since everyone knew that Yochanan was the source of his learning.

Still, it is this kind of specific, verbal attribution that is the best tribute to dead sages. Rabbi Yitzchak goes so far as to say that “Every Torah scholar from whose mouth people quote a matter of halakhah in this world, his lips move along with it in the grave.” And this is a delicious sensation for the dead: “like one who drinks spiced wine, even after he drinks it, the taste remains in his mouth.” It is a wonderfully concrete image for intellectual satisfaction. For the rabbis, being able to contribute to the unending discussion of Torah matters was the sweetest thing of all.

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There Are Thieves in the Temple. Or Are They Sacred Messengers?

Daf Yomi: The Talmud provides the Jewish version of well-known Christian gospel about money-changers

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