PekudeiBusiness / Economics

How Our Money Got into a Pretty Pickle


This week, together with the weekly Torah portion of Pekudei, we read the additional portion of Parashat Shekalim, which is the commandment to give one half of a shekel as a donation to the Tabernacle. So, let’s go ahead and talk about money…

The wise King Solomon said, “And money answers everything,”[1] and there is no-one around who doesn’t know what money means. Nonetheless, we may have missed that in Hebrew, the Holy Tongue, the word for “money” (כֶּסֶף) refers to a coin system (nowadays banknotes too). Additionally, it also refers to silver, the metal from which we make jewelry etc. Indeed, the value of money in the Torah is indexed according to the value of silver (so, for example, the half-shekel in the Torah is equal to approximately eight grams of pure silver).

Silver is Money

Obviously, there is a historical reason why important coins are principally made from silver, but like everything else in the world, there is a much deeper reason for it, which we can glean from the Torah’s inner dimension.

We know that side by side with silver coins are gold coins. In fact, in a central discussion in Jewish law, [2] the sages compare the values of silver and gold. The basic Aramaic terms that are used in this discussion are “currency” (טבעא) and “goods” (פירא; lit.: “fruit”). So the question is asked: When Reuben has twenty silver coins and Shimon has one gold coin, and they make an exchange, which is the “coin” and which is the “goods”? One repercussion of this question in Jewish law relates to the laws of purchase, since withdrawing and readying the goods is considered a complete purchase (and the other side is obligated to turn over the monetary reimbursement), but withdrawing money (such as from the bank or ATM) is not considered as the final purchase and the transaction is not complete until the goods are delivered.

The conclusion reached is that when relating to the relationship between silver and gold, gold is the “goods” and silver is the “currency,” i.e., the money. The Talmud relates that in his youth, Rabbi Yehudah Hanassi (Rebi, the author of the Mishnah) thought that the opposite was true, that gold is currency and silver is the goods. But when he grew older, he reached the conclusion that silver is currency, and his reasoning was that although gold is more important than silver, gold is not more “effective” than silver, i.e., it does not become negotiable currency so easily.

Silver in the World of Chaos

This question in Jewish law is also relevant to an essential question in the realm of economics and business. Business begins with the assumption that everything in the world can be measured by the same standard―anything is marketable. So, for example, one could price a rare painting by Rembrandt relative to a jar of pickles… So, money is a brilliant invention that attempts to compare everything according to the same scale. However, there is a dire danger hidden here, because this outlook on life could turn the world into a completely “flat” place―where nothing is important, nothing has any real value, and nothing is sacred. Everything would be a matter of money, and nothing more; and just as money has no smell, so no scent and no special taste exist that cannot be bought for money. Everything rolls around and around (סְחוֹר-סְחוֹר) like a coin, and this is also the meaning of the word, “trade” (סְחוֹרָה).

In the terminology of Kabbalah and Chassidut, the world was created in two stages―the World of Chaos, followed by the World of Rectification, as indicated at the beginning of the Torah, “In the beginning God created… and the earth was chaos and void and darkness upon the face of the abyss [the World of Chaos]… and God said, ‘Let there be light!’ and there was light [the World of Rectification].” The World of Chaos is in a state of “chaos and void” where everyone attempts to control and “buy” everything. Therefore the World of Chaos ended in smithereens, while the World of Rectification has an organized, stable system that allocates everything its own value and location.

In our context: by chaotic standards, money “makes the world go around,” and nothing else. Anything can be bought and everything can be sold. For enough cash, one can negotiate values, memories and tradition, or even one’s homeland. One can barter people, even one’s parents, wife or children, or I can even sell myself as a slave. On these terms, anything can become negotiable currency; it’s just a question of supply and demand. This warped mindset is represented in the Torah by the Canaanites, “Canaan [a synonym for a merchant[3]] who keeps fraudulent scales; he loves to cheat.”[4] But, this clever trader successfully confuses himself and he no longer knows (and doesn’t really care) which is currency and which is the goods. It might be that the best and tastiest “fruit” looks like a silver coin. On the other hand, he is capable of wolfing down silver coins, like a monkey in the zoo [this confusion is alluded to in the numerical value of “chaos” (תֹּהוּ; 411) which equals “coin” (מַטְבֵּעַ; 121) plus “fruit” (פְּרִי; 290)].

Abraham’s Coin

But, what does Judaism have to say about money? Just as the Canaanites were merchants, so too (by contrast), Jews are renowned for their selling abilities. Moreover, we are greatly involved in minting coins and setting exchange rates, as the sages state that Abraham minted a special coin[5] and Jacob established currency and markets,[6] not to mention Joseph, who was the most famous finance minister in history.

The coin system in the Torah is attributed to Moses, as Nachmanides mentions,[7]  “Moses established a silver coin in the Jewish People because he was a great king and he called that coin ‘shekel’.”

Not for naught is an emphasis placed on the fact that Moses “was a great king,” because establishing a coin in general is related to the essence of the kingdom-government. This is established in the law that “the law of the government is law”[8] relates only to a government that has a coin system in use (because social consensus is what gives real power to the government, just as only social consensus gives any value to currency). In the World of Chaos, there is no central government, “Everyone would eat their comrade alive,”[9] “There was no king of the Jewish People, everyone did what was right in his own eyes,”[10] therefore there is no stable currency. But, the World of Rectification judges and rules, has a king, and a rectified government that mints coins.

The wisdom of the World of Rectification is in its ability to use money in the correct way; knowing how to distinguish between the “currency” and the “goods,” because, “There is nothing that does not have a place.”[11] It allows free movement and business between the different entities without eradicating their unique identity. Therefore, a conclusion must be reached regarding questions such as the status of gold and silver coins relative to one another. In order to “mint a coin” (לִטְבוֹעַ מַטְבֵּעַ) one needs a keen eye (טְבִיעַת עַיִן) to recognize the innate nature of the “goods” and which item is most suited to be negotiable currency.

The real test of wisdom is to know that there are some things that are just not up for sale at all. You can’t just sell and buy something holy (and there is a complete halachic system that establishes what and how we redeem and secularize something that has been sanctified); you can’t just sell the Land of Israel, “And the Land shall not be sold permanently, because Mine is the Land”[12]; nor can you sell yourself to someone else as an eternal slave.

Love Coins

Getting back to the contest between gold and silver on the international stock exchange, according to Kabbalah and Chassidut, silver alludes to the attribute of loving-kindness and love. Taking a linguistic approach, the letters of the world for “silver” (כֶּסֶף) have a second meaning, as in the phrase, “You surely yearn (נִכְסֹף נִכְסַפְתָּה) for your father’s home,”[13] or, “For the work of your hands you yearn”―referring to a combination of will, love and an aspiration to acquire something. In general, will is the engine that drives all of our actions, and the will that motivates the attribute of loving-kindness is a loving will, which is associated with tremendous yearning.

This is why the principal coin is one of silver. Because the foundation of trading lies in the will to acquire one’s desire, and the yearning for it, i.e., “demand.” I want pickles and you want a work of art, but the common denominator is an aspiration to own something that is not yet mine. This is why we are able to set a basic unit of currency for our yearnings, by which we can evaluate anything in the world. According to Kabbalah, loving-kindness―the motivating force behind all attraction, love and yearning―accompanies all the attributes of the heart, which form the basis for all human interactions. In even the simplest transaction it is this attraction that allows a transaction to take place―“yearning” (כִּיסוּפִים) that turns into “money” (כֶּסֶף).

With all due respect to our jar of pickles, it is clear that the type of yearning we expect from a Jewish soul should be directed at loftier matters (those accompanied by material goods that make them more tangible, like the special place allocated to pickles alongside the kugel [14] on Shabbat). The mitzvah of giving a silver half-shekel means donating the essence of one’s love to God, “And you shall love Havayah, your God.”[15] The reason for this mitzvah is explicitly stated in the Torah, “The rich shall not increase and the poor shall not reduce from the half-shekel, to give God’s donation to atone for your souls.”[16]

Just as an animal sacrifice or a minchah offering of plant life can atone for the soul of the one who offers up the sacrifice, so too a coin―man-made with an inanimate metal―can also atone for one’s soul. Yet, although a person’s soul is not a saleable item, nonetheless, in God’s great loving-kindness and compassion, He allows us to make an exchange transaction: the soul of an animal in place of our human soul, or a half-shekel to atone for our soul, as alluded to in the identical value of “soul” (נֶפֶשׁ) and “shekel” (שֶׁקֶל).

Even though the Temple in Jerusalem has not yet been rebuilt, and the mitzvah of giving a half-shekel is not in practice, to a certain extent, every coin that we give to charity is “ransom” for our souls. Because if money represents our life’s ambition and we are prepared to forfeit it for the loftier purpose of charity and loving-kindness, then “Charity is great because it brings the redemption closer.”[17]

Jews are Worth Gold

By contrast to silver, which represents the simple attribute of love and loving-kindness, gold is symbolic of the attribute of judgment and fear.

So, which attribute is greater, loving God or fearing Him? With reference to common fears like fear of punishment, it is clear that love is greater, since someone who observes mitzvot because he is afraid of the punishment that awaits him after his 120 years have passed has not observed the Torah “for its own sake,” and still has only his own interests at heart. But, someone who observes mitzvot out of love takes a step outside of himself and truly approaches God, therefore, “Greater is one who acts out of love than one who acts out of fear.”[18]

However, there is a much higher level of fear of God, and that is the awe experienced when standing before God, so much so that there is an existential sense of shame in my being an infinitesimal dot in the presence of an Infinite God. This type of fear is worth gold. With all due respect to silver, gold is considerably more important than it. If silver is a noble metal, the kingdom’s minister of finance, then gold is the king himself (like King David who was a red-gold-headed king, and even his name (דָוִד; 14) equals “gold” (זָהָב; 14). Why is this type of fear more important than love? Because, love is a force that diffuses from the soul’s essence, while fear is an aspect of the essence itself.

This is the inner significance of the conclusion that gold is considered “goods” (i.e., the purchase) while silver is the currency that buys it. Gold coins do exist, but gold is much more than just negotiable currency. One can trade love and yearning, but one cannot trade the quality of fear, “Fear of God is pure, it stands for eternity”[19] like pure gold whose unique beauty is never tarnished, can never be measured and is not tradeable.

Love Like Golden Fire

From another perspective, there are two types of love of God: love that is like silver, and love like gold. Rebbe Shneur Zalman of Liadi, author of the Tanya, explains the difference between the two:

There is also an aspect of love that is more valuable than them all, like the value of gold relative to the value of silver, and that is love like flames of fire, of the aspect of higher might… for by contemplating God’s great infinity… the soul ignites and bursts into flame towards the precious splendor of His greatness… like flames of fire, a burning flame that rises high… and from this it comes to thirst… and then to the stage of love-sickness, and after that it reaches complete and utter consummation of the soul…

Regarding love that is compared to silver, the individual does not leave himself completely, but is attracted to love God by acknowledging God’s loving-kindnesses to him and the like. Then his soul is moved into a corresponding dance of love. But, love that is like gold is far more forceful than that, “As forceful as death is love.”[20] The soul is ignited and flares up like a gold-red flame, so much so that the individual reaches a state of thirst, and the thirst is magnified until one’s soul becomes “love-sick,”[21] and finally is literally consumed with love. Love like silver is a product of our Jewish nature―a very deep and wonderful source―but love like gold is far more valuable, since it is a product of the tremendous distance from God that the soul experiences in this world, “My soul thirsts for You, my flesh is consumed by You, in an arid and fatiguing land without water.”[22] This type of love can never become negotiable currency, nor be given a fixed denomination; however, it is the most praiseworthy fruit-purchase that can be made.

So we see that the significance of the mitzvah of giving a silver half-shekel is to give up our deepest love and yearnings in a coin of love that “makes the world go around.” This silver is given in exchange for the gold that is the soul itself, which stands in pure fear in God’s presence, and bursts into a flame of  unsurpassed love that is as forceful as gold and fire.

In the joyful spirit of Adar, we will conclude with a Purim-style recipe for the half-shekel. Chassidim know that as a side-dish to one’s alcoholic beverage, it is recommended to eat pickles (which serve to neutralize the alcohol with vinegar). Having mentioned that the value of “shekel” (שֶׁקֶל) is equal to “soul” (נֶפֶשׁ) we will now add that our dear friend, the pickled cucumber (מְלָפְפוֹן חָמוּץ) shares the same numerical value… So, since the reference is to a half-shekel, we should suffice with eating just half a pickle, saving the other half for the next glass… Lechaim lechaim!


[1] Ecclesiastes 10:19.

[2] Baba Metzia Ch. 4, Maimonides, Hilchot Mechirah 6:1-3.

[3] As in Genesis 38:2, “The daughter of a Canaanite man,” which Unkelus translates as “merchant” (תגרא); or Proverbs 31:24, “And she gave a belt to the Canaanite” i.e., to the merchant.

[4] Hosea 12:8.

[5] Baba Kama 97b.

[6] Shabbat 33b.

[7] Nachmanides, Exodus 30:13.

[8] Baba Batra 54b-55a.

[9] Avot 3:2.

[10] Judges 17:6.

[11] Avot 4:3.

[12] Leviticus 25:23. See also Nachmanides explanation ad loc; Hasagot Haramban Leseifer Hamitzvotprohibition 227.

[13] Genesis 31:30.

[14] Yid. “pudding”; usually made from lokshen (vermicelli pasta).

[15] Deuteronomy 6:5.

[16] Exodus 30:15.

[17] Baba Batra 10a.

[18] Sotah 31a.

[19] Psalms 19:10.

[20] Song of Songs 8:6.

[21] Ibid 2:5; 5:8.

[22] Psalms 63:2.

Related posts

A Business is Born

Gal Einai

We can change the world together – Part 2 (28 Adar I, 5774)

Imry GalEinai

Accountings of the Mishkan – Transcript

Imry GalEinai

Leave a Comment

Verified by MonsterInsights