Torah Thoughts: Parashat Vayakhel – Shabbat Shekalim 5779
By Rabbi Rami Pavolotzky
Giving Your Half Shekel
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.
Every year, on the last Shabbat of the month of Sh’vat, or on Shabbat Rosh Chodesh Adar, we add the paragraph about this census in the desert to the weekly Torah portion. Why do we do this at this time of the year? When the Temple of Jerusalem existed, each person had to contribute an annual half-shekel to the Temple. The funds raised were primarily used to purchase cattle for the communal sacrifices, and for a variety of other purposes, such as the maintenance of the Temple and its vessels. This annual tax was known as machatzit hashekel (half of a shekel) and was due on the first of Nissan. One month earlier, on the first of Adar, people were reminded about their obligation to contribute to the Temple. In commemoration of this historic fact, we read the Shekalim reading from the Torah about a month earlier than the beginning of Nissan, and we call this Shabbat “Shabbat Shekalim.”
The special Haftarah we read during this Shabbat also deals with the same topic. It is about the efforts of King Jehoash (9th century BCE) to allocate communal funds for the maintenance of the first Temple of Jerusalem. By the way, many see in this Haftarah the first reference to a “Tzedakah Box”! (You will have to read the Haftarah to understand.)
Many synagogues take advantage of this commemoration to ask congregants to give tzedakah, to donate to charity. Some do it this Shabbat, while others wait until the fast of Esther, the day before Purim. Before this coming Shabbat Shekalim, I would like to invite you to consider contributing a small amount (your “half shekel”) to the Rabbi’s Discretionary Fund. This is an easy way to help members and friends of Temple Beth El who are experiencing financial emergencies, while you remember how our ancestors contributed to the Temple thousands of years ago. Thank you for your help!