If you lived in Boston at any time between the years 1982 and 2007, chances are you remember the “Big Dig.” Two major interstate highways, I-93 and I-90, were under construction literally for decades. If you lived in Los Angeles during the summer of 2011, you will remember that a major section of the 405 freeway closed for a weekend and was anticipated to be like the end of the world, and consequently dubbed “Carmageddon.”
In every city and every town where main roads are closed due to construction, inclement weather, flooding, or just plain old traffic, movement grinds to a halt— impeding the flow of people and resources. Roads make possible the free flow of the lifeblood of societies. No wonder we call them “arteries.” In fact, the location in Jerusalem’s Old City where the main 7th century roads cross is called the “Cardo,” intentionally referencing the heart.
An ancient road dating back 2,000 years was recently excavated in Jerusalem. It starts at the Pool of Siloam, which may have been a large mikveh, and leads up to the Temple Mount. It allowed religious pilgrims to ascend to the Temple Mount at any time but especially on the three pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.
In yesterday’s mishnah, we learned that the half shekel tax collected in the late winter month of Adar was used to finance public projects, including these kinds of roads. The reason is that they were often damaged over the winter, so early spring was a perfect time for repair. It was also when cisterns, (large pits used to store water), were repaired and, as we learn in today’s Gemara, reopened:
(Early spring) is a time when they remove the locks that were placed over the water cisterns during the winter, as this water was for public use in the summer, and they do not replace them until the winter.
Assuring the flow of water through cisterns, and goods across working roads, was an essential service of the public administration. These funds were also used to ensure the proceedings of courts, consecrate goods, perform rituals dealing with the rite of the sotah (the trial of the suspected adulteress), and facilitate other business that needed to be concluded prior to the end of the calendar year.
All of this sheds light on ancient Israelite society. For one, we notice that the new year cited here is the first of Nisan, which is not the first of Tishrei (the new year we mark today). That means that Adar was the last month of the year, not Elul. In a few months in Tractate Rosh Hashanah, we will learn that there are actually four new years — meaning four dates at which various yearly cycles begin anew. According to the Torah, the first of Nisan was the month that was incredibly significant as it was the month that inaugurates spring and the festival of Passover — and it also marked the ancient tax deadline.
Second, we realize that the authorities in Jerusalem were not only religious authorities, but they were civil authorities, too, with all of the power that comes with that role. If they deemed it right, they could padlock access to public water, haul suspected adulteresses in for questioning, or even order taxes to be collected by force, if necessary. Concerning this, we read:
On the 15th of Adar money changers would sit at tables set up throughout the country (to collect the shekels). On the 25th of Adar, they sat in the Temple. From the time when the money changers sat in the Temple, the court began to seize collateral (from those who had not paid their share).
Reading this, it is easy to see why the money changers and administrators were not the most popular members of society in antiquity. But, at the end of the day, the responsibility of the workings of critical infrastructure rested on their shoulders. They were responsible for the smooth functioning of society, including the roads.
Read all of Shekalim 3 on Sefaria.