During their sojourn in the desert, several census counts were made of the Jews. In the first section of the Torah portion of Ki Tisa (which is also read in honor of Shabbat Shekalim), we read of G‑d's instruction to Moses that in taking such a census the Jews should not be counted directly. Instead, each person contributed a half-shekel coin as they filed, one by one, past the census takers. These coins would then be tallied to yield the census.

The relevant verse reads:
This is what they shall give: all who pass by of the counted [shall give] half a shekel of the holy shekel; the shekel is twenty gera [a unit of currency]; half a shekel is the offering to G‑d. (Ex. 30:13)

The Torah stipulates that (as we would expect for such a census to work) each person was to contribute exactly the same amount. A half-shekel was thus the uniform contribution of every Jew, rich or poor.

In addition to its plain meaning, the above can be understood allegorically as a reference to the "lowest common denominator" expected of every Jewish person in his or her service of G‑d.

G‑d is known to any given person according to the amount of effort they expend….

It is written, Her husband is known at the gates. (Proverbs 13:23) Because the Hebrew word for "gates" is similar to that for "allotment, assessment", this verse is often the object of a play on words by which it can be understood as meaning, "Her Husband [G‑d] is known to any given person according to the amount of effort they expend and the capacity of their soul to know Him."

Jewish mysticism associates the concept of a "husband" with transmission of influence, and that of a "wife" with receiving that influence. The point, for our present purposes, is that since G‑d is compared to the "Husband" of the Jewish People - the source of everything we receive - we should recognize that anything we have comes from Him. This is not limited to material possessions, but includes whatever we possess in the spiritual sense as well: any true love for G‑d or fear of G‑d which one may possess is actually granted us from Above, as a gift from Heaven. It is a gift bestowed upon each person in proportion to the degree of effort he or she expends in seeking out and preparing for these gifts, through love and fear of G‑d, as well as Torah study and mitzvah observance. (These four factors correspond to the four letters of the name Havayah.)