Lectures on the Torah Reading

by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University

Ramat Gan, Israel

Parashat Vayikra

A project of Bar-Ilan University's Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Sponsored by Dr. Ruth Borchard of the Shoresh Charitable Fund (SCF). Published with assistance of the President's Fund for Torah and Science. Permission granted to reprint with appropriate credit.
Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il

Parashat Va-Yikra 5758-1998

"When a Person Presents an Offering of Meal"

Rabbi Yehezkel Lichtenstein

Department of Talmud

Scripture refers to an animal offering ("If his offering is a burnt offering from the herd," "If his offering is from the flock"), as "an offering by fire of pleasing odor to the Lord." Likewise, with regard to birds ("If his offering ... is a burnt offering of birds"), we also read that it is "an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Lord." The same is true of a meal offering ("when a person presents an offering of meal to the Lord"): it is "an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Lord." In other words, the different monetary value of each type of offering notwithstanding, they all yield the same result: "an offering by fire, of pleasing odor to the Lord." Thus the offering of a poor person is considered no less than the offering of a wealthy person. This principle is stressed in the last mishnah of Tractate Menahot:

It is said of the burnt offering of cattle, "an offering by fire of pleasing odor"; and of the burnt offering of a bird, "an offering by fire of pleasing odor"; and of the meal offering, "an offering by fire of pleasing odor," to teach that whether one [that is rich] offers much or one [that is poor] offers little, it is all the same provided he direct his mind towards [G-d in] Heaven.

The equality of rich and poor regarding sacrifice served as the basis for viewing them equally in other areas as well. From the mid-tenth century until the beginning of the era of Emancipation towards the end of the eighteenth century, the Jewish community served as the internal self-government of the Jews in all walks of life. The rabbis of Franco-Germany and Spain defined the power of the community representatives and its elected officials to impose the community's will on all its members in financial affairs and in other matters of public concern. Takkanot, or rulings of the Jewish community, were generally established by majority rule, the minority being obliged to accept the majority decision.

However, a basic question arose here: How to determine this majority? Of what does it consist? Does every vote, whether of rich or poor, have equal weight? Does the voice of an educated man or an expert carry the same weight as that of the common folk? Perhaps the meaning of "majority" should be determined by some combination of these factors?

A variety of opinions were voiced on this matter. R. Menahem Mendel Krochmal, a great Ashkenazi leader in the mid-seventeenth century, was asked about "some of the city notables wishing to rule that not all taxpayers have a vote, but only those that pay much tax, or those who are learned in Torah, ... since most public affairs concern financial matters, how could the opinion of a poor person be given equal weight to that of a rich person? Is it conceivable that the opinion of a common person weigh equally against the view of his fellow, if he is not superior in wealth? ... However, the poor masses have protested that they should not be deprived of rights, seeing as they pay taxes and do their share, even though the wealthy give more; as it is, the little that they contribute is even harder for them than the large sums given by the rich."

In his responsum, R. Menahem Mendel accepted the argument of the poor and ruled that the correct approach was a combination that took into account both wealth and the principle of one man, one vote; as he put it, "Rov binyan, ve-rov minyan" -- determining the majority in terms of quality and in terms of quantity. His ruling was based on the last mishnah in Tractate Menahot, which explains that "the meager offering of the poor person is considered equal to the lavish offering of the rich." Moreover, the meager offering of the poor could be considered even greater than the lavish offering of the rich. This may be deduced from Talmud Menahot 104b on meal offerings:

R. Isaac said, "In what way is a meal offering different, that 'nefesh' -- 'a soul' -- should be said in that regard? [ The Bible text reads: "If a soul (nefesh) presents an offering of meal to the Lord (Lev.2:1). For all the previous offerings, we find the word ish, "If a man".] The Holy One, blessed be He, said: The poor person, who generally brings meal offerings (not being able to afford an animal offering) is in My eyes like someone who has offered his very soul."

This shows that the portion brought by the poor person may perhaps be superior to that brought by the rich, because "a poor person must strive with all his soul to attain the offering he brings, ... whereas this is not so of the rich man, who brings what he has readily available without going to any trouble." Therefore, R. Menahem Mendel Krochmal concluded, "The argument made by the poor takes precedence, since the little that they give is as difficult for them as the much given by the rich."

A similar opinion was voiced by R. Elijah Mizrachi, the leading authority of the Constantinople Jewish community in the late fifteenth-early sixteenth century: "It makes no difference whether the majority was comprised of poor or of rich, of common folk or of rabbis, since the entire community comprise the bet din, the court, when it comes to affairs that concern them."

A diametrically opposing view is found in the works of R. Samuel ben Moses de Medina, the Maharashdam, a great sixteenth-century rabbi from Salonika: "The Torah's injunction to 'side with the multitude' does not apply except for cases where the judges are equal; then the decision follows the majority. But when there is a difference of status between the rival groups, one person might carry the weight of a thousand. Thus when they are equals, the majority is quantitative(rov minyan); when they are not equals, the majority is qualitative(rov binyan)." Absolute equality, irrespective of wealth or wisdom, according to R. Samuel ben Moses de Medina, runs contrary to the law and ways of justice commanded us by the Torah; therefore, when the status of the parties is not equal, the majority is determined not according to quantity, but according to quality, according to the relative weight carried by each individual voice.