The Value of a Person

Parshat Bechukotai 5772
This week we conclude Sefer Vayikra – Leviticus.

Strangely, the beginning of the last chapter doesn’t seem to be related to the rest of the book.

Verses about Valuation

Here are the relevant verses that I looked at earlier this week (Judaica Press translation):

Leviticus Chapter 27

1 And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying,
2 Speak to the children of Israel and say to them: When a man expresses a vow, [pledging the] value of lives to the Lord,
3 the [fixed] value of a male shall be as follows: From twenty years old until sixty years old, the value is fifty silver shekels, according to the holy shekel;
4 And if she is a female, the value is thirty shekels;
5 And if [the person is] from five years old until twenty years old, the value of a male shall be twenty shekels, while that of a female shall be ten shekels;
6 And if [the person is] from one month old until five years old, the value of a male shall be five silver shekels, while the value of a female shall be three silver shekels;
7 And if [the person is] sixty years old or over, if it is a male, the value shall be fifteen shekels, while for a female, it shall be ten shekels.

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Chart of the Valuations


Answering Some Questions

Rabbi Sorotzkin explains how the beginning of Chapter 27 does relate to the rest Sefer Leviticus.

Leviticus has been concerned with all sorts of offerings that a Jew could bring to God:

  • large animals,
  • small animals,
  • birds,
  • grain,
  • wine.

Some offerings were totally consumed on the altar. Others were partially consumed on the altar and partially consumed by people.

However, unlike many societies, there is no provision for human sacrifice.

This chapter opens with a topic that is close to human sacrifice: “When a man expresses a vow, [pledging the] value of lives to the Lord.”

God does not want human sacrifice. Therefore, when a person pledges the “value of lives” the money that is collected may only be used for bedek habayit, the maintenance of the Temple. It is never used to purchase an animal to be offered on the altar. That would be too close to human sacrifice.

Leviticus 27:2

What is the basis of the valuation that these verses discuss?

The English word “lives” is the translation of “nefashot.” How should this be understood?

Leviticus 27:2-7

Why does the valuation depend upon only two factors: age and gender?

Why are all other factors such as health, strength, and intelligence not considered?

And of course, the bombshell question, why is the male always at a higher value than the female?

Consider the situation when for some reason a person decides to make a monetary contribution to the Temple. It would be simple to just say, “I am going to give $100 to the Temple.”

Think about this scenario. Two people decide to make pledges to the Temple. For whatever reason, they decide to be “clever.”

The first person (we’ll call him A) says, “I take upon myself to give the cash value (demei) of Yaakov.”

Then the second one, B, says, “I take upon myself to give the valuation (areich) of Yaakov.”

Is there any difference in their pledges?

The cash value of a person is the amount that the person could be sold for as a slave. We’re not used to slave markets, but it’s not hard to imagine how they would operate.

The value of each slave would be based on such factors as their age, overall health, strength, what skills they possess, and how difficult it is to find a person who can do the work their new owner will want done.

Come to think of it, maybe this isn’t such a foreign concept. In the world of sports, each season there is a draft of players for football, baseball, basketball, and other sports.

Granted the players will still have their freedom, but the size of their contracts is the team’s estimation of their value to the team.

In the above example, A will have to pay to the Temple treasury the estimated slave value of Yaakov.

B’s pledge is completely different. It is based on the fixed values given in the Torah. Those fixed values only take into account the gender and age of Yaakov.

Why the Difference?

Here’s one idea. The Torah in Leviticus Chapter 26 just got done telling the Jewish people what will happen to them if they don’t keep the Torah.

The curses that are mentioned in that chapter are very chilling.

Upon hearing these curses, the Jews might have thought to themselves, “We’re not worth anything.” To use the American phrase, our lives are not worth a plugged nickel.

God in Leviticus Chapter 27 immediately assures them that each person has an intrinsic value.

Each person has an intrinsic value, unrelated to health or strength. It is the “life value”, that is, the “nefesh value” of the person.

The Jewish ideal is that people should not live in isolation. They are meant to live in a community. Thus, it seems reasonable that even the nefesh value can change with age. The more a person is likely to contribute to the community, the higher their nefesh value.

Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch Explains

Rabbi Hirsch offers an explanation for the difference between male and female valuations.

The main role of a woman is within the home and the family.

A man, in addition to his role in the home and family, also has a role in society as a whole. Due to these two roles, his nefesh value is higher at each age.

I think we can see some support for Rabbi Hirsch’s approach in the song we sing every Friday night, Eishet Chayil (Proverbs 31:10-31).

Take a close look at the words there. The woman that is being praised is very, very busy.

She is weaving, sewing, planting, buying, and selling. Note that every one of her activities is for her household.

Concerning her husband, verse 31:23 says,

Her husband is known in the gates, when he sits with the elders of the land.

Here we see the man with a role in the larger society as part of the communal leadership. According to Rav Hirsch, that extra role accounts for the man’s higher valuation.

Your Turn

Please share your suggested answers in the comments.

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Picture credit Flickr.

A Note on the Translations
The translation of Bible verses is based on the Judaica Press Tanach.
The translation of Gemara is based on the Soncino Talmud.
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