The various aspects of the half-shekel contribution given in the times of the Beis HaMikdosh relate to the past, present, and future, and touch on the relationship between Jew and G‑d, between Jew and Jew, and between a Jew and himself.
The mishnah states: “On the first of Adar, public announcements are made concerning the shekalim.” Half a shekel was given annually in the times of the Beis HaMikdosh by every Jewish male over the age of twenty. These contributions were used to purchase the congregational sacrifices offered every day of the year. The Talmud deduces from various verses in the Torah that from the first day of the month of Nissan, only sacrifices purchased with the new yearly contributions could be offered. So that Jews would have enough time to bring their half-shekel for that year, proclamations were made on the first of Adar — a month in advance — reminding people to bring their half-shekel before the first of Nissan.
After the destruction of the Beis HaMikdosh, when it is no longer possible to fulfill the mitzvah of giving the half-shekel, the reading of the parshah in the Torah about the half-shekel substitutes for the actual giving. As our Sages have said: “Whoever engages in [the study of] the Torah of the sacrifices, it is counted as if he actually offered the sacrifices.” This section is always read on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh Adar, for, as explained above, the announcement reminding everyone to give the half-shekel was made on the first of Adar. This Shabbos is thus termed Shabbos Parshas Shekalim.
Half-Shekel Affects Past, Present and Future
The concept of the half-shekel has an effect on the past, present and future.
The command to give the half-shekel is, “This they shall give...half a shekel...to atone for your souls.” The Talmud Yerushalmi explains that the half-shekel was atonement for the grievous sin of the golden calf, which is the root and source of all sin. The atonement procured by giving the half-shekel is therefore relevant not just to the generation of the golden calf, but to all generations. The half-shekel thus affects the past — as atonement for wrongdoing.
As mentioned previously, proclamations were made on the first of Adar to remind people to bring their half-shekel contributions. Its effect on the present, therefore, is to ensure that the sacrifices starting from the first day of Nissan would be brought from the new contributions.
The Talmud states: “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. He therefore anticipated his shekels with those of Israel.” Haman’s decree to destroy the Jews, procured from King Achashverosh by payment of a huge sum of money to the royal treasury, was annulled in advance in the merit of the half-shekels given by Jews. Thus the half-shekel also affects the future.
Half-Shekel Provides Lessons for Service to G‑d
Today, when the Beis HaMikdosh no longer exists, the giving of the half-shekel is replaced by the giving of tzedakah. The greatness of the mitzvah of tzedakah is that “since he could have purchased necessities of life with this [tzedakah] money, he is giving his soul’s life to G‑d [when instead he gives it to tzedakah.]”
This is similar to the half-shekel offering. Man’s service in this world is, in general, to make a sanctuary for G‑d in all things. Not only must a Jew avoid evil, but everything pertaining to him must be sanctified. Even one’s eating, for example, must be for holy purposes — to gain strength to serve G‑d. In the words of our Sages: “All your deeds should be for the sake of Heaven.”
This is the idea of the half-shekel: “This they shall give...half a shekel for an offering to G‑d.” To emphasize that even a Jew’s work to provide a living for himself and his family can, and must be sanctified, he must give “half a shekel for an offering to G‑d.” By not taking more for himself than what he gives to G‑d, his work is sanctified. And this is precisely the idea of tzedakah — “he is giving his soul’s life to G‑d.”
Just as the half-shekel affects the past, present and future, so, too, does the idea of the half-shekel in man’s service to G‑d.
One of the functions of the half-shekel, it was noted, was to purchase the congregational sacrifices for the year. The sacrifices were the principal service of the Sanctuary, and every Jew is a sanctuary for the Divine Presence, as stated: “Make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell within them” — within each and every Jew. Thus the sacrifices correspond to man’s service to his Creator — his efforts to make himself and the world a sanctuary for G‑d.
Proclamations were made on the first of Adar to ensure the sacrifices would be offered from the new half-shekel contributions. Since man’s service in general corresponds to the service of the sacrifices, we learn that man’s service must be constantly renewed. The lesson for the present is that a Jew cannot be satisfied with his current level of service, but must constantly strive to add to it, to perform it in a fresh manner.
Although a person’s service may have been on an extremely lofty level, he can always rise higher — for matters of sanctity are infinite, associated as they are with G‑d who is infinite. Even when a Jew has fully utilized his capabilities, a firm resolution to rise beyond his abilities brings him new avenues from above wherewith to fulfill those resolutions.
When, therefore, a Jew makes an honest soul reckoning, he will realize that notwithstanding how lofty his service, he could have done better. Such a realization calls for atonement and completion of his deficiencies — the idea of the half-shekel as it affects the past.
The idea of the half-shekel as it relates to the future was that through it, Haman’s evil decree was annulled and the miracle of Purim came to pass. Purim is the celebration of a potential tragedy that was transformed into a joyous festival, as stated, “The month which was transformed for them from sorrow to joy, and from mourning to holiday.” This corresponds to the service of transforming the darkness of exile into the light of the future redemption.
In slightly different words: The half-shekel, we have said, represents man’s service to G‑d, the making of a sanctuary for G‑dliness. It is this service which leads us to merit the building of the third Sanctuary in the future.
Why a half-shekel specifically?
The Torah, in delivering the command to give the half-shekel, states: “This they shall give...half a shekel of the Sanctuary shekel, where a shekel is twenty gerahs; half of such a shekel [shall be given as] an offering to G‑d.” The Torah first states that Jews must give a half-shekel. Then, to let us know the worth of a half-shekel, it explains that a whole shekel (by the standards of the Sanctuary) is twenty gerahs; and we must give half — ten gerahs — as an offering to G‑d.
The Torah did not have to go to such lengths to explain this. It could simply have said a Jew must give ten gerahs. Or, if for some reason it wished to mention “half a shekel” specifically, it would suffice to say that Jews must give a half-shekel which is ten gerahs. Why was it necessary to state that a whole shekel is twenty gerahs?
The Torah, however, is emphasizing that we must give a half of a whole shekel specifically. The ten gerahs which we give is not an independent amount, but half of a sum — half of a whole shekel which is worth twenty gerahs.
This, too, provides valuable lessons for our service to G‑d, lessons which touch on the relationship between Jew and Jew, between a Jew and himself, and between a Jew and G‑d.
Between Jew and Jew
In giving the half-shekel, the Torah explicitly commands that “the rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less.” A half-shekel is an insufficient sum of money to pay for even one sacrifice, which, besides an animal, consisted also of a wine offering and flour offering. It certainly does not cover the sacrifices offered every day of the year. Yet, by contributing only this small sum of money — and no more — a Jew became a full partner in every one of the congregational sacrifices offered throughout the year.
Conversely, to become a partner and obtain his share in the congregational sacrifices, a Jew had to join with other Jews — for his half-shekel alone would not suffice to purchase even one sacrifice. The half-shekel therefore emphasizes the importance of the commandment, “Love your fellow as yourself.” A Jew himself is only a half, incomplete; he becomes whole only when united with another Jew. Moreover, each congregational sacrifice was offered by the entire Jewish nation as one entity, not as a grouping of individuals.
Between a Jew and himself
Each Jew has two souls: a G‑dly soul and an animal soul. The G‑dly soul, “a part of G‑d above,” strives to direct the Jew to the spiritual; the animal soul is interested only in the material. Each soul is only half of a whole entity. When, through our service, we cause the animal soul to be dedicated to G‑dliness, we have given half to G‑d. In return, the powers of the G‑dly soul, which until then have remained partly concealed, are fully revealed by G‑d — something we could not accomplish on our own.
Between Jew and G‑d
The half-shekel atoned for the sin of the golden calf. Idolatry, the most severe of all sins, means a Jew has become alienated and separated from G‑d. The sin of idolatry is rectified through coming near to G‑d, uniting with Him. The ultimate expression of such unity is when a Jew realizes that alone he is deficient, without any real existence; that he is only half an entity. He truly exists and becomes whole only when he unites with G‑d. The converse is also true. G‑d, so to speak, is whole only through Jews.
The unity of G‑d and Jews is not a joining of two different things but rather, they are two halves of the one thing; only together are they whole. Precisely so is the idea of the half-shekel: It is not whole, but only a half of a whole shekel. When that half-shekel is given as an “offering to G‑d” — when a Jew dedicates himself totally to service to G‑d — Jew and G‑d become one, a whole shekel.
Shabbos Parshas Shekalim, 5739, 5740, 5742