Jewish Law in Our Times

by Simon M. Jackson, Adv., Legal Advisor to Torah MiTzion

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Must public officials always be above suspicion?

The public always suspect the intentions of those in office and find fault. Must their suspicions and small-mindedness always be taken into account or can they be ignored?


Duty to Act Above Suspicion?

The end of the book of Shemot, Parshat Pekudei, opens with an accounting of the materials donated by Bnei Yisrael for use in the Mishkan: “These are the accounts of the Tabernacle…which were reckoned at Moshe’s bidding…”

The metals were deposited with Moshe and were under the supervision of Betzalel - people whose greatness and integrity were indisputable, known to the people and attested to by God. Yet Moshe refused to rely on assumptions, teaching us the principle that public servants must be beyond reproach and must keep account of the funds that pass through their hands.

The Midrash Tanchuma (Pekudei 7) dwells vividly on this point:

When the construction of the Mishkan had been completed, Moshe told the people: ‘Come and I will now make an accounting for you…’ But why did Moshe need to render account? Hakadosh Baruch Hu Himself trusted him, as it is stated ‘he is trusted in all My house’? It was because of the scorners of his time who gossiped regarding him, as it is stated: ‘And it came to pass, when Moshe went out to the Tent, that all the people rose up and stood…and looked after Moshe.’ What did they say? R. Yitzchak says: They would say - ‘Privileged is the person who gave birth to this one’ [Some Meforshim interpret this in a derogatory manner: Privileged are those who were born to be his relatives: Moshe - the king; Aharon, his brother, the High Priest; his sons - dignatories of the kehuna; and the construction of the Mishkan he gave to Betzalel, the grandson of his sister, Miriam.]

…They looked at his back and said to one another: What a neck! What legs! Eats and drinks of that which is ours! And his fellow would reply: Fool! A man who is in charge of the work of the Mishkan, talents of silver, talents of gold, uncounted unweighed and unnumbered - what else do you expect - that he should not be rich?!

The Gemara also contains a number of striking examples of the way in which custodians over public property would make every effort to be above suspicion:

The house of Garmu were expert in the making of the lechem hapanim. But there was never bread found in the hands of their children, lest people should say: They grow fat from the preparation of the showbread, as the Pasuk states: ‘You shall be guiltless before Hashem and before Israel’.

Our Rabbis taught: The house of Avtinas were expert in preparing the incense. But never did a bride of theirs go forth perfumed. When they married outside the family, they would make it a condition that the bride should not use perfume, lest people should say: They perfume themselves with the incense preparations… (Talmud Yoma 38a).

And the same applied to private individuals as well:

A person that went up to take an offering from the Shekel-chamber did not wear a sleeved cloak or shoes or sandals… lest if he became rich people would say that he became rich from the offerings taken out of the Shekel-chamber; for a person must satisfy people even as he must satisfy Hashem, as the Pasuk states (Bamidbar 32:22): ‘And you shall be guiltless before Hashem and before Israel’ (Mishna Shekalim 3:2).

Echoes of the above approach can be found in a ruling of the Israeli Supreme Court in 1980 (State of Israel v. Grossman). In that case, a senior official in the Bank of Israel responsible for the issue of linked State bonds was charged with fraud and breach of trust for instructing the Bank to buy in the name of members of his family bonds from a series which any member of the public might purchase and the sale of which was free. The Court asked itself whether the fact that he did this when he was a senior official in the Bank of Israel, administering State loans, give it the taint of an offence?

In its judgment, the Court stated that the bank official should properly have refrained from these purchases, just as every public servant is bidden to desist from any private involvement in matters that are in or connected with his area of office and employment even indirectly, if only to avoid slanderous gossip.

The Court proceeded to cite the above mentioned sources:

Those who stood guard over the sacred vessels in the Temple abstained from any act - even the most legitimate - that might give rise to an iota of suspicion that they had betrayed the confidence of the public, in order to abide by the dictum: “You shall be clean before the Lord and before Israel” (Bamidar 32:22), from which the Sages inferred that “a person should satisfy all mankind as he should satisfy the All Present” (Shekalim 3:2; Yoma 38a)…

Not only did Moshe Rabbeinu submit an accounting of the construction of the Mishkan; he even took pains to employ an external auditor for this purpose:

…Even though Moshe was a treasurer himself, he conscripted others to audit his figures, as the Pasuk states: ‘These are the reckonings of the Mishkan’. The Pasuk does not continue with the words: which Moshe recknoned; rather with the words: which were reckoned at Moshe’s bidding - ‘by the hand of Itamar…’

These principles did not remain as mere ethical recommendations; they were codified as binding legal norms. The Shulkhan Aruch, for example, rules that even the most trusted charity collectors must deliver a bill of account. Moreover, a minimum of two individuals are required to be appointed whenever public money is at stake (Yoreh Deah 257). And in Israel, two authorized signatories are almost always required on checks drawn from the account of non-profit organizations in order to obtain a certificate of proper management (ishur al nihul takin) - despite the fact that the law itself imposes no such restriction.

The Israeli legal system allows a plaintiff, somewhat erroneously, to sue a defendant ‘for the provision of accounts’ (teviah lematan cheshbonot). This is not merely a duty to present to the plaintiff bank statements or other documents in the possession of the defendants. It extends to an obligation to make a detailed accounting (din vecheshbon)and to pay off any debts owed thereunder.It is a “duty to account” in the widest sense - not only to provide the accounts, but to take any necessary remedial action that arises as a result of what is revealed in the accounts.


The reckoning performed by Moshe Rabbeinu amounts to a model “financial statement” - probably the first in history! It details the precise quantity of each material and the purpose for which it was used in the Mishkan:

The silver of the census of the community amounted to a hundred talents, one thousand seven hundred and seventy-five shekels…The hundred talents of silver were used to cast the sockets of the Sanctuary and the sockets of the Partition; a hundred sockets for a hundred talents, one talent per socket. And from the 1,775 shekels he made hooks for the pillars, covered their tops and banded them… (Shemot 38: 25-28).

It will be noted immediately that the total amount collected equaled precisely the sum of the materials which were used; and that no raw material was left over of which no use was made. The principle of ‘due diligence’ receives genuine expression in this report, in which each of the variables is capable of verification: the number of people counted, the uniform collection of half a shekel from every person and the number of sockets. Even the number of hooks is recorded in the report, despite their small value (around half a per cent) and even though Moshe could have simply lumped them as “Miscellaneous” items!


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Jewish Law in our Times > Various

Entered By:

moshe, 3/13/2005 4:19:43 PM