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Parashat Pekudei: Motivations for a Precious Metal Inventory by Yaakov Bieler

March 3, 2011 by  
Filed under New Posts

Problems with the opening verses in the Parasha.

At the beginning of Parashat Pekudei (Shemot 38:24-29), the Tora provides a list of the amounts of gold, silver and copper that were contributed by the Jewish people[1] in order to construct the Tabernacle  and its holy vessels. One wonders why, if the intention was to produce a complete inventory of contributions for the Mishkan, the text restricts itself to only metals, rather than providing amounts of all the substances initially listed at the beginning of Parashat Teruma as necessary for what was to be fabricated:

Shemot 25:3-7

And this is the contribution that you will take from them: gold and silver and copper;

And blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine linen, and goats’ hair;

And rams’ skins dyed red, and sealskins, and acacia-wood;

Oil for the light, spices for the anointing oil, and for the sweet incense;

Onyx stones, and stones to be set, for the ephod,[2] and for the breastplate.[3] 

R. S.R. Hirsch points out additional difficulties with the passages in question:

R. Hirsch on Shemot 38:21

The meaning of these words is obscure. “Pekudei” is generally interpreted as an account of the donations and the uses to which they were put. This interpretation, however, presents difficulties that are not easy to reconcile, because both the reckoning up and the information regarding the uses are incomplete. Scripture mentions only the total donations of gold and copper. As for silver, only the total of the half shekels collected at the community census is mentioned (below, v. 25) but not the total of the donated silver (above 35:24).[4] The amounts of the other materials are not mentioned at all, and as for gold, only the amount donated is mentioned, but no account of the use made of it…

And if someone would suggest that the other substances were not mentioned because the collection campaign with regard to these materials might have fallen short of its goals, not only does the Tora previously state that the required amounts of all the needed materiel was provided by the people, but that they contributed more than was necessary for the Mishkan’s construction:

Shemot 36:3-7

And they received of Moses all the offering, which the children of Israel had brought for the work of the service of the sanctuary, wherewith to make it. And they brought yet unto him freewill-offerings every morning.[5]

And all the wise men, that wrought all the work of the sanctuary, came every man from his work which they wrought.

And they spoke unto Moses, saying: ‘The people bring much more than enough for the service of the work, which the LORD commanded to make.’

And Moses gave commandment, and they caused it to be proclaimed throughout the camp, saying: ‘Let neither man nor woman make any more work for the offering of the sanctuary.’

So the people were restrained from bringing.

For the stuff they had was sufficient for all the work to make it, and too much

Consequently, there must be something about gold, silver and copper that attracts particular attention and therefore generates a specific need for providing an accounting.

An approach to these verses that addresses the inconsistencies and questions raised by a logical analysis.

                The issues raised by the types of lacuna indicated by R. Hirsch, support a primarily homiletical, as opposed to a literal,[6] approach to the verses:

RaLBaG on Shemot 38:21 “…The work of the Levi’im, supervised by Itamar the son of Aharon the Priest.”

The intention is to say that Itamar was appointed in charge of this, and he would appoint individuals from among the Levi’im who would be responsible to count what would be accumulated for this work from the gold, silver and copper.  There is no doubt that they knew what the people were contributing as donations, and they would create a written account daily. And because of this the artisans would know how much had been brought, and this was the basis of their saying to Moshe, (Shemot 36:5) “The people bring much more than enough.” And behold Moshe commanded that this be done,[7] to protect against the suspicions that others may harbor regarding those engaged in the fabrication[8] And this interpretation complements what the Rabbis have said in Shemot Rabba[9] [10]regarding this matter.

RaLBaG suggests that in contrast to other materials provided for the construction of the Mishkan, it was the precious metals—gold, silver and copper—that potentially raised the most suspicions regarding possible improper usage and even illegal appropriation, and therefore careful records were kept in order to be able to repel any accusations of wrongdoing that might arise. As his wont, at the conclusion of each section of biblical text, RaLBaG lists what he considers the implications and lessons to be learned, which in this case includes the following:

And behold the benefits that accrue from what is stated in this Parasha are six…

The fourth benefit applies to character traits, and it is what we learn from the supervision of the work of the construction of the Mishkan, and this is appropriate for anyone who is in charge of a monetary matter, that they keep a precise written record, in order to protect themselves from suspicion. We have found in this work of the Mishkan, regardless of the distinguished status of those placed in charge of it, and the extreme unlikelihood that any person would take for himself from that which had been dedicated and sanctified to the Exalted HaShem, (this appears to anticipate and reject the very approach of Da’at Mikra—see fn. 6) that they were precise to write down every sum of material that came into their hands and the sum of what they used for the fabrication.

Despite Moshe’s best efforts it would appear that accusations of impropriety dogged his career as well as others when it came to money and power.

Although Moshe may have striven to protect himself against accusations of graft during the construction of the Mishkan, a later comment that he makes during the Korach rebellion indicates that he never felt safe from detractors who suggested that he was less than honest when it came to appropriating the community’s resources for his own purposes:

                BaMidbar 16:15

And Moses was very wroth, and said unto the LORD: ‘Respect not Thou their offering; I have not taken one donkey from them, neither have I hurt one of them.’

Moshe’s comment is expanded upon by one of the classical medieval commentators, citing an additional example of a religious leader who either directly or indirectly was accused of being guilty of abuse and self-enrichment via his position of authority:

Rabbeinu Bachaya

It is the custom of rulers when they are ruling over others, that they use the people as well as their animals for whatever work they have to accomplish.[11] Therefore Moshe expresses in his prayer and strongly states that he has never acted in this manner towards Israel, he never used a single donkey of theirs to place upon it a load, let alone used people. So how can they (Korach and his followers) say that I have forced my rule over them?” And we similarly find regarding the prophet Shmuel A”H who also strongly stated (I Shmuel 12:3) “Let them speak against me, before HaShem and before His anointed one. Whose ox have I taken and whose donkey have I taken, and whom have I defrauded and whom have I oppressed, and from whom have I taken a bribe to blind my eyes therewith?…” 

An alternative approach that assumes that the report of an inventory reflects the laudatory behavior of the Mishkan fabricators, rather than a response to quell the suspicions of the people regarding liberties assumed to have been taken by the leadership.

                R. Amnon Bazak,[12] basing his interpretation on an insightful literal approach rather than Rabbinic sources, explains the inventory of the gold, silver and copper at the beginning of Parashat Pekudei, as reflecting an aspect of the scrupulousness of the individuals who were constructing the Mishkan, despite the temptation on their parts to leave personal stamps and modifications on the implements, clothing and structures that they were producing.

…Why are the amounts of gold, silver and copper mentioned in the middle of the description of the construction, rather than at the beginning (of Parashat VaYakhel—Shemot 35:4 ff.) or towards the end of Parashat Pekudei—Ibid. following 39:32)?

It would appear that the order of events should be explained as follows: Initially the people were called upon to bring their contributions (Ibid. 35:5). Immediately, after this announcement, Betzalel and the members of his staff began to carry out the construction of the Mishkan, even as the donations continued to flow in. At a certain point, the individuals engaged in carrying out the construction noticed a situation that they had not anticipated (Ibid. 36:4-5), i.e., too much had been contributed)…

However, at the moment…a major challenge confronted the fabricators of the Mishkan. In light of the amounts that had been contributed, will they nevertheless carry out only what HaShem had Commanded them to do, without utilizing the additional materiel to beautify and augment their handiwork?[13] For this reason the Tora emphasized specifically after the collection was complete and it was clear that extra amounts had been contributed, that the craftsmen were careful to use the public funds only (Shemot 31:7, 9, 21, 26, 29, 31, 43) “As HaShem had Commanded Moshe.” Once it became clear how much had been collected, an extra responsibility descended upon the craftsmen and Moshe to act exactly as they had been commanded, taking care not to take from the public funds anything that was unnecessary.


Even according to R. Bazak’s approach, an accounting that would guarantee transparency with regard to these monetary affairs was called for and carried out. The major question is what precipitated the organization of such an effort—the base suspicions of the people against Moshe and other leaders, or the opportunity to publicly demonstrate and thereby model how faithful individuals were scrupulous to exactly fulfill a Divine Mandate, in accordance with Mishlei 3:4 “So shalt thou find grace and good favour in the sight of God and man.” Due to the variegated nature of any large group of people, both realities—individuals who sardonically always suspected the worst and others who would assume the best and give everyone the benefit of the doubt— probably existed and therefore justified the public accounting effort on multiple levels.



[1] The nature of this “contribution” is atypical both in terms of the people’s attachment to their possessions as well as their motivation for giving. When the Jews left Egypt, they were newly-freed slaves. The only possessions of significance that they had according to the literal rendition of the biblical text were the articles that they had “borrowed” from the Egyptians as per God’s and Moshe’s Instructions in Shemot 3:22; 11:2; 12:35. The Rabbis add that they also accumulated the decorations of the chariots following the drowning of the Egyptian force at the Sea of Reeds—RaShI on Shemot 15:22. While the principle “to the victor go the spoils” could be applied to the objects that the Jews possessed at this point, it wasn’t as if they had earned these things by means of their own ingenuity and hard work. Whether this would have made it easier or more difficult for them to part with their newly-acquired possessions is a matter for speculation. Furthermore, an additional incentive might have been the desire to atone for the sin of the calf. Those who had not died as a result of the various punishments meted out to the most egregious sinners (Shemot 32:20, 27-8, 35), might understandably been anxious to demonstrate their support of HaShem and Moshe, and consequently contributed in a manner that surpassed what they would have been ready to give had the sin of the calf not taken place. 

[2]Shemot 28:27

And thou shalt make two rings of gold, and shalt put them on the two shoulder-pieces (made of onyx) of the ephod underneath, in the forepart thereof, close by the coupling thereof, above the skilfully woven band of the ephod.    

[3]Shemot 28:17-20

 And thou shalt set in it settings of stones, four rows of stones: a row of carnelian, topaz, and smaragd shall be the first row;

And the second row a carbuncle, a sapphire, and an emerald;

And the third row a jacinth, an agate, and an amethyst;

And the fourth row a beryl, and an onyx, and a jasper; they shall be inclosed in gold in their settings. 

[4] Every one that did set apart an offering of silver and brass brought the LORD’S offering; and every man, with whom was found acacia-wood for any work of the service, brought it.

[5] It is interesting to note that the donations did not take place at a single time, but rather continued over a prolonged period, suggesting repeated donations by some, while others needed time to consider their participation in the campaign, a phenomenon that is replicated to the present day whenever funds are collected.

[6]Amos Chacham in  Da’at Mikra on Shemot 38:21 (p. 381), while offering an interpretation that the fact that such an accounting was given and initiated by Moshe  demonstrates how much importance and holiness were associated with the Mishkan, (if this were the case, why does the accounting only involve precious metals—the other materials and objects were equally holy!), is also moved to state the following:

…And there is to learn from this an ethical lesson, that even though the Mishkan was extremely holy, and certainly the Jewish people were not suspected that they would try to appropriate for private use the material that had been donated for its construction, it was nevertheless necessary to set up an accounting of the materiel that were brought as donations for its construction.

The fact that RaLBaG, cited above and supported by Rabbinic sources, does posit that despite the holiness of the people and purpose of the Mishkan, there were suspicions of misappropriation of funds requiring measures that would assure transparency, suggests that either times have changed with regard to typical assumptions about even outstanding religious leaders and their administration of large sums of money, or Amos Chacham is being overly optimistic about human nature.

[7] Shemot 38:21

These are the accounts of the tabernacle, even the tabernacle of the testimony, as they were rendered according to the commandment of Moses, through the service of the Levites, by the hand of Ithamar, the son of Aaron the priest.–

[8] It is possible to calculate the current value of at least the gold and silver listed in the verses at the beginning of Parashat Pekudei:

“All the gold that was used for the work in all the work of the sanctuary, even the gold of the offering, was twenty and nine talents, and seven hundred and thirty shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary.”

 (1 talent = 3000 shekels; A shekel   is approximately half an ounce or 14.17 grams. 

  Metals Date Time
Bid Ask Change Low High  
     GOLD 03/01/2011 08:41 1420.40 1421.40 +9.20 +0.65% 1419.00 1423.00
     SILVER 03/01/2011 08:41 34.31 34.33 +0.33 +0.97% 34.27 34.46


1420.40 / 2 = 710.20 x (87,000 + 730) = $62,305,846.)

“And the silver of them that were numbered of the congregation was a hundred talents, and a thousand seven hundred and three-score and fifteen shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary: a beka a head, that is, half a shekel, after the shekel of the sanctuary, for every one that passed over to them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, for six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty men. And the hundred talents of silver were for casting the sockets of the sanctuary, and the sockets of the veil: a hundred sockets for the hundred talents, a talent for a socket. And of the thousand seven hundred seventy and five shekels he made hooks for the pillars, and overlaid their capitals, and made fillets for them.”

(34.33 / 2 = ~17.16 x (300,000 + 1775) = $5,178,459.)

“And the brass/copper  of the offering was seventy talents and two thousand and four hundred shekels.”

(The fact that the amount of brass/copper is mentioned alongside gold and silver implies that even if the value of an ounce of copper is not of contemporary significance, at least during the biblical period it was considered close to if not actually a precious metal. See, e.g. “Metalworking in the Bible: Turning Spears into Pruning Hooks” by Clarence H. Wagner Jr. at  http://jbq.jewishbible.org/assets/Uploads/304/304_metal.pdf  Wagner Jr. describes how difficult it was to mine, refine and process metals in general, leading to the conclusion that all such materials were rare and valuable. This just makes the comment in Beraishit 4:22 that much more remarkable: “And Zillah, she also bore Tubal-cain, the forger of every cutting instrument of brass and iron… ) 

[9] Shemot Rabba 51:1

Our Rabbis have taught: One does not appoint individuals to supervisory posts with regard to money unless there are at least two (a check-and-balance system intended to discourage individuals from engaging in self-enrichment). But you find that Moshe was the singular treasurer (in terms of the collection of materials for the Mishkan)…But rather although Moshe was the singular treasurer , he summoned others and kept records based upon their calculations, as it is said, (Shemot 38:21) “These are the accounts of the tabernacle, even the tabernacle of the testimony, as they were rendered according to the commandment of Moses, through the service of the Levites, by the hand of Ithamar, the son of Aaron the priest”—it does not say “as they were rendered by Moshe” but rather “according to the commandment of Moshe” via Itamar.

The Midrash implies that two alternatives present themselves to fundraisers and charity collectors: a) multiple individuals engage in the actual collection and distribution, or b) even if a single person oversees the collections, he is careful that all contributions are audited by an independent group who also create an objective record of the transactions that is open to public scrutiny.

Shemot Rabba 51:6

When the work of constructing the Mishkan was completed, he (Moshe) said to them, “Come and I will present before you an accounting.”

[10] Tanchuma Yashan 4 (Tora Shleima, vol. 23, ed. R. Menachem Kasher, Yerushalayim, 5752, pp. 54-5) presents an even more sordid picture of the suspicions voiced by some of the Jews against Moshe at this time:

…That Moshe heard the Jews speaking behind his back, as it is said, (Shemot 33:8) “And it came to pass, when Moses went out unto the Tent, that all the people rose up, and stood, every man at his tent door, and looked after Moses, until he was gone into the Tent.” And what did they say? R. Yitzchak said, “Words of praise…” and R. Chama said, “Words of denigration. ‘See his neck, see his thighs. He is eating of that which belongs to the Jews, he is drinking of that which belongs to the Jews. Everything that he has belongs to the Jews.’ And this individual’s colleague would reply, ‘Someone who is in charge of making the Mishkan, don’t you expect that he will become wealthy?’ When Moshe heard this, he said to them, ‘By your lives, when the Mishkan is completed, I will give you an accounting, as it is said, (Shemot 38:21) ‘These are the accounts of the Mishkan…’”

[11] See Shmuel’s description of the rights of kings in I Shmuel 8:11-17. Although Rav and Shmuel debate in Sanhedrin 20b whether Shmuel’s description of what a king can be expected to do is legal or an exaggeration meant to dissuade the people from requesting the appointment of a human monarch over them, Shmuel, with whom is associated the principle “Dina D’Malchuta Dina” (the law of the government is to be considered the law—at least in monetary matters, e.g. Bava Kamma 113a) states that Shmuel’s description of entitlements of a king is accurate.

[12] Nekudat HaPeticha: Iyunim Ketzarim BePeshuta Shel Parashat HaShavua, Tzomet, Alon Shevut, 5766, pp. 101-2.

[13] While the Rabbinic interpretation of Betzalel’s name, “BeTzel Keil” (in the shadow of God) is invoked to explain why the master craftsman appeared to understand HaShem’s Intentions concerning the construction of the Mishkan better than Moshe himself (Berachot 55a) is applied to the order in which to manufacture the implements, furniture and outer structures of the Mishkan, within R. Bazak’s context, it could also indicate that despite any personal interest in self-expression that typically is associated with the artistic temperament, Betzalel continually faithfully carried out no more and no less of what HaShem had Commanded. In this regard, he modeled within an artistic context the same characteristic that was reflected in Moshe as a lawgiver, i.e., humility (BaMidbar 12:3).

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