Please, don’t tell me that we read Parshat Shekalim last week! I know that, but I have something to say about these verses and that custom. We still must perform the custom of MACHATZIT HASHEKEL, and there’s an idea about that which I want to share.
First off, there was a very rational purpose in the census in ancient Israel. The census in the US counts all sorts of stuff about American life, TV’s, cars computers, and, in the past, flush toilets. The Biblical census was to determine how many men were available for the army or government work projects (the original MISIM were work levies). The method was simple: a half-Shekel silver coin. This MACHAZIT HASHEKEL had to be brought in ADAR, and the money was used for communal offerings in the Beit HaMikdash.
The passage with the instructions about this Mitzva is a bit oblique. Here’s the first verse: When you take a census (KI TISA, literally ‘when you raise up’) of the Israelite men according to their army enrollment (their PIKUDIM, task or role), each shall pay the Eternal a ransom (KOFER) for himself on being counted, that no plague (MEGEFA) may come upon them through their being counted (Shmot 30:12).
There’s a lot to unpack there. First of all, the method of counting ‘raises the head’ of the countee, in other words, it somehow improves the status of the head or entire body being counted. I think it’s because the money is used for sacred purposes. The donation is a merit to the contributor.
At the end of the verse, we have the source for Jews being so careful about counting humans. Counting people improperly can, somehow, injure the party being counted. Without delving deep into that topic, let’s just say we want to avoid reducing human beings to numbers. Let’s never be guilty of ‘’They’ve given me a number and taken away my name’.
This leaves what I consider (at least this year) to be the most important issue in the verse, namely: What is this KOFER? The JPS translation is ‘ransom’, in other sources it’s rendered ‘redemption’ or ‘atonement’. Here’s the issue: Why does this person need to be ransomed or redeemed? What did he do wrong or in what negative situation does he find himself?
The Slonimer Rebbe asked that question in his Netivot Shalom commentary:
It doesn’t say KAPER for their sins, but for their souls, and why does it repeat ‘to give the ransom for one’s soul’?…The answer is that there is a world called KOL YISRAEL (the entirety of Yisrael) which is whole, without blemish (P’GAM). Therefore, even if an individual sins, the whole retains its KEDUSHA. The giving of the MACHATZIT HASHEKEL by every individual builds this unity. Through this every individual Jew can be KADOSH and TAHOR and connect to one’s root (SHORESH)…There is an argument over whether the MACHATZIT HASHEKEL atones for the sin of the Golden Calf or of the selling of Yosef. These and those are the words of the Living God. The sin against Yosef maimed the attribute of YESOD (fundamental stability, as expressed in the unity of Yisrael); the Golden Calf maimed the attribute of EMUNAH (faith in God). This is why our section says that the MACHATZIT HASHEKEL is a KAPARA twice. We can fix both the injury to YESOD and EMUNAH by giving the MACHATZIT HASHEKEL. All individuals become part of the whole.
YESOD is a one of the Kabbalistic SEFIROT (levels). This term is often translated ‘foundation’, and it is the attribute of Yosef. Yosef is a builder, organizer and provider. He did that in Egypt, and he’s described as a powerful provider in the blessings of Ya’akov (Breishit 49:22-26) and Moshe (Devarim 33:13-17).
If one gives the Half Shekel, they become connected to these powerful ideas and forces. That’s the KAPPARAH! I have, perhaps, been freed from connection to these blights on our national honor. Much more importantly, I am now connected to these fundamental elements of Judaism, YESOD and EMUNAH. I am both bedrock and believer.
What a wonderful feeling! So, how do we connect to these ideas today? Well, we have a custom of giving MACHATZIT HASHEKEL either right before or on Purim. Reb Moshe Isserlis says in his gloss on the Shulchan Aruch:
Some say that there is a custom to give prior to Purim a half-coin that is established in that place and in that time as a memorial to the Shekel half-coin that they would give in Adar. And since the word TERUMA is written three times in that portion, there is a custom to give three half-coins. (Orach Chayim 694:1).
On my first Purim in Eretz Yisrael (1984), I called the office of the Rabbanut and asked if there was a coin made expressly for giving the MACHATZIT HASHEKEL. The person on the line took my number and promised a call back. I was skeptical. But half an hour later some official from the Rabbanut called and said, ‘What would your grandfather have given to have a coin with the words Half Shekel on it for giving MACHATZIT HASHEKEL?’ I gladly used three half shekel coins, and still do.
Before taking my leave, I must quote the Haga’ot Maimoniyot: Even women and children should give (quoted by the Magen Avraham). And why not? Shouldn’t everyone feel connected to this great idea?