Rabbinic law takes seriously a declaration of intent; if someone makes a verbal commitment to make a donation to the Temple, they are required to pay their pledge. When one specifies the size of their gift, doing so is straightforward: if they say they will donate two handfuls of frankincense, they have to donate two handfuls. But, what happens when their pledge does not specify a particular amount?
One who says: “It is incumbent upon me to donate wood to the Temple,” must donate no fewer than two logs for the arrangement on the altar. One who says: “It is incumbent upon me to donate frankincense,” must donate no less than a handful of frankincense, the amount brought with a meal offering.
The Gemara provides some additional clarity to these rules: Why a two log minimum? Because two logs were added to the altar before the daily morning and afternoon sacrifices. In other words, two logs will be sufficient to complete a task. Likewise, the frankincense — one handful was enough to accompany a meal offering.
You might be wondering: how large were the handfuls? The Gemara specifies that one measures based on the priest with the largest hands. This way, the donation will be large enough to allow the completion of the act no matter which priest is selected to scoop the spice and deliver it to the altar.
These minimums — two logs of wood and one handful of frankincense — do not apply to one who specifies the amount of wood or frankincense that they will give in their verbal pledge. Gifting a single log or a smaller quantity of frankincense to the Temple is permitted if that amount is specified up front.
The Gemara encourages us, when we give, to be specific. We’ll spend a lot of time on this subject, especially in tractates that deal with vows and contract law. The minimums expressed here for the case of a donation of an unspecified amount suggest an ideal benchmark for donation: a donation should be sufficient to fund a complete action.
This is worth considering when we plan our own charitable giving. Is the $18 (based on the value of the word chai (life) in gematria) that many Jews choose as a default for small gifts enough to fund a single action? Perhaps so: such an amount can protect two children from malaria or provide needed vitamin A supplementation to 16 (according to givewell.org). And in any case, our Gemara teaches that a specific gift is laudable no matter its size.
For those in the position to do so, when making a small gift consider investigating how much is required to underwrite a complete task and enhancing the size of your gift to make it happen. If you are not sure what is required, reach out to the recipient and find out. Doing so can add to the value, impact, and meaning to your gift.
Read all of Shekalim 18 on Sefaria.