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Vayakhel-Pekudei – Transparency with communal funds

Adar 5783 | March 2023

People want to know, politicians discuss it at length, it seems like everyone is asking: “Where’s the money?” When something demands a large chunk of our money, we want to know how it’s being spent. Fundamentally, we want to know what priorities determine spending and practically, we want to know that the money reached its intended destination. The question is: how much public transparency is warranted?

The principle of transparency in Tanakh and Chazal

Parshat Pekudei begins with a thorough account of the various donations to the Mishkan, mostly silver and gold, and what was done with them.[1] Chazal questioned why it was necessary to detail the “income” from donations and the “expenses” they covered. Midrash answers with two basic approaches. According to one, people were suspicious that Moshe profited from the donations to the Mishkan and to prove that such suspicions were utterly unfounded he accounted for each donation.[2] The other approach indicates that such an accounting is always called for, even if there’s not a trace of suspicion.[3] Indeed, Ezra also accounts for all the donations he brought with him from Persia to the Land of Israel.[4]

The idea that a person’s actions, or at the very least their public actions, must be transparent is reaffirmed by several sources.[5] It’s reflected in Moshe’s statement to the tribes of Reuven and Gad:[6]

“Moshe said to them: If you do this thing, if you go out to war armed before the Lord, and every one of you crosses the Jordan armed before the Lord until His enemies are dispossessed before Him, and the land is conquered before the Lord, then you will return absolved [of obligation] before the Lord and Israel, and this land will be a possession for you before the Lord. And if you don’t do this, you will have sinned to the Lord, know that your sin will find you…”

Moshe tells these two tribes (half of the tribe of Menashe joined later) that it is not sufficient for God to absolve them of obligation, the Israelites must do so as well. A verse in Mishlei relates a similar principle: “You will find favor and good sense in the eyes of God and man.”[7]

The Talmud Yerushalmi learns this idea from a subsequent story about the tribes on the east bank of the Jordan.[8]  These two and a half tribes built an altar in Gelilot HaYarden, and though they may have initially done so with good intentions they did not explain those intentions to the rest of the Israelites. The other tribes suspected that they had turned to foreign worship which nearly led to a civil war.[9]  Claims of “I only answer to God,” or “It’s between me and the Almighty” are repeatedly shown to be insufficient and inappropriate. It’s often necessary to account for one’s actions publicly, at least when the circumstances are public.

Practical halakhic application of the principle of transparency

The importance of transparency is the basis of several rabbinic rules of conduct for people who deal with communal funds. Initially enacted for those dealing with money set aside for Temple service, as we saw in Parshat Pekudei, these rules were subsequently applied to charitable donations (tzedaka) as well.

The mishnah in Shekalim rules that anyone who deals with the shekalim (the mandatory yearly donation to the Temple) may not enter wearing shoes or clothing with pockets or hems – places one could use to hide money – in order to remain above suspicion.[10] The mishnah teaches that people would not only get suspicious if the Kohen (Priest) who handled the money grew richer – thinking he was using public funds for personal enrichment – but also if he became poorer, since they might think this change of fortune was a punishment for embezzling from God.

Later the mishnah rules that there must be at least two people in any role that exerts financial authority over the public.[11] This ensures that there is always mutual oversight in financial matters.[12]  Consequently, gabbai tzedaka who collected and distributed charity would work in pairs.[13]

In spite of everything mentioned above, there are also sources that state, “we do not make the gabbai tzedaka account for the charity,” meaning they are not required to give a detailed accounting of the funds that pass through their hands.[14] The basis of this statement can be found in the account of the Temple repairs that were performed during the reign of King Yoash:[15]

“They gave the measured money into the hands of the appointed workers [overseeing] the House of the Lord, and they brought it out to the carpenters and the builders who worked on the House of the Lord, and the masons and stonecutters, and to buy lumber and quarry stones to repair the House of the Lord and for any expense to repair the House. But no bowls of silver, snuffers, fountains, trumpets, or any vessels of gold or silver were made from the money that was brought to the House of the Lord. For all of it was given to the workers and with it they repaired the House of the Lord. And they didn’t audit the people who handed the money to the workers, because they did it faithfully.

Similar verses are found in the account of Temple repairs in the time of King Yoshiyahu.[16] The gemara uses these verses to support the statement that gabbai tzedaka should not be audited, but acknowledges that it’s not incontrovertible proof. Rashi explains that the issue is contextual – it’s unclear if it’s appropriate to take a rule from the Temple and apply it to gabbai tzedaka. Tosafot explain that the difference is not the place but the people handling the money – in Melachim the consensus was they were righteous and thus above suspicion, but it’s unclear if the same can be said of all gabbai tzedaka.

The responsibility of the community and that of the public servant

What’s the relationship between these two responsibilities? On the one hand the Torah and Sages stress the necessity of transparency and oversight when dealing with public funds, “to be absolved of obligation before the Lord and Israel.” On the other hand, they both teach us not to encumber those who collect and distribute the money with meticulous audits. Are transparency and oversight necessary or not?

Rabbinic authorities note this tension and attempt to reconcile the relationship between the directives. Drawing on the two midrashic approaches to explain why Moshe accounted for all donations to the Tabernacle, Rema explains that the directives balance between different situations. When the gabbai tzedaka are righteous and above suspicion the public should not require them to give detailed accounts, but it’s still appropriate for them to voluntarily do so (similar to Tosafot’s explanation above). When the gabbai tzedaka are not appointed but rather have seized control, they are deemed untrustworthy. In this case public suspicions are justifiable (as opposed to any suspicions surrounding Moshe), and so they are obligated to give careful accounting of their actions to the people.

Taz explains that the directives are applied based on the gabbai tzedaka’s conduct when handling the money. As long as they meticulously follow the rabbinic regulations (always in pairs so there is oversight, taking care not to do anything that would arouse suspicions), they remain above suspicion and the community is prohibited from auditing them.[17]

Netziv offers another insight. While it’s certainly appropriate to meticulously audit the gabbai tzedaka, such high standards may discourage people from volunteering for public service.[18] To encourage people to volunteer the sages tried to alleviate some of the red tape.

These explanations indicate that the directives are two sides of the same coin – one focuses on the community’s responsibility, the other on that of the public servant. When a public servant fulfills their responsibility to maintain integrity the people must let them work and refrain from burdening them with suspicions. But if there’s a good reason to suspect misconduct the public should demand accountability. And even though the people should trust the gabbai tzedaka and refrain from spurious claims against them, the Torah also demands that these public figures act with extra care to remain above suspicion. This could take the form of meticulous accountability through audits – a demand that may have to be relaxed to find appropriate gabbai tzedaka. A possible alternative is to set out clear rules when handling the funds to maintain transparency and avoid any reason for suspicion.

This tension still exists in the State of Israel today – we want to find appropriate representatives and we want them to be held accountable for their actions. Compromising on transparency can encourage corruption, but overly meticulous scrutiny may deter good people from service. The Torah provides us with guidelines to help us find the proper balance between these concerns.

[1] Shemot 38:21 – 39:1

[2] TY Shekalim Chapter 5 Halakha 2, 48:3; Shemot Rabba 38:21

[3] Pesikta Zutrata (Lekach Tov)Shemot (Parshat Pekudei) 28:21

[4] Ezra 8:31-34

[5] For example: Mishnah Shekalim 3:2. The mishnah also mentions the next source from Mishlei; Tosefta Yoma 2:5; Tosefta Pe’ah 4:15, etc.

[6] Bamidbar 32:20-23

[7] Mishlei 3:4

[8] TY Shekalim 3:2, which also mentions the sources from Bamidbar and Mishlei

[9] Yehoshua 22:9-34

[10] 3:4, and also TB Ta’anit 11a which states that Moshe wore an unhemmed white robe during the inauguration of the Mishkan.

[11] Mishnah Shekalim  5:2

[12] According to Shemot Rabba 51:1 Moshe singlehandedly accepted the donations, and so he gave the report to compensate for acting alone.

[13] Tosefta Pe’ah 4:15; TB Bava Batra 8b

[14] TB Bava Batra 9a

[15] Melachim II 12:12-16

[16] Melachim II 22:7

[17] Yoreh De’ah 257:1

[18] Herchev Davar Shemot 38:21

Rabbanit Dr. Adina Sternberg

has a B.A. in Bible from Hebrew University and a M.A. and Ph.D. in Talmud from Bar Ilan University. Adina studied in Midreshet Lindenbaum, Migdal Oz, Havruta and the Advanced Talmud Institute in Matan. She currently teaches Bible and Talmud at Matan, and Efrata and Orot colleges. Adina lives in Adam (Geva Binyamin) with her family.