Few things are as universally resented as taxes. Looking across spans of history and geography, humans all share a strong dislike for taxes. And yet, the exception to this finds people who not only did not object to a tax but ignited revolutions and historical earthquakes with a tax: that is the tax of the half a Shekel to the Temple celebrated every year on the Shabbat before Rosh Chodesh Adar, also known as Shabbat Shekalim.
As the fiscal year of the Temple in Jerusalem began on the first of Nisan, the collection of funds for the Temple expenses began one month before—on the first of Adar. As the Mishna (Shkalim 1:1) states: “On the first of Adar they make a public announcement about the shekels.” The Temple management (yes, there is such a thing) would dispatch its collectors to collect the mandatory silver half a Shekel from every Jew so that a month later, when the month of Nisan came by, funding for the Temple’s new fiscal year was fully in place. Now, Temple sacrifices are fully funded, and the money comes from the people those sacrifices are meant to atone for.
The imperative for this collection, which is read during this time every year, makes puts a floor and a ceiling on how much the donations ought to be:
“This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel. Twenty gerahs equal one shekel; half of [such] a shekel shall be an offering to the Lord. Everyone who goes through the counting, from the age of twenty and upward, shall give an offering to the Lord. The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel, with which to give the offering to the Lord, to atone for your souls. You shall take the silver of the atonements from the children of Israel and use it for the work of the Tent of Meeting; it shall be a remembrance for the children of Israel before the Lord, to atone for your souls.”
This obligation, which affected each and every Jew, seems to be very straightforward and simple and yet, it contains so much drama in it. Rashi, citing the Midrash, states here that Moses was not sure how this coin should look and how the mitzvah of the half a Shekel ought to be performed. In response, God showed him the proper image of the half a Shekel made of fire resting under the Divine Throne of God’s Glory. It turns out that the mundane and simple tax for the Temple was far from simple. Why was this necessary? Why did Moshe have a difficult time understanding what a simple coin should look like, and why did God respond with such splendor—showing Moses a fiery coin?
Interestingly, the fire coin is very much a description of the fact that our greatest revolutions were signified by fiery coin.
The first revolution took place in the days of King Yoash (797-836) BCE). After a succession of wicked kings who worshiped idols and abandoned their service of God, Yoash ascends to the throne of Judea at the mere age of 7(!). One of the first things Yoash does is to prioritize the service of the Temple in Jerusalem and make sure he corrects its state of disrepair. In the Haftorah read on Shabbat Shekalim, we learn:
“King Yoaash summoned Yehoiada the priest and the priests and said to them, “Why are you not repairing the damage of the house? Now, take no money from your acquaintances, but give it for the damage of the house.” And the priests agreed not to take money from the people and not to repair the damage to the house. And Yehoyada the priest took one chest and bored a hole in its door; and he placed it near the altar on the right, where a person enters the house of the Lord: and the priests, the guards of the threshold, would put all the money that was brought into the house of the Lord, into there. And it was when they saw that there was much money in the chest, that the king’s scribe and the high priest went up and packed and counted the money which was brought into the house of the Lord.”
The spiritual revolution led by king Yoach was most symbolized by his crowdsourcing and collection of money from the people for the sake of the Temple. Thousands of years later, this episode would emerge at the center of one of the greatest archeological controversies with the emergence of the Jehoash Inscription in 2002, depicting this campaign to fund them, Temple, in detail. While most scholars have later opined that this tablet was forged, the episode itself speaks to how much Yoash’s campaign stands out as a spiritual and national revolution. Similar to the JNF blue boxes, which transformed the Jewish mindset in the 20th century, inspiring a return and repurchasing of land in Israel, Yoash’s fundraising revolution places the Temple service at the center of our national priorities.
Then came even more fiery, revolutionary coins.
Visiting the Israel Museum in Jerusalem and the Museum in Katzrin in the Golan, I got to see first hand the coins of the great rebellion 66-73. These coins, which were often used as the half a shekel, read “Yerushalayim Hakdosha—holy Jerusalem,” “Le’Geulat Tziyon—for the redemption of Zion,” and “Cherut Tziyon—the liberty of Zion.”
The historian and scholar Itamar Atzmon points out that an independent currency was in and of itself an act of rebellion. It was also an act of public faith. No currency can exist without a robust public buy-in, showing they believe in this currency. Indeed, the very word credit originates in the Latin word Credo, which means faith. The coins produced during this time were of higher quality than the coins produced by the provincial Roman governments. The coins produced by the Jewish rebellion also had a huge power of persuasion; Jews saw the coin as evidence that Jewish self-governance is around the corner, with the Temple at its center. The half-Shekel coin signified so much more than a way to pay taxes to the Temple—it signified self-governance, a personal connection to the Temple, and proof that those are possible. As Itamar Atzmon points out, there is no parallel to this in the ancient world. These coins were not produced out of economic necessity or functionality; they were created as a means to convey a message and get people excited. After years of seeing coins with foreign symbols and even idolatrous imagery, Jews suddenly saw coins with symbols that were very Jewish—successfully igniting a fire of faith and hope in their hearts and minds.
The same thing repeated itself decades later, in the year 132 CE, with the outbreak of the Bar Kochva rebellion. While in this rebellion, independent coins were not produced from scratch; Roman coins were refurbished and pressed over with Jewish symbols and Hebrew writing. To this day, one can find these coins in museums with imagery of the Temple, Hebrew writing, and Jewish symbols imprinted on them. The coins ignited the fire of independence and the faith of many the rebuilding the Temple in Jerusalem and the hope of liberty are alive and realistic.
Tragically, both the Great Rebellion and the Bar Kochva rebellion ended as catastrophic failures that led to the destruction and expulsion of the Jewish people from the land of Israel. And yet, the fire of those coins remained alive. After the establishment of the state of Israel, one of the things the young state did was create its own coins. Many of the images on its new coins were copied from coins of the Great Rebellion and the Bar Kochva rebellion, with imagery of the Temple and the agriculture of the land of Israel.
When God showed Moses the original coin of the half a Shekel, Moses was not sure why it is that such a mundane, technical, and even materialistic item such as a coin of silver, should be so central to our religious service and national life. God showed Moses a fiery coin placed under God’s throne of Glory. God was telling Moses that the mundane silver coin has the ability to give an entire nation a part in the sacred Temple service. The simple half a shekel coin has the ability to unify, ignite, bring together, and motivate an entire nation. As we mark the annual Shabbat Shekalim, let us remind ourselves we are all part of a greater whole and that if we just come together and do our part, we will be able to build something sacred. Shabbat Shalom.