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Vayikra 27 covers when a man vows the "valuation" (עֶרְכְּךָ) of a person. The values are based on age and are different for men and women (50 shekels for a man between 20 and 60, for example). A note in the Stone Chumash contrasts this "fee schedule" with vowing the value of an individual as a slave, where the amount would depend on strength, skills, and other factors. Rashi on 27:3 explains the valuation thus:

the [fixed] value… shall be: The value stated here is not an expression of monetary value [the usual market value of a person sold as a slave], but, whether he has a high market value or a low one, the value fixed for him in this passage is according to his age.

(I can't remember, and Google didn't help me find, where the torah discusses vowing the market valuation.)

All this got me wondering: when did people do this? Were there particular circumstances under which it was customary to vow the value of a person at all? (I saw a reference somewhere to times of danger but don't remember where or if it was a reliable source.) And within that, what governed whether you vowed the slave-valuation or the fixed valuation in Vayikra 27? Did they accomplish different spiritual or practical ends?

I'm trying to understand all this in the context of what people did when it was possible to make dedications to the Temple, and I feel like I'm missing some key factors. And I'm not even sure what sources to consult. A comment on Rashi on the previous verse led me to Arachin 20 (which talks about implementation, e.g. when the one who vowed dies), so maybe that tractate contains the answer, but it's a lot to just start reading through. (I didn't see it on the couple dafim near 20.)

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    Arachin does deal extensively with various gifts to the Temple. I think people just did it when they were inspired to. Consider the stories in Arachin 5:1. I could imagine that happening if someone's hand was saved from amputation or they had a long awaited child. – Double AA May 14 '15 at 2:21
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    Note that arachin is the plural of erech (erk'cha in the pasuk), "valuation". – msh210 May 14 '15 at 2:22
  • @msh210 oh! Ok, that makes sense; thank you. (I still rely on an English translation of Bavli and had not made the connection with the change in vowels. I should be used to those kinds of vowel changes by now...) – Monica Cellio May 14 '15 at 2:24
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    Tanchuma (B'chukosai 8): "The Holy One Blessed be He said to Israel: 'If you bring your valuation offerings before Me, I will consider it as if you brought your own souls before me.'" The Tanchuma there also contrasts arachin with the detestable human sacrifices of pagans. – Fred May 14 '15 at 2:43
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Were there particular circumstances under which it was customary to vow the value of a person at all?

Not being acquainted with the popular customs of the Temple period, I couldn't say. I defer to others on answering this point.

[...] what governed whether you vowed the slave-valuation or the fixed valuation in Vayikra 27?

The determinant of whether you paid a fixed value erech or a neder nedavah of a slave valuation is solely the language used in the vow itself - if you vow someone's value, that's a nedava, while if you vow their erech, that's a fixed amount.

The Arachin makes some clear distinctions between these two options. For example, in the first perek (translation mine):

א,ב הנוכרי--רבי מאיר אומר, נערך, אבל לא מעריך; רבי יהודה אומר, מעריך, אבל לא נערך. וזה וזה מודים, שהן נודרין ונידרין.

The non-Jew -- Rabbi Meir says "They may be the subject of an erech-vow but may not take an erech-vow. Rabbi Yehudah says "They may take an erech-vow but not be the subject of an erech-vow. Both of these (Rabbis) agree that they may make a [donation] vow (of 'slave value') and be "vowed."

The question is whether the possukim in the Torah discussing the erech valuations is restricted to Jews (in that only Jews have a set erech) or whether the act of taking an erech-vow is restricted to Jews (but the erech evaluations discussed apply to all individuals). The former application holds that non-Jews may make the erech-vow to establish a monetary obligation (possibly an inclusion from ish), but it can only be made upon the value of a specified Jewish individual. The latter holds that only Israel, the audience in Vayikra 27, is capable to making the erech-vow but that language of the possukim allows for vowing of any human subject (possibly an inclusion from b'erkecha n'fashos).

Both opinions hold that any individual may establish a monetary obligation on themselves (or be the object of such an obligation) to the Temple by taking a neder - the possukim in Devarim (23:22-24) do not have any language that restricts the neder process to Jews (both as donators or as objects of the vow).

Another important distinction is made in the fifth perek (again, translation mine):

ה,ב דמי ידי עליי--שמין אותו, כמה הוא שווה ביד, וכמה הוא שווה בלא יד. זה חומר בנדרים מבערכים. חומר בערכים מבנדרים כיצד: האומר ערכי עליי, ומת--ייתנו הירושים; דמי עליי, ומת--לא ייתנו הירושים, שאין דמים למתים. ערך ידי וערך רגלי עליי, לא אמר כלום; ערך ראשי וערך כבדי עליי, נותן ערך כולו. זה הכלל--דבר שהנשמה תלויה בו, נותן ערך כולו.

[One who says] "The value of my hand is upon me [to donate]" -- we evaluate him, how much is he worth with a hand, and how much is he worth without a hand. This is the stringency of vows over arachim . How are arachim more stringent than vows? One who says "My erech is upon me" and dies -- their inheritors must give it. "My value is upon me" and dies -- the inheritors do not give it, since there is no value to the dead. [One who says] "The erech of my hand or foot is upon me" has said nothing. "The erech of my head or liver is upon me" donates their entire erech . This is the rule -- anything that the life is dependent upon, you give the entire erech.

The distinction made between a nedavah and an erech-vow is similar to that made between a nedavah and a neder vis a vis korbanos - the erech/neder is placed upon the oath-taker and therefore there is a lien on their property (the obligation isn't discharged by death). A nedavah is always on an object and the death/destruction of that object eliminates the nedavah (since, for example, the person or animal is now worthless).

Did they accomplish different spiritual or practical ends?

Hypothetically, based upon the end of 5:2 one can posit that the erech verses specify a valuation of the soul while the neder nedavah constitutes a de facto valuation of the body. Regardless, both erech and neder nedavah simply comprise financial "obligations" (and the method of discharging those obligations) voluntarily accepted by individuals to donate to the Bais Hamikdash. Any further distinction could be made in the minds of the donator.

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    This is helpful information, thanks, but my question remains: why would people make offerings in this way? If they want to give 50 shekels or a ram or whatever to the beit hamikdash, why not just do that? That's certainly what we do today when supporting our community institutions. (Now I wonder what would happen if I made my annual synagogue pledge as an erech or nedavah. :-) ) – Monica Cellio Jun 5 '17 at 16:37
  • @MonicaCellio See my final point - there is in fact a distinction between the two made clear in halacha and the possukim - the erech is an evaluation of the soul while the neder is of the body. So a person seeking a "redemption for the soul" might make an erech while one undergoing a "redemption for the body" might make a neder. But I've seen no Jewish sources thus far that discuss this, which is why I chose to answer the later two questions of "what governs this distinction?" (phrasing) and "did they accomplish different things?" (ostensibly no). – Isaac Kotlicky Jun 5 '17 at 17:33
  • Good point; you did address those two questions. Thanks. – Monica Cellio Jun 5 '17 at 19:44
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You asked:

All this got me wondering: when did people do this? Were there particular circumstances under which it was customary to vow the value of a person at all?

All I found so far was the Ibn Ezra on Yavikra 27:1 who says the reason [for the Erech value] that a person vows saying "if Hashem will do such & such for me, I will redeem my soul for my value, or my son's value or my animal's value"

בערכך נפשות. הטעם שידור נדר לאמר אם השם יעשה לי כך אפדה נפשי כדי ערכי או ערך בני או ערך בהמה

He doesn't mention that the person vowing is in danger, per se, but that could be one scenario.

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