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Vayakhel-Pekudei – Guarding a Good Reputation: To What Extent?

For example, in Temple times all Jews were obliged to donate annually half a shekel to the Beis Hamikdash. When money was required for the purchase of communal sacrifices, a Temple official would enter the room where these monies were stored and bring out the appropriate amount of coins. The Mishnah (Shekalim 3:2) tells us that the man who was responsible for this was not permitted to wear clothing with “turn-ups” at the hem, because such clothes would prompt people to accuse him of pilfering some of the public funds and hiding it in the folds of his clothes. Had he subsequently become rich, says the Mishnah, people would have accused him of stealing from the Temple. The Mishnah goes further and says that even if the man had become poor, the people would have blamed his misfortune on Divine retribution for his embezzling; the gist of the Mishnah being that when it comes to public scrutiny, you can’t win.

To such an extent was the obligation to be above suspicion, that when this official was gathering these funds, he was not even allowed to wear footwear in case people suspected him of slipping coins into his shoes. Even tefillin could not be worn at this time, so that people could not accuse him of the remote possibility of hiding some coins under the straps!

There are further instances of a gabbai’s obligation to be above all suspicion. The Halachah (Shulchan Aruch, Yoreh De’ah 257:1) discusses what a gabbai should do if while collecting tzedakah, he finds some money on the street. Although he may keep it for himself (he need not give it to tzedakah if at the time he picked it up he intended to keep it for himself), he may not put it directly into his pocket, lest someone see him and suspect him of pocketing money that he collected for charity. He must put this money in the charity box or purse that he carries, and only when arriving home and in the privacy of his own home may he remove that money and take it into his own possession. Even if someone repays him a private debt whilst he is performing his duties of charity collecting and distribution, he must place it in the charity box until he arrives home.

In a similar vein, in olden times every Jewish community had a soup kitchen that served free food to the poor, which was funded by charitable donations. If there was left over food, the gabbaiim were expected to sell it off to the general public and keep the proceeds for future charitable distributions. In such circumstances, they were not permitted to sell the food to themselves, only to others, so that there would be no opportunity for anyone to suspect them of buying the food at a discounted rate.

All these halachos emphasize the high moral conduct of those responsible for public and charity funds, and the imperative that they must allow no room for suspicion of misconduct. It must be stressed, however, that there is no implication here that one is permitted to accuse or suspect these public officials of wrongdoing without a sound basis to do so. On the contrary, the Talmud (Bava Basra 9a) stresses that honest, upright trustees of charity funds must not be suspected of wrongdoing without reason, and one is obliged to rely on their integrity (unless there is sound basis for suspicion). According to the Halachah, a gabbai tzedakah is not obliged to give an accounting of the funds entrusted to him. He does not need to report how much he received, from whom did he receive, nor to whom did he give the funds.

That being said, the Halachah (Shulchan Aruch ibid 257:2; see Bi’ur HaGr”a) does encourage ((It should be noted that if there is a custom to provide full accounting, or if the officials were appointed under the express understanding that they would provide such accounts, obviously this becomes an obligation upon them and not merely something praiseworthy.)) gabbaiim to prepare a balance sheet for all their transactions with public or charitable funds, so as to be above all suspicion. And this we see from Moshe Rabbeinu. Moshe’s integrity could not be doubted. Nevertheless, he provided a full accounting of all the donations that were received for the building of the Mishkan and a comprehensive record of where it all went. With this, he demonstrated to us all how to fulfill the verse, “And you shall be clean before G-d and before Israel.”

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