Today’s daf calls out corrupt and violent Temple leaders, starting with “powerful priests”:
The sages taught: Initially, the priests would place the hides consecrated (for the priests) in the parva chamber (where the skins of the animal offerings were initially processed). In the evening, they would distribute them to the members of the family of priests serving in the Temple that day. And the powerful priests among them would take them by force before they could be distributed.
The priests were entitled to the hides of these flayed animals, but they were required to share them with everyone from the priestly family who was serving in the Temple that week. In order to respond to some powerful priests who hoarded the hides, the Talmud imagines, the rabbis decreed that they would distribute them each Shabbat eve at the changeover of the watch. The hope was that when two families were together in the moment when one family left duty and the next came on, the increased surveillance and social pressure would stop people from strong-arming more than their share.
Unfortunately, the Gemara goes on to say, this move didn’t work, and the corruption continued until finally the people had to take things into their own hands:
When they realized that there was no equitable distribution, the owners (of the sacrifices) arose and consecrated the hides to Heaven.
Consecrating the hides to God would have meant that the priests couldn’t take them, or even use them, for personal gain! This story criticizes the priests for two misdeeds: the initial corruption, and the systemic failure to fix it. When the leadership fail to resolve the problem, the everyday people find an ingenious solution, taking the hides out of priestly circulation entirely.
As the daf progresses, the Talmud’s criticism of corrupt priests becomes even more direct, until we arrive at a passage in which Abba Shaul calls out specific priestly families, by name, for their violence, rumor-mongering and nepotism. It’s a very long list.
Reading this, it might be hard to remember that by the time the Talmud was edited and finalized, the Temple had been destroyed for almost five hundred years! No priestly families had illicitly seized consecrated hides in all that time. So why call it out?
Scholars have noted that the destruction of the Temple created a leadership vacuum in the Jewish community. Where the Torah describes biblical Israel being led by kings, prophets, and priests, the first centuries CE saw a Jewish world where each of these roles was in flux. Rabbis and priests may have both sought to fill this vacuum, with distinct visions of what Jewish community and Jewish leadership should look like. This document may testify to this early competition, with the rabbis working to discredit a model of leadership depending on heredity and ancient connections to the Temple in Jerusalem.
But even if this was its original historical context, the Talmud offers models for our continued education and inspiration. In their discussion of corrupt priests, the rabbis also emphasize the qualities that a good leader should have: peacefulness and fairness, personal merit, and a commitment to continuing to learn and grow in response to the people’s feedback.