Shabbat Behukotai: What am I worth?

May 30, 2024 by Jeremy Rosen
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As we reach the end of the book of Leviticus, we’ve run through a series of laws, ethical and ritual, that relate to other human beings, the Land, and God.

The Torah begins this week with a covenantal agreement between God and us, which mirrors similar royalty covenants in the ancient Assyrian world and earlier. Promising God’s protection on the assumption that we are going to abide by God’s laws. And sadly, as the Torah reiterates, however much we may claim that God has turned a back on us,  it is clear that for most of the time, we are the ones who are to blame for things going wrong.

But surprisingly just before we close the book, come some laws to do with charity, tithes both for the poor and to maintain the religious institutions of Tabernacle, Temple.And nowadays synagogues and community. We have the law of Erkaot, which in Hebrew means, values, and on the face of it, values human beings.

“And God spoke to Moses, saying when anyone takes a vow ( to donate the equivalent of themselves to the Temple) the following scale shall apply. If a male from twenty to sixty years of age, the equivalent is fifty shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight. If it is a female, the equivalent is thirty shekels.  If the age is from five years to twenty years, the equivalent is twenty shekels for a male and ten shekels for a female. If the age is from one month to five years, the equivalent for a male is five shekels of silver, and the equivalent for a female is three shekels of silver. If the age is sixty years or over, the equivalent is fifteen shekels in the case of a male and ten shekels for a female.”

On the face of it this sounds problematic. All children, males in their prime, elderly, and female of certain ages are all worth the same? How can you put a price on a person let alone whole groups of people? Why would general categories of people all be treated identically?

But when you look at it from a different perspective it’s not quite so strange as it sounds. This was a form of charitable donation common in the ancient world in which somebody chose to donate symbolically their value to the temple or charity. You might remember the decision of Hannah to dedicate her son Samuel to the Tabernacle in gratitude for having a son after years of being barren. But there was always the option to redeem with a financial payment instead.
You might compare this to how judges assess damages or compensation nowadays in courts of law by deciding how much someone might have earned in the course of that person’s life. One takes earning power into consideration or a person’s potential. The valuation is not the valuation of a person’s worth in moral ethical human terms. In the ancient world humans were bought and sold in terms of their physical capacity in the workplace.

In Jewish law, we do not differentiate between one life being more valuable than another when it comes to saving lives or value. We do not consider anyone disposable or inherently superior. This is not a question of how much a person is worth in relation to other people but rather a transactional law based on ancient forms of worship and a donation to the Temple or Tabernacle to defray its costs and allow it to function rather than an imposed tax. This is why redeeming land or people or offering a financial alternative was symbolic ways of valuing life and property.


Leviticus26:3 -27:34

Rabbi Jeremy Rosen lives in New York. He was born in Manchester. His writings are concerned with religion, culture, history and current affairs – anything he finds interesting or relevant. They are designed to entertain and to stimulate. Disagreement is always welcome.

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