Shekalim 5

More precious than pearls?

Today’s daf discusses the logistics of how Jews who lived far from Jerusalem sent their half shekels to the Temple each year. The Mishnah imagines a messenger was tasked with bringing all the shekels of his town to Jerusalem — a not insignificant physical burden. It’s a funny image, but it would also have been a painful and difficult journey. 

Given the physical weight of these coins and the logistical difficulty, the first mishnah of chapter 2 concedes that:

They may combine their shekels into darics because of the burden of the road.

Darics were Persian coins of gold and silver, and were worth substantially more than a half shekel. A messenger could thus carry a much smaller bag of coins on the road to Jerusalem. 

The Talmud then asks: why not exchange the half shekels for something even more precious than darics? After all, wouldn’t we want the messengers to carry the lightest possible burden on his travels? Later on in our daf, the Gemara is going to explore what happens if the messenger is robbed along the way — so clearly the rabbis know that someone carrying a large bag of money on the open road is a target for thieves. The Gemara asks:

Why not exchange (the half shekels) for pearls?!

The anonymous voice of the gemara rejects this possibility:

The value of pearls may decrease, and the Temple treasury of consecrated property will lose.

The Talmud is contrasting gold and silver coins, which it sees as having a fixed value, with other commodities whose value fluctuates based on supply, demand and other factors.

Does currency really hold a constant value?! Today, the United States economy has a system of fiat money, meaning currency’s value is not tied to a particular object but to a standard set by the government, society as a whole, or some other collective body. But today’s daf reminds us that not all economies have had this same system. Many ancient economies were based on a system like the gold standard, in which a fixed value associated with a precious metal undergirded the monetary system. 

The Talmud is worried that tying the half shekel value to something other than gold or silver could lead it to depreciate. And if that happened, a distant Jewish community’s contribution to the Temple in pearls would be worth less than it had intended (or, more to the point, than it owed!). This disparity meant that the Temple officials’ annual revenue would be smaller than they had foreseen, and could cause a real financial challenge to the maintenance of the Temple and the sacrificial service. 

Given this concern, why not just insist that the half shekel could only be donated as a half shekel? Why start messing around with exchanges at all? Today’s daf strikes a balance between these ancient economic realities and a recognition of the needs of the actual people who were charged with collecting and transporting the half shekel payments. 

Read all of Shekalim 5 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 26th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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