Parashas Pekudei involves a detailed inventory of the materials collected for building the Mishkan, and explains what was done with them: “These are the records of the Mishkan, the Mishkan of the covenant law, which were recorded at Moshe’s command by the Levites under the direction of Itamar son of Aaron HaKohen” (Shemos 38:21).
The Midrash (Shemos Rabba 51:1) explains the need for the detailed inventory: “A man of trust – this is Moshe Rabbeinu, who was appointed treasurer over the labor of the Mishkan. Our rabbis have taught: An act of authority is only executed upon the community by two or more; yet surely Moshe was treasurer on his own? […] Rather, although Moshe alone was treasurer, he called others and made an accounting with them, as it says: ‘These are the records of the Mishkan’ – it does not say ‘that he ordered,’ but rather ‘that was ordered’ – by Moshe at the hands of Itamar.”
The Midrash Tanchuma (Pekudei 4) adds that the accounting was done in spite of the fact that Hashem declared of Moshe: “…among My entire house he is faithful” (Bamidbar 12:7). Despite this Divine trust, Moshe would “call others and make an accounting through them.”
Given the fact that the Mishkan was constructed over 3,000 years ago, the level of transparency and accountability found is truly remarkable, reaching standards that general society has only recently discovered. Although today we expect a high standard of transparency from public institutions, over long centuries and millennia this was not the case. Its presence in the case of Moshe Rabbeinu is striking.
In the present article we will discuss how this principle plays out in halachah. To what degree is there an obligation of accountability and transparency for public institutions? Do charity collectors have to supply reports of their income and expenditure?
Trust in Charity Collectors
With regard to charity collectors, we find in the Gemara that there is no obligation to provide an account of money collected since we trust in their honesty.
The Gemara (Bava Basra 9a) thus states: “Our Rabbis taught: Charity collectors are not required to give an account of the money entrusted to them for charity, nor the treasurers of the Sanctuary of the money given for holy purposes. There is no actual proof of this [in the Scriptures], but there is an allusion in the words: They reckoned not with the men into whose hand they delivered the money, to give to them that did the work, for they dealt faithfully. (Melachim 2:12).
Tosafos explains that the Scriptural reference provided by the Gemara does not constitute a full proof because it is possible that the people in question were renowned as righteous and honest people, and who were therefore beyond suspicion. However, the Gemara (based on the beraisa) reaches the clear conclusion that charity collectors do not need public scrutiny, and are rather trusted to act scrupulously with the collected funds.
A similar sentiment animates a ruling presented by the Tur, which gives charity collectors a degree of immunity concerning claims of misconduct with regard to charity money. The Tur (Choshen Mishpat 95) cites Rav Hai Gaon that in circumstances where private individuals would be obligated to take an oath, “we do not make treasurers take rabbinic oaths.” A charity collector is performing a public service, and he volunteers his time and energy for the public good. He ought to be encouraged, and public trust is one way of expressing our appreciation for his work.
Even in cases where there is cause for suspicion concerning the integrity of a charity collector, so that there are halachic grounds to request an accounting (as ruled by the Shach, 257:3), the Noda Biyhuda (Tinyana, Yoreh De’ah 157) writes that we do not obligate him to supply an exhaustive account of income and expenses: “Even if something new came to light which gives s room to be suspicious […] this kind of financial account is not similar to other financial accounts that people need to give in order to clarify their finances, which include every detail.”
The Noda Biyhuda adds that we do not request a receipt for every expenditure, “For it is known that for some things the charity collector needs to spend money and it is impossible to give a receipt.” He concludes: “All of this is regarding a case where there is room for suspicion, in that we see him acting inappropriately.”
In Two’s and Three’s
Given the trust we place in charity collectors, it is important to recall a number of halachos concerning how charity money should be collected and distributed.
The Mishnah (Pe’ah 3:7) teaches: “The charity fund is collected by two persons, and distributed by three.” Indeed, the Yerushalmi (Pe’ah 8:6) asks why we do not require a Beis Din of twenty-three – the number of judges required when adjudicating matters of life and death – when distributing charity funds, and replies, “By the time you gather twenty-three, the poor person might be in danger.”
Certainly, then, the matter of charity collection and distribution is not to be taken lightly. However, the reason these numbers are required is not out of a lack of faith in charity collectors, but rather on account of proper procedure as follows. The Mishnah (Shekalim 5:2) teaches that any act of authority upon the community requires a minimum of two people, which is why collection of charity money, which constitutes an act of authority (the community is duty-bound to contribute) must be done by at least two people. As for the distribution, deciding who should receive charity money and who should not is akin to passing judgment, which is why it requires a tribunal of three.
These halachos, while important in defining how charity should be collected, do not bear on the basic faith we have in charity collectors.
Remaining Above Suspicion
At the same time, halachah dictates high standards for charity collectors (and others in similar positions) to ensure that they remain above suspicion.
The Mishnah in Shekalim (3:2) rules that the Kohen administering the collection for the Temple fund must be exceedingly wary of arousing suspicion as he enters the chamber of collection to make the count. He should not wear a sleeved cloak, and likewise not shoes, sandals, tefillin, nor an amulet, for fear that people will claim that he stole from the collection by hiding a coin in one of these articles.
The Mishnah concludes: “For a person must give no cause for suspicion to other people, just as he must give no cause for suspicion for G-d, as it says: And be guiltless towards Hashem and towards Israel (Bamidbar 32:22); and so it says: And find favor and good understanding in the eyes of G-d and man (Mishlei 3:4).”
The Yerushalmi (3:2) adds further restrictions: A Kohen whose hair is braided must not separate the Shekalim collection, so that he should be above suspicion of hiding monies in his braids. He would even talk with somebody outside the room from the moment of his entry to the moment he exited, to ensure that he does not hide any coins in his mouth. It is thus eminently clear that those serving the public have an obligation of remaining above suspicion, of being, “guiltless towards Hashem and towards Israel.”
Based on the same principle, the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 257:1) rules that a collector “should not count the money in the pot two by two, but rather one by one, to avoid suspicion.” Similarly, it is ruled that if a charity collector (while performing his collection duties) finds money on the street, he should not put the money into his purse, but rather into the charity box, reclaiming it from the box when he comes home (the same is true for a personal debt that a collector collects while performing charity duties). These halachos are based on the rulings of the Gemara (Bava Basra 8a).
Providing an Accounting
As mentioned above, we do not require charity collectors to supply an accounting of income and expenditure, because we have faith in his honesty.
However, based on the duty of being above suspicion, halachic authorities recommend that an accounting be given, as the Rema rules: “Nonetheless, in order to be guiltless before Hashem and man, it is proper practice to supply an accounting.”
The Rema continues to explain that the faith we place in the collector is limited to a person we know to be upright and scrupulous. Where the individual lacks a sterling reputation, or where his appointment was made by means of force rather than by community choice, there is an unequivocal obligation to supply a full account.
The Rema concludes that the same principles apply to somebody performing any public duties.
Paid Community Workers
The principles outlined above are based on an unspoken assumption that the charity collectors and other community workers are doing their job without pay. Their special status as being above suspicion draws from their commitment to a holy vocation of helping the poor (or the community), and their dedication of time and resources in so doing.
What then is the halachah concerning somebody who is paid for his services, either in raising money for charity or in other community occupations (this might also apply to the principal of a school, and so on)?
The Aruch Hashulchan (257:12) writes that the halachic ruling whereby there is no obligation upon the charity collector to supply an accounting applies only to an unpaid collector. When the charity collector is being paid for his services the exemption does not apply, and he is indeed obligated to provide an accounting.
Shut Mishnah Halachos (4:237) notes further that based on the Shut Yad Eliyahu (54), the special status of charity collectors as performers of a mitzvah (for whom it is proper to stand up as a sign of respect) does not apply to paid collectors. Based on this opinion, it follows that the special faith placed in the collector will also not apply to paid workers.
These rulings, together with the general obligation of being guiltless before Hashem and man, demonstrate the duty of heads of public institutions – whether government, educational, health and other – to provide accounting for their income and expenses. Certainly in today’s day and age, where there is a universal expectation for institutions that serve the public to provide an accounting, our own (internal) institutions should live up to the standards.