The "Half Shekel": Individuality and Community in Am Yisrael

  • Harav Yehuda Amital
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

Student Summaries of Sichot of the Roshei Yeshiva
Yeshivat Har Etzion



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The "Half Shekel" – Individuality and Community in Am Yisrael

Summarized by Rami Yanai

Translated by Kaeren Fish



When you count the sum of Bnei Yisrael by their numbers… that there be no plague among them… this they shall give:… a half-shekel. (30:12-13)


At first, this command sounds very strange: why is the counting of Am Yisrael a matter of such gravity that if it is not performed in the proper way, it will bring severe punishment upon them – a plague? Furthermore, how does counting by means of half-shekels help to solve the problem?


Individuality and Commonality – Two Half-Shekels


In God's world there is nothing superfluous or repetitive. No creature is entirely like another. Each person has his or her own special personality, and each has his or her own individual path in the world. Every person also has his own special letter in the Torah, and his own special method of Torah study. Therefore, if we view a person as some arbitrary number, and declare him equal in value to some other person, what we are in fact saying is that he has no right to exist. A person who becomes a number in the midst of other numbers, loses his individuality; he loses what it is that makes him special, what gives meaning to his life. It is for this reason that the counting of Bnei Yisrael can bring a plague: counting may be interpreted as the erasing of the uniqueness of each and every individual in the Jewish nation, and this is indeed a grave act.


Despite all of the above, there is a part of a Jew that may be numbered. There is a "half" inside every individual in Israel, a part of his or her personality, in which he or she is equal to every other member of the nation of Israel; this is the very fact of one's Jewish identity. Every Jew, qua Jew, is special and different from everything else that God created in the world. This part of one's personality is antecedent to the part that makes every Jew different from his fellow, and it is this part that can be counted. The "count" refers to the common quality that is unique to Am Yisrael – the "half" of the personality that is symbolized by the half-shekel. It is specifically this half that may be counted. By counting the "half" that one shares in common with others, the other, unique "half" is awakened and given expression. A Jew who recognizes within himself that quality of being Jewish that makes him special, will also be able to arouse in himself the qualities that are unique to him alone: the personal talents and abilities that exist in the other half of his shekel, as it were.


Moshe and the Half-Shekel


In every generation there are great people, with special souls, who contain within themselves many other people; these are leaders who draw followers after them, or rabbis who attract disciples. These leaders succeed in enthusing others by knowing how to draw out a person's unique aspirations and views – because they contain those people's souls within themselves. Moshe Rabbeinu contained the souls of all of Israel within himself. He internalized the fact that "As their faces are different, so their views are different"; in this way, he managed to make room within himself for every view that existed amongst Am Yisrael. It was for this reason that his face shone and no one could behold him directly. One cannot look into the face of such a great person, who contains within himself so many souls.


At the beginning of our parasha, the Midrash provides a wonderful description of this quality of Moshe, and connects it with the command concerning the half-shekel – a command that highlights the uniqueness of each and every individual:


Moshe said to the Holy One, blessed be He: Master of the world, when I die, I shall not be remembered.

The Holy One said to him: By your life, just as you stand now and convey to them the commandment of the "shekalim," and you raise their heads, so each and every year when they read [this parasha] before Me, it will be as though you are standing there, at that time, raising their heads.

From where do we learn this? From what we read concerning the words, "God spoke to Moshe, saying: When you count the heads…." The Torah does not say, "Count the heads" (i.e., in the form of a command), but rather, "When you will count…" (hinting at a future event).


The Midrash emphasizes that the command concerning the shekalim, which Moshe conveyed to Israel, served to "raise their heads" – i.e., to give them dignity. This "raising of the heads" was caused by the half-shekel giving space to the uniqueness in every Jew. This was expressed in the fact that they were not counted by number; rather, they were counted by means of the "half" that every individual has in common with the rest of the nation, leaving him with the other half – i.e., the opportunity to develop his own individual personality. Moshe was the ideal leader, who knew how to achieve this balance in the best possible way, and succeeded in bringing these strengths to the fore and thereby "raising the people's heads."



(This sicha was delivered on Shabbat Parashat Ki Tisa 5733 [1973].)