Today’s daf features a mishnah from Tractate Meilahabout the misuse of property that has been consecrated for Temple service:
There is no misuse after misuse with regard to consecrated property, except for animals and service vessels alone. How is this so? If one was riding on a (consecrated) animal, and another came and rode on the animal, and another came and rode on the animal — all are liable for misusing consecrated property. One who drank from a (consecrated) golden cup, and another came and drank from it, and another came and drank from it — all are liable for misusing consecrated property.
Things that have been given to the Temple may not be used, except for within and for the purposes of the Temple itself. While there are distinctions — some items are directly used in Temple service while others can be sold and the proceeds used to support Temple functions — the bottom line is that one is not allowed to use consecrated items for one’s own benefit. However, as a general rule, if a person has (wrongly) misused Temple property for his or her own benefit, that object becomes desacralized, available again for the benefit of all. The exceptions, as we learn in this mishnah, are consecrated animals and service vessels, which may not be used for an individual’s benefit even if they have already been misused.
However, the Tosefta — a collection of rabbinic teachings that closely parallels the Mishnah — doesn’t quite line up with this analysis. Tosefta Meilah 2:1 states:
One who takes a (consecrated) axe and chops with it, if one benefited and the axe was damaged, if it was equal to the value of a peruta (small coin), that person has misused consecrated property. And if not, they have not. If another came and chopped with it, they are both liable. If the first gave it to the second, the first is liable while the second is not.
The mishnah states that a service vessel is liable to misuse after misuse. According to this tosefta, however, a consecrated axe (which is considered a Temple service vessel) isn’t always. How, then, should we generally think about consecrated property and its value? I will offer two classic interpretations.
The first, reading primarily the mishnah quoted on our daf (and suggested there by Rashi), is that the cases where misuse after misuse applies are related to the inherent consecrated status of an item that cannot be removed. Animals dedicated for sacrifice in the Temple and vessels used to carry out those services cannot be deconsecrated. Once they have been dedicated to God’s service, that becomes their indelible identity. Things that are not themselves consecrated, on the other hand, such as items donated for their value that are redeemed and sold to fund the needs of the Temple, are not subject to the concept of misuse after misuse, as they are not inherently valuable to the services performed there.
The second understanding comes from Moses Maimonides, the Rambam (as understood by Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz). Rambam argues that things that cannot be damaged with use (or at least not easily damaged) do not lose value from misuse, and therefore retain their consecrated status. Commenting on the mishnah quoted on our daf, Rambam writes, “It is known that refined gold will not lose anything perceptible, even after hundreds of years, let alone a small amount of time …” The axe cited in the tosefta, though, is easily damaged and loses value with successive use; therefore, once it becomes damaged it is no longer considered consecrated and not subject to the laws of misuse any longer.
While such a debate may seem esoteric — especially as we do not have a Temple — it does inspire more relevant ruminations about how we think about our own items and their value: To what items do we give inherent value that we are not willing to shift? And what items do we value for their use, leaving them aside once they no longer serve that purpose? How does this affect our relationship to our items?
It is possible that we would be more careful with an object we see as inherently valuable, to which we attribute emotional value. Or, perhaps, we take better care of items we need to do important tasks, knowing that without them we won’t be able to complete these tasks. If everything is inherently valuable to us, we never have the ability to part with things, to move on to new things. Yet if we keep nothing in this category, what do we stand to lose? And where do we draw the line between the two categories?