All we really know is her name: Yirmatia. We don’t know when or where she lived, other than sometime before the second century, and somewhere in the ancient Middle East. Most importantly, we don’t know what motivated her anonymous mother to dedicate Yirmatia’s weight in gold to the Temple in Jerusalem.
It must have been an impressive donation: if Yirmatia were an adult at the time, the gift would equal some two million dollars today, with gold running at about $1,200 an ounce. Even if Yirmatia were a newborn, we’re still looking at something in the neighborhood of $100,000. That’s a serious pledge.
I came across the story of Yirmatya and her generous mother as part of my research into an infrequently studied tractate of the Talmud called “Arachin” (traditionally pronounced “Erchin”), roughly translated as “valuations.” Even rabbinical students rarely dip into this obscure tractate, which focuses on the unusual practice of estimating one’s personal value for the purpose of making a donation to charity.
Starting Tuesday, June 18, however, such embodied donations will be the subject of world-wide attention as the seven-year cycle of international Talmud study begins tractate Arachin. Students are preparing for the conclusion of the Daf Yomi program, which has exploded in popularity since its launch in 1923. Hundreds of study circles around the world join with thousands of individual Talmud enthusiasts online to complete the entire Babylonian Talmud, one Aramaic page at a time (“Daf” is Hebrew for “folio,” meaning two sides of a page, and “Yomi” means “daily”). When the last Daf Yomi cycle concluded in 2012, 90,000 men and women gathered in Met Life Stadium to mark the occasion, requiring stadium officials to add 7,000 seats beyond its normal capacity. The 2020 celebration, known as the The Siyum, promises to be still larger.
So Talmudists will soon be exploring the possibilities raised by Yirmatia’s story. At some level we can imagine what might have motivated her mother. Sacrifice as an element of repentance is as old as the Judeo-Christian tradition—perhaps Yirmatia (or her mother) committed some terrible sin, and the donation was a poetic attempt at atonement? Alternatively, maybe the gift was an expression of gratitude—perhaps Yirmatya’s mother had longed for a child, and when Yirmatya was finally born, she demonstrated her thankfulness by matching her daughter’s weight in a golden gift to the Temple? The Talmud is silent on this point.
Yet these are not the concerns of the Talmud. Exhausting in their pursuit of the application of the law, the Sages debated exactly how to calculate the exact amount of the donation.
There are two basic methods: one may donate the “value” of a person (either one’s self, or like Yirmatia’s mother, the value of another person), or their “equivalent.” The former is based on a fixed table of shekels, defined explicitly at the end of the Biblical book of Leviticus. The criteria are age and sex, with males generally worth more than females but losing their relative value as they get older: as the Talmud puts it, “an old man in the home is a burden, an old woman in the home is an treasure.”
The “equivalent” of a person, by contrast, is much more difficult to calculate: it is based on the estimated future productivity, something like what actuaries call “Quality Adjusted Life Years:” on a crudely fiscal level, one’s worth may be assessed in terms of future economic productivity. And as the Sages are quick to point out, unlike “valuation,” it can be calculated based on a part of a person rather than the whole. One may donate the “worth of my arm” to the Temple, or my cornea, my liver, my heart, and so on. The Talmud discusses them all.
The connection between the organ and the donation is appealingly apropos. If I wished to atone for wronging someone with a hurtful word, for example, I could consult the Talmud to determine the “worth” of my tongue, and painlessly donate amount that to charity to help expiate my transgression. The possibilities are endless!
I’m going to hold off making this pledge, though, until at least the fall, when the High Holy Days roll around. I might be able to slim down a bit by then.
Henry Abramson, PhD, is a dean of Touro College and is the author of the Jewish History in Daf Yomi podcast, part of the Orthodox Union Daf Yomi Initiative. Follow Jewish History in Daf Yomi and other Daf Yomi series on OU Torah or by using the OU Torah app for iOS and Android.