The Half Shekel
By Menachem Mendelson
In the olden days during the time of the holy Temple in Jerusalem, and even before the first Temple was built and the holy Ark had its temporary resting places, a yearly 'appeal' was made for money for the treasury of the Temple. The appeal began on the first day of the Jewish month of Adar.
This was not just another appeal for money as we know what an appeal is today, but rather it was a special obligation and even a mitzvah that was obligatory. There is a mitzvah for each adult male (meaning from the age of 13) to give one half-shekel to the Temple. The Torah (Exodus 30:13-15) commanded : "This they shall give
a half shekel for the shekel of the sanctuary
from twenty years old and above shall give an offering to G-d. The rich shall not give more and the poor shall not give less that half of a shekel
to make an atonement for your souls."
Interestingly enough, each person had to give exactly one half shekel. The rich could not give more and the poor could not give less. This was not considered a great amount so everyone could afford it.
The money raised was used for purchasing animals that were to be used for sacrifices for the general public and for other sacred needs for the Temple. These were the sacrifices that were offered for all the people such as the daily morning and evening sacrifices, the Shabbat offerings, the new Moon and festival sacrifices and so on. Money that was left over in the treasuries from one year to the next from this donation were used for repairs to the Temple.
In this manner, every Jew had an equal portion in the services in the Temple. Everyone was represented equally in the daily communal offerings as well as in the up keep of the Temple itself. The rich did not have a greater portion and the poor did not have a lesser role; each Jew had an equal portion in front of G-d. Rich or poor, great scholar or simple worker, each shared equally in the communal sacrifices and in the repair of the Temple.
Another lesson derived from the mitzvah of the half-shekel was that each person could only give one half shekel; no one could donate more, no one could give for this mitzvah even one full shekel. This made each person realize that he is not a complete entity to himself. On his own, he is considered only a half, incomplete. To be complete, he can not exist alone, he must unite with others and others must unite with him. No man should be an island. There is a responsibility of the individual towards the community and a responsibility of the community to the individual. The Jewish way is with people, not in separation from the community.
We no longer have the mitzvah of the half-shekel today since we do not have our holy Temple. As a reminder of this mitzvah, every year on the Shabbat before the first day of Adar we read a special portion in the Torah in addition to the weekly Torah portion which reminds us of the special mitzvah of the half-shekel. In most synagogues a special haphtorah is from Kings II, chapter 12, in which King Josiah appeals for money for the repair of the Temple. This special Shabbat is called Shabbat Shekalim. In a leap year, this comes before Adar II.
We recall this mitzvah and use it as a basis to the custom of giving half of the current currency in each land. Some donate this sum before the fast of Esther and others during the fast. As an example, in place of the half shekel, an American Jew in America would give a half dollar, whereas an English Jew would give one half pound Sterling. Many give three half shekels (in the current currency). Each half shekel is a remembrance of the mitzvah that we wait for, for when the Temple will be speedily rebuilt, we will have the mitzvah again of giving money for the communal sacrifices. But until then, we can give as much charity as we desire and not limit it to only a half-shekel.
from the February 2008 Edition of the Jewish Magazine