Saturday, February 13, 2010

Shabbat Shekalim

Today we are celebrating a special Shabbat. It goes by three different names. It is Shabbat Mishpatim, pointing to the Parashah, which is composed of a myriad of laws Moses lists for the Israelites after receiving the Ten Commandments. It is also called Shabbat Mevarchim Rosh Chodesh, which is the name for any Shabbat preceding a new month. Tonight as the sun sets the month of Adar begins, bringing with it the joy of Purim, as it says in the Talmud, Mishenichnas Adar marbim b’simchah, “Whoever enters Adar, their joy is increased.”
Today is also Shabbat Shekalim. This is the extra-special name given to Shabbat Mevrachim Rosh Chodesh Adar. It is the first of four special Shabbatot leading up to Pesach—(Shekalim, Zachor, Parah, Hachodesh).

Named after the special verse that is sometimes added to the end of the regular Torah reading. It comes from Exod. 30:11, which discusses the census of the Israelites, measured by each person giving a half-Shekel for their counting (Plaut 632).

11 God spoke to Moses, saying: 12 When you take a census of the Israelite
people according to their enrollment, each shall pay Adonai a ransom for himself
on being enrolled, that no plague may come upon them through their being
enrolled. 13 This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall
pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight -- twenty gerahs to the shekel -- a
half-shekel as an offering to the LORD. 14 Everyone who is entered in the
records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give Adonai’s offering: 15
the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel
when giving Adonai’s offering as expiation for your persons. 16 You shall
take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the
Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before Adonai, as
expiation for your persons.

At its simplest level, this is a census with taxes. The taxes go to support the governing body, which in the case of the Torah is the Mishkan. Later, this would be given to the Temple. So right around this time of year, Shabbat Shekalim, the census takers would go around from tent to tent or house to house and collect a half-shekel from each person. By the time the month was over they would be finished, and taxes could be paid. The significance of it taking a month is that next month’s Rosh Chodesh—the first of Nissan—is described in the Talmud as the New Year for Kings and the calendar. This was the day when taxes were due. Not too far off from April 15th even today—especially next year on a Hebrew leap year.

In the Middle Ages, the Jewish Community was granted a certain amount of autonomy as long as it paid its taxes. They would conduct a census and collect taxes from everyone in the community throughout the month of Adar. This was especially easy because nobody would want to miss Purim. Once the taxes were collected, a representative from the Jewish Community would take the money to the king. As a community, we regularly paid on time. Any Jewish family who could not afford or was lax in paying taxes was dealt with within the community. If a poor family was missing a few ocins, a rich family would kick n a few extra. The king’s tax collectors never knew anything except the Jews pay on time. This is actually a double savings because it means the kingdom gets its taxes in full from a whole city, and no money needed to be spent on tax collection and enforcement for that city. This practice is one of the major contributing factors to Jewish survival for two thousand years. We were a financial boon for any kingdom, so we were left alone.

Looking a little closer at the text, we can find a little more than just instructions on how to pay taxes. Take a look at verse 15: The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving Adonai’s offering as expiation for your persons. A half shekel was practically nothing to the rich and not too bad for the poor. Everyone could find a half-shekel to pay. Even those in the community who panhandled for a living could find a half-shekel to give to the Tabernacle. So no-one was allowed to give more or less than the prescribed amount.

This is one of the stranger dictates of the Torah. It would seem better to practice the way we did in the Middle Ages, and allow the poor to get by while the rich cover for them. That is because the purpose is of collecting a half-Shekel is not monetary. Collecting exactly the same amount from every Israelite served the purpose of counting. As it says in the beginning of the pericope, “when you take a census.” So the reason a rich person does not pay more and a poor person does not pay less is twofold.

First, it could mess up the census! If some people were paying more or less it makes it way harder to count the number of Israelites. Each half-Shekel was one person. It keeps things simple.

The 19th Century scholar Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch sees another side of the half-Shekel. According to him, “The equal participation of all the Israelites symbolizes that all Jews must share in achieving national goals. One who does so gains infinite benefit, because the mission of Israel is dependent upon the unity of the whole.”

In our community, no person’s work is more significant than another. No person is any more or less important than another. When we all put the same effort toward the goals of our community, we naturally become stronger and more likely to achieve our goals. The best part about this is that it doesn’t take much. As I mentioned before, a half-Shekel was something the poorest in the community was able to pay. We only need a little effort, but if everyone participates, we will be the strongest community the world has ever known.