“Making Each Person Count”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In this week’s parasha, Parashat Kee Tisah, we read of the machatzit ha’shekel, the half shekel that was donated by all adult male Jews, 20 years old and upward. Since it was forbidden to count the people, by counting the donated shekels an accurate number of those who were qualified to serve in the armed forces was obtained.

After the shekels were counted they were used in the construction of the Tabernacle. In subsequent generations, the half shekel was designated for the upkeep of the Tabernacle and later the Temple. The practice of donating shekels is still followed today, as it is customary for Jews to contribute three half shekels on Purim, so that each Jew may share in the support of the community’s needs.

The contemporary practice of giving three half shekels is due to the fact that the word Terumah–meaning a gift–is mentioned three times in parashat Terumah (Exodus 25:2-3). The first gift of a half shekel was donated by the ancient Israelites to provide silver for the adanim, the bases of the Tabernacle columns. The second gift given by the people was to be used to purchase the raw materials that were needed to build the Tabernacle, including gold, silver, copper, and wool in varied colors: sky blue, purple and crimson. The third gift of a half shekel served as a means of counting the qualified soldiers, 20 years old and upward.

The Torah, in Exodus 30:12 reads: “Kee tisah et rosh Bnei Yisrael lif’koo’day’hem, v’nat’noo eesh kofer nafsho la’Hashem bif’kod o’tam, v’lo yee’yeh bahem negef bif’kod otam.” G-d instructs Moshe to speak to the Jewish people and tell them that when they take a census of the Children of Israel, every man shall give an atonement for His soul to G-d when counting them, so there will not be a plague among the people when they are counted.

In Exodus 30:15, the Torah warns: “Ha’ah’sheer lo yarbeh, v’ha’dal lo yam’it me’macha’tzit ha’shekal,” the wealthy person shall not increase, nor shall the poor person decrease from contributing half a shekel. So vital is this mitzvah that even a poor person who does not posses a half shekel was expected to borrow the funds or sell the shirt off his back in order to donate.

In ancient times, since the Passover sacrifices had to be bought with funds from the current year, the shekels needed to reach the Holy Temple in Jerusalem by the first day of the month of Nisan (the month of Passover). In order to give the people sufficient time to prepare and make certain that the funds for the new sacrifices would be available in time, it was customary to announce by the first of Adar (a month before Nisan) that the half shekel contribution was due. From the 15th of Adar, collectors set up tables in each city, gently reminding the people about their required contribution. By the 25th of Adar, the collectors became more aggressive. After the 25th, they would seek out and beat those who had not yet given, making certain that they gave.

Since all the people are usually gathered in the synagogue on Shabbat, it became customary to read the parasha of the half shekel on the Shabbat immediately prior to the new month of Adar or on Rosh Chodesh Adar itself if it fell on Shabbat. Though we no longer have a Temple, the custom of reading the portion of the half shekel is still practiced, thus vicariously identifying with the mitzvah.

The Talmud, in Megillah 13b, cites the sage Resh Lakish who draws a parallel between the shekalim of parashat Kee Tisah and the shekalim of the story of Esther. Resh Lakish suggests that G-d, in His infinite wisdom, saw that Haman was prepared to count out ten thousand silver shekels in order to persuade King Achashverosh to do away with the Jews (Esther 3:9). Therefore, the Al-Mighty arranged that the Jewish shekels precede Haman’s shekels to counter the evil intentions of Haman.

Many explanations are offered as to why a “half shekel” is given rather than a full shekel. Some commentators suggest that the half shekels come to atone for the sin of the golden calf. But since according to tradition the calf was worshiped for only half a day, each person must pay G-d for the half-day of work they failed to complete. If each person was required to pay a half shekel, a family (husband and wife) would be expected to pay a full shekel, but since the Jewish women did not participate in the sin of the Golden Calf, they were exempt from giving their half shekel. Therefore, only the men’s payment was necessary, hence, the half shekel.

While others commentators agree that the half-shekel was meant to atone for the sin of the Golden Calf, they maintain that only half the soul of the sinners was blemished; consequently, they need pay for only half the atonement.

Other commentaries however, see in the symbolism of the shekel the message that every person’s labor is really never their own but rather the labor of G-d. The truly G-d-fearing person realizes that his own work is incomplete like half a shekel.

The Alshich suggests that only a half shekel is brought because each Jew must realize that when he is alone, he is merely a fragment. It is when he is linked to others that he can find completeness. Only a person who realizes that he/she is lacking and needs G-d’s help and intervention to become complete stands a chance of ever achieving “completion.” Those who think they lack nothing, really lack everything.

May you be blessed.