Categorized | Samuel_Michael_Leo-Rabbi, USA

Mishnah could teach TSA a lesson about dignity

By Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

Rabbi Michael Leo Samuel

SAN DIEGO — At our downtown TBS Jewish business ethics class, we discussed an interesting subject dealing with the problem of suspicion. The beginning of Parshat Pikudei (Vyakhale-Pikudei), Moses presents a complete inventory of  all the items that he and the priests collected for the Tabernacle (Exod. 38:21) Moses gives a precise accounting of the raw material brought to the Sanctuary: gold (29 talents, 730 shekels), silver (100 talents, 1,757 shekels), copper (70 talents, 2,400 shekels), and so on . . . One might wonder:  If we can’t trust Moses, who could the Israelites trust? If Moses is not above suspicion, then who is?  Why encumber Moses with a ledger?

Rabbinic tradition observes that Moses had more than his fair share of critics. People would look at Moses and say, “Look at his neck, look at his thighs – he is obviously eating and drinking from the property we have donated to the Tabernacle!” Moses’ healthy, strong appearance provided a basis for the cynical charge that he was pilfering. To ensure that the job would be carried out with fairness, Moses delegated the accounting to Itamar, the son of Aaron (Midrash HaGadol, Parshat Pikudei).

Accordingly, Moses responded to his critics by giving a precise accounting for every single coin and article contributed to the Sanctuary. The ethos of the Torah portion stresses the importance of maintaining honest records. Leadership–whether it be spiritual or political—demands transparency and accountability.

Rabbinical literature contains numerous discussions about this particular theme. In one ancient text, the Sages discuss the meaning of a passage, “Be sure to keep the commandments, decrees, and laws that the LORD your God has enjoined upon you. Do what is right and good in the sight of the LORD, that it may go well with you and that you may be able to possess the good land that the LORD your God promised on oath to your fathers.” [1]

The rabbis wondered: What do the words “Do what is right and good” mean? What are its practical implications? They discussed a practical problem that the priests used to encounter in the days of the Second Temple:

The Tosefta records the following law:[2] Whenever someone went in to take the terumah offering from the Shekel-chamber, they would search him before he entered the chamber—and after he exited the chamber.[3] They made it a point to engage him in conversation the entire time he would enter and come out. Why was this procedure so necessary? They went through this procedure in order to fulfill the biblical imperative, “You shall be clear before the LORD and before Israel.” [4]

The Tosefta implies that when dealing with public monies, the priests of the Temple must keep a watchful eye upon anyone who enters the shekel (money) room at all times. The Sages feared that the access to Temple funds might prove to be a temptation for greedy individuals.  Ergo, the Sages decided to create safeguards to prevent theft or the accidental co-mingling of personal monies with the Temple monies. To ensure honesty, they conducted a body search of the officer’s  body and clothing. This view was championed by Rabbi Ishmael.

The Tosefta in Shekalim 3:2 continues exploring the theme of “being clear before the LORD” and what that practically means:

However, according to a different rabbinical view that the Tosefta attributes to R. Akiba:

  • The collector may not enter dressed in a   loose-hanging garment [with sleeves in which money can be concealed—so that he   would not be suspected of stealing from the Temple office] nor wearing boots or sandals or phylacteries or an amulet [in which money can be hidden], lest he become impoverished and people will say that he became impoverished because of his transgression in the Temple office [i.e., stealing its money], or lest he become rich and people will say that he enriched himself from the   money in the Temple office. For a person must be as blameless before his fellow man as before God, as Scripture states: “You shall be clear before the   LORD and before Israel,” and “You will find favor and approbation in the eyes of God and humankind.” [5]

Based upon this opinion, the Temple officials did not subject a person to demeaning searches of his clothing and body; it is adequate if he takes care not to enter the office wearing clothing and objects that could possibly make him suspect. The Halacha follows Rabbi Akiba.

The moral of the rabbinical discussion boils down to one simple principle: Leadership–in all its guises–needs to be beyond suspicion.

Classes in Jewish law and Talmud often lead to some interesting digressions. In one discussion, the lawyers of the class raised the question about the TSA body searches. One of my students observed that in her opinion, the Mishnah seems to also suggest that body searches conducted by the TSA in many of our airports violate both common sense and human dignity.

Her point was well taken.

Performing a body search on a six-year little girl, or a 93 year old woman often involve the kind of groping that authorities would identify with child-molesting, or sexual exploitation. After considerable complaining, it seems that the TSA is beginning to look at other methods that have been used in Israel for years with great success. As mentioned earlier, body searches are not necessary for cases that are obvious to the naked eye. They are necessary only if there appears to be an element of impropriety and suspicion (e.g., wearing loose fitting clothing). All other things being equal, we do not subject people to a body search because it demeans the individual, and for that reason it is also considered to be demeaning to God.

A more practical and prudent approach involves talking to passengers, observe their body language, watching their eyes as they respond to basic questions. Such methods do not diminish the value of a human being–and this method works quite brilliantly for the Israelis. It is amazing to see how some of the Mishnaic methods of antiquity offer practical guidelines that can help us preserve human dignity while working to solve the problem of terrorism.


[1]   Deut. 6:17-18.

[2]   Tosefta Shekalim 2:2.

[3] Maimonides explains: How did they set apart the money? One person enters the inner chamber, while the guards stand outside. He asks them, “Should I set aside the funds?” They would reply: “Collect them, collect them, collect them!” (three times).” The threefold responses were often repeated in the Temple service for the purpose of emphasis (cf.  MT Hilchot Tamidim U’Musafim 7:11 and Hilchot Parah Adumah 3:2). The person then filled three smaller baskets, each containing three seah, from the funds in the three large baskets. He then took the money outside to use it until it was depleted. Afterwards, he returned and refilled the three small baskets from the three large baskets a second time before Shavuot. The money was then used until it was gone.( Maimonides, MT  Shekalim 2:5.)

[3]   Mishnah Shekalim 2:5.

[4]    Numbers 32:22.

[5]   Deuteronomy 6:18.

Rabbi Samuel is spiritual leader of Temple Beth Sholom in Chula Vista.  He may be contacted at [email protected]

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