The Use and Care of  Public Money 

Every year around this time we read about the money given by the people to build the mishkan, the tent of meeting that will travel with them, and the work of creating it. At the end of book of Exodus we read P’kudei – “the accounts of the tabernacle….as they were rendered according to the commandment of Moses”. From here comes the imperative that public money has to be accounted for in detail, with complete transparency.

Centuries later King Jehoash expected Temple donations given to the priests would be used to keep the Temple in good repair. Discovering that money was given but the Temple was not maintained, he changed the system and installed a large chest with a small hole in it near the altar, where all monetary donations were safely deposited. Then  “the royal scribe and the high priest would come, put the money into bags, and count it. They would deliver the money to the overseers of the work. These, in turn, would pay the carpenters and the labourers …and pay for the wood and stone and .. every other expenditure needed to maintain God’s House. (2Kings12 10ff)

The imperative for transparency and proper use of public money may have been natural for Moses, but by the time of Jehoash  structures were needed to protect public funds. Notice the representative from monarchy as well as priesthood when the box was opened and the money counted. Talmud tells us “Money for the charity fund is collected by two people and distributed by three people. It is collected by two people because one does not appoint an authority over the community composed of fewer than two. And it is distributed by three people, like the number of judges needed in cases of monetary law, since the distributors determine who receives money and how much” (Baba Batra 8b)

There is a longstanding tradition in Judaism that those who collect or disburse public money must be provably honest and doing it “leshem shamayim” –  not for their own benefit but for the public good. They had to not only be honest but be seen to behave honestly – they were to stay together when collecting, not be seen putting even their own money into their pockets, be trusted to collect and distribute appropriately.  Money given in order to support the community is heavily regulated in Jewish law. No one can evade the communal responsibility to support the poor in their society and they do so through the regulated and trusted system.

As Maimonides writes “A city with a Jewish population must establish men who are known and reliable, who will go about among the people weekly, taking from each their fixed amount, and giving to each poor person enough food for seven days: this is called “kupah.”

Likewise they establish gabbaim who will take daily, from each courtyard, foodstuffs or money from whoever donates at that time, and distribute the collection in the evening among the poor, giving to each a day’s sustenance, and this is called “tam’hui.””

While Mishna Avot may tell us that “everything belongs to God”,  the reality has always been that some accrue wealth at the expense of others, misappropriating public funds – as Kohelet says, “there is nothing new under the sun”. So given our texts exhorting public service over private gain, never allowing the control of public money to fall to a small  unaccountable elite, legislating communal responsibility to feed, clothe, house and maintain the poorer in society (defined as not having enough for two good meals a day), what would Moses or Jehoash say about the homeless, the food banks, the benefit cuts, or the writing off of fraudulently misappropriated public funds?

(written for the Jewish News Progressive Judaism page February 2022)

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