In search of the pushke: Transforming a can into a meaningful vessel for good

Rabbi Michael Siegel

By Rabbi Michael Siegel, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Vayakhel: (Exodus 35:1-38:20)

The official preparation for Passover begins this Shabbat, weeks before Jews will actually sit down at their Seder tables.  It is telling that our tradition marks this auspicious moment not with a listing of the latest Haggadot, or recent rulings on the Kashrut of Passover foods, but rather, an appeal for Tzedakah.

The first of the special Shabbatot leading us to Passover is called Shabbat Shekalim, a reference to the Torah’s command to the Israelites to contribute a half shekel for the building of the Tabernacle. The additional Torah reading for this Shabbat serves as a powerful reminder that in the same way that the community bears responsibility to build a physical place for G-d in the world, so too is it incumbent upon us to create an ethical tabernacle in this world. Just as all Israelites were freed from Egypt, so too should their descendants be able to observe the festival of Passover. This begins when we ensure that everyone has the means to take part in the holiday.   

While we are on the subject of contributing coins for Tzedakah, should we not also be thinking about a Pushke?

Fittingly, the first mention of a Tzedakah box is found in the Torah serves as the Haftarah, or the Prophetic reading, for the day.  The reading, taken from the 2nd Book of Kings, concerned the rule of King Jehoash who ruled Judah in the 9th Century B.C.E.  His reign followed a period of terrible corruption which left the Temple of Solomon in awful disrepair.  King Jehoash called upon his trusted Priest Yehoida for a solution.  The text reads as follows:

And Jehoida took a certain chest and bored a hole in its door and set it by the altar on the right.  When a man came into the house the Lord, the Priests, guardians of the threshold, put into it all the silver that had been brought to the house of the Lord.  (2 Kings 12:10)

It is noteworthy that the first Tzedakah box in Jewish history is called an Aron, the same term that the Torah assigns to the Ark of the Covenant.  In this way, the Torah connects the box that contains the law and the Aron that will help to fulfill the spirit and intent of the law.  With such a beautiful and meaningful idea, we can rightfully ask: why do Ashkenazic Jews use the word Pushke when referring to a Tzedakah box rather than Aron? 

What makes it even more puzzling is that the word Pushke is not a Jewish word at all.  It appears to have its origin in the Polish language.  Leo Rosten, in his book The Joys of Yiddish posits that pushka is derived from the Polish word for “can”: puszka. Now, why would Jews choose a foreign word when they could have continued the use of Aron with all of its holy connotations?  For the answer, we need to turn not to the Polish language but to Aramaic, the language of the Talmud.  According to the Jastrow dictionary, the word pushka refers to the stretching out of the hand to receive Tzedakah.  When the Polish and Aramaic understandings are taken together, the two sources form a whole.  When a person stretches out their hand to give to others in an act of Pushka, the Pushke becomes more than a can. It is transformed into something much more: an Aron.  That transformative power is in our hands.

In our congregation, it is common to use a Pushke at a Simhat Bat, the naming of a daughter.  Before the naming of the child, we think of our own ethical tradition.  We then call upon an older sibling or a young cousin of the child being named to come forward.  They are handed coins to place in the Pushke. The smile on their faces as each coin is deposited brings joy to everyone present.  For me, this small act serves as a reminder that this idea of reaching out our hand can and should start at a very young age.  The notion that each of us has the power to transform a Pushke into an Aron, and in the process impact the lives of others, is remarkably empowering for children.

Do you have Pushke in your home?

Are you transforming it into an Aron by making use of it?

These are worthy questions for Shabbat Shekalim.  Consider responding to the spirit of this special Shabbat and contributing to one of a number of organizations.  In this way, all Jews who wish to have a Seder will have the means.  Hopefully, the inspiration of this special Shabbat will move us to act during the course of the year.  Before Shabbat, or a holiday, place a few coins into the box. When something good happens in your life, share the blessing by placing money into your Pushka.  As the Pushka fills up, give consideration for where you want to donate. If you are part of a family, take the time to discuss where the money should go.

The message of Shabbat Shekalim reminds us that we have the power to transform a can into an Aron, just as we can transform the lives of those around us by simply stretching out our hands to give what we can.  Such is the power of the half shekel when all of us accept our responsibility.  Such is the power of the half shekel to build not only the physical dwelling place for G-d, but the ethical tabernacle as well.

Rabbi Michael Siegel is rabbi of Anshe Emet Synagogue.

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