Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Penny Lane

While the well-known adage requests, “A penny for your thoughts,” perhaps those coins should be sought, instead, in between the cushions of sofas and car seats, in washing machines, and in decorative fountains in shopping malls.

“Lost Penny Day” coincides with the February 12th birthday of President Abraham Lincoln, whose image has adorned the U.S. penny since its institution in the U.S. currency on February 12, 1909, the centennial of the birth of “Honest Abe.” “Eventologist” Adrienne Sioux Koopersmith founded “Lost Penny Day” to demonstrate that petty change can make a big difference, especially when donated to a worthy charity. Other “coin” activities include flipping a coin to make a decision, giving someone “a penny for their thoughts” and throwing pennies into a fountain as a wish is made.

So, for “two cents,” here are two pertinent Torah thoughts that are relevant to pennies.

Jewish marriage is facilitated when the groom gives the bride an object worth a “perutah” with an implied matrimonial intent. One is obliged Biblically to return a lost object that is worth a perutah. One ought to provide a minimum of a perutah to a legitimately impoverished individual when they ask for alms. There are other rituals, which use the value of a perutah as a legal criterion. So how much is a perutah actually worth? Halacha deemed a perutah to be the smallest denomination in one’s currency (see Talmud Bava Metzia 55a and Kiddushin 12a). In the United States and Canada, that would be a penny. (Please note that while a Jewish wedding can be considered valid with the transfer of an object worth only a single penny from the groom to the bride, long-standing Jewish tradition has the groom give the bride a simple ring to legally effect a Jewish marriage).

Second, relating to the insignificance of pennies that “Lost Penny Day” attempts to rectify, an observation in Rashi’s commentary of the Bible is particularly pertinent. When Jacob returned from the house of Laban with his large family, he is told that his estranged brother Esau was approaching with a large army. The Torah then relates: “Jacob was left alone and a man wrestled with him until the break of dawn” (Genesis 32:25). Why was Jacob “left alone?” Citing a Talmudic passage (Chulin 91a), Rashi relates that Jacob returned to cross the Yabok river in order to retrieve small jugs that he had left on the other side. Rashi concludes that the lesson taught by this action is that the righteous are judicious regarding even the most insignificant items of their personal belongings, even disposable jugs. This too pertains to the limited value of pennies.

NOTE: As with all Treats dealing with issues of halacha (points of Jewish law), one should consult one's local rabbi for practical application.

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