This Week's Torah Portion: Is It a Donation When It's Required?

Dëvar Torah — Parashath Tëruma (Exodus XXV, 1-XXVII, 19)

So begins our parasha:

Vayëdabbér Ha-Shem el Moshe lémor: Dabbér el bënei Yisra’él vëyiqchu li tëruma mé’éth kol ish asher yiddëvennu libbo tiqchu eth tërumathi. Vëzoth hatëruma asher tiqchu mé’ittam.

And Ha-Shem spoke to Moshe to say, Speak to the bënei Yisra’él, and they will take for Me tëruma; from each man whose heart moves him you will take My tëruma. And this is the tëruma which you will take from them (XXV,1-3).


The rest of v. 3, together with vv. 4-7, details the various materials whose contribution satisfies the requirements of teruma. Then v. 8 tells us their ultimate purpose: Vë‘asu li miqdash vëshachanti bëthocham (“And they will make for Me a sanctuary and I shall dwell in their midst”).

In the Talmud (Yërushalmi Shëqalim I, 1) the Rabbis derive from the three-fold repetition of the word tëruma (conventionally translated “donation”) that the passage actually refers to three distinct contributions: the tërumath adanim, a contribution of silver from which the bases (adanim) of the Mishlan’s wooden supports were made (cf, XXVI, 15-25); the tërumath shëqalim, the contribution of the half-sheqel incumbent on every male Israelite aged 20 and up (cf. last week’s devar Torah and Exodus XXX, 1-16 generally); and the tërumath haMishkan, the contribution of the materials used to build the rest of the Mishkan and its utensils.

An initial reading of v. 2 supra gives the impression that a tëruma is indeed a donation, in the sense of a free-will offering: mé’éth kol ish asher yiddëvennu libbo. However, the fact that the Yëreushalmi cited above connects this part of the verse with the mitzva of the half-sheqel, of which we read the following, suggests otherwise:

Kol ha‘ovér ‘al hapëqudim miben ‘esrim shana vama‘ala yittén tërumath Ha-Shem. He‘ashir lo’ yarbe vëhadal lo’ yam‘it mimachatzith hasheqel lathéth eth tërumath Ha-Shem lëchappér ‘al nafshotheichem.

Everyone who passes the census, from twenty years old and up, will give Ha-Shem’s tëruma. The rich will not give more nor the poor less than half a sheqel, to give Ha-Shem’s tëruma to ransom your lives (XXX,14-15).


The requirement could hardly be less voluntary or more rigid!

Furthermore, the term tëruma is used in other contexts which are plainly not voluntary. See the contributions of ordinary Israelites from their sacrifices and crops for the maintenance of the kohanim (cf, Exodus XXIX, 27-28; Numbers XVIII, 8ff), or the mitzva of separating challa, which is called tëruma (Numbers XV, 20-21; Shulchan ‘Aruch, Yore Dé‘a 328:1). Both are obligatory and, like the machatzith hasheqel, incumbent on Israel to this day.

Bearing the above in mind, what can the phrase asher yiddëvennu libbo actually mean? Perhaps we can find a clue in the Oral Torah. In the first mishna in Tërumoth, we learn:

Five may not contribute, and if they did contribute, their tëruma is not tëruma: the deaf-mute, and the mentally incompetent, and the minor, and one who contributes what is not his, and a non-Jew who has contributed what belongs to a Jew, even with his permission.

The first three categories are, fairly obviously, excluded because they are regarded as incapable of making a rational, informed decision. The fourth category carries with it the implication that the tëruma has been donated against the will or without the knowledge of the property’s owner, so that he is not the actual owner’s representative or agent, but is arrogating to himself another’s property rights.

But the fifth case is puzzling. The non-Jew in question is not mentally incompetent, since, we must hasten to add, if he wishes to make a contribution of his own property it is accepted. Yet, even with the Jew’s permission, he cannot serve as his agent in this matter. Why should this be?


The Rabbis long ago enunciated the principle:

Greater is one who is commanded and does than one who is not commanded and does (Qiddushin 31a).

At first blush, the pronouncement seems counterintuitive. We know, for example, from experience that a child who is told by his father to clear the dishes from the table and does so uncomplainingly is deserving of praise; but if he offers to do it on his own, without prompting, then he’s showered with compliments.

But consider a moment. The volunteer of his own free will may, also of his own free will, refuse. His behavior need not be consistent, since it is dependent on his whim. Today he wants to cooperate, tomorrow may be a different story. His previous decisions do not obligate him. However, one who feels himself under orders, duty-bound, strives for greater consistency and carries out those orders even when he “doesn’t feel like it.”

Let us now reconsider that previous child, and we’ll see that he has been trained. In the past, he has been asked to help out. If he then complied out of fear of the consequences of disobeying a parental command, he has now come to understand that by doing these things he gives great pleasure to his parents, whom he loves and wants to please. So he cooperates without coercion, without reference to the consequences, out of love.

Now we can see why a non-Jew, even one so precious that he would bring tëruma, cannot serve as the representative of a Jew. One must not minimize, still less denigrate, the impulse which moves him to make a gift to the Creator. To the contrary, as King Shëlomo said at the dedication of the first Temple:


Vëgam el hanochri asher lo’ mé‘ammëcha Yisra’él hu’ uva mé’eretz rëchoqa lëma‘an shëmecha, Ki yishmë‘un eth shimcha vë’eth yadëcha hachazaqa uzro‘acha hanëtuya uva vëhithpallél el habayith haze. Atta tishma‘ … vë‘asitha këchol asher yiqra’ élecha hanochri lëma‘an yédë‘un kol ‘ammei ha’aretz lëyir’a eth shimcha kë‘ammëcha Yisra’él.

And also to the foreigner who is not of Your people, Israel, and comes from a far-off land for Your name’s sake. For they will hear of Your name and Your strong hand and Your outstretched arm and he will come to pray to this house. You should listen … and do according to all that the foreigner calls out to You, in order that all the peoples of the Earth will know to fear Your name like Your people, Israel” (I Kings VIII, 42-44).

But he is not under the discipline of Torah; tëruma is not one of his commandments. His relationship to the Creator in this regard is not that of one commanded to his Commander.

The word tëruma yields a root t-r-m, which, as we have seen, connotes “donate, contribute, volunteer.” But the written Torah consistently uses the word hérim (“raise up, elevate, exalt”) from the root r-y-m in conjunction with tëruma rather than taram (cf. e.g. Exodus XXIX, 27; Numbers XV, 20 and XVIII, 19, inter alia). Seen in this light, the nature of tëruma is revealed.

By virtue of its dedication to a holy purpose, the property is exalted; perhaps for this reason, we speak of hafrashath tëruma, “separation” or “setting aside” of tëruma. Similarly, by virtue of dedicating the property, we, too, come to be exalted. Through steady performance of the mitzvoth collectively called tëruma, we pass through the stage of merely dutiful performance, payment of a tax, as it were, until it becomes an asher yiddëvennu libbo, a donation of the heart, an act of love without reference to the consequences of non-performance.


If, in this way, we can harness our strongest yétzer hara‘, the urge for material wealth, we can come to observe the other 612 mitzvoth in the same way. We can pass from observance out of fear of our Heavenly Father’s strong right hand to observance out of love.

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