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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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

Adam Kirsch
October 29, 2013
James Tissot, The Merchants Chased from the Temple (Les vendeurs chassés du Temple), 1886–1894.(Collage Tablet Magazine; painting courtesy of the Brookyln Museum)

Literary critic Adam Kirsch is reading a page of Talmud a day, along with Jews around the world.

Today most American and European Jews are educated primarily in Western culture, rather than in Jewish religious tradition. Access to the great achievements of Western art and thought and writing was one of the rewards of Jewish emancipation, and for the past two centuries Jews have made those achievements their own. Yet modern, secular, Western culture is in fundamental ways the heir of Christianity, a religion that defined itself by its opposition to Judaism—a point made in depth by David Nirenberg’s masterful book Anti-Judaism. What this means is that Jews often imbibe anti-Jewish themes as part of our education, leaving us in a paradoxical relation to our own tradition.

Take, for instance, the story of Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the Temple. In Matthew 21:12, we read about how Jesus violently overturned the tables of the money-changers doing business on Temple grounds, rebuking them with the famous words: “It is written, my house shall be called a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.” This episode from the New Testament vividly frames the contest between Christianity and Judaism as a contrast of values—worldly Jews, obsessed with money and indifferent to holiness, are rebuked by Jesus, who cares only about purity of heart. It is such a famous story that I imagine many American Jews are familiar with it, even if they’ve never read the Gospels. But how many of us, I wonder, could explain what the money-changers were doing in the Temple in the first place? Were these people merely profiteers, defiling the Holy Temple, as we might assume—or were they actually serving a sacred purpose themselves? We know the Christian version of this story, but what is the Jewish version?

It is partly in order to be able to answer such questions that I have been reading Daf Yomi. The Talmud is a text much maligned in Western culture, both in its Christian and post-Christian phases. In English, the very word “talmudic” is pejorative, implying a needless and possibly corrupt complexity. Actually reading the Talmud, however, has allowed me to begin to understand why the rabbis thought and legislated as they did—to grasp the logic and the spirituality that guided their work. It helps me to see Judaism in its own historical terms instead of non-Jewish ones.

This week, the Daf Yomi cycle brought us to a new tractate, Shekalim, which is unusual in several ways. Although we have been making our way through Moed—the order of the Talmud devoted to holidays, such as Shabbat and Passover—Shekalim is not about a holiday. Rather, it is concerned with the finances of the Temple, which makes it seem like it migrated into Moed from Kodashim, the order that deals with Temple matters. What’s more, while I have been reading the Babylonian Talmud—the Bavli—there is no surviving text of Shekalim from the Bavli; instead, for this tractate we use the text of the Jerusalem Talmud, the Yerushalmi. And the Yerushalmi, as I got to see first-hand this week, is much thinner and terser than the Bavli. Discussions in the Gemara don’t go on nearly as long or achieve the same degree of complexity, and the whole cast of Amoraim is different, since few of the familiar Babylonian sages are invoked.

Right away, however, Tractate Shekalim sheds light on the story of the money-changers in the Temple. While the Temple stood, we learn in Chapter 1, every adult male Jew was obligated to contribute a half-shekel a year for its upkeep. This law dates back to Moses, who imposed a half-shekel tax on the Israelites in order to pay for building the Tabernacle. But during the days of the Second Temple, Jews lived all around the Roman Empire and even outside it, under Persian rule. How were they to get their money to Jerusalem to pay for the priests’ upkeep and the regular sacrifices? And how could they be sure they were paying the correct amount?

Here is where the money-changers came in. “On the fifteenth of Adar,” the date the half-shekel was due, “money changers would sit at tables set up in the rest of the country, outside the Temple, to handle the collection of shekels.” Commentators disagree about exactly what these people did: Did they simply collect coins, or did they make change, or did they act as a kind of currency exchange, turning foreign coins into Judean ones? But in any case it is clear that they should be seen not as profiteers, but as needed functionaries who made it possible for Jews to discharge their legal obligation.

What’s more, we learn from the mishnah in Shekalim 3b that, initially, the money-changers did not set up their tables in the Temple. They started by making collections outside the Temple, in the provinces or in other parts of the city of Jerusalem. Only after 10 days, on the 25th of Adar, did they move their tables into the Temple, where they collected late payments and “began to seize collateral” like livestock from Jews who failed to pay. This was necessary so that the funds would be ready by the first of Nisan, the beginning of the new calendar year.

In a society without a developed banking and credit structure, paying an international tax like this involved transporting large quantities of coins to Jerusalem. Chapter 2 of Shekalim gives some details of how this logistical challenge was met. Jews would deposit their half-shekels into what the Talmud calls “horns,” which were evidently boxes with a small mouth and a wide base. “Just as there were horns in the Temple, so too there were horns in the rest of the country,” we read in Shekalim 5a. But if a distant Jewish community wanted to make transporting the coins easier, they could exchange their half-shekels for darkonot, large gold coins that would weigh less.

This annual tribute must have been a tempting target for thieves, and the Talmud addresses the problem of what to do if the shekels are lost or stolen en route. Every year on a certain date, the Temple priests would make “the collection of the chamber,” withdrawing all the funds necessary for the coming year’s expenses. Before that date, the shekels are technically still the property of their donors; after it, they become Temple property. As a result, if a shipment of shekels is lost before the day of the collection, the community must replace them, since legally it is as if they were never given in the first place. If the loss occurs after the date of the collection, however, the shekels are already Temple property and the loss accrues to the Temple itself. A further wrinkle in the law favors the Temple: If a shipment of shekels is lost, and the donors replace it, and then the original shekels are found, both shipments must go to the Temple. The donors end up paying double, whether they like it or not.

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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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.