The Character of Money: From Khmelnytsky to Zelenskyy

One of the central commandments of Purim is to give matanot l’evyonim– presents to the poor. We are obligated to give gifts to two needy individuals. There in the Megilah we read:

Mordecai recorded these events. And he sent dispatches to all the Jews throughout the provinces of King Ahasuerus, near and far, charging them to observe the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar, every year—the same days on which the Jews enjoyed relief from their foes and the same month which nahafoch- had been transformed/overturned for them from one of grief and mourning to one of festive joy. They were to observe them as days of feasting and merrymaking, and as an occasion for sending gifts to one another and matanot l’evyonim-presents to the poor. The Jews accordingly assumed as an obligation that which they had begun to practice and which Mordecai prescribed for them.

Esther 9:20-23

It has become customary for rabbis and other community leaders to collect funds on behalf of needy individuals. Monies can be given to these collections before Purim, provided the funds are distributed on Purim. There is a difference of opinion as to the exact minimum amount one can give to satisfy their obligation, a few pennies or a few dollars. The Rambam (Megillah 2:17) writes that it is better to increase the amount one gives to matanot l’evyonim even more so than for the Purim seudah or mishloach manot. Additionally, there is a custom that on Purim anyone who puts out their hand for assistance should not be turned away empty handed. We always have a commandment to give tzedakah, is this different? Why is matanot l’evyonim so central to Purim?

The obvious answer is that it counters Haman’s central claim against the Jews. There we read:

Haman then said to King Ahashverosh, “There is a certain people, scattered and dispersed among the other peoples in all the provinces of your realm, whose laws are different from those of any other people and who do not obey the king’s laws; and it is not in Your Majesty’s interest to tolerate them.”

Esther 3:8

Haman portrays the Jews as set apart and even a pariah on Persian culture. One way to counteract that is to demonstrate our interest in the larger society. Giving gifts to anyone, Jew and non-Jew alike, shows that we are not “different” than the rest of the King’s people. But is there a deeper understanding of matanot l’evyonim ?

It is interesting that this obligation is so connected to a notion of currency. I really had not given money much thought until reading Sapiens by historian Yuval Harari. The first money was Sumerian barley money. He writes:

Even though barley has intrinsic value, it was not easy to convince people to use it as money rather than as just another commodity. In order to understand why, just think what would happen if you took a sack full of barley to your local mall, and tried to buy a shirt or a pizza. The vendors would probably call security. Still, it was somewhat easier to build trust in barley as the first type of money, because barley has an inherent biological value. Humans can eat it. On the other hand, it was difficult to store and transport barley. The real breakthrough in monetary history occurred when people gained trust in money that lacked inherent value, but was easier to store and transport. Such money appeared in ancient Mesopotamia in the middle of the third millennium BC. This was the silver shekel.

Unlike the barley sila, the silver shekel had no inherent value. You cannot eat, drink, or clothe yourself in silver, and it’s too soft for making useful tools. Their value is purely cultural. Today, most money is just electronic data. The sum total of money in the world is about $60 trillion, yet the sum total of coins and banknotes is less than $6 trillion. More than 90 percent of all money—more than $50 trillion appearing in our accounts—exists only on computer servers. Most business transactions are executed by moving electronic data from one computer file to another, without any exchange of physical cash.

Harari goes on:

For thousands of years, philosophers, thinkers, and prophets have besmirched money and called it the root of all evil. Be that as it may, money is also the apogee of human tolerance. Money is more open-minded than language, state laws, cultural codes, religious beliefs, and social habits. Money is the only trust system created by humans that can bridge almost any cultural gap, and that does not discriminate on the basis of religion, gender, race, age, or sexual orientation. Thanks to money, even people who don’t know each other and don’t trust each other can nevertheless cooperate effectively.

In this sense money is a universal trust. This strengthens the notion giving matanot l’evyonim strengthens the larger society.

I got to thinking about this recently with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. At first it is relevant in as much that Russia will soon default on their loans which has interesting implications for their currency. Secondly it also reminded me of my travel in Ukraine when I was bringing supplies from the youth center I was running in Minsk down to a camp we were running in the Crimea. I had the good fortune to combine that with a family heritage tour seeing the towns where my grandfather Abram Orlow was born. In this context one of the memories that stuck out to me was seeing Ukrainian currency. The 5 gryvnya features the visage of Bohdan Khmelnytsky.

Who was Bohdan Khmelnytsky? He was the 17th century Ukrainian military commander and Hetman of the Zaporozhian Host, which was then under the suzerainty of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. He led an uprising against the Commonwealth and its magnates (1648–1654) that resulted in the creation of an independent Ukrainian Cossack state. In 1654, he concluded the Treaty of Pereyaslav with the Russian Tsar and allied the Cossack Hetmanate with Tsardom of Russia, thus placing central Ukraine under Russian control.

The assessment of Khmelnytsky in Jewish history is overwhelmingly negative because he blamed Jews in assisting Polish szlachta, as the former were often employed by them as tax collectors. Bohdan sought to eradicate Jews from Ukraine. Thus, according to the treaty of Zboriv all Jewish people were forbidden to live on the territory controlled by Cossack rebels. The Khmelnytsky Uprising led to the deaths of an estimated 18,000–100,000 out of 40,000 – 50,000 Jews living in the territory. Atrocity stories about massacre victims who had been buried alive, cut to pieces or forced to kill one another spread throughout Europe and beyond. Orest Subtelny writes:

Between 1648 and 1656, tens of thousands of Jews—given the lack of reliable data, it is impossible to establish more accurate figures—were killed by the rebels, and to this day the Khmelnytsky uprising is considered by Jews to be one of the most traumatic events in their history.

Seeing Khmelnytsky on the 5 gryvnya today is tantamount to seeing Hitler on the Deutschmark.

One could only imagine the Achashverosh was on his own money. In deeper way the giving of matanot l’evyonim was a way for Jews to demonstrate our participation in the national trust of Persian currency.

I paused when I saw this image of Volodymyr Zelenskyy:

I hope he and his country survive this assault. Seeing his bravery and how he continues to lead his country with honor is hopeful. In this time of nahafochu– upheaval that which is topsy-turvy seems plausible, if not likely. In the spirit of the national and universal trust of currency, in the name of the commandment of matanot l’evyonim, and in honor of his Jewish lineage I want to make a prediction. You might dismiss it as Purim Torah, but I can imagine a time when we switch from Khmelnytsky to Zelenskyy on the 5 gryvnya.

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