Parshas Shekalim: Understanding its Importance

Rabbi Dr. Darrell Ginsberg

This coming Shabbos, we being reading from the first of the “arba parshiyos”, the four additional portions from the Torah (and haftorah) added by Chazal to the regular seder haparshiyos. In this article, we will take up the two sources offered for this supplementary reading.

The background regarding this Torah reading can be found in Meseches Megilla, 29a-b. The Mishnah tells us (29a):

“If the New Moon of Adar fall on Shabbos, the portion of Shekalim is read [on that day]. If it falls in the middle of the week, it is read on the Shabbos before, and on the next Shabbos there is a break”

Rashi immediately points out that the reason for reading from this specific portion is to publicize to the Jewish people to bring their sheklaim in Adar, thereby leading to the public korbanos brought in the month of Nisan coming from the teruma chadasha. As we know, there is a commandment for the Jewish people to bring “machatzis hashekel”, commonly known as the half shekel, once a year to the Bais Hamikdash. Among the various reasons for this commandment includes the replenshiment of the treasury of the Beis Hamikdash. This was imperative, as there was to be no carryover in money for korbanos from one year to the next (no rollover). Starting the first of Nisan, all money for korbanos was to be drawn from “new” money provided by the Jewish people. Therefore, it was imperative the money that was to be brought to the Beis Hamikdash be completed prior to the first of Nisan. 

This rationale is borne out in the gemara (ibid), where an interesting question is raised. The Talmud cites another source where we see that on the first day of Adar, a public announcement is made regarding both shekalim and kilaim, the prohibition to grow different strains of specific plants together. As the first of Adar generally corresponds to the time for planting, it makes sense to “warn” the Jewish people about this extremely important commandment (Tosafos adds that it was the end of the planting time where the initial sapling growth was taking place, making it easier to identify the different species). Yet , the Talmud asks, why is the time to make the announcement regarding shekalim? The answer, which Rashi alluded to in his commentary on the Mishna, is based on a deduction from a verse in the Torah read in the section concerning the korbanos brought on Rosh Chodesh. Due to the extra inclusion of the word “chodesh” (zos olas chodesh bechadsho lechodshei hashana), Rav Tabi deduces the commandment that korbanos of the new year should be brought from new contributions, and that the first of Nisan is the starting point for taking these new funds. 

While the explanation here seems reasonable, the Talmud’s original question is odd. When learning Talmud, it is imperative to understand that there are “no surprises”. The conclusion that the time for bringing the half shekel was around the corner was something that was known at the time of the quesion. In other words, the Talmud’s question should be understood as follows: why announce for shekalim so far before the actual time it had to be given in? We are not talking about a tremendous amount of money here. A week’s notice would seem to be sufficient (keep in mind the money was collected throughout Eretz Yisrael). Why does everyone need an entire month? 

What is even more interesting is that there is another, more “Midrashic” reason offered by the Talmud (ibid 13b). We read in Megillas Esther that Haman offered ten thousand silver pieces (kikar kesef) to Achashverosh in exchange for killing the Jews. Reish Lakish comments:

“It was well known beforehand to Him at whose word the world came into being that Haman would one day pay shekels for the destruction of Israel. Therefore, He anticipated his shekels with those of Israel. And so we have learnt ‘On the first of Adar…’”

In other words, the reason why Parshas Shekalim is read at the beginning of Adar is somehow analogous to God’s “pre-emptive” introduction of the commandment of the half shekel. Since God knew in the future that Haman was going to use money as the purchase price for killing the Jews, God ensured that this commandment of shekalim was given over to the Jews “first”. What is the meaning of this?

Let’s first understand the non-Midrashic idea. Clearly, the Talmud’s assumption is that preparing for the commandment of machatzis hashekel is merely a practical consideration, similar to the announcement regarding the mixing of species. As people are now faced with the possibility of violating the prohibition of kilayim, so too people need to start “preparing” for the bringing of this money. The Talmud’s issue with this is that the need to prepare had to be evident; in the case of the half shekel, a whole month was unnecessary, and therefore there was no real practical necessity at this moment in time. What then is the conclusion? It is possible the Talmud sees the preparation for the half-shekel in a more conceptual light. Built into the obligation of bringing the half shekel is hachana, preparation. Why is this so important? Bringing the half shekel was more than funding the coffers of the Bais Hamikdash. It was a time to renew the tie between the nation and the Bais Hamikdash, a reflection of their dedication to avodas Hashem. The time to prepare for the half shekel was set up as a time to re-engage in the ideas about the Bais Hamikdash, leading to this period of time obtaining a halachic status of hachana. Thus, the “announcement” was to take place a month before the funds were to be brought, allowing time for immersion in these important concepts. 

The Midrashic explanation is focusing on a different aspect of the commandment to bring the half shekel. The Chinuch (105) explains that one of the fundamental ideas about the half shekel was to express the equality of man. Each Jew would bring a fixed amount to support the Bais Hamikdash, demonstrating that being rich or poor was of no inherent importance. We use money to create a perceived value in things, and many times this leads to a false assumption of an increased value in the rich person due to his wealth. The underlying idea is that when it comes to avodas Hashem, there is no inherent superiority of one man over another. We share in common a tzelem Elokim, and monetary value cannot produce any differentiation in one’s soul versus the next. How does this contrast with Haman? Haman grouped the Jews together as equals, desiring to rid the world of the Jewish people as a whole. However, he went further, offering a monetary value of the nation’s existence. To be able to assign a fixed value concerning a person’s life, even more so an entire nation of people, reflects a misguided sense of superiority the individual who creates said value. As we know, Haman was a megalomaniac of the first order, and his outsized sense of importance guided him in his decisions. The sense of superiority was clearly evident in creating a “value” of the Jewish people. This seems to be the idea of this Midrash. God ensured that the fundamental concept of equality in man was evident prior to Haman’s clear attempt to prove otherwise.