Full Meaning of a Half-Shekel

Torah scroll
ollega / iStock / Getty Images Plus

By Rabbi Robyn Frisch

Parshat Ki Tisa

Ki Tisa begins with God instructing Moses that when he is taking a census of the Israelite people, everyone 20 or older shall pay a half-shekel. God says: “The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel” (Exodus 30:15).

This seemingly simple idea, that each Israelite, regardless of their personal wealth, is required to pay a half-shekel for purposes of the census, has much to teach us. For one thing, there’s the essential lesson that everyone is equal in the eyes of God. Of course, the fact that each person is to give the same amount for purposes of the census doesn’t mean that those who have more aren’t at times expected to give more.

In fact, the Torah has a system of tithing (discussed in Numbers 18:21-26), according to which a tenth of one’s produce was to be presented to a Levite, who was to then give a 10th of the first tithe to a kohen (Numbers 18:26). In later times, there were some rabbis who referred to not just a tithe of produce, but also a tithe of money. And to this day, there are many Jews who donate a tenth of their annual income to charity.

But what the law of the half-shekel teaches us is that, while we all have different amounts that we can — and should — contribute to the community, when it comes to being counted, to determining who matters — in the eyes of God, no less — that rich and poor are totally equal. We all count the same.

Another important lesson the command to give half a shekel teaches us is that nobody is fully complete on their own. Rather than being instructed to give a whole shekel, each person is instructed to give a half-shekel. Each person’s half-shekel needs somebody else’s half-shekel to be complete. We’re all dependent on each other. That’s what it means to be part of a community — we’re connected to and dependent upon each other. We all have to give and participate for the community to be fully complete.

Interestingly, these verses from the beginning of our Torah portion were also read as part of the synagogue service just a few weeks ago on Shabbat Shekalim. Shabbat Shekalim is one of the Arba Parshiyot — four special Torah readings instituted by the Sages on four different Shabbats leading up to Purim and Passover. Shabbat Shekalim occurs on the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh (the new month) of Adar — or in years like this year it falls on Rosh Hodesh Adar. Adar is, of course, the month in which we celebrate Purim.
This means that we read about the requirement to give a half-shekel a couple of weeks before Purim, and we’re reading it again now, just a little over a week after Purim. The idea of the requirement to give a half-shekel teaching us about what it means to be part of a community connects perfectly with the Purim story.

In the Book of Esther, when Mordechai told Esther to go before the king, to “remove her mask,” and reveal to the king her identity as a Jew and ask for her people to be saved, Esther was hesitant at first. She responded to Mordechai that the king hadn’t summoned her for the past 30 days, and anyone who goes before the king without being called will be killed if the king doesn’t hold out his golden scepter to them. Finally, Esther was convinced to go before the king, but she told Mordechai to first: “Go, assemble all the Jews who live in Shushan, and fast in my behalf; do not eat or drink for three days, night or day” (Esther 4:16).

Just as Haman planned to kill all of the Jews of Shushan, Esther wanted all of the Jews in Shushan, rich and poor, to join with her in solidarity before she risked her own life, and the chance to save all of her people by appearing before the king. She recognized that the Jews were stronger when they all banded together. And ultimately, she was successful. Not only did the king extend his golden scepter when Esther appeared before him, but the Jews of Persia were given the right to assemble and fight for their lives.

Queen Esther inherently knew what our Torah portion Ki Tisa teaches us. Each of us as Jews matter equally, regardless of our wealth. And together, each Jew is part of something much larger than our individual self. We’re part of a community (and I would argue that this also applies to spouses and partners of Jews who may not themselves be Jewish, but who have chosen to include their lot with ours) and each of us, like Queen Esther, must do our part to help the Jewish community not just survive, but to thrive.

Rabbi Robyn Frisch is the director of the 18Doors Rukin Rabbinic Fellowship and the spiritual leader of Temple Menorah Keneseth Chai in Northeast Philadelphia. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here