Talmudic pages

Shekalim 10

Is volunteering always a good thing?

Giving of your time to help others is an important part of our social fabric. Many schools include volunteering requirements for their students, high school seniors list their volunteer work on their college applications and even large companies often encourage their employees to volunteer sometimes. Volunteering is good, right?

Not so fast! It seems that, for the rabbis, at least one kind of volunteering may cause a halakhic problem. The context is the Mishnah’s discussion of the people who guard wild grains that grew during the shmita (sabbatical) year. During the sabbatical year, the land is allowed to rest: intentional cultivation is forbidden, and people are expected to eat from their stores and from that which grows wild. In these years, some people were designated to guard wild grains which were then used for some of the grain offerings — the omer and the two loaves offered on Shavuot — in the Temple. Today’s daf records a dispute between the rabbis and Rabbi Yosei about these guardians of the grain. Must the guards be compensated? Or can they volunteer to guard the grain out of their love of mitzvot and desire to contribute to Jewish life?

They collect their wages from the collection of the Temple treasury chamber. Rabbi Yosei says: One who so desires may even volunteer his services and guard the grain as an unpaid bailee.

If volunteering is good, then what could possibly be the problem with Rabbi Yosei’s position? The rabbis explain that these grain offerings must come from the communal pot. By volunteering uncompensated, the guard may be seen as taking some individual responsibility and ownership over the grain — effectively getting in the way of it being an entirely communal offering. 

The idea of communal offerings is that every individual is already involved. After all, the communal offerings are brought of the collective sum of every individual’s half shekel contribution. Everyone donates the same amount, everyone’s contribution is equal. A volunteer grain guard could upset this balance. 

Over the course of today’s discussion, a series of Amoraim (rabbis who lived after the Mishnah was closed) refine the dispute between the rabbis and Rabbi Yosei. They conclude that individuals may donate some items that facilitate or enable a collective sacrifice with no problem. So, for example, donating wood for the altar or priestly clothing would be OK. According to these Amoraim, where the rabbis and Rabbi Yosei disagree is in the case of one who is donating the actual item to be offered in the Temple — such as an individual animal or sheaf of grain. Further, the rabbis seem to think that the guardian of the grain may actually take ownership over the grain if he is not hired to do so as part of Temple labor. If the grain becomes his, then when it is eventually offered at the Temple, it will have come from an individual and not the collective. Rabbi Yosei seems to think that so long as the individual then offers it to be offered as part of the communal pot, that’s fine. But the rabbis are concerned that the guard has effectively spoiled the communal nature of that offering.

Today’s daf doesn’t resolve the question as it relates to the offerings themselves. But in debating the issue, the daf calls attention to the tension between the individual and the collective, and the unforeseen consequences of volunteering to contribute to the communal pot. 

Read all of Shekalim 10 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 31st, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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