This Shabbat is a special one because, apart from reading the regular weekly reading (Parashat Vayakhel), we also read from a second Torah scroll. This additional reading, which appears in Exodus 30:11-16, gives its name to this Shabbat. It is called Shabbat Shekalim. The Hebrew word shekalim is the plural of shekel, a commonly used coin during Biblical times. It is worth mentioning that in Israel today the legal currency is called Shekel Chadash, “new shekel,” although it is usually known as shekel.
Why do we have a “shabbat of the shekel?” The reading we add during this shabbat describes a census of the Children of Israel which was commanded to be taken while the Children of Israel were in the desert. For reasons I am not going to explain here, in Biblical times people thought that the taking of a census put the lives of those who were counted in danger. Therefore, giving money for being counted was a way to pay a ransom for your life. Instead of counting people, the census-takers counted the money that people contributed, which indirectly served as a counting of the people. The money collected, half a shekel per person, was used for the upkeep of the Tabernacle, the Mishkan.