Jewish Journal

Day 2543 - What is a Person Worth?

by Salvador Litvak

March 9, 2012 | 10:00 am

Congregation Etz Chayim in Los Angeles, © Google 2012

We just finished Tractate Arachin, in which we studied the law of monetary vows made for the sake of the the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Because the Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., we are no longer able to fulfill these laws, but we do study them, and they can be perplexing.

All persons can declare an erech vow and be the subject of an erech vow; all can declare a vow for the worth of another and be the subject of a vow for their own worth.
- Arachin 2a, Day 2511

Though one is not required to make a donation to the Temple, he or she may elect to do so. If the person so elects, he or she may simply consecrate money or property to hekdesh, the Temple treasury. If, however, the person chooses to make a specific kind of pledge known as an erech vow, he or she becomes legally obligated to donate a specific amount to hekdesh.

The pledge is usually worded, “I undertake to give my erech,” or “I undertake to give my worth.” The actual amount the person has promised to give is the subject of some lively Talmudic debate. Broadly speaking, the person has either promised to give a fixed, statutory amount based on age and gender (Leviticus 27:1-8), or the person has promised to give the amount he or she would fetch if sold as a slave.

Both concepts are difficult. Putting a number on a person’s worth seems antithetical to all our views in the 21st century. And even if we can imagine living in ancient Jerusalem, it’s hard to understand how these laws would help a public institution. After all, we’re talking about voluntary offerings. If the wording of these pledges ends up leading to litigation, liens, perhaps even lashes, it just doesn’t seem like good PR for a non-profit.

Digging for a lesson in the erech laws, I concluded that charitable giving is a serious undertaking. You must do your research, and make good on your pledges. I learned a much deeper lesson, however, this past Saturday when I attended a siyum for Arachin.

A siyum is a celebration marking the completion of a tractate - when we complete the whole Talmud in August, B”H, there will be a huge siyum at Metlife Stadium (Giants Stadium to me). They expect 100,000 teachers, students, spouses, relatives, and friends.

Saturday’s siyum was held at Etz Chayim, the shul where I study with Rabbi Blau and the other half dozen members of our shiur. Perhaps 70 more members of the congregation were there for the festive meal which marks the end of every Sabbath with singing and great joy. We had left the last paragraph of Arachin unread the previous day so that Rabbi Blau could teach it now. Then we recited a sweet prayer of thanksgiving, and one of my colleagues, Dr. Baruch Twersky, came forward to share a few words.

Though the moment was jubilant, Baruch could not take full pleasure in it because Saturday also marked the yartzeit, or anniversary, of his son’s passing. Shaya Twersky died in a car accident nine years ago. Baruch feels the loss as keenly now as he did then, and yet he found the strength to prepare a teaching for us. He said Arachin is a difficult tractate, one of those volumes of Talmud whose lessons feel distant to our modern lives. When he realized, however, that Arachin’s completion and Shaya’s yartzeit would coincide, he found a connection.

Why did the Torah assign specific values to people, and highly specific laws for pledging the worth of those values? Because every person does indeed have a specific worth. How is it measured? By the work that person is able to perform in an allotted time.

How often we hear, “Time is money.” We must never waste either.

Shaya only lived for 20 years, but he filled them. He was quick to do chesed - loving kindness. He worked as a counselor for kids with serious illnesses. He composed a niggun - a wordless song that unites people with each other and with the Holy One, Blessed be He. Shaya loved G-d and did all he could with the brief time that was allotted to him. He gave his full erech.

We must do the same. When I embarked upon Daf Yomi, I did not think I had time for it, but I tried anyway. Right now, I am so deep in work that I don’t have time to write this blog. But I’m doing it anyway because Shaya inspired me via his father, Baruch.

None of us has enough time to do all we are called to do. Do it anyway. That is the greatest gift we can give G-d and each other. Yasher koach, Baruch.

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Salvador Litvak wrote and directed the Passover comedy and cult hit “When Do We Eat?” His current film, “Saving Lincoln”, explores Abraham Lincoln’s conflicted tenure as commander-in-chief through the eyes of his dear friend and bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon. Tracker Pixel for Entry


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Salvador Litvak is a Chilean Jewtino who’s lived in the U.S. since he was five. He graduated from Harvard, NYU Law and UCLA Film. He lives in Los Angeles with his wife and...

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