Is It a Sin to Elicit Donations Through Social Coercion?

March 26 2019

The Torah readings of both last week (Leviticus 6-8) and this (Leviticus 9-11) describe in detail the eight-day inauguration ceremony for the Tabernacle, performed by Moses at the foot of Mount Sinai. Among the special sacrifices brought during this ceremony is a “sin offering.” Puzzled as to what sin it could atone for, Sifra—a rabbinic commentary on Leviticus probably produced around the 4th century CE—suggests that it is the sin of taking money during the massive fund-raising drive for the Tabernacle that yielded gifts given in response to social coercion rather than voluntarily. Shlomo Zuckier comments:

Sifra assumes that a donation made under pressure may be regarded as ill-gotten gains requiring atonement. [Thus] Sifra argues that, when people act to avoid censure, rather out of an understanding of the value of their actions, something is fundamentally amiss. . . . Coercion, of the softer or harder varieties, is sometimes necessary. But it always has a cost, and there is a point at which forcing someone else to fulfill the commandments becomes an act of theft.

That Sifra offers this teaching specifically regarding the Tabernacle [is] crucial to appreciating its message. . . . People often assume that, the more important the cause, the less important the means; arriving at the proper outcome is paramount, and the process must take a backseat. Sifra argues precisely the opposite. . . . Extracting charitable donations through social pressure might not be ideal, but no sin-offering is required to atone for doing so. The Tabernacle has loftier standards.

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More about: Charity, Jewish ethics, Leviticus, Midrash, Religion & Holidays, Tabernacle

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