“On the first of the month of Adar, a proclamation is made about the giving of the shekalim.”1

The Torah mandates that each Jew contribute a half-shekel each year to the Temple, for its operating expenses (purchasing animals for sacrifices, etc.) and upkeep; when necessary, the coins were also used to take a census (as counting Jews directly is prohibited). We read this portion each year on or before the first day of Adar, as a commemoration of this mitzvah.

The haftarah for this Shabbat recounts the story of the collection of the shekalim in the time of Jehoash, king of Judah.

Historical background

It was a few generations after the split between the kingdoms of Judah and Israel. Although for most of their history the two kingdoms opposed each other, coexistence did prevail in the days of Kings Jehoram of Israel and Jehoram of Judah. This had much to do with the fact the two Jehorams were brothers-in-law: Jehoram of Judah had married Athaliah, the daughter of Ahab, the father of Jehoram of Israel.

Athaliah was a thoroughly wicked woman. Ahab, her father, was of the most infamous kings that Israel ever saw. Moreover, she had grown up in the same home as Ahab’s wife, Jezebel, the primary influence on Ahab’s sinful ways.2 Now married to a Judean king, she became a bad influence on her husband, whose deeds then became similar to those of his father-in-law, Ahab.

After the death of Jehoram of Judah, his son Ahaziah became king. His mother, Athaliah, again influenced him to lead a life replicating that of Ahab and Jehoram.

The leading prophet at the time was Elisha. One day, Elisha called for one of his students and gave him a G‑dly but dangerous mission: “Gird your loins and take this cruse of oil in your hand, and go to Ramoth-Gilead.” There he was to anoint Jehu ben Nimshi, an important general in the army of Israel, as the new king. This was to be G‑d’s retribution for all the actions of Jehoram, and of his parents, Ahab and Jezebel. (Our sages say that this student messenger was the prophet Jonah, then a disciple of Elisha.)

For the inner circle of power in the Israelite kingdom, this was just what they were waiting for. After pressuring Jehu to reveal to them what this young stranger had told him, they immediately and unanimously proclaimed Jehu as king. At the time, Jehoram of Israel was recovering from wounds sustained in a battle with Aram, and Ahaziah of Judah, his nephew, had come to be with him. Jehu and his cohorts stampeded straight to Jezreel, where both kings were to be found. Before long, the kings of Judah and Israel—both of them descendants of Ahab and followers of his evil ways—lay dead. The old queen Jezebel was still alive; Jehu made his way to the palace and disposed of her as well.

While Jehu had taken the throne in Israel, the kingdom of Judah found itself without a king. Athaliah, the mother of Ahaziah, decided to seize the moment. Now that her son Ahaziah had died, she viciously went and killed every member of the royal family—her family—who could possibly make a claim to the throne. There was no force strong enough to resist this evil woman as she proclaimed herself queen of Judah. The rampage of murder that she had led almost entirely wiped out the descendants of King David, which would have brought an end to his dynasty. In fact, however, there was one survivor left.

Ahaziah had a sister called Jehosheba. As all the members of the family were being killed, she smuggled out Ahaziah’s son Jehoash (Yehoash), a baby just recently born to Ahaziah’s wife Tziviah. Jehosheba rushed the boy and his nurse to the one place she knew they would be safe—the attic that was above the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Jehoash remained there in hiding for six years. Jehosheba was particularly familiar with the Temple because it was also her home; her husband, Jehoiada (Yehoyada), was the high priest, and they lived within the Temple complex.

After Jehoash turned seven years old, Jehoiada deemed that the time was ripe to act. He called for some of the important generals of the military, as well as the “runners” of the palace, and when they came he showed them the young Jehoash. Now that there was a scion of King David and an authentic heir to the throne who was still alive, the men were all more than willing to cooperate in deposing Athaliah.

An elaborate guard was put into place, consisting of three battalions of the mightiest men in the Judean army. At the appointed time, Jehoiada brought the boy out and crowned him king with the original crown that had belonged to King David. All the assembled applauded wildly and shouted, “Long live the king!” Athaliah, hearing the commotion, went out to see what had happened. She entered the Temple only to behold the sight of the young king standing on the platform and the entire people celebrating around him. She tore her garments and began to scream, “A revolt! A revolt!” Jehoiada commended the military to seize her, along with anyone who would come to her aid, and kill them outside the Temple.

The covenants, and the renovation of the Temple

It is at this point in the story that our haftarah begins. Jehoiada made two covenants with the people on that day. The first was a covenant with G‑d: both the king and his subjects would from now on remain faithful to the Torah and its commandments. Athaliah, like her parents, had been an ardent follower of the Baal deity, whose culture was accompanied by much licentiousness and an immoral lifestyle. Now that they swore to be faithful to G‑d, the people destroyed the house of worship of Baal and killed its chief priest, Matan. Jehoash himself would actually remain faithful to G‑d, at least as long as his mentor Jehoiada was alive.

The second covenant made on that day was between the new king and the people. They swore to be faithful to the king, and he to them.

The first and primary endeavor of Jehoash that Scripture records was the restoration and upkeep of the Temple. Athaliah and her sons had robbed and vandalized the Temple of G‑d, and there was an immediate need for renovation work. The system Jehoash originally put in place was that the work on the Temple would be the responsibility of the kohanim. They, in turn, would be able to keep all donations that came into the Temple in this regard—whether from the mandatory half-shekels every Jew gave annually, or from private donations. Each individual kohen had the right to keep money that came from his acquaintances. The plan was that in this way the Temple structure would not be dependent on the generosity of the people, for it would be the responsibility of the kohanim.

This system, which seemed to work in the beginning, was soon seen to be deficient. For some reason, the Temple building was not being kept up properly. This was either because the donations that came in did not match up to the need, or possibly because, as Jehoash suspected, some kohanim were pocketing the money. So Jehoash changed the system. From now on, all monies that came in for the Temple upkeep were to go directly to fund this endeavor, and the necessary funds would just need to flow in.

To this end, Jehoiada made what is probably the earliest recorded form of a tzedakah box: “Jehoiada the priest took a chest and bored a hole in its door, and he placed it near the altar, on the right, where one enters the house of the L‑rd. The priests, the guards of the threshold, would put all the money that was brought into the house of the L‑rd into there.” When the chest was full, it was opened and the funds distributed to the various contractors who would purchase the materials and perform the maintenance. As long as renovations were still necessary, the money was to be spent strictly on that, and not for any ornamental vessels of gold, silver and the like.

The haftarah notes the fact that those who were charged with distributing the money were trusted to such a degree that they did not need to present an accounting of their expenditures, “for they did the work honestly.”

Finally, although the kohanim no longer took donations for themselves, there was still an avenue left open for them to make some extra shekels. The law is that if a person consecrated a sum of money to pay for an offering, and the cost of the offering comes out to be less than he intended, the remainder of the money still retains sacrificial status. The kohanim would take this money and purchase animals with it. After bringing them as a sacrifice, they were able to keep the hides and sell them for a profit.