Question:

Recently, I learned that we do not handle money or buy and sell on Shabbat. How does this square with the practice of making appeals and bidding for the honors, which I remember from the High Holiday services of my childhood?

Answer:

Yes, there is a time-honored custom of bidding for the merit of opening and closing the ark and carrying and reciting the blessings over the Torah. While some communities do this regularly, in some places it is done only on holidays or just the High Holidays.

It does indeed seem incongruous with the Shabbat and holiday laws and spirit. It is not very spiritual to discuss money on Shabbat, and this practice seems to involve actual purchasing—a forbidden act. Why then is this so prevalent in so many communities?

Rabbi Moses Isserles (1520-1572) notes that reciting the mi sheberach prayer for the person who was honored with an aliyah—including announcing the amount the honoree is donating to chairty—is permitted because he is donating the money to charity, and pledging (but not actually giving) money to charitable causes is allowed on Shabbat.1 Even though financial matters are the antithesis of the Shabbat spirit, community and charity are so significant that their financial matters are holy and Shabbat-like.

Rabbi Solomon Luria (1510-1574) points out that bidding would still be problematic since one is actually purchasing an honor.2 He excuses this behavior on the grounds that no actual item is being purchased—rather one is paying for permission to perform a mitzvah. He therefore forbids the sale of seats in the synagogue and etrogim at Shabbat and holiday services, which are real transactions.3

Please let me know if this helps.

Yours truly,

Rabbi Menachem Posner