Terumah: How Much Can I Give?

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

The beginning of this week’s parsha introduces the first ever nationwide Jewish fund raising campaign. The campaign’s goal was the construction of the Mishkan, the effect of which would be a level of worship and insights into God never before experienced to this degree by Bnai Yisrael.  One might assume that a project with this level of appeal would inspire a deluge of donations, allowing the nation to express their excitement and support however they desire. Yet, as we will see, God introduces a more complex system of giving, one that serves as an eternal paradigm for the proper approach and method for making contributions.

God introduces the concept of terumah at the beginning of the parsha (Shemos 25:2-3):

Speak to the B'nei Yisrael and have them take for Me a terumah-offering. From every man whose heart impels him to generosity shall you take My terumah-offering. This is the terumah-offering that you shall take from them: gold, silver and copper…”

Rashi notes the mention of the term “terumah” three times (ibid 2):

Our Sages said: The expression terumah is mentioned here three times, [thereby alluding to three different terumah-offerings]. One is the terumah-offering of a bekka (half-shekel) per head from which the "sockets" (adanim) were made, as is explained in the parsha. Another is the terumah-offering for the altar, [which also consisted of] a bekka per head for the coffers [from which] the communal sacrifices were brought. And another is the terumah-offering for the mishkan --- the donation of each individual.”

Rashi expands on this in Parshas Ki Sisa (ibid 30:15 ), where terumah is again mentioned three times in the discussion of the giving of the half-shekel. He explains that the collection of the half-shekel served as a basis for counting the nation. Furthermore, he adds that the final terumah was where “each person contributed as his heart moved him.”

These two explanations are sourced from the Talmud (Megillah 29b):

“[The reason is] as R. Joseph learnt: ‘There were three contributions; of the altar for the altar, of the sockets for the sockets, and of the repair of the House for the repair of the House.’”

Again, Rashi points out that the contribution for the upkeep of the Bais Hamikdash (bedek habayis) was not predetermined, but was instead based on what each person desired to give. 

In summary, we see from Rashi that the first two terumos shared the quality of being the exact same amount, while the third was subject to the generosity and means of the individual. Furthermore, the first terumah was focused on the adanim, the paired silver sockets that served as the base for the inner walls of the Mishkan. The second terumah dealt with the needs of the congregation, including the daily korban tamid, the lechem hapanim, etc. At the time of the Mishkan, the final terumah was for the completion of the construction of the Mishkan (excluding the adanim), while in the times of the Bais Hamikdash, it was set aside for its upkeep (bedek habayis). 

It is odd that the first terumah, which was Bnai Yisrael’s initial opportunity to donate to the building of the Mishkan, should be focused solely on the adanim, which had a very basic, functional role. One would assume that the first terumah of machazit hashekel (which was silver) would have a more glamorous role. There is also the discrepancy between the equal donations of the first two versus the unlimited donation of the third. Why the need for an equal donation from everyone? Why the change by the bedek habyais? In general, what idea is being expressed through this unique system of donation?

There are some commentaries who offer practical explanations for these issues. For example, the reason for choosing the adanim is that they required the most amount of silver. Another pragmatic rationale is offered for the necessity of equal donations. The half-shekel was used to count Bnai Yisrael, so the donations had to be of equal amounts or the count would be incorrect. No doubt there indeed had to be a practical benefit to these methods of collection. However, it is possible there is a deeper idea here, one that cuts to the core of the objectives of the Mishkan (and future Bais Hamikdash) and its profound effects on Bnai Yisrael.

One of the fundamental concepts imbued in the Bais Hamikdash (and Mishkan) was the importance of Yiras Hamikdash. The Rambam (Hilchos Bais HaBechira 7:1) writes that it is a positive commandment to fear the Bais Hamikdash. What this means, he explains, is a fear of the One who commanded us in fearing. In other words, Yiras Hamikdash is intrinsically tied to Yiras Hashem. And as the Rambam further explains (Yesodei HaTorah 2:2), Yiras Hashem involves man understanding his place in the universe vis-a-vie God. Therefore, the idea of Yiras Hashem had to be internalized by the nation at the time of the construction of the Mishkan. Ultimately, to allow for this idea to be manifest, it required the minimization of the ego of the individual within the nation. This started with the donations that were necessary for the construction of the Mishkan. Every Jew gave the same amount, whether rich or poor – the individual’s identity subsumed in the overall nation. There was no means for an individual to stand out from the rest, which ran the risk of resulting in a distorted notion of self-importance. This explains the need to have the equal amount of the half-shekel; still, though, why the focus on the adanim? The adanim were the foundation of the inner walls, a primarily functional role – no glamour, no beauty, mainly hidden from view. Yet the role of these sockets, holding in place the walls separating the nation from the inner workings of the Mishkan, was pivotal. Yiras Hashem accentuates to man how separated he truly is from God – an idea clearly expressed in the walls of the Mishkan. They were barriers reflecting the limitation of man’s ability to understand God. By directing Bnai Yisrael’s donations to the adanim, this concept is solidified. 

At this point, it would seem there should be no opportunity for an individual to offer more than the set amount of half shekel. And this appears to be essential to minimize the ego gratification that many times comes with large donations. At the same time, what to do about those who genuinely saw the value of the Mishkan and desired to offer more? Some outlet had to exist for this expression, and this was accomplished through the method of collection for the building of the Mishkan, as well as the future bedek habayis. And yet, even the opportunity to give as desired was conducted within specific guidelines. The epitome of donation in Judaism involves complete anonymity.  The Rambam (Hilchos Matnos Aniyim 10:8) explains the method of collecting tzedakah during the times of the Bais Hamikdash, the essential component being that nobody knew who gave and nobody knew who took. In the case of Bnai Yisrael and the terumos, the very act of giving had the quality of anonymity to it. With the first two, being that it was the same half-shekel for each individual, there was no means of differentiation. The last terumah had the same anonymity attached to it. The Torah (Shemos 25:20-29) describes the event of the giving of the gold, silver, and other precious objects and materials necessary to build the Mishkan. There were no donations of vessels or walls, an aron or a menorah. Instead, the supplies to build these items were given. True, one individual may have given more gold than his friend. Yet there could be no individual attachment to the donation, as it would be combined into the whole, its form destroyed and indistinguishable. In the times of the Bais Hamikdash, a similar degree of anonymity existed. One could give more to the running of the Bais Hamikdash, but where the money was directed and how it was spent was not information privy to the donor.  Therefore, there indeed was a method for those to give more than the half-shekel. However, it was accomplished in a manner that required selflessness and necessitated a complete removal of any potential glory beyond the act of giving.  

The lessons of the giving of the terumah are just a crucial today as they were in the times of the Mishkan. Too often, ego gratification becomes the drive for giving, the identity of the individual a necessary component of the donation. We must look to the construction of the Mishkan, where the individual was completely removed from the entire process, and where even when the opportunity to give generously arose, there was no means available for that ego indulgence.