Hekdesh

The tradition of voluntary offerings in the interest of communal worship can be traced to our experience at the foot of mount Sinai. With great generosity, our ancestors combined their wealth of gold and built a molten calf with an altar before it. This communal betrayal of our covenant was one of the most egregious outcomes of a fundraising campaign in all history.

When building the mishkan, a remarkably different story is told. As members of the community offered their precious metals and jewels there was an overwhelming display of generosity resulting in a surplus. When Solomon built the Temple in Jerusalem, essential resources used for construction were donated by his father David, prior his death.

The operation of the Temple cult was contingent upon the offerings brought by Israelites, both obligatory and voluntary. Hekdesh is one particular category of voluntary offering made to the Temple in the form of property, land and currency. The object promised to the Temple becomes consecrated and is subject to different regulations than equivalent object that are not sanctified. Hekdesh objects cannot be replaced by items of equivalent value and a strict rule against deriving benefit from object that are consecrated.

After the destruction of the Temple, the concept of hekdesh remained relevant and is the subject of many Talmudic discussions and halachik injunctions. From the geonic period onward, the term hekdesh was used generally to indicate the donation of private property for public use. The label of hekdesh was used to describe funds donated for a variety of communal purposes including, providing for the needs of the poor, supporting the synagogue, and torah learning. In the Middle Ages, the communal shelter and infirmary for the poor became known as hekdesh, as donations were used to support the institution. Because of its association with the shelter for the ill and transient, the term Hekdesh in Yiddish came to mean 'disarray.'

To the modern imagination, it is easy to envision that the funds given to vaccinate children against typhoid are sanctified; the donation serves to save a lives. Along the same line, it is difficult to feel that a large donation to replace the synagogue's leaking roof is holy. Despite the tendency to elevate fulfillment of the needs of the poor above satisfying other communal needs, both gifts can be understood as 'consecrated' according our tradition's understanding of hekdesh.. When building the mishkan, our ancestors offered contributions because they wanted to be part if something great. When the multitudes invested in the construction each member of the community was a stakeholder in the communal covenant. We too have the opportunity to give gifts that can encourage learning, inspire prayer, and create sacred space. Just as our ancestors consecrated their oxen and cruses of oil to the Temple, a contribution to the synagogue shows our continued commitment to our communal relationship with God.

(Developed by: Lisa Delson & Anna Levinrosen, HUC-JIR, Cincinnati)