The Half-Shekel

  • Harav Aharon Lichtenstein





With gratitude and in honor of the bar mitzva,
this year b'ezrat Hashem, of our twin sons,
Michael and Joshua - Steven Weiner and Lisa Wise







The Half-Shekel

Adapted by Zev Frimer

Translated by Kaeren Fish



“This shall they give, everyone who passes among those who are numbered: a half-shekel of the shekel of the Sanctuary – a shekel is twenty gera – a half-shekel as an offering to God… The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than a half-shekel, in giving the offering to God to make atonement for your souls. And you shall take the atonement money of Bnei Yisrael and shall dedicate it for the service of the Ohel Mo’ed, and it shall be for Bnei Yisrael as a memorial before God, to make atonement for your souls.” (Shemot 30:13-16)


Ramban (ad loc.) understands the verse, “The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than a half-shekel” as an absolute prohibition, such that someone who has not given his half-shekel, or who contributed some other amount, has transgressed a biblical prohibition. The gravity of this mitzva is also reflected in the Rambam’s words at the beginning of his Hilkhot Shekalim:


“It is a positive commandment from the Torah that every man of Israel should give a half-shekel each year. Even a person who is destitute and lives off charity is obligated: he asks others [to provide him with the required sum] or sells the garment over his shoulders, and gives a half-shekel of silver, as it is written: ‘The rich shall not give more, nor shall the poor give less.’”


This is the only commandment in the Torah that demands of a person who is poor to sell his very garments in order to fulfill it. This requires some explanation: what is so important about giving the half-shekel that a person who is destitute must go to such lengths for its sake?


We may perhaps suggest that since this silver is meant “as an atonement for your souls,” it is unthinkable for anyone to forego this mitzva, since there is no one who is not in need of atonement.


Furthermore, the atonement here is not a personalized one for each individual, but rather an atonement for Am Yisrael collectively. These half-shekels are used to purchase the animals used for the communal sacrifices, which effect atonement for the nation as a whole. Of course, it is unacceptable for a person to enjoy the result of this communal atonement without participating in the burden required to attain it.


However, we may also suggest a different explanation. There is another mitzva that likewise obligates even a poor person who is dependent upon charity:


“It is a positive commandment to give charity to the poor, in accordance with what the poor person requires… And how much? [Giving] up to a fifth of one’s assets is considered a choice fulfillment of the commandment; [giving] a tenth of one’s assets [is considered] average; any less is stingy. In any event, a person should not abstain from giving a third of a shekel each year. Anyone who gives less than this has not fulfilled the mitzva, and even a poor person who lives off charity is obligated to give charity to others.”  (Hilkhot Matenot Aniyim 7:1-5)


Once again we ask: why is it required even of a poor person, who is himself dependent on charity, to give charity to someone else? And what is the purpose of obligating him to give such a tiny sum – a third of a shekel – that the recipient will in any case not be able to benefit from it in any significant way?


The answer seems to be quite simple. Aside from the benefit enjoyed by the poor person who is the recipient of charity, we may also speak of another benefit – the educational benefit to the giver. The Halakha wants to ensure that every person will sometimes be obligated to emerge from the egocentric world in which he lives, look around him, and exert some effort on behalf of those who are downtrodden. Even if he is unable to provide significant help to these unfortunates, there can be no question that the very desire and effort to care for them has great educational value in his own life.


The same educational consideration underlies Chazal’s teaching (Sukka 49b):


“Rabbi Elazar said: Charity is repaid in accordance with the [measure of] kindness involved, as it is written: ‘Sow for yourselves according to your charity, but reap in accordance with your kindness’ (Hoshea 10:12).”


Rashi explains that the words “in accordance with kindness” refer to the degree of effort and attention that a person invests in giving charity:


“[Instead of telling the poor person to collect wheat from the field,] he brings it to his house… or gives him baked bread or a garment to wear, or gives him money at a time when wheat is abundant so that [the poor person] should not have to spend his own money – in other words, he considers and ponders what he can do to benefit the poor person.”


The emphasis here is not on the quality of the charity that the poor person receives, but rather on the measure of thought and effort that the giver invests in it. The reward to the giver of charity is in proportion to the level of attention that he devotes to the poor person, rather than to the sum that he gives. The Torah is concerned not only with fulfilling the physical needs and requirements of the poor, but also with causing people to show care and concern for the poor in their midst.


The Rishonim ask: Why does the Halakha require the court to force people to give charity (as stipulated in Bava Batra 8b)? After all, there is a principle that states that “for any commandment with a stated reward, the earthly court is not required to enforce it” (Chullin 110b), and the mitzva of charity appears in the Torah along with its reward: “For because of this thing the Lord your God will bless you in all of your endeavors…” (Devarim 15:10).


Various explanations have been proposed to resolve this question (see Tosafot, Bava Batra ad loc). Some explain (see Ritva on Ketuvot 49b) that in general the court does not force people to perform mitzvot that have a stated reward, since people could logically claim, “I choose not to perform the mitzva and not to receive the reward” – and that would be their own problem. However, when it comes to charity, such an argument is unacceptable, since we have a responsibility to take care of the needs of the poor.


In light of the above, we can offer another explanation: the court enforces the giving of charity not only out of concern for the poor, but also out of concern for the moral health of the population in general. The court, in its educational capacity, tries to help people uproot the egocentricity from their hearts and substitute for it kindness and a consciousness of the need to help others.


We may therefore count the mitzva of charity among those commandments that are meant to educate the person who fulfills them, as Ramban teaches on parashat Ki Tetze (Devarim 22:6):


“For the benefit in [fulfilling] the commandments is not to the Holy One, blessed be He, but rather to man himself, to prevent harm from coming to him or to prevent him from holding evil beliefs or possessing disgraceful traits… to remove from our hearts any evil beliefs and to make truth known to us and to remember it forever… to teach us positive traits… to purify our souls… that His creatures should be pure and refined, with no imperfections of wicked thoughts or improper traits.”


The same idea applies to the half-shekel. The half-shekels are meant not only to “make atonement for your souls” but also “for the service of the Ohel Mo’ed” – service which is meant to bring God’s Presence into the world. This is an important and honorable task which Am Yisrael accepted upon itself, and there is great value in each and every person participating in it – even if he is poor. Thus, even if practically there is little significance to the question of whether a poor person gives a half-shekel or not, from the educational point of view it is of great importance that every individual feels that he is participating in the mighty endeavor of bringing God’s Name and His Presence to dwell in the world.


(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat Parashat Shekalim 5760 [2000].)