The myth of the half-shekel (Daf Yomi Shekalim 10)

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“The time of the wood of the priests and of the nation.”

We are ten days into this Tractate and if I have learned anything, it is that the upkeep of the Temple was a community affair. Each man over twenty contributed a half-shekel to the community fund that was collected across the towns in both Israel and its outskirts and safeguarded in the Temple’s inner chambers.

The half-shekel was a great equalizer because everyone who was obligated to contribute this exact amount did so. But as is the case today, there were families that made special donations to the community fund and they must have expected something in return. There was a dispute among the Rabbis, however, over whether someone can donate something that he owns to the communal fund. There were days when special offerings were made, including wood that was donated to the Temple’s alter. These special days were referred to “as the time of the wood of the priests and of the nation.”

The special days hearken back to a time when travelers returned to Jerusalem and found the Temple empty of wood and donated stock from their own homes. The tradition carried on with families donating wood on special days to the Temple, even though the alter was fully stocked. The wood from the families would be used before the others, and we are told that consequently, “communal offerings may come from individual funds.” This is not unlike large donors to a modern synagogue being honored by having their names on a wall of special members or being asked to come forward and recite a prayer with the Rabbi during services.

We are told that in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Yosei it is acceptable, like the usher in a synagogue today, to volunteer one’s services as a guard of the grain supply. There is some disagreement among a chorus of unnamed Rabbis about acceptable individual donations, but we are told that in the end “an individual may donate items that facilitate the sacrifice of a communal offering.” The disagreement is with “the offering itself” rather than the “items that merely facilitate an offering.”

The care that was taken to define what was allowable as a personal donation preserved the concept of community and may have helped to guard against undue influence. Although, asking everyone to pay the same half-shekel was a form of a regressive flat tax, it also kept everyone on equal footing. There could be no special favors for those who wanted to pay more than their share in return for special privileges or honors. To allow for the donation of wood and items that might have facilitated an offering, but not the offering itself, would have helped to retain some equanimity in the community.

But of course, we are human beings, and even back during the time of the Temple, there would have been wealthy families that wielded more power in the community than others. We all fall into hierarchies of influence in our lives, and this is as evident in a religious sanctuary than anywhere else. When we engrave people’s name on a wall, call them up to the front of the sanctuary to honor them for their contribution through special recognition, or form special trustee committees, we are creating a class of elite members of a congregation, no matter how much we want to believe we are all equal as we sit in uncomfortable pews, praying together.

Let’s face it. Granting the elite special privileges in one form or another has existed for longer than we can even imagine. The egalitarianism of the half-shekel is nothing more than a myth.

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About the Author
Penny Cagan was born in New Jersey and has lived in New York City since 1980. She has published two books of poems called “City Poems “ and “And Today I am Happy." She is employed as a risk manager and continues to write poetry. More information on Penny can be found at https://brokentabletsfrompennycagan.me
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