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Shekalim 19

Found money.

In this tractate we’ve discussed both the collection of obligatory taxes and voluntary offerings made to the Temple. Today’s daf asks a question about what to do with money found on the floor of the Temple in Jerusalem. We’ll start with a mishnah:

If money was found on the floor of the Temple between one of the collection horns marked shekels and the collection horn marked free-will offerings, that is to say, between the first and the thirteenth collection horns, the following distinctions apply: If the money was found closer to the horn marked shekels, it is allocated to the shekels; if it was found closer to the horn marked free-will offerings, it is allocated to free-will offerings; and if it was equidistant from the horn marked shekels and the horn marked free-will offerings, it is allocated to free-will offerings. 

The mishnah goes on to discuss money that has fallen between various sets of proximate buckets, and concludes that the money belongs in whichever bucket it is found closest to. When the money is located exactly between two buckets, the funds are allocated to “whichever is more stringent.”

What does this mean, “more stringent”? The Gemara tackles this question, first by disagreeing with the mishnah, arguing that the shekel bucket is more stringent than the free-will bucket:

The mishnah should not have said that the money is allocated to free-will offerings. Rather, it should have said that when money is found equidistant from both, it is allocated to shekels. For the halakhah governing the money in the horn marked shekels is more stringent, as the regular communal offerings are bought with that money, whereas the money in the horn marked free-will offerings is used only to buy offerings for those times when there are no regular offerings being sacrificed. 

In other words, we should allocate found money to the costs we know we have. This is the equivalent of finding a $20 bill in the pocket of your coat and deciding to spend it on an expected cost (paying your taxes) rather than making an optional contribution to a favorite tzedakah. (Or buying ice cream. No judgment.)

But wait! The Gemara brings a different case for us to consider.

Rabbi Yesa said: While I was there in Babylonia, I heard the voice of Rav Yehuda who asked Shmuel the following question: If someone set aside his shekel (for the Temple) and subsequently died, what is to be done with the money?

Shmuel said to him: It is allocated to free-will offerings. 

According to this story of a teaching learned in Babylonia, ownerless money found on the floor of the Temple is like that of a person who allocated a shekel but died before it was conveyed to the Temple treasurer. In that case, it should go to voluntary — not required — offerings. 

What to do now? Concluding this passage, we have a final story that can act as our tie-breaker: 

The high priest could set aside money to be used for the purchase of his daily griddle-cake offering made from one-tenth of an ephah of flour (about eleven cups), half in the morning and half in the evening. If he died before the flour had been bought, what is to be done with the money?

Rabbi Yohanan said: The money must be cast into the Dead Sea (so that it is destroyed).

Rabbi Elazar disagreed and said: The money is allocated to free-will offerings.

Here, we have the case of a high priest who intends to make a grain offering but dies before the flour has been purchased. Rabbi Yohanan suggests that these ownerless funds should be thrown into the ocean! But Rabbi Elazar agrees with Shmuel, and our mishnah: the money goes to voluntary contributions. 

But why are voluntary contributions considered more stringent than obligatory ones? When we think of stringencies, we typically think of obligations: we have to pay our taxes, our mortgage, our water bill. Aren’t these more stringent?

Not when it comes to tzedakah! Our discussion today goes to the heart of giving. Money that we are required to give is not as significant as money that we give on a voluntary basis. Those with a tzedakah plan that includes voluntary contributions are more stringent in observing this mitzvah. This is why found money should go to voluntary contributions.

So that $20 you find in your coat? Maybe give a little extra tzedakah. (I bet you’ll still have enough for some ice cream.)

Read all of Shekalim 19 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on April 9th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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