Bechorot 29: May I Have a Raise

By: Rabbi Jay Kelman |

How much should we pay teachers? As we discussed in our last post, the Gemara has a clear and simple answer: Nothing. “Just as I [Moshe] taught for no payment, so, too, you [must teach] for no payment” (Bechorot 29a)[1]

But the clear answer is no longer simple, and no longer is it an answer at all. Our Talmudic sages understood that Moshe’s teaching for free is not a viable model, and has limited application. With food falling from heaven, clothes that did not wear out and clouds of glory protecting them from the elements, neither Moshe nor the people of Israel needed much money. And even if they did, they had plenty of gold and silver given to them by their former taskmasters. Add to the equation Moshe’s nonexistent need for food—“He was there with the Lord for forty days and forty nights; he ate no bread and drank no water” (Shemot 34:28)—and it is easy to understand that Moshe could teach Torah for free. But how can that be expected of us? 

Aware of the vastly different conditions of their time, the Gemara (Ketubot 105a) notes that the gozrei gezeirot, the lawmakers of Jerusalem, would take payment of 99 maneh from the terumat halishka. This terumah, funded by the machazit hashekel, half-shekel annual tax, was used for the upkeep of the Temple and other public needs. And if 99 maneh was not enough to support their families, the court would order their pay to be increased, even if they did not request, or even want, the increased payment. 

As the Tosafists (Ketubot 29a, s.v. mah) explain, these lawmakers devoted 100% of their time and effort to the community and “did not engage in any [other] work, and are forced to be sustained”. We are forbidden to take money for public service, but the pay for these lawmakers was no salary. Rather, it was support and maintenance for those whose who toil on behalf of the community. 

Support and maintenance can vary widely. Those who are single will need much less than a married mother (or father) with seven children. And those who are independently wealthy would, according to this theory, not be entitled to any payment[2], despite the many, many hours they work. The Tosafists extend the dispensation given to the lawmakers of Jerusalem to teachers of Torah who have no other means of support. Without such an exemption it would be next to impossible to find qualified, or even unqualified, teachers. 

Tosafot offer a second thesis to allow payment to teachers and others in public service, namely that of shechar batala, or what economists call “opportunity cost”. In this model, one is not being paid for what one does, i.e., devoting one's efforts to public service, but for what one is not doing, i.e., working at another job. What this allows, Tosafot note, is payment even if one has other means of support. We are paying this person so that they do not work elsewhere, and their financial situation is irrelevant. 

However, not all shechar batala is created equal. The Gemara (Ketubot 105a) distinguishes between batala demuchah and batala delo muchacah, not working that is evident, and not working that is not evident. It is this distinction that the Gemara uses to justify how Karna could take money when he served as a judge. Karna was a wine-tester and was in great demand. When he took a day off, it was obvious to all that he was giving up a day’s pay and hence, was entitled to payment—not for sitting on a beit din, but for not testing wine that day. But had Karna worked only sporadically, it would not have been clear to all that he had agreed to serve as an adjudicator instead of working. People might, incorrectly, assume that he had no work and that is why he was acting as a judge, but that if he had work to do, he would not have acted as a judge.

What we have here is a problem of perception—but perception has a great impact on reality. Thus, in such an instance, “the judgments are valid” but it is “mechuar”, ugly, to take payment in such a case. 

If that perception were to indeed be true, then any judgments rendered would be invalid, and any pay taken a violation of the law. Such might be the case when one has a full-time job and does some teaching on the side, when one would not be working in any case. With Torah teaching taking up leisure time, it is hard to argue that such would qualify for shechar batala.

Basing themselves on this Gemara, the Tosafists note that shechar batala is most effective when people devote themselves full time to public service. In such a scenario, with the batala is evident to all, it is “even better” than the shechar batala employed by Karna. 

It hardly needs stating that in order to receive shechar batala, one has to have the theoretical possibility of being employed elsewhere. If one wants to base one’s salary on the fact that one could have become a lawyer or doctor, then it stands to reason that one would need to have been accepted to law or medical school[3].

No discussion of proper salaries for teachers would be complete without a reference to a responsa of Rav Moshe Feinstein (Yoreh Deah 2, #116) penned in 1964. Rav Moshe notes the “hard-line” position of the Rambam who, using the strongest of terms, forbids taking money for studying Torah—arguing that one who does so desecrates the name of G-d and loses his share in the World to Come (Hilchot Talmud Torah 3:10). However, Rav Moshe argues that this view is not the accepted halachic view. Moreover, even if it is, it no longer matters, as “there is a time to act for G-d [even if such means] nullifying the Torah”. This is the same verse that the Sages used to justify the writing of the Oral Law. At times, the only way to ensure the Torah’s relevance is to ignore some of its laws. 

Lest one think that it is an act of piety to refuse payment, Rav Moshe argues, such pious talk is none other than the “advice of the yetzer hara” hoping to dissuade one from teaching. 

Mix in money to any activity, and the result can be explosive. Balancing the need to pay our public servants a proper wage (one that might rise with each child) with the need to keep Torah above the rough-and-tumble of the marketplace is no easy task. But it is a task the success of which will determine the quality of so much of our public service.   

[1] See here for a slightly more nuanced discussion of this topic based on the Gemara in Masechet Nedarim. 

[2] It is gratifying to see that there are those who work in the public square—generally after a most successful business career—taking a salary of $1 a year. Michael Bloomberg, former Mayor of New York City, comes to mind. After reading his beautiful words explaining why he signed The Giving Pledge, it is easy to understand why he donated his mayoral salary—save for one dollar. 

[3] Such a restriction would not apply if we are basing salary on the first theory above, where people who devote their energies to public service and have no other source of income would be supported according to their needs.