On Taanit Esther (the Fast of Esther), which is generally celebrated on the day before Purim, it is customary to give a half-shekel (or three half-shekels) to charity (read more about how this custom is fulfilled). Why do we give this specific denomination to charity, and why is it done at this time of year?

Why Are the Shekels Given in Adar?

During Temple times, on the first day of the month of Adar, the beit din (Jewish court) would issue a proclamation reminding people that they needed to give a half-shekel to the Temple.

By giving a flat-rate contribution, each person, regardless of his wealth, had an equal portion in the communal Temple offerings.

Why then?

Although we usually refer to Rosh Hashanah (1 Tishrei) as the Jewish New Year, the Torah actually refers to the springtime month of Nisan as the first month. Starting in Nisan, sacrifices could only be purchased with the new year’s contributions.1 To ensure that the funds would be in place on 1 Nisan, the beit din would start collecting the shekels 30 days prior, on the 1st of Adar.2

Why Before Purim?

In the absence of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, there is no half-shekel levy. Nevertheless, there is an old custom, mentioned in the post-Talmudic work Masechet Soferim, which not only describes the custom, but also connects it with Purim:

On the first of the month of Adar, a proclamation is made concerning the giving of the [half-]shekels. Why on the first of Adar? [This is based on the Talmud’s statement:] “He at whose word the world came into being knew in advance that Haman would one day pay shekels [to King Achashveirosh] for the destruction of Israel. He therefore anticipated his shekels with those of Israel.”3

Thus, all Jews need to give their shekels before Parshat Zachor, and it is forbidden to say that they are for atonement [implying that this is fulfilling the actual mitzvah of giving a half-shekel to the Temple]; rather they are just a charitable donation.4

Masechet Soferim is clearly referring not to the Temple-era shekels, but to a custom from a later period, something that was already in widespread practice at that time.

Why on the Fast of Esther?

The widespread custom is to give the half-shekel before Minchah on the fast of Esther, right before Purim.5 This practice reflects the above idea that the shekels of the Jewish people counteracted the shekels that Haman gave to have them annihilated.6

However, even when Purim is on a Sunday and the Fast of Esther advanced to the preceding Thursday (i.e., not immediately preceding Purim), the custom is to still give them on the day of the fast. This is because fasting coupled with charity is especially potent.7

Why Three Half-Shekels?

The basic explanation for why it is customary to give three half-shekels is that the Torah portion that mandates the half-shekel contains the word terumah (“offering”) three times.8 Others explain that it corresponds to the three times it says the words machatzit hashekel (“half-shekel”).9

Three Fasts

The Lubavitcher Rebbe provides another connection. On fast days, the rabbis recommend that a person donate the amount of money he would have spent on his daily meal to charity. Thus, the fast day does not simply pad your bank account, but actually goes to help someone in need. In the Megillah, before Esther approached the king to invite him to her private party (which ultimately led to Haman’s downfall), she told Mordechai: “Go, assemble all the Jews who are present in Shushan and fast on my behalf, and neither eat nor drink for three days . . .”10 In memory of those three fasts, we give charity in threes.11