This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Price of Oil*

Charitable institutions often have to deal with the legal and ethical question of whether money that was donated to a specific fund or cause may subsequently be diverted to a different purpose. Several cases of this kind are discussed in the Talmud; and some of the examples that are cited in those discussions involve donations of lamps and candlesticks to synagogues.

In some of the incidents, the donors were pagans, and the sages pondered whether a gentile was likely to object more vociferously than a Jew if the synagogue's administrators were to decide to redirect his gifts. An Arab named Sha'azrak is mentioned as the contributor of a lamp to the synagogue headed by Rav Judah in Babylonia.

When you think about it, it is perfectly understandable that lamps should figure among the most popular forms of contributions to synagogues. Until the advent of the electric light bulb, the oil lamp was the only way to illuminate the interior of a building, and somebody had to foot the bill for this essential service to the community. Presumably, considerations of this sort motivated the Jewish queen Helene of Adiabene to bequesth a chandelier to the Jerusalem Temple. In a similar spirit, the sages of the Talmud and midrash credited Deborah (or, according to an alternative tradition: her husband) with fashioning wicks for the sanctuary at Shiloh. This detail was suggested to them by the Bible's statement that she was the woman (or: wife) of Lapidoth: torches.

Donors of lamps and oil are mentioned in several formulas of the blessings (mi shebbeirakh) for community benefactors that are recited in the synagogue.

The documents of the Cairo Genizah preserve extensive details related to the illumination of medieval Egyptian synagogues, including monthly accounts of expenses for olive and linseed oil; and references to numerous types of lamps, chandeliers and implements in assorted shapes and materials. An account by Solomon ben Elijah records On the eve of the New Year I took a loan of seven dirhems from the money of the wife of Farah, given in trust to me by the Nagid, for the purchase of 10 pounds of olive oil for the synagogue of the Palestinians.

A responsum by Rabbi Nissim of Gerona concerned itself with the distribution of a donation among the charitable funds that existed in Perpignan: for Torah study, for the sick, for the poor, for burial, and for illumination. This reflected the typical situation in medieval Spanish communities, where a volunteer Ma'or (illumination) society took upon itself the responsibility for supplying oil and any other items necessary for providing light to the synagogue and study hall. The reason why this function was delegated to a volunteer association may perhaps be inferred from a responsum of Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel, who was called upon to deal with residents of a community who refused to pay their share of the synagogue lighting expenses, arguing that they did not personally benefit from it.

The obligation of supplying oil to the synagogue acquired the status of a full-fledged religious obligation. This emerges dramatically from the records of the Spanish Inquisition. Jews who had accepted Christianity under duress during the persecutions of 1391 were afterwards subject to investigation by the Inquisition for lapsing back into their old religion and reverting to the dead law of Moses. As long as unconverted Jewish communities continued to exist in Spain--that is to say, before the Edict of Expulsion of 1492--these Conversos could maintain contacts with the local Jewish communities. Alongside the accusations of observing Jewish holidays, dietary laws and the like, dozens of Inquisitional cases make references to the crime of giving oil for the synagogues. Because the Jewish communities at this time were often reduced to poverty, they would turn for support to friends and relatives who had accepted Christianity under duress. Collectors of alms on behalf of the synagogues and other Jewish institutions would routinely knock on the doors of Conversos. This situation greatly irked the church authorities. There is evidence that the Conversos of Ciudad Real continued to maintain a virtual Ma'or society that aggressively raised funds for the provision of oil for the synagogues.

The donations normally came in the form of cash or containers of oil; but sometimes people would donate wine so that it could be sold for the purchase of oil. This calls to mind a comment by Maimonides that a person acquires most of his wisdom by nocturnal studying. Profiat Duran cited a wise man who contended that the main reason for his outstanding intellectual achievements was that he spent more on oil than the others wasted on wine.

Some of the contributors among the Spanish Conversos preferred hands-on participation in performing the virtuous deed; they would actually enter the synagogues to clean the lamps, prepare the wicks and pour the oil. Evidently, the Conversos, especially the women, attached special significance to the practice of donating oil. According to an Inquisitional record, Elvira Ruíz of Escalona, testified that her mother had left her strict instructions about the importance of giving oil to the synagogue. In one case, the oil was offered (simultaneous with a contribution to the churches) when a woman's son was stricken by an illness. Similarly, one transcript records that a synagogue fund-raiser approached the Conversa Maria Alvarez of Guadalajara on the day before Yom Kippur to ask her for oil. The special connection to Yom Kippur crops up in other cases as well.

The timing of these episodes is consistent with assertions by several of the defendants that they had donated oil in order to save their souls and that they would be granted forgiveness for their sins.

As the price of oil and other utilities continues to rise and create burdens on our synagogues, it might be time to revive the old Ma'or societies in our own communities to defray those onerous expenses. As history teaches us, dedication to this cause is not only a way or securing a physical energy resource, but it can also be a powerful expression of spiritual illumination.Charitable institutions often have to deal with the legal and ethical question of whether money that was donated to a specific fund or cause may subsequently be diverted to a different purpose. Several cases of this kind are discussed in the Talmud; and some of the examples that are cited in those discussions involve donations of lamps and candlesticks to synagogues.

In some of the incidents, the donors were pagans, and the sages pondered whether a gentile was likely to object more vociferously than a Jew if the synagogue's administrators were to decide to redirect his gifts. An Arab named Sha'azrak is mentioned as the contributor of a lamp to the synagogue headed by Rav Judah in Babylonia.

When you think about it, it is perfectly understandable that lamps should figure among the most popular forms of contributions to synagogues. Until the advent of the electric light bulb, the oil lamp was the only way to illuminate the interior of a building, and somebody had to foot the bill for this essential service to the community. Presumably, considerations of this sort motivated the Jewish queen Helene of Adiabene to bequesth a chandelier to the Jerusalem Temple. In a similar spirit, the sages of the Talmud and midrash credited Deborah (or, according to an alternative tradition: her husband) with fashioning wicks for the sanctuary at Shiloh. This detail was suggested to them by the Bible's statement that she was the woman (or: wife) of Lapidoth: torches.

Donors of lamps and oil are mentioned in several formulas of the blessings (mi shebbeirakh) for community benefactors that are recited in the synagogue.

The documents of the Cairo Genizah preserve extensive details related to the illumination of medieval Egyptian synagogues, including monthly accounts of expenses for olive and linseed oil; and references to numerous types of lamps, chandeliers and implements in assorted shapes and materials. An account by Solomon ben Elijah records On the eve of the New Year I took a loan of seven dirhems from the money of the wife of Farah, given in trust to me by the Nagid, for the purchase of 10 pounds of olive oil for the synagogue of the Palestinians.

A responsum by Rabbi Nissim of Gerona concerned itself with the distribution of a donation among the charitable funds that existed in Perpignan: for Torah study, for the sick, for the poor, for burial, and for illumination. This reflected the typical situation in medieval Spanish communities, where a volunteer Ma'or (illumination) society took upon itself the responsibility for supplying oil and any other items necessary for providing light to the synagogue and study hall. The reason why this function was delegated to a volunteer association may perhaps be inferred from a responsum of Rabbi Asher ben Jehiel, who was called upon to deal with residents of a community who refused to pay their share of the synagogue lighting expenses, arguing that they did not personally benefit from it.

The obligation of supplying oil to the synagogue acquired the status of a full-fledged religious obligation. This emerges dramatically from the records of the Spanish Inquisition. Jews who had accepted Christianity under duress during the persecutions of 1391 were afterwards subject to investigation by the Inquisition for lapsing back into their old religion and reverting to the dead law of Moses. As long as unconverted Jewish communities continued to exist in Spain--that is to say, before the Edict of Expulsion of 1492--these Conversos could maintain contacts with the local Jewish communities. Alongside the accusations of observing Jewish holidays, dietary laws and the like, dozens of Inquisitional cases make references to the crime of giving oil for the synagogues. Because the Jewish communities at this time were often reduced to poverty, they would turn for support to friends and relatives who had accepted Christianity under duress. Collectors of alms on behalf of the synagogues and other Jewish institutions would routinely knock on the doors of Conversos. This situation greatly irked the church authorities. There is evidence that the Conversos of Ciudad Real continued to maintain a virtual Ma'or society that aggressively raised funds for the provision of oil for the synagogues.

The donations normally came in the form of cash or containers of oil; but sometimes people would donate wine so that it could be sold for the purchase of oil. This calls to mind a comment by Maimonides that a person acquires most of his wisdom by nocturnal studying. Profiat Duran cited a wise man who contended that the main reason for his outstanding intellectual achievements was that he spent more on oil than the others wasted on wine.

Some of the contributors among the Spanish Conversos preferred hands-on participation in performing the virtuous deed; they would actually enter the synagogues to clean the lamps, prepare the wicks and pour the oil. Evidently, the Conversos, especially the women, attached special significance to the practice of donating oil. According to an Inquisitional record, Elvira Ruíz of Escalona, testified that her mother had left her strict instructions about the importance of giving oil to the synagogue. In one case, the oil was offered (simultaneous with a contribution to the churches) when a woman's son was stricken by an illness. Similarly, one transcript records that a synagogue fund-raiser approached the Conversa Maria Alvarez of Guadalajara on the day before Yom Kippur to ask her for oil. The special connection to Yom Kippur crops up in other cases as well.

The timing of these episodes is consistent with assertions by several of the defendants that they had donated oil in order to save their souls and that they would be granted forgiveness for their sins.

As the price of oil and other utilities continues to rise and create burdens on our synagogues, it might be time to revive the old Ma'or societies in our own communities to defray those onerous expenses. As history teaches us, dedication to this cause is not only a way or securing a physical energy resource, but it can also be a powerful expression of spiritual illumination.


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A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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