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The Significance of Shekalim

 “The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel… Shemos 30:15

Parshat Shekalim is read annually on the Shabbos before the first of Adar. At the beginning of Parashas Ki Sisa, we are commanded to donate a Half-Shekel when the Beis Hamikdash stood. In those times, the Beis Din would publicly announce the start of the Half-Shekel collection and call on the entire nation to donate immediately, beginning from Rosh Chodesh Adar.

Several questions arise as we consider the Mitzvah of the Half-Shekel donation and, specifically, its’ reading during this time period.

  1. Why specifically now at the beginning of Adar do we commemorate the giving of the Half-Shekel?
  2. In general, when it comes to giving Tzedakah, we give exhaustively. The Rambam (Issurei Mizbeach 7:11) paskens, “If one builds a house of prayer, it should be more attractive than his own dwelling. If he feeds a hungry person, he should feed him from the best and most tasty foods on his table. If he clothes someone naked, he should clothe him with his attractive garments. If he consecrates something, he should consecrate the best of his possessions.” Why, then, does the Torah mandate a mere Half-Shekel donation?
  3. Chazal teach us that Moshe Rabbeinu was initially confounded by the Mitzvah to donate a Half-Shekel until Hashem showed Moshe a coin of fire and explained this is what must be given. Why was the Half-Shekel so difficult to understand? What is this coin of fire that Hashem showed him?
  4. The Midrash teaches (Tanchuma, Ki Tisa 3) that when Moshe was given the Mitzvah of the Half-Shekel, he said to Hashem, “When I pass away, I will be forgotten.” Hashem responded, “Heaven forbid! Just as you stand here today and give them the portion of the Half-Shekel, and cause them to raise their heads, so, in years to come, every time they read this portion before Me, it will be as if you are present at that very moment causing them to raise their heads.” From where do we know this? From that which is written, “And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘You will lift the head of the Children of Israel…'” It does not say, “Lift the head of the Children of Israel…” but rather, “You will lift…” Why was Moshe concerned with his legacy, specifically during the Parsha of the Half-Shekel? In fact, given that Moshe was the most humble of all men, why was he concerned with his legacy at all? And in that light, why does Hashem respond that during the time of the reading of the Mitzvah of the giving of the Half-Shekel that Klal Yisrael will remember Moshe? Why is remembering Moshe critical to the Mitzvah?
  5. Lastly, the Gemara (Megillah 13b) says in the name of Reish Lakish that “It is revealed and known in advance to the One Who spoke and the world came into being, that in the future Haman was going to weigh out shekels against the Jewish people; therefore, He arranged that the Jewish people’s shekels that were given to the Beis HaMikdash preceded Haman’s shekels.” What is the connection between the giving of the Half-Shekel and the Shekels of Haman that ours were able to counteract his wicked decree?

To answer these questions, we must first take a step back and examine the nature of Klal Yisrael. The Gemara (Nedarim 9:5) teaches, “If a man were to cut a piece of meat with a knife and by mistake, the knife cut his hand, would one imagine that one hand would hit the other to reprimand it? So too each Jew must view the other as part of the same body.” In other words, every single Jew possesses a uniquely Jewish soul (a Godly soul), which is one with all other Jewish souls. Just as one would not hit their own hand, we should not lash out at our fellow Jew. And yet, we are also distinct from one another. “You are all standing this day before the Lord, your God the leaders of your tribes, your elders and your officers, every man of Israel, your young children, your women, and your convert who is within your camp, both your woodcutters and your water drawers.” (Devarim 29:9-10) Every single Jew is infinitely unique. Like a Sefer Torah, every single letter stands on its own. It must be completely surrounded by white parchment so that no two letters touch each other. And yet, it is one Sefer Torah. If even one letter is missing, the entire Torah is pasul. This is the duality of the Jewish people. We are infinitely connected and infinitely unique at the same time. 

This is the inner essence of the Mitzvah of the Half-Shekel. We recognize that on our own, we cannot be whole. Only when our half-self is combined with every other Jew can we truly be complete. With this principle in mind, our previously asked questions are quickly answered. In general, when it comes to giving Tzedakah, we give the best of what we have. Yet, on Rosh Chodesh Adar, we are called upon to recognize the unity of Klal Yisrael. While we are all distinct from one another, we are lacking without each other. Why specifically during this time? The Purim story came about because we failed in the realm of Achdus. Haman describes the Jews of the time as “scattered and dispersed among the other peoples.” Exile begins when we are disconnected from each other. The Half-Shekel counteracts Haman’s Shekalim because we recognize that we remain incomplete without our brothers and sisters. Specifically, at the beginning of Adar, when we were historically distant from one another, the Torah obligates us to bring the Half-Shekel and recall our shared essence. 

We can now understand why Moshe was initially confused by the Half-Shekel and only understood its meaning when Hashem showed him a coin of fire. How can a nation that has such infinitely varied personalities have true unity? In theory, our differences should not allow us to come together as one. Fire is unique in that when we combine two fires, they naturally become one without any distinguishing features. Though everyone in Klal Yisrael has their own individuality, our essence is like fire. When combined, we are indistinguishable from one another. Our unique self complements each other in such a fashion that we are like two pieces of a puzzle. We fit perfectly together.

Armed with this knowledge, Moshe became the symbol of unity in Klal Yisrael. His very presence reminded Klal Yisrael that they are incomplete without each other. Still, Moshe was concerned. “What will be after my death?” he wondered. “How will Klal Yisrael remain unified?” Far from thinking of himself and his own legacy, the most humble of all men was concerned for the future generations of Klal Yisrael! To this, Hashem responded, “Just as you stand here today and give them the portion of the Half-Shekel, and cause them to raise their heads, so, in years to come, every time they read this portion before Me, it will be as if you are present at that very moment causing them to raise their heads.” In other words, when we read the Parsha of Shekalim, we are reminded of Moshe Rabbeinu and his message of unity to Klal Yisrael. With Moshe Rabbeinu on our minds, we give the Half-Shekel with a recognition of its inner meaning.

We live in an era where unity is a necessity, not a luxury. As antisemitism continues to rise, we must make sure that we are not scattered and dispersed from one another. And yet unity is more and more challenging to come by in a climate that does not allow for healthy disagreement. Conformity of opinions should not be confused with true unity. Achdus demands that we value each other’s differences, and yet remain aware of our shared essence. Our differences are ultimately complementary. They complete the picture of what Klal Yisrael ought to look like. Are we really so foolish as to believe Hashem values the Litvak over the Chassid or vice versa? 

Some readers may be bothered by my insolence. After all, did the Gedolim of the last generation not stand against certain sects of Klal Yisrael??? Rav Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz zt” l answered this question with a Mashal. 

There was once a wealthy man who had two daughters to marry off. He searched for grooms who were Talmidei Chachamim, which he would support in their studies. The first marriage was arranged and the son-in-law had one requirement: every dinner would be a Fleishig Seuda. This was fulfilled, and the couple was married. The second son-in-law was arranged with the requirement of a Milchig Seuda to be served at dinner. The wealthy man set up two separate dining tables to accommodate these differing dietary needs. One table served a sumptuous, multi-course meat meal while the other did a dairy meal.

As the father-in-law’s business faced financial difficulties, the meals became less extravagant. Eventually, both sons-in-law were only being served boiled potatoes. Despite this, the separate tables were still set up. However, the father-in-law realized that they were all just eating boiled potatoes and said, “When times were good, we had sumptuous dinners and had to have separate tables for Fleishig and Milchig. Now that we are down to just plain boiled potatoes. We might as well eat together at one table.” Rav Shraga Feivel explained that in pre-war Europe when we had Gedolim of unparalleled character, we could afford to sit at two separate tables. But now that we are rebuilding Yiddishkeit in America, we may as well sit at the same table. Now is not the time to quarrel over our differences. In truth, our differences complement each other. Each of the Gedolim brought something invaluable to the generation that brought us to where we are today. 

Rav Asher Weiss says that the ideal Jew should have a Litvishe mind and a Chasidishe heart, the honesty & integrity of a Yekke, the innocence of a Hungarian Jew, the kavod haTorah of a Sefardic Jew and the love of Eretz Yisrael of many Jews here in Eretz Yisrael. As we approach Parshas Shekalim, it is an auspicious time to remember that while we have our varied approaches, ultimately, we have a shared Godly essence. 

Rav Mordechai Burg

Internationally renowned speaker, educator, and author Rav Mordechai Burg is the Menahel of Mevaseret, Mashpia of NCSY Summer, Mashpia of Nitzotzos, author of Nitzotzos on Chumash and a senior Rebbe at Tomer Devorah and Bnot Torah Institute. His shiurim can be found on Nitzotzos.com

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