“This month shall be to you the beginning of months; it shall be the first of the months of the year to you.”
At the start of each new Tractate in this 7 ½ journey, I return to Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s introduction to the Koren Talmud Bavli and am reminded that this journey is about finding relevancy in the text to one’s life. Rabbi Steinsaltz wrote in the introduction: “Whatever is written herein refers only to me, is written for me and obligates me, first and foremost, the content is addressed to me.” And so, we move on to a new Tractate today on the most relevant of all matters as April 15th – tax day in the US — approaches (although it has been pushed back to May this year because of changes in the code related to COVID.)
Each new Tractate holds the promise of a new chapter in the journey through the learning of our ancestors and there is nothing more hopeful than the opening of a new book. The darkest days of winter are behind us and with early spring comes the inevitable yearly accounting of paying our due share to our government. We are told at the start of the Shekalim Tractate that the collection of taxes happened each year during the time of the temple on the first of Adar, which this year would have been in the middle of February. Each adult male was obligated to contribute a half-shekel. I found an article online that estimated a half shekel would be worth approximately five dollars in today’s currency (https://www.chabad.org/library/article_cdo/aid/673063/jewish/Whats-the-value-of-the-biblical-half-shekel.htm.)
The shekels were collected once a year, with the goal of completing the activity before the start of the month of Nisan. In the days before there was electronic transfer of funds, the Jewish people were obligated to bring their shekels to the designated temple chamber. There is some debate about timing, but we are told that communal offerings are purchased with the new shekels after the first of Nisan. There was a flurry of activity in the months leading up to tax time.
Not everyone lived in Jerusalem and the question is asked concerning the residents of Babylonia. How could they meet the deadline of contributing their shekels if it took them several months to travel to Jerusalem? The logical explanation is that they should issue the tax proclamation (i.e., the bill) earlier in order to ensure that their payment was received before the first of Nisan.
Here is where I become somewhat confused, because there appears to be some contradiction in the text: Rabbi Ulla (I assume the same Ulla we have read about in previous Tractates who traveled frequently between Jerusalem and Babylonia) said the shekels were collected three times per year. He stipulated they should arrive in Jerusalem at the same time, although they were collected at different times of the year in the home territories. From what I can discern, there were three payments collected, but I cannot figure out if two of them involved the same or different half-shekels.
The three collections included the communal offering fund, the tabernacle fund and the socket fund. The voice of the Gemara tell us that as is the case in the management of modern-day funds, they could not be co-mingled. The collection of the Tabernacle funds must be used for the Tabernacle, and the collection of the shekels for the communal funds must be used for communal offerings. We are told that every Jewish male participates in the collection, “in order that they all have an equal share in the communal offerings.” And every male is obligated to donate the same fixed sum to the socket fund, regardless of ability to pay or resources, as it is stated: “The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less”
Half a shekel – five dollars – must have been a significant sum for the ordinary person to pay and the tax appears to be a flat one, that required each male to pay the same amount regardless of his economic circumstances. Only men over twenty years of age were required to pay a tax. The tax also served as a form of census-taking, but not everyone was counted. Women were excluded from the obligation to pay the tax, and by extension the count.
If this first verse is any indication, the strange insertion of a Tractate from the Jerusalem Talmud is not going to be an easy ride. In terms of finding relevancy to my life, this first reading of this Tractate reminded me that it is time to start collecting my tax receipts and organizing my documentation.
I know there is much in this first reading of this Tractate that I did not get exactly right. I admit that it is a little foolish to even attempt this difficult task each day. Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz said in the introduction to the Koren Talmud Bavli that “The study of the Talmud is thus the gate through which a Jew enters his life’s past.”
The gates are open to a new Tractate and I am holding hands with all my fellow Daf Yomers as we make our way through.