By: Rabbi Jeremy Wieder  | 

Public Accounting of Communal Funds

The following is an edited transcript of a sichah delivered at the end of shiur on Thursday, March 12th by Rav Wieder.  An attempt has been made to make an oral presentation more suitable in written form, while retaining fealty to the original style. The original audio can be found at

The Torah in the beginning of the second of the two parshiyot we shall be reading this week begins with אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת אֲשֶׁר פֻּקַּד עַל־פִּי מֹשֶׁה עֲבֹדַת הַלְוִיִּם בְּיַד אִיתָמָר בֶּן־אַהֲרֹן הַכֹּהֵן:. “These are the enumerations of the tabernacle that were done at the command of Moshe; the work of the Levites was supervised by Itamar the son of Aharon HaKohen.” (Exodus 38:21)

It mentions that Betzalel and Oholiav were appointed to actually supervise the work. They reported to Moshe Rabbenu. The Torah then proceeds to describe how the materials that were collected for the tabernacle—the donations—were used. That is to say, an accounting of the finances is given. The gold, the Torah tells us, collected x; it doesn’t tell us actually what specific things it was used for: “All the gold that was used for the whole holy enterprise” (Exodus 38:24). The amount of silver and copper that was collected is then enumerated. We are told the things that they made out of them: the sockets for the entrance of the tabernacle, the bronze altar and its bronze grid-work, the vessels used at the altar, the sockets for the courtyard, and so on and so forth.

In the case of the silver, however, something unusual happens—there, the Torah tells us the exact amount of silver, exactly where the silver was spent, exactly how much was spent on each socket of the boards for the inner tabernacle (which was most of it), how many sockets, how much per socket, and then, what was leftover. Once you took care of 600,000 half shekels, there were another 1,750 or so shekels leftover. And there the Torah tells us exactly what they were used for. They were used for the sockets of the pillars, and the hooks, and they [were decoratively] circled around it the amudei he-hatzer (pillars of the courtyard). That’s what they used the rest of the silver for. A highly, highly precise accounting.

What exactly is it that Chazal learn and teach us from this enumeration? Why all of this detail? Why is it necessary, after we have listed all of the vessels, to give a precise accounting? The truth is that when one deals with the mamon hatzibbur, communal funds, there are a number of very important things to be kept in mind. I think they fundamentally break down into three observations: number one, the importance of proper procedures; number two, the importance of a proper attitude towards mamon hatzibbur, and understanding what the mamon of the tzibbur is; and number three, understanding the importance of giving a precise accounting.

The Mishnah in Masechet Shekalim (5:2) states אין פוחתין משלשה גזברין ומשבעה אמרכלין ואין עושין שררה על הציבור בממון פחות משנים. “We do not appoint people with authority, the power of collection, unless there are two of them.” There were a couple of exceptions, people whom the community accepted even though they were single individuals.

The Gemara in Bava Batra states that when they would collect for the kuppah, (charity funds) which was not distributed immediately, they would have two people collecting, because you can't have srara (exercising of authority) over people with less than two individuals, and dividing it (the money) up requires three people. The Gemara observes that the issue of two people is not an issue of trustworthiness but an issue of srara, and only because of that you cannot have only one person.  But in the interim, between the collection and distribution of the money, you only require one person to be involved. If that person was deemed trustworthy, only one person is needed to watch the money.

However, when it comes to distribution of the money, three people are required because it is dinei mamonot (matter of civil justice).  Because taking the communal funds and deciding which poor people are to receive it, or which needs are to be met with it, is a form of dinei mamonot and requires three—because it’s din (justice).  It is not for the gabbai tzedaka, the official charity collector, to do what he wants or whatever he sees fit. He has an obligation of din (sitting in judgment): a proper understanding of the calculation of the needs of the community, of what is not important, and of what needs take precedence over others. It is din Torah, strict Torah law.

The Shulchan Aruch writes יורה דעה הלכות צדקה סימן רנו סעיף ג

הקופה אינה נגבית בפחות משנים,  שאין עושים שררה על הצבור בממון בפחות משנים. אבל לאחר שנגבית, אחד נאמן עליה להיות גזבר.  וכן יכולים למנות שני אחים להיות גזברים. ואינה מתחלקת אלא בשלשה, לפי שהוא כדיני ממונות לעיין על כל עני ועני כמה ראוי ליתן לו.

The kuppah is not collected by fewer than two people, since we do not allow the exercise of authority over the public in monetary matters to fewer than two people. But after it has been collected, one person is trusted to be the treasurer. Thus two brothers, who would normally not be permitted to act together, may be appointed to be treasurers. But it is not divided up by fewer than three, because it is like dinei mamonot, with the need to investigate each and every pauper to see how much it is appropriate to give him.

Everything that you give to one pauper is something that you are not going to give to another. It is technically dinei mamonot, but on a certain level it is dinei nefashot, matters of life and death (5:24). That is the ruling of the Shulchan Aruch.

In the collection and distribution of public funds there need to be proper procedures; it needs to be done with the koved rosh (serious mindedness) of dinei mamonot when you spend money of the community.

In terms of an attitude of understanding what the funds of the community are, you must realize that mamon hatzibbur, communal funds, are not the funds of an aggregate of individuals. The tzibbur is its own entity. This was a misunderstanding of the priests during the Second Temple era, and Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai had to correct them.

The priests had this idea that every person gives a half shekel, and it is the giver’s portion. So when a sacrifice was brought, paid for with these communal funds, each giver had a portion of that sacrifice. It was not the sacrifice of a collective entity, the tzibbur, but of individual members of the tzibbur. Hence the kohanim hakhamim, the clever priests, said: A priest is not allowed to donate the half shekel. as Rav Yohanan ben Zakkai said—and I think mocking them—כהנים דורשים מקרא זה לעצמן, “The priests interpret Scripture for their own benefit.” Why?

According to the Mishnah in Shekalim (1:4), the priests said that the Torah tells us in Parshas Tzav וְכָל־מִנְחַת כֹּהֵן כָּלִיל תִּהְיֶה לֹא תֵאָכֵל, “every meal offering of a priest must be completely offered; it may not be eaten” (Leviticus 6:16).

A priest’s mincha-offering (flour offering) is burned completely. In the case of a mincha offered by a non-priest, a handful is taken out and burned on the altar, while the rest is eaten by the priests. The priests said that if the omer-offering and the two loaves offered on Shavuot, and the lehem hapanim, the showbreads on the table in the Temple, which are forms of mincha-offerings, are all to be eaten by the priests as the Torah prescribes, how can they do so if they all have a portion of priestly donation in them?  Obviously a priest who donates a half shekel is a sinner! He would be sinning and creating a problem by eating these mincha-offerings that the Torah commanded the priests to eat, since any offering by a priest is burnt, not eaten.

Rav Yohanan ben Zakkai said this is wrong because the funds of the community are not the money of an aggregate of individuals. Rather, this mammon hatzibbur is a new entity. It’s the mamon of the entire body politic of Israel, klal Yisrael. Therefore it doesn’t matter if the priest eats it. He can eat it because it is not his portion of the mincha. It belongs to the tzibbur.

When money is donated, it doesn’t belong to the individual donors anymore, although they have the right to attach conditions to donations. It belongs to the community. But mamon shel tzibbur (public funds) is an interesting entity—I’m required to give terumah to the priest; what happens if after I separate it, I choose to eat it myself or destroy it? Can the priests bring me to a din Torah, to a court case?

The answer is no, because this money is mamon she’ein lo tove’im, a sort of ownerless money which does not have a technical claimant. Therefore if a kohen says to me that you burned or ate my terumah, the original owner could say he was going to give it to some other kohen and therefore no particular priest has the standing to bring him to din. It belongs to this unusual category of “ownerless funds.”

Mamon shel tzibbur, communal funds, are of a different nature. The Mishnah at the beginning of the second chapter of Shekalim (2:1) discusses the question of liability in a case where the inhabitants of a city sent their shekels to Jerusalem and they were stolen along the way, or they got lost. Who is liable, whose loss is it?

One thing is very clear: if the messengers were careless, then they are responsible for the money. We don't say oh well, it’s the tzibbur’s money, easy come, easy go. There’s a technical consideration in the context of the public sacrifices: if, in fact, the terumat halishka (the ritual removal of funds from the entire pool to purchase the public sacrifices) was done while the money was still extant in the messengers’ possession, the donors have fulfilled their obligation and the sheluchim (messengers) swear to the gizbarim (treasurers) [that they were not negligent in their duties] and they’re off the hook and hekdesh (the Temple treasury) loses the money. If the money was stolen before the terumat halishka, then the people (i.e. donors) have to pay again (so that they will be considered as having a share in the communal sacrifices).

But if the messengers are unwilling to swear, or if they were negligent, the Mishnah doesn’t say it, but obviously they are responsible for [repaying] the money. They are responsible for the money because they were irresponsible with it.  In other words, mamon shel tzibbur, communal funds, have claimants. There is a responsibility when people are negligent with the money of the tzibbur.

There is sometimes an attitude—it is a common problem—you look at the salaries of the top officers of Jewish communal organizations and they are exorbitant (this may be a problem in non-Jewish organizations as well). Now the truth is that Jewish communal organizations want to get good people to run them. But at the same time there has to be a sense that this is mamon shel tzibbur. It is not like Monopoly money, or free-spending money. It’s not! We take the issue of mamon shel tzibbur, of communal funds, very seriously. We take it very seriously in terms of tzedaka, charity, and we take it very seriously in the context of halakhah, Jewish law. In a discussion (Bekhorot 40a) of a case in hilkhot tereifot, the laws pertaining to defects in an animal which makes it inedible according to Jewish law, Rabbi Akiva shouts at R. Yohanan b. Nuri that you’re being too machmir, too stringent, and you’re wasting the money of the Jewish people with your stringencies. And there R. Yohanan was being carefully strict because it was a concern of issur v’heter, of that which is permitted and that which is forbidden, because he thought it was a tereifa, and had to be prohibited. How much more so, when people work for the tzibbur, for the community, there needs to be a sensitivity that this is communal money, and is not something to be spent carelessly. It’s not free money.

Finally, the story of this week’s parsha.  Accounting.

Moshe Rabbeinu comes and gives an accounting.  There are two reasons for giving an accounting. One is stated by the Midrash in Exodus Rabbah. Why did Moshe give the accounting? Because people were grumbling that he was enriching himself on the side. Probably Korach was grumbling that he was enriching his other family members.  Moshe Rabbeinu heard them grumbling and he said that we are going to solve that problem by giving an accounting. He does this for the same reason offered by the Mishnah in Shekalim (3:2).

When the kohen was going to take the teruma, the donation money, from the chamber where it was kept, he could not enter wearing a garment with pockets or hems.  He had to wear a straightforward robe with no place to put money. Do you know why? Because if he became wealthy, people would say because he stole from the donation chamber, and if he became poor, people would say he became impoverished (as a sign of Divine displeasure) because he stole from the donation chamber. And the Mishnah says: לפי שאדם צריך לצאת ידי הבריות כדרך שצריך לצאת ידי המקום שנאמר (במדבר ל"ב) והייתם נקיים מה' ומישראל ואומר (משלי ג') ומצא חן ושכל טוב בעיני אלהים ואדם:

One is obligated to be reputable in the eyes of man just as they are before God, as Scripture states, “Then you shall be clear before the Lord, and before Israel” (Num. 32:22) and it states, “So you shall find grace and good favor in the sight of God and man” (Prov. 3:4). You have to do things in a way that everything is above suspicion. If you run a shul, as a president or as a treasurer, everything has to be above suspicion; a proper accounting must always be given.

Then the Midrash tells us something that should truly be bone chilling. Moshe Rabbeinu came to give an accounting of the silver. But first, the following comment is in order here: Why is the silver singled out in such complete detail, while the gold, copper, and wool fabrics are presented in a much more perfunctory fashion?

The answer is that there was a difference between the silver and everything else. All the other contributions were voluntary, and an accounting had to be given for them.  But the half-shekel (from which all of the silver came) was a [mandatory head-]tax. And when a community taxes people for something, a much more precise accounting must be given, because people don't have a choice about whether they want to give the money or not. Not that, God forbid, one can be lax with donations of a non-tax nature, but even greater oversight is required when it’s a mandatory tax. In most communities we don’t have taxation, but it does exist in some forms. In my community, there is a tax assessed and added on to every synagogue membership to pay for two communal structures, the eruv and the mikveh.  As a result, those organizations need to be even more precise in their accountings and their delineation of everything done with that money, because it is a mandatory contribution, not a voluntary one.

But that is not what is frightening. What’s frightening is that when Moshe Rabbeinu started to give an accounting: אמר להם בואו ואני עושה לפניכם חשבון אמר להם משה אלה פקודי המשכן, כך וכך יצא על המשכן עד שהוא יושב ומחשב שכח באלף ושבעה מאות וה' וע' שקל מה שעשה ווים לעמודים,

He said, “Come and I’ll give you an accounting. Moshe said to them “‘These are the accounts of the tabernacle—so much and so much was expended on the tabernacle.’”  Yet as he was counting, Moshe couldn’t figure out where 1,775 shekalim had gone.

התחיל יושב ומתמיה אמר עכשיו ישראל מוצאין ידיהם לאמר משה נטלן, מה עשה האיר הקדוש ברוך הוא עיניו וראה אותם עשוים ווים לעמודים.

He began to sit there and wonder, saying, “‘Now Israel will find grounds to say, ‘Moshe stole them.’”

Moshe was terrified that the people would accuse him of stealing a little bit, of having a little slush fund. He spent 300,000 full shekels, but the 1,775 he kept. The people would think he thought to himself “I can do something with this money.  Just a little bit, I can hire one of my friends and give him a job, or take someone out to dinner.” Moshe Rabbeinu was terrified. He couldn’t remember what happened.

What happened? God enlightened Moshe’s eyes and he looked at the pillars. It reminded him where the rest of the silver had gone, into the hooks and decorations for the pillars.

אותה שעה נתפייסו כל ישראל על מלאכת המשכן. מי גרם לו ע"י שישב ופייסן'  הוי אלה פקודי המשכן.

At that moment the Jews were satisfied with their building, their communal tabernacle. And who caused that? Moshe Rabbeinu, who understood that if you want to have people satisfied in the communal partnership you have to give a cheshbon, an accounting.  הוי אלה פקודי המשכן.

The Holy One Blessed Be He trusted Moshe Rabbeinu. There was no human being in history who was a greater fearer of heaven, who lived every moment in the presence of God, who was more trustworthy than the person regarding whom God said “He is the most trusted in My entire household” (Numbers 12:7).  And even Moshe Rabbeinu had to give an accounting to satisfy people’s concerns. They all had to know that this is how it was spent. Nobody is beyond having to give an accounting. It doesn’t matter how great a talmid chacham you are; it doesn’t matter how wealthy you are; it doesn’t matter how great a scholar; אלה פקודי המשכן—these are the accounts of the tabernacle.

I stated before the reason that Moshe Rabbeinu had to give an accounting was to assuage the fears of the community. But the truth is, I think there’s another reason that applies to us. That is: אל תאמן בעצמך עד יום מותך. Do not trust yourself until the day you die (Pirkei Avot 2:4).

The importance of giving a public accounting is that when you know you have to give one you are less likely to act irresponsibly. If I know no one is looking, I do whatever I want.  But if I know that at the end of the month I have to go to the shul board and say that this is what I spent every dollar on, then I think twice before I spend money on frivolous things.  I think twice, I think three times, and then maybe I don’t (spend it).

I will close by saying al derech hadrush, in a homiletic vein:

הלל אומר אל תפרוש מן הצבור ואל תאמן בעצמך עד יום מותך ואל תדין את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו ואל תאמר דבר שאי אפשר לשמוע שסופו להשמע ואל תאמר לכשאפנה אשנה שמא לא תפנה: (אבות, ב:ד)

Hillel said, “Do not separate yourself from the community, and do not trust yourself until your dying day, and do not judge your fellow until you have been in his place, and do not say something which is impossible to be heard, because it will in the end be heard, and do not say, ‘When I have time I will learn,’ for perhaps you will not have time.”

1) הלל אומר אל תפרוש מן הצבור

You can’t be separate from the community. You can’t think that if you’re running a communal institution that you are above the community, and therefore you don’t have to give any kind of accounting.

2) And lest you tell yourself “but I’m a straight guy, and I would do everything properly,” ואל תאמן בעצמך עד יום מותך. Don’t have such trust in yourself until you’re dead. When you die, you’re not going to commit any more sins. But while you're alive, you and all of us are susceptible to making mistakes; we’re all susceptible to doing the wrong thing.

3) Then a caution for all of us:  אל תדין את חברך עד שתגיע למקומו

In judging communal institutions, until you know what you’re talking about, don’t rush to judgment. You have this in countless contexts, in which institutions are reluctant to reveal how money is spent, and one of the reasons they are reluctant to do so is that people will start questioning this, or questioning that, or questioning the other thing. And they’re not wrong in one sense, because, if you don’t understand how an institution has to run fiscally, you start asking “Well, why are they spending this? Why are they spending that?”  First you have to be educated as to what are the necessities for an institution and what are not. Then you can start asking the questions, after you know how an institution has to be run, and ask why they spent on this, why they spent on that.

4) But then again, a warning to the people who spend the tzibbur’s money.

ואל תאמר דבר שאי אפשר לשמוע שסופו להשמע

Don’t say something or do things in a way that nobody is possibly going to be able to understand. Don't engage in complex transactions and complex accountings that don’t make sense to people that you think in the end are going to be understood. You have to do things in such a way that people can understand why choices are being made.

5) Finally, ואל תאמר לכשאפנה אשנה שמא לא תפנה

Don’t say, I’ll do my things; I know how to do things right, and I’ll settle the account later. You may never get the chance to settle the accounts. What people do with their own funds is to a great extent their right. God has given them wealth and in some ways, it is theirs to spend as they see fit.  But the mamon of the tzibbur, communal funds, is not in that category. The handling of communal funds has to be held to proper standards and procedures; the funds have to be treated with the appropriate respect and the appropriate attitude that they deserve because they don’t belong to the people spending them. They belong to Klal Yisrael, to the entity of “the Jewish people,” and a proper accounting must always be given. And that’s what the Torah teaches us in this week’s parsha.  Even the greatest human being who ever lived, Moshe Rabbeinu, came to the entire Jewish people and said אֵלֶּה פְקוּדֵי הַמִּשְׁכָּן מִשְׁכַּן הָעֵדֻת אֲשֶׁר פֻּקַּד עַל פִּי מֹשֶׁה, “these are the enumerations of the tabernacle that were done at Moshe’s command.”

Good Shabbos.