A Talmudic Lens on Nonprofit Management

by Yehudit Singer

When most of us refer to “the Three Weeks”, we think about the lachrymose period preceding Tisha B’Av, when we recall the destruction of the Holy Temple (the Beit HaMikdash), and the tragic events that have befallen the Jewish people throughout history. That time period can be hard to connect with, especially given our unfamiliarity with the Temple as the central institution of Jewish life. What many do not know is that there is another three weeks in the Jewish calendar that paint a picture of the Temple as the preeminent JCC of the ancient world: the study period of Tractate Shekalim.

The twenty-one pages of Tractate Shekalim describe the day-to-day financial management and organizational structure of the Temple, currently studied as part of the Daf Yomi cycle. While the bulk of the Daf Yomi curriculum is from the Babylonian Talmud (Talmud Bavli), Tractate Shekalim is from the Jerusalem Talmud (Talmud Yerushalmi), making it harder to understand due its different style and language. Fortunately, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s notes and commentary in the Koren Talmud Bavli clarify much about how this vast enterprise was managed, allowing us to make correlations to today’s world of nonprofit resource development.

The Sages dealt with the following questions, pertinent to any fundraising campaign:

  • What is the intended purpose of the funds?
  • How are solicited and collected?
  • What is the strategy in case of a budget deficit? Surplus?
  • Can earmarked funds be used for something else?
  • How should endowments and legacy-giving be handled?
  • What is the organizational structure and division of labor?

From this short list, it is clear that the Temple officials dealt with issues similar to those dealt with today by fundraisers around the world in effort to create the most efficient, straightforward method of managing donations.

One particularly striking example relates to the international donor base. Many of us have tried to figure out the best software to process foreign currencies, and the Temple’s finance committee was no exception.

Shekalim 6A dinarThe text states that the shekels collected from the Jewish community each year formed the financial basis for maintaining the Temple. These large donations came from Jews around the world, and were used to acquire public sacrificial offerings. Page 6a in the Koren Talmud Bavli states: “Rabbi Yehuda says … For when the Jewish people ascended from the exile, they would contribute darics … Some people wished to contribute only dinars …”

The marginal notes in the Koren Talmud Bavli explain that the minimal requirement was a half-shekel, (based on Exodus 30:13), given in one lump-sum donation. People donated different coins at different periods of time, meaning the Temple officials had to calculate values and deal with frequent currency fluctuations. They too had to ensure there were sufficient funds for the communal activities.

Here’s another eye-opening passage on page 9a:

Shekalim 9A
Jewish leadership had to pre-empt dubious executive behavior. Though the original text is concise (typical of Talmudic discourse, and even more so in the Jerusalem Talmud), the English translation elaborates: supervision was needed to prevent theft from the Temple’s treasury chamber. The Sages therefore created a system of checks and balances for the Temple leadership, described in the Introduction to Chapter 5:

The senior official … was the High Priest … The High Priest was in charge of two executive supervisors, seven trustees and three treasurers. These officers would manage a complex accounting system designed to ensure that the treasury money was not used for unsuitable purposes. (Introduction to chapter 5, p. 135)

Beyond the roles described above, there were also special finance committees with two or more members.

Kohein - 14bThis concern even affected the High Priest’s clothing (i.e. with no pockets or seams). While there are many explanations for these specifications, Jewish law recognized that when it comes to finances, even the High Priest was susceptible to succumbing to his desires. Fraud and embezzlement happens for many reasons, and even the greatest tzaddik could be guilty.

In a recent interview, the Editor-in-Chief of the Koren Talmud Bavli, Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb explained that the maintenance of the Temple, like any organization, was an extremely expensive venture. The large building had elaborate vessels, and required architects, plumbing, masonry, maintenance, and more. The Temple serviced thousands of visitors from the international Jewish community on a daily basis and employed a rotating staff of priests, Levites, and officials who were responsible for its upkeep.

Many institutions grapple with the aforementioned issues, especially as they solidify details of new fundraising campaigns. Many logistics go into each initiative, and it’s easy to lose sight of the overall picture. When accessible and engaging, Jewish texts can offer that broader perspective, yet they are difficult to understand; daunting to open.

What the layout and content of the Koren Talmud Bavli offers is a bridge to that ancient Jewish world. The language is inclusive and clear, and the marginalia offer a treasure chest of material that can be used as springboards to discuss real-time issues in today’s nonprofit climate. It is not coincidence that Rabbi Steinsaltz’s notes and commentary paint a vibrant picture of the ancient Jewish world. The scholar has made it his lifework to empower Jews across the denominational spectrum to engage with the Talmud, and apply its lessons to their own lives. His brilliant scholarship, fused with the beautiful Koren design, remind us that our goal, like the Beit HaMikdash, is to build community, strengthen Jewish life around the globe, and keep our people engaged.

Yehudit Singer is the Marketing Manager at Koren Publishers Jerusalem. She has a MA in Jewish Education & Non-Profit Administration from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.