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Integrity: The Inner Clothing

If a person commits a betrayal and trespasses unintentionally with an item that is sanctified to G-d, he will bring as his guilt offering to G-d, an unblemished ram from the flock… for a guilt offering. And the value of his holy object of his transgression he will pay, plus he will add one fifth of its value to it, and he will give it to the kohen. The kohen will then make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt-offering, and the person shall be forgiven.”(Vayikra 5:15-16)

These verses are source-text in the Written Torah for the topic taught in our new masectaMe’ila, the main source-text for this subject in the Oral Law. “Mei’la” refers to forbidden, personal (mis)use of hekdesh. Hekdesh is either something that has been declared by the owner to be brought as a sacrifice in the Beit Hamidash (kedushat haguf) or something a Beit Hamikdash treasurer may sell to receive funds for maintaining the Beit Hamikdash (kedushat damim for bedek habayit).

When considering prohibition and its punishment, a number of factors come into play, such as: the exact type of kedusha involved, the stage at which the transgression occurred (e.g., before or after zerikat hadam for a sin-offering peace-offering), and whether the transgression was intentional or not (meizid or shogeg). These and other halachot of mei’la are taught in this masechta as well as elsewhere throughout Shas.

While the above verses teach the atonement process and penalty for one who transgresses me’ila without proper intent, the punishment for one who transgresses with intent is lashes and payment of the amount of benefit derived from the hekdesh. The azhara (warning) in the Torah against committing this transgression does not appear to be explicit in the Chumash, but is a dispute in the writings of the Rishonim. (See Rashi and Tosefot in Sanhedrin 84a, and the Rambam in the Laws of Me’ila 1:3.)

The word me’ila appears to be somewhat mysterious in its appropriate translation, and how it differs from other words in Lashon Hakodesh that refer to theft — such as gneiva and gzeila. As we see in the writings of Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein (who authors the column in Ohr Somayach’s publications called What’s in a Word?), there are no synonyms in Lashon Hakodesh. Each distinct word has a distinct meaning. So what is the meaning of the word me’ila? Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch elaborates on its meaning in his commentary on Chumash, as follows:

The Hebrew word beged means a regular person’s garment. The word begida, from the same root letters as beged, means “to be faithless.” Similarly, the Hebrew word me’il is the cloak of the Kohen Gadol, and the related word me’ila denotes being faithless in matters of holiness and kedusha. Therefore, just as beged is the garment of an ordinary person and begida is a breach of trust in ordinary matters, me’il is the robe worn by the Kohen Gadol andme’ila refers to a serious breach of trust in sacred and priestly matters.

Another way to phrase this is that a person who is a boged (a faithless traitor) behaves as a “garment,” and a person who is a mo’el behaves as a “robe.” We are taught that the clothing of a person is a sign of his character traits. If someone puts his trust in another as a human being, and that trust is betrayed, the betrayer has shown himself to be merely the “outer garment” of a human being. Outwardly he has the appearance of a human being, but this appearance is merely a façade and a “mask.” Likewise is the case with someone who misused hekdesh and is mo’el. It is expected that a person should have an inner, priestly spirit that inspires him to act with great sanctity. If he fails to do so, he shows that is merely wearing a “priestly mask.”

This meaning of me’ila as being “faithless” or “deceptive” is supported by Chazal’s statement later in our masechta (Me’ilah 18a). There we learn that the word me’ila in the Torah always means “shinui” — change or deviation. The word me’ila elsewhere in the Torah (Bamidbar 5:12 and Divrei Hayamim I 5:25) denotes the unfaithfulness of a woman to her husband and the unfaithfulness of the Jewish People to G-d. One who does an act of me’ila deviates from the behavior that is rightfully expected of him. Therefore, one who improperly treats “Kodshei Hashem” — the hekdesh items included in the verse in Vayikra that teaches about the prohibition of me’ila — is breaching the trust of his inherent inner integrity and sanctity.

  • Me’ila 2a

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