by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
Men are worth more than women. It says so in the Torah—or does it?
A list of the equivalent value in silver of each of eight classes of people appears in Bechukkotai (“by My decrees”), the last portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra:
When someone undertakes a vow consisting of erekekha of persons for God— (Leviticus/Vayikra 27:2)
erekekha (עֶרְכְּךֳ) = the equivalent value, assessment.
—then the erekekha of the male of age 20 years up to age 60 years, erekekha will be 50 shekels of silver according to the shekel-weight of the Holy place. And if she is a female, erekekha will be 30 shekels. (Leviticus 27:3-4)
And if from age 5 years up to age 20 years, erekekha will be for the male 20 shekels, and for the female 10 shekels. (Leviticus 27:5)
And if from the age of a month up to age 5 years, erekekha will be for the male 5 shekels of silver, and erekekha for the female 3 shekels of silver. (Leviticus 27:6)
And if from age 60 years and above, if male, erekekha will be 15 shekels, and for the female, 10 shekels. (Leviticus 27:7)
In this lis of equivalent values, males are assigned a higher erekekha than females, and adults between the ages of 20 and 60 are assigned a higher erekekha than children or seniors. Individual differences between people within each of the eight classes of persons are disregarded.
What does undertaking “a vow consisting of erekekha of persons for God” mean?
Leviticus includes a number of mandatory gifts to the sanctuary or the priests who serve there. All Israelite households are required to give:
* the firstborn of their livestock and a portion of their first fruits.
* the prescribed animal and grain offerings for relieving guilt and thanking God for good fortune.
* the prescribed offerings for being readmitted into the community after a period of ritual impurity.
The tithes and the first farm products are like annual taxes or membership dues. For the ancient Israelites, there was no separation of temple and state; every citizen was also a member of the religious community and had to help support the religious rituals at the temple. Individuals had to make additional payments to support the rituals for specified situations in their own lives.
I daresay most Israelites were glad to be part of a system that connected them with their God through concrete actions. And sometimes one of them had a religious impulse, and felt moved to pledge an extra donation.
Ancient Israelites could not do this by simply writing a check. In fact, even coins were not invented until the sixth century B.C.E. (A shekel was a measure of weight in silver, rather than a coin.) So the Torah portion Bechukkotai considers four other things that could be donated: a field, a house, part or all of an edible animal, and the erekekha of a person.
The Talmud tractate Arakhin, written during the first few centuries C.E. by rabbis analyzing this passage in the Torah, states that either a man or a woman could make this vow. A person often dedicated his or her own erekekha to the temple in Jerusalem. But someone could also vow to donate the erekekha of any person belonging to him or her at the time—i.e. someone the vower owned and could legally sell. In that era, people could sell their slaves or their own underage sons and daughters.
When someone made the vow, a priest would collect a token pledge. Then sometime later, the vower would come to the temple and fulfill his or her vow by paying the erekekha in silver.
Why donate the equivalent value of a person?
Wouldn’t it be simpler to vow to give a certain weight of silver to the sanctuary? Why bring a person into the equation?
One theory is that the system of erekekha was developed to replace the custom of giving human beings to God, either by sacrificing them at the altar or by dedicating them to service at a temple.
Human sacrifice was widespread in the ancient Near East, and is mentioned several times in the Bible. In the book of Judges, an Israelite general named Yiftach (Jephthah in English) vows that if God lets him vanquish the enemy and return safely, he will give God whatever comes out the door of his house by making it a burnt offering. His daughter comes out the door. She is sacrificed.
In the first book of Samuel, Hannah vows that if God lets her have a son, she will give him to God for “all the days of his life”. Once her son, Samuel, is weaned, she brings him to the temple in Shiloh to serve as an assistant to the high priest.
The book of Leviticus, on the other hand, describes the practices of the priests during the time of the first temple in Jerusalem, centuries after the period described in Judges and Samuel. Human sacrifice has been banned, and the priests and Levites who serve at the temple in Jerusalem inherit their positions.
But perhaps some people still made vows that if God would do something extraordinary for them, then they would do something extraordinary for God. And perhaps some people simply wanted to be consecrated to the temple, even though they could not be priests or Levites.
One way to achieve this was to replace the donation of a human being with the donation of the human being’s erekekha in silver.
The time lag between the vow and the delivery of the erekekha is not explained in either the Bible or the Talmud. Perhaps some people felt moved to make an unusual vow before they had saved up enough silver to fulfill it.
Or perhaps the time lag was important because between the time of the vow and the time the silver was delivered, the person whose erekekha was vowed was considered consecrated—marked out as having a holy purpose.
Imagine what it would be like to undertake a vow that made you consecrated to God for a period of time. Unlike a monk or nun (or a nazirite in ancient Israel—see my blog post Naso: Let Down Your Hair), you would continue with your usual life. But the meaning of your life would be different.
Imagine what it would be like to undertake a vow that made your servant or your young child consecrated to God for a period of time.
Why set the value according to age and gender?
The erekekha of a person is not his or her market value. The eight classifications according to age and gender do bear some relation to a person’s ability to perform work; generally speaking, adults between the ages of 20 and 60 can do more work than the very old or the very young, and men can do more literal heavy lifting than women. But the market value of an individual sold as a slave varied according to the person’s physical and mental condition. (Talmud Bavli, Arakhin 2a) The eight assessments for a person’s erekekha disregard any individual strengths or weaknesses.
The assignment of values according to age and gender probably reflects the prejudices of society in the ancient Near East, which was dominated by men who were heads of households. Yet Judith Antonelli, in her book In the Image of God: A Feminist Commentary on the Torah, argues that the lower erekekha for women indicates that the ancient Israelites respected women more than their neighbors did. “…the lower prices for women reflect the Torah’s prohibition of sexual slavery. Where female slaves are officially used for sex as well as for labor—that is, kept in harems as concubines—they are in greater demand than male slaves and thus command a higher price.”
In other words, even slave women had value as persons, not merely as sex objects.
So the amount of each erekekha reflected the realities of an agricultural society in which brawn mattered, free men dominated, and children were possessions. But vowing to pay the erekekha of a woman, child, or old person, meant respecting that person’s value. By consecrating him or her to God for the period of your vow, you were assigning a high value to your slave or your child.
And when you consecrated yourself to God by vowing to pay your own erekekha, you were assigning a high value to your own life.
Today our systems of religious worship are very different. But I wonder if we could devise a new way to consecrate our own life, or the life of someone in our family, for a period of time until we achieve a goal. It would change the way we treated ourselves or the other person. And everyone, of any age and gender, might be worth more.