The Half-Shekel

  • Rabbanit Sharon Rimon
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Parshat HaShavua
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The Half-Shekel

By Rabbanit Sharon Rimon



Parashat Ki-Tisa opens with the subject of the half-shekel (Shemot 30):


(11) God spoke to Moshe, saying:

(12) When you count the members of Bnei Yisrael by their number, then each man shall give a ransom for himself to God when you count them, that there be no plague among them when you count them.

(13) This they shall give, every one that passes among those who are counted: a half-shekel of the shekel of the Sanctuary – a shekel is twenty gera - a half-shekel offering to God.

(14) Every one that passes among those who are counted, from the age of twenty years upwards, shall give the offering to God.

(15) The rich shall not give more, nor shall the poor give less than a half-shekel, when giving the offering to God, to make atonement for yourselves.

(16) You shall take the atonement money of Bnei Yisrael and set it aside for the service of the Tent of Meeting, that it may be a memorial to Bnei Yisrael before God, to make atonement for yourselves.


What are Bnei Yisrael being commanded to do here? What is the purpose of giving a half-shekel?


The parasha opens with an introduction of the subject of the census: "When you count the members of Bnei Yisrael by their number (lifkudeihem)…." Further on, the root p-k-d appears another four times:


(12) …then each man shall give a ransom for himself to God when you count them

that there be no plague among them when you count them

(13) This they shall give, every one that passes among those who are counted

(14) Every one that passes among those who are counted, from the age of twenty years…


Clearly, the issue of counting is central to this unit. But is there actually a COMMAND TO HOLD A CENSUS?


If there is a command here then somewhere it must be fulfilled. And indeed, in Parashat Pekudei we find that the Torah records a census taking place (Shemot 38):


(25) The silver of those who were counted of the congregation was 100 talents and 1775 shekels of the shekel of the Sanctuary.

(26) A beka for each man – half-shekel, of the shekel of the Sanctuary – for all who passed among those who were counted, from the age of twenty years upwards, for 603,550 men.

(27) And the 100 talents of silver were used to cast the sockets of the Sanctuary…


In these verses we are told that a census was held, that the total number of men counted was 603,550 and, accordingly, that the amount of silver collected in the census was 100 talents and 1,775 shekels. (One talent = 3,000 shekels; the total amount collected was 301,775 shekels, if we multiply by two – since each person gave one half-shekel – we arrive at the number of people: 603,550.) This silver was used for making the sockets and hooks.




But the formulation of the verses in Ki-Tisa does not follow the regular pattern of a command: "WHEN (ki) you count the members of Bnei Yisrael…." In this verse, the word 'ki' means when, or if. This is not the usual language of a command. There is no instruction here to carry out a census; rather, the census is a description of the instance to which the command refers later on. What the verse means, then, is: "When you count Bnei Yisrael, every one shall give a ransom for himself [1]."


When we compare the language in Ki-Tisa with the language of the instruction to carry out a census at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar, the difference is striking:


In Bamidbar 1 we read:

(2) TAKE A CENSUS of all the congregation of Bnei Yisrael

(3) From twenty years and upwards, all those who are fit to go out to war in Israel YOU SHALL COUNT THEM by their hosts, you and Aharon….


The language of the command here is very clear: "Take" (in the imperative), "You shall count."


When we compare the language in Ki-Tisa to that in Bamidbar, it becomes immediately clear that the former is not meant as a command to hold a census [2]. As the Malbim explains:


"The wording in Ki-Tisa indicates something that is voluntary – 'If you wish to count.' It is not uttered in the imperative… This was only a notification for the future – 'If you need to do so, then….'"




If we want or need to conduct a census, a ransom must be given.


Does this command apply to every census, or is it specific to a certain census? According to most of the commentators, this is a permanent condition for any census. Rashi explains:


"If you wish to obtain the sum of their number, to know how many they are, do not count heads; rather, each should give a half-shekel, then you count the shekels and you know their number. 'That there be no plague among them' – for a sum total is susceptible to the evil eye, and then a plague will come upon them – as we find in the days of King David."


According to Rashi, the command is a fixed one. In every census, Bnei Yisrael are to be counted by means of half-shekels.


The Ramban similarly views Ki-Tisa as a general command as to the manner of conducting censes:


"The Holy One commanded Moshe: When you count Bnei Yisrael by their number, they must give a ransom for themselves [in the amount of] a half-shekel… THE RULE OF THIS COMMAND IS THAT WHEN YOU COUNT THEM YOU SHALL DO SO – THIS APPLIES TO EVERY CENSUS THAT IS CONDUCTED."


What is the reason for this command? Why must a half-shekel be given in every census? The reason is presented in the verses themselves, and heavily emphasized:


"Each man shall give A RANSOM FOR HIMSELF… that there not be among them A PLAGUE when you count them."


Twice more we find the expression "TO MAKE ATONEMENT FOR YOURSELVES," and the money itself is called "MONEY OF ATONEMENT."


The text indicates that a census is problematic – it may cause a plague, and in order to prevent that a ransom must be given.


Towards the end of King David's life (II Shemuel 24) the text describes a census that he conducted, in the wake of which a plague struck the nation. This story reinforces our perception of a census as being problematic.


What is the problem with a census? Why might it cause a plague? [3]


To Rashi's view, as quoted above, THE EVIL EYE PRESIDES OVER A COUNT. Therefore people must not be counted directly, but rather by means of some device: an object is to be taken from every person and then the objects are counted, rather than the people themselves. In this way the evil eye does not come to control the people being counted. To Rashi's view, the half-shekel is the means by which the Torah commands us to count.


The Abarbanel provides a lengthy explanation of how the evil eye gains control when people are counted by heads and why it is therefore better that they be numbered by means of something else [4].


In Tanakh we find evidence of counting by means of other devices. In the war against Amalek, we read (I Shemuel 15:4):


"Shaul gathered the people and counted them with lambs ('tela'im'): 200,000 foot-soldiers and 10,000 men of Yehuda."


Shaul counted the people by means of lambs; each gave a lamb, and then these were counted.


When Shaul wages war against Nachash, King of Ammon, we read (I Shemuel 11:8):


"He counted them in Bezek, and Bnei Yisrael were 300,000, and the men of Yehuda – 30,000."


Some commentators understand "Bezek" as the name of the place, but Rashi explains:


"'He counted them in Bezek' – Our Sages taught: WITH SHARDS OF POTTERY. Or: WITH STONES – i.e., he took a stone from each of them and counted them, as in 'He counted them with lambs' (I Shemuel 15:4), where he took a lamb from each and counted them, JUST AS THEY USED TO BE COUNTED USING HALF-SHEKELS."


According to these sources, THE PROBLEM IS A DIRECT COUNTING OF PEOPLE. A direct count causes the evil eye to preside over them, and thus a plague is brought about.


How does the half-shekel prevent this problem? THE HALF-SHEKEL IS A MEANS OF COUNTING. The people are counted using this means, and thus the evil eye is kept away [5].


But, as we have seen, the poskim emphasize that the aim of the half-shekel is a 'ransom for the individual, or "to atone for yourselves." Thus it would seem that the purpose is to atone for some sin [6]. In other words, THE COUNTING ITSELF IS PROBLEMATIC, and therefore an atonement is required when the nation is counted. Hence, it makes no difference whether we count heads or some representative device; IT IS THE ACTUAL COUNTING OF THE NATION THAT IS PROBLEMATIC.


What is the problem with counting?


The Malbim proposes three different reasons for the plague that arises from counting. One of these reasons is:


"So long as the nation is united and they are all like a single man, the merit of the many is very great. But when they are numbered, such that each person is regarded individually, and their deeds are scrutinized, then the plague controls them."


According to this explanation, the problem with counting is that people are separated, so that each stands alone and is judged according to his own actions, without having collective merit protecting him. Thus, they end up guilty according to strict justice, and are punished.


The half-shekel therefore atones for the sins that would otherwise bring punishment.


This explanation gives rise to two questions:


- Is it possible that the majority of people would emerge guilty by law, and that only collective merit protects them?

- Why is the census perceived as separating people? The point of counting would seem to be quite the opposite – it joins all of them into a single entity that numbers such-and-such. The counting does not highlight the unique status or situation of each individual, but does precisely the opposite: it joins them all together on a common basis [7].


We may explain the problematic nature of the census in a different way. Rabbeinu Bechaye writes [8]:


"BLESSING IS FOUND NOT IN THAT WHICH HAS BEEN MEASURED, NOR IN THAT WHICH HAS BEEN COUNTED, BUT RATHER ONLY IN THAT WHICH IS HIDDEN FROM THE EYE… For hidden miracles happen every day, in things which ARE NOT COUNTED AND MEASURED. For if blessing came upon that which was counted, it would not be a hidden miracle but rather a revealed one, and not every person is worthy of experiencing revealed miracles… And for this reason the Torah commands that Israel not be counted by head, but rather using shekels, in order that blessing rest upon them with the increase of their children through hidden miracles, and that the evil eye not control them, for it rules over that which is counted…."


The problem with numbering is that when the nation is counted, their sum is fixed, as it were, at a certain total, and this prevents blessing from resting upon them. There is no room, as it were, for the showering of God's abundance [9].


According to all of these commentators, Parashat Ki-Tisa conveys a commandment FOR ALL GENERATIONS: every time the nation of Israel is counted, THEY ARE TO BE NUMBERED USING SHEKELS, because direct counting is problematic.


Do we find that, further on in history, Bnei Yisrael were indeed always counted by means of a half-shekel?


In the census recorded at the beginning of Sefer Bamidbar, no mention whatsoever is made of the half-shekel. Again in the census at the beginning of parashat Pinchas and in other censuses in Tanakh, there is similarly no hint of the matter.


Rashi addresses this question, in his commentary on verse 15 of our parasha and on Bamidbar chapter 1. To his view, God commanded in Parashat Ki-Tisa that a census always be conducted using a half-shekel, and therefore there is no need to mention it over again each time. It is clear that the census was always taken by means of a half-shekel. And when, in the days of King David, the nation was counted without the shekels – they were punished.


But other commentators maintain that no mention is made of the half-shekel in the other censuses because the command in our parasha was a ONE-TIME requirement, only for a specific census, and not for all future generations [10].


The Abarbanel proposes, as mentioned above, that the evil eye does indeed prevail over a count, and therefore a ransom must be brought during the census in order to prevent harm. But this applies ONLY TO AN INSTANCE WHERE THE NATION IS COUNTED WITHOUT ANY DIVINE COMMAND TO DO SO. When GOD COMMANDS that the nation be counted, IT IS NOT POSSIBLE FOR ANY HARM to be caused by the evil eye or by anything else, and therefore in such a case there is no need for a ransom.  Therefore, in the censuses conducted in Sefer Bamidbar, no half-shekel ransom was taken. AND FOR THIS REASON THIS COMMAND IS NOT INCLUDED IN THE LIST OF 613 COMMANDMENTS (because it is not a command for all generations).




Let us take another look at the verses:


We have seen that the roots p-k-d and k-p-r feature prominently. We understand that the purpose of giving the half-shekel is AS ATONEMENT FOR THE CENSUS.


Further examination of the verses reveals that this unit contains another theme. Another expression that is repeated here is "offering to God." Three times, in verses 13-15, the Torah repeats and emphasizes that the half-shekel is given as an offering to God. And in verse 16, which summarizes the unit, we read that the money is given "for the service of the Tent of Meeting."


The first time that the half-shekel is mentioned is in verse 13, where we read: "This they shall give, every one that passes among those who are counted: a half-shekel of the shekel of the Sanctuary – a shekel is twenty gera; a half-shekel offering to God." In other words, the first time that the half-shekel is mentioned, we are not told that it is "to atone for yourselves," or a "ransom for himself," but rather that it is an offering to God!


This being so, it would appear that the half-shekel includes an aspect that we have not yet addressed: it is an offering to God.




Upon examination we find that the issue of the offering to God is also central to the unit:


- The first time that mention is made of the half-shekel we are told that it is an "offering to God"

- The expression "offering to God" is repeated three times, and in addition we are told that the money is given for the service of the Tent of Meeting

- This parasha is located in the midst of all the commandments concerning the building of the Mishkan, which serves to reinforce our impression that this unit, too, is principally about a contribution to the Mishkan.

- In chapter 38, in the description of the actual performance of the census, there is no description of the census itself. Rather, in the midst of the sum total of all the contributions to the Mishkan we also find the amount of silver collected from the census; the census is mentioned only in passing.

- Finally, the list of commandments does not include a command to count Bnei Yisrael by means of a half-shekel, but it does include a command to contribute a half-shekel to the Sanctuary every year:

"It is a positive command from the Torah for every man of Israel to give a half-shekel each year…."

(Rambam, Laws of Shekels, chapter 1, law 1)


Thus, our parasha has two aspects to it: an offering to God and a census.


If the crux of the matter is that an offering should be given to God – a contribution to the Mishkan/Temple – then why is it presented as an offering that arises from the census?

And if the major issue is the census, what is the subject of a census doing here, in the middle of the sections dealing with the Mishkan?


The Netziv and Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, commenting on this parasha, both propose that these are two separate subjects. They demonstrate that the text is talking about A CONTRIBUTION FOR TWO DIFFERENT PURPOSES:


- The one is "AN OFFERING TO GOD," a contribution for the requirements of the Sanctuary, with no connection to census and atonement.

- The other is "MONEY OF ATONEMENT," which comes to atone for the census.


These commentators base their interpretation on the strong impression that the text here incorporates two matters of equal weight: an offering to God, and a census. But the Torah COMBINES THESE TWO ASPECTS of the half-shekel, to the extent that at first we do not even realize that the text is talking about two separate matters.


This being so, the half-shekel is presented as A SINGLE OFFERING with TWO PURPOSES. One is as atonement for the census, the other is as an offering to God.


Are these two purposes in any way connected to one another?


The Netziv maintains that the two are not necessarily connected. The offering to God is a fixed matter – it is given every year, while the donation of the money of atonement – from which the sockets of the Mishkan were fashioned – was a one-time offering in the wake of the census conducted at that time.


But, as we have seen, most of the commentators are of the view that our text is not speaking about a one-time event, but rather a permanent command for all generations, arising from the fundamental problem of conducting a census. If so, THE CONNECTION BETWEEN THE ATONEMENT FOR THE CENSUS AND THE OFFERING TO GOD IS A FUNDAMENTAL ONE. What is this connection?


Let us return to the Abarbanel, who posits that the problem arises specifically in the context of a census initiated by man, but not in a census conducted at God's command.


WHY DO PEOPLE WANT TO CONDUCT A CENSUS? In general, the purpose of a census is ORGANIZATIONAL. In order to run a country properly, it is necessary to obtain population statistics – in order to divide the tax burden, to provide optimal organization of services to the citizenry, etc.


The censuses most prevalent in Tanakh are MILITARY CENSUSES, conducted just prior to going out to war, and there seems to be no problem with these.


The story of the census at the end of David's life describes a different situation. Here the nation is not going out to war; there is no need for any special organization. David simply wants to number the people.


The Radak explains: "Our Rabbis taught: So long as Israel were counted for some reason, they were not deficient. Where there was no reason, they were deficient – as in the days of David…."


This census ended in a plague, which teaches us that this census was indeed problematic. Why?


Yoav senses the problem immediately when David asks him to carry out the census:


(3) "Yoav said to the King: May the Lord God multiply the people a hundred times over, and may my master, the King, see it – why does my master the King desire this thing?"


David, it turns out, has no special reason for numbering the people. He wants to count them because he believes that they are many, and he wants to enjoy the sense of ruling over a large nation. This, it appears, is the source of the problem.


The Abarbanel explains: "David's heart struck him when he perceived his sin IN BECOMING PROUD concerning his nation and his inheritance, and his heart had turned from God, Who was his true help…."


The Ralbag describes David's sin in similar terms: "Behold, the sin lay in the number, as I understand it, for this shows that David was PUTTING HIS FAITH IN THE SHEER NUMBER OF THE NATION, but he should have had faith only in the blessed God…."


COUNTING THE NATION CONVEYS A SENSE OF POWER – PERHAPS EVEN PRIDE. When going out to war and counting the soldiers for this purpose, there is a similar danger of creating a sense of reliance upon human strength - the number of soldiers - instead of relying upon and trusting God. While we obviously have no choice - sometimes a census must be conducted – there is a danger that the census will imbue the nation with an improper sense of pride, and it is this that causes the plague. Therefore, it is specifically when conducting a census that we must remember Who it is that gives us the "strength to perform this valor."


How is a census to be performed in the proper manner, so as to avoid a sense of "My strength and the power of my hand…"?

God teaches us the proper way of conducting the census: it must be conducted along with an offering to God, reminding us Who made us numerous, Who gave us the power to succeed.


In PARASHAT KI-TISA, among all the commands concerning the building of the Mishkan, God commands us to number the people by means of giving an offering to God, in order to remind us – specifically during the census – the place of the Divine Presence amongst Israel, the dependence upon God, the need to turn to Him.


And Moshe demonstrates how such a census is performed, how THE COUNTING OF THE NATION IS COMBINED WITH THE BUILDING OF THE MISHKAN.


In SEFER BADMIDBAR there is a census, but no mention is made of the half-shekel. Why? Because in Sefer Bamidbar it is God Who commands the census, hence there is no danger. Why not? The Abarbanel explains that when God wants a census and He commands us to perform it, no harm can come to the nation, because God is protecting us. But according to what we have said above, we may explain that Am Yisrael will not be harmed because THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH SUCH A CENSUS. It does not arise from a human desire to discover how powerful the nation is; rather, it is a response to Divine command, and this can never be a problem. Moreover, the census in Bamidbar concerns the organization of the camp of Israel and the establishment of the area of the Divine Presence in its midst. Once again: when there is a strong connection between the census of the nation and the place of the Divine Presence within their camp, the census is not problematic in any way.


In the time of KING DAVID, as we have seen, the census was taken without any organizational need, without any Divine command, and without the donation of the half-shekel, which would remind the nation of God during the course of the census. Such a counting, which amplifies the sense of human pride, is problematic, and therefore it ends in a plague.


What was the rectification for the census, what stopped the plague? The plague stopped when DAVID PURCHASED THE FUTURE SITE OF THE TEMPLE AND BUILT AN ALTAR TO GOD.


Once again, we see the connection between the offering made to God's Sanctuary and the solution to the problem of the census.


This connection is no accident. An offering to God – an approach to God via the Sanctuary – shows that a person understands that in truth there is no significance to the numerical number; the power to perform valor lies with God.


Within an atmosphere such as this, there is no problem with a census, and the plague is stayed.


The giving of the half-shekel is not merely an external atonement for a problem that is created by the census. Rather, it is given as AN OFFERING TO GOD THAT REPAIRS THE FUNDAMENTAL PROBLEM ARISING FROM THE CENSUS.


The offering turns the census from an expression or harbinger of the sense of "my power and the strength of my hand…" into an act expressing recognition of the centrality of God.


Thus, there is no problem with counting; we may even go further and say that the army of the people becomes the army of God.


The very census itself becomes an offering to God.





[1] There are many commandments that are introduced with the word "ki," in the sense of "when" or "if," and all include the description of a situation, followed by the command as to how to proceed in that instance. For example, Vayikra 25:25: "If your brother becomes poor and he sells some of his possession, then his nearest kinsman shall come and redeem that which his brother sold." The text is certainly not commanding anyone to be poor, nor stipulating that a poor man must sell some of his possessions! The command, of course, concerns the redemption of that which was sold. IF someone sells his possession, then his kinsmen are commanded to redeem. The same applies in the case of Devarim 24, which discusses divorce. There is no commandment to hate one's wife, or to divorce here; rather, the command concerns the manner in which the divorce is carried out, along with a prohibition to remarry a wife that one divorced if she has been married to someone else. There are many other such examples.

[2] This raises the question: if there is no command, then why is this census carried out by Moshe, as described in Parashat Pekudei?

Quite simply, we may explain that Moshe himself wished to conduct the census, for whatever reason, and he did so in the manner commanded by God. To the Ramban's view, the command is not to conduct a census right now, but rather a general command meaning that whenever Bnei Yisrael are counted, a ransom of a half-shekel should be given. Moshe understood, on the basis of this command, that he should also arrange a census right then.

[3] Cassuto notes: "In Mesopotamia, census activities involves a religious purification ceremony, and this ceremony was awarded such great importance that the entire census was named after it. This was apparently because a census was considered a sort of sin, a lack of faith in the deity, and therefore it was appropriate that it be accompanied by a ceremony of atonement and purification from the sin. A similar approach is reflected in the Israelite tradition; therefore, this is a ransom that must be given at the time of the census, and again it is written, 'That there be no plague among them when you count them.' In other words, by means of giving this ransom Bnei Yisrael will be saved from the punishment that may have befallen them because of the sin inherent in conducting the census."

It is possible that a belief of this sort was indeed prevalent in those times, but since the Torah was written by God and not by humans, we understand that THE HOLY ONE HIMSELF TESTIFIES THAT A CENSUS IS PROBLEMATIC, AND THEREFORE WE MUST TRY TO UNDERSTAND WHAT THE ESSENTIAL PROBLEM IS.

[4] Further on, the Abarbanel disagrees with Rashi – see more on this below.

[5] Must the means be a half-shekel? According to the narratives quoted from I Shemuel, it would seem that other devices may also be used. But from the text in Ki-Tisa, and from Rashi's explanation ad loc., our impression is that the counting should be done specifically by means of a half-shekel and not any other device.

[6] "Ransom" (kofer) is money that is given to redeem a person from the punishment of death, as we learn from the verses in Bamidbar 35:31-32: "You shall not take a ransom for the life of a murderer, who is guilty of death, for he shall surely be put to death." Likewise in Shemot 21:30.

The expression "to atone" (le-khaper) means to remove sin, as we learn from a great number of sources (particularly in Sefer Vayikra). For example, Vayikra 4:20 – "The kohen shall make atonement for them and they shall be forgiven." The Ramban, commenting on Shemot 21:30, connects the two concepts: "'If a ransom be placed upon him' – because the ransom (kofer) is an atonement (kapara), in the same manner as the sacrifices…."

[7] When we compare the counting in Sefer Shemot and the counting in Sefer Bamidbar, we note two differences. In the former counting the people gave a half-shekel, and the census is a general one, to find out how many people comprise the entire nation. In Bamidbar, there is no mention of giving a half-shekel, and the census is not merely a general one, to find out the total number of the members of the nation, but a detailed survey: "By their families, by their households, by the number of their names, every male by their heads." It is specifically in the detailed census of each person individually that the half-shekel is not given, while in the general census they do give the half-shekel!

[8] The same idea appears in the commentaries of the Chizkuni and of the Malbim, and it is based upon the teaching of Chazal in Talmud Bavli, Massekhet Ta'anit 8b: "Rabbi Yitzchak said: Blessing is found only in that which is hidden from the eye, as it is written: 'God will command the blessing upon you in your barns….' The Rabbis taught: One who comes in to measure [the produce of] his threshing floor says, 'May it be Your will, Lord our God, that you send a blessing upon the word of our hands.' Once he starts measuring, he says; 'Blessed is He Who sends blessing upon this heap." One who measures and then afterwards recites a blessing – this is a blessing uttered in vain. BECAUSE BLESSING IS FOUND NOT IN SOMETHING THAT IS ALREADY WEIGHED, NOR SOMETHING ALREADY MEASURED, NOR IN SOMETHING ALREADY COUNTED, BUT ONLY IN THAT WHICH IS HIDDEN FROM THE EYE."

[9] How does the half-shekel help? Rabbeinu Bechaye repeats Rashi's explanation: if we count using shekels rather than numbering the people directly, God's blessing may continue to prevail amongst them.

This solution is not entirely clear, since Rabbeinu Bechaye suggests that the fundamental problem of knowing the number of the people is what prevents the blessing from prevailing among them. How, then, does counting by means of some other device evade the problem?

[10] See Rashbam and Chizkuni on verse 12.



Translated by Kaeren Fish