The defining feature of me’ilah 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 berakhah – a blessing – that effectively is a request for permission to make use of God’s possessions. The Gemara in Massekhet Berakhot (daf, or page, 35a) teaches that anyone who derives benefit from this world without the appropriate blessing, it is as though he committed me’ilah.
Massekhet Me’ilah is the final tractate of the Babylonian Talmud in Seder Kodashim (the Order of Sacrifices). It is included here for two reasons:
1. The laws of me’ilah forbid deriving benefit from sanctified objects
2. An individual who contravenes this prohibition is obligated to bring a korban asham (a guilt-offering).
Two simple verses contain all of the Biblical laws of me’ilah. Sefer Vayikra (5:15-16) teaches “If any one commit a trespass, and sin through error, in the holy things of the LORD, then he shall bring his forfeit unto the LORD, a ram without blemish out of the flock, according to thy valuation in silver by shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary, for a guilt-offering. And he shall make restitution for that which he hath done amiss in the holy thing, and shall add the fifth part thereto, and give it unto 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’ilah – of benefitting from consecrated property in a forbidden manner – removes the object from the possession of the Temple and changes it to become mundane. Furthermore, there is an element of betrayal in doing so.
The laws of me’ilah apply only when the trespass is done accidentally. 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’ilah as kodashei ha-Shem – the holy things of the LORD – all sanctified objects are included: those things brought on the altar (e.g. sacrificial animals, meal-offerings), as well as 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’ilah. Similarly, the laws of me’ilah do not apply to the ashes of sacrifices that are entirely burned up (e.g. a korban olah) since their mitzvah 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’ilah – a sacrifice must be brought (a guilt-offering valued at two shekel) and monetary restitution must be paid. The monetary restitution includes 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% penalty imposed by the Torah.
In certain cases where the Torah does not impose the laws of me’ilah, 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’ilah 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.