‘She’s worth her weight in gold.” “You look like a million dollars.” Our language often attributes measurable monetary value to human beings. In a world in which these were not merely figures of speech, what would be the actual worth of a human being? How could one tell? Who would decide?
In the first eight verses of its last chapter, the Book of Leviticus presents us with rules for pledging to donate a person’s value to the Holy Temple. This practice, called ‘arakhin (“valuations”) in rabbinic law, may have originated in an earlier practice of consecrating real, live people to service in the sanctuary. Perhaps the idea of substituting a monetary donation began with slave trade values or some other price set by a market, or even by the person’s weight. If so, the Torah’s aim seems to be to provide instead a high degree of standardization. The passage is not without its internal inconsistencies and linguistic conundrums, but it does clearly lay out a table of values for every living person over the age of 30 days:
“… If it is a male from 20 to 60 years of age, the valuation is 50 shekels of silver by the sanctuary weight; if it is a female, the valuation is 30 shekels. If the age is from 5 years to 20 years, the valuation is 20 shekels for a male and 10 shekels for a female. If the age is from one month to 5 years, the valuation for a male is five shekels of silver, and the equivalent for a female is three shekels of silver” (27:3-6).
The sequence of values — something that seems not to have caught the attention of any commentator, classical or modern — appears at first to be moving from the most valuable, at 50 silver shekels, to the least valuable, at three. The criterion of value is apparently economic productivity: An adult male in his prime was the principal income producer for a family in an agrarian society, while a child under the age of 5 could be expected to do very little beyond the most trivial of household or farmyard chores.
Just when this pattern is firmly established, however, the passage veers back into the midrange amounts, for it continues: “If the age is 60 years or over, the valuation is 15 shekels in the case of a male and 10 shekels for a female” (27:8). This disruption of the previous orderly pattern challenges our stereotypes about old people — stereotypes they themselves often share.
We ourselves know many people for whom the age of retirement comes as an unwelcome shock, and retirement, however voluntary, is experienced by some as a mark of rejection and dishonor. The sudden loss of earned income, even if it is replaced by a steady and generous pension, annuity or income stream from investments, can be devastating for people who took pride in their earning power and hard-won financial independence. The prestige of a job and the regularity of work life also bring security of a sort that goes far beyond the monetary.
Among our biblical forbearers, too, the realization that one was no longer able to bear the primary responsibility for quotidian tasks, be they with plow and scythe or with loom and cookware, must have been difficult. But in that society, the elderly remained part of the household, taking part in whatever tasks they were physically capable of handling. Moreover, they were valued for the wisdom they had gained from long experience, and their counsel was sought out and respected. For these reasons, perhaps, society’s official valuation placed them at or near their value in their later childhood and teenage years. In the public recitation of the Torah, too, they were cyclically reminded of that high estimate of their worth. They were told that while they were now increasingly dependent on others, they were — by definition, regardless of the level of their physical or cognitive skills — of great worth. Society, and even the divine Giver of Torah, declared it to be so.
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A wider positive message is found in the ‘arakhin passage by Jacob Isaac, “the Seer of Lublin” (1745-1815). Noting that in the previous passage of Leviticus we read the horrific curses with which the Israelite nation is threatened should they stray from the divine commandments, he explains why the “valuations” laws immediately follow those curses: “When a Jew reads or hears the reader [in the synagogue] pronounce all those terrible imprecations, he might fall into despondency and think, ‘Of what value or importance, then, am I? I am worthless.’ For that reason, the Torah follows immediately with the ‘arakhin passage: To let us know that despite everything, even in the face of all that was just said, the soul of every Jew has ‘value.’”
Rabbi Peretz Rodman is a Jerusalem-based writer, translator and educator. This essay was written in memory of his father, William Rodman (Ze’ev ben Yehoshua‘ u-Frieda), who died on Shabbat Hagadol, April 3 of this year. May his memory be a blessing.