Massekhet Me’ila is the final tractate of the Babylonian Talmud in Seder Kodashim. It is included here for two reasons:
- The laws of me’ila (misuse of consecrated property) forbid deriving benefit from sanctified objects
- An individual who violates this prohibition is obligated to bring a korban asham (a guilt offering).
Two simple verses contain all of the Biblical laws of me’ila. Sefer Vayikra (5:15-16) teaches:
“If anyone commits a trespass and sins through error in the sacred items of the Lord, then he shall bring his forfeit to the Lord, a ram without blemish out of the flock, according to your valuation in silver by shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, for a guilt offering. And he shall make restitution for that which he has sinned in the sacred item, and shall add its fifth part and give it to the priest; and the priest shall make atonement for him with the ram of the guilt offering, and he shall be forgiven.”
The sin of me’ila – of benefiting from consecrated property in a forbidden manner – removes the object from the domain of the sacred (i.e. the Temple treasury) and changes it to become mundane, the non-sacred property of an ordinary person. Furthermore, there is an element of betrayal in doing so.
The laws of me’ila apply only when the trespass is done unwittingly. Someone who purposefully makes use of consecrated property is not included in these laws, and although he will have to pay restitution to the Temple for what he took, he does not benefit from the atonement that it offers. By describing the consecrated property that is included in the laws of me’ila as “kodashei HaShem – the sacred items of the Lord,” all sanctified objects are included:
- those things brought on the altar (e.g. sacrificial animals, meal offerings)
- those things whose value is consecrated for Temple upkeep.
At the same time, only those things that are not permitted for personal use are included. For this reason, sacrifices that remain the property of the owners, or the parts of a sacrificial animal that are given to the priests to eat or for their personal use are not included in the laws of me’ila. Similarly, the laws of me’ila do not apply to the ashes of sacrifices that are entirely burned up (e.g. a korban ola) since their mitzva has been fulfilled.
As is clear from the passage in Sefer Vayikra, there are two elements to the process of atonement for the sin of me’ila – a sacrifice must be brought (a guilt offering valued at two shekel) and monetary restitution must be paid. The monetary restitution includes the principal – the value of the illicit benefit that was derived or the loss of value suffered by use of the object – as well as an additional 20% (one-fifth) penalty imposed by the Torah.
In certain cases where the Torah does not impose the laws of me’ila, the Sages decreed that the laws apply on a Rabbinic level. Their reasoning is that even where the Torah does not require payment and sacrifice, nevertheless it still remains forbidden to derive benefit from consecrated objects. This is true even in cases where the Sages do not ordinarily apply Rabbinic sanctions, e.g. out-of-the-ordinary situations. When the laws of me’ila apply only on a Rabbinic level, no sacrifice is brought and the monetary compensation that is paid is limited to the principal without the additional penalty.
The defining feature of me’ila is clear – it relates to the prohibition against deriving benefit from consecrated objects; Jewish law permits full benefit from unconsecrated objects (see Tehillim 115:16). Nevertheless it should be noted that the Sages teach that a person must be sensitive to the fact that the entire world was created by God and ultimately belongs to Him. For this reason the Sages teach that it is forbidden to derive benefit from this world without first reciting a berakha that effectively is a request for permission to make use of God’s possessions. The Gemara in Massekhet Berakhot (daf 35a) teaches that anyone who derives benefit from this world without the appropriate blessing, it is as though he committed me’ila.