The Half-Shekel of Silver

  • Rav Michael Hattin






Dedicated in memory of 
Joseph Y. Nadler, z”l, Yosef ben Yechezkel Tzvi


The Half-Shekel of Silver

By Rav Michael Hattin





            Parashat Ki Tisa begins with preparations for the construction of the Mishkan continuing apace.  First, the Torah introduces the half-shekel of silver that is to be collected from every adult male over the age of twenty, with the precious metal to be utilized for the building effort about to commence.  Next, the bronze laver is described, a large container of water with multiple spigots, to be placed upon a stationary base of bronze and located between the building proper and the bronze altar that is situated in the courtyard.   Every ministering Kohen must wash his hands and his feet from it before entering the Mishkan or performing the sacrificial service. 


            Afterwards, the Torah spells out the detailed and exacting provisions of the anointing oil and the incense, with both of them incorporating a long list of prized spices.  The former is to be used to inaugurate the new vessels as well as the Kohanim at the dedication ceremony of the Mishkan while the latter is to be offered twice daily, upon the small golden altar that is situated just opposite the dividing curtain that guards the Holy of Holies.  Finally, the Torah introduces by name the chief artisans selected to execute the actual construction of the Mishkan vessels and building elements, and then the section concludes with a solemn reference to the Shabbat, for the sanctity of that awesome day is not to be compromised even by the holy task of building God's house. 





            This week, we will consider the opening of the Parasha, namely the mitzva of the half-shekel and its treatment by the commentaries.  We begin by quoting the relevant passage in its entirety:


God spoke to Moshe saying: When you count the people according to their numbers then each man shall give atonement for his soul to God when you count them, so that there shall not be any plague among them when you count them.  This is what each one who is counted shall give: a half-shekel weighed by the standard of the holy shekel, twenty gerahs is one shekel and they shall give a half-shekel as an offering to God.  Each one who is counted from above the age of twenty shall present this offering of God.  The wealthy shall not exceed nor shall the poor fall short of a half-shekel, to give the offering of God in order to atone for their souls.  You shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and you shall assign it to the work of the Tent of Meeting, and it shall serve the people of Israel as a memorial before God to atone for their souls (Shemot 30:11-16).


Before considering the specific provisions of the mitzva, we note that the above text contains a number of emphatic repetitions.  The half-shekel amount is recorded no less than three times, as is the mention of the people of Israel, "an offering to God" and the reference to "atonement for the soul."  Additionally, the passage is appropriately concluded by a further reference to "atonement money," thus underlying the importance of the theme.  The most oft-repeated phrase in the passage, however, relates to the act of counting and being counted, from the Hebrew root P-K-D that in other contexts often has the sense of "being remembered or brought to mind."  Recall, for instance, that Yosef at the time of his demise had extracted an oath from the children of Israel that when God would "surely remember them" ("PaKoD yiFKoD") to bring them forth out of Egypt, they would take his bones with them (Bereishit 50:25).





            The provision of the half-shekel, like all of the other items enumerated in the opening paragraphs of the Parasha, had special relevance for the task at hand, namely the construction of the Mishkan about to commence.  Though Parashat Teruma was silent concerning the connection, it emerges from the later discussion in Parashat Pekudei that the collected silver was ultimately used for the fashioning of the sockets serving as the bases for the thick planks of acacia wood constituting the building's walls.  The silver sockets themselves had been earlier described in Parashat Teruma as square extrusions that were placed side by side to receive the square double pegs that constituted the base of the boards (Shemot 26:15-25), but it is not until Parashat Pekudei that the Torah informs us about the source of the material used in their construction:


The silver from the counting of the congregation totaled 100 talents, and an additional 1,775 shekels, weighed according to the standard of the holy shekel.  One half per head, a half-shekel weighed in accordance with the standard of the holy shekel, for all those that were counted from the age of twenty and above, namely the 603,550 men.  These 100 talents were used to forge the sockets of the holy space as well as the sockets of the dividing curtain's pillars, 100 sockets for the 100 talents which is one talent per socket.  As for the remaining 1775 shekels, he used it to fashion hooks for the (courtyard) pillars as well as to plate their capitals and to form their decorative rings (Shemot 38:25-28).


The straightforward calculation is as follows: Rashi (11th century, France) informs us that a talent of silver equals 3000 shekels, so that 100 talents contain 300,000 shekels (commentary to 38:24).  This is of course equivalent to 600,000 half-shekels, roughly the same as the number of adult male Israelites above the age of twenty, according to the census preserved in Bemidbar 1:1-37.  The additional 3,550 men (above the 600,000) enumerated in that census each contributed a half-shekel, so that 1,775 whole shekels were ultimately collected from them (3,550 /2 = 1,775).  While the census of Bemidbar Chapter 1 took place a short time AFTER the completion of the Mishkan, we must assume according to this calculation that the number of Israelite males above the age of twenty that were counted in our census was the same.





            It is the Ramban (13th century, Spain) who pays special attention to our context and carefully compares it to the census recorded at the outset of Parashat Bemidbar:


God commanded Moshe that when he would count the people of Israel according to number that each one should provide a half-shekel as atonement for their souls.  He further instructed him to "take the atonement money from the people of Israel and to assign it to the work of the Tent of Meeting" (30:16), so that Moshe understood that he was to count them now.  So he did, as it states later on that "the silver from the counting of the congregation totaled 100 talents…" (38:25).  It was unnecessary to expound at length and to say "Now count them and assign the proceeds to the fashioning of the Mishkan" because the matter was self-evident that Moshe was to count them now.  Therefore the mitzva is presented in general terms: "When you count the people according to their numbers then each man shall give atonement for his soul to God when you count them…" (30:11), for this formulation includes the provision for every time that they are counted. 


It seems to me that Moshe was not required to enter their tents and to count them individually as he did in the Book of Bemidbar, but rather only to do as our Rabbis have remarked concerning the yearly sacrificial contributions.  That is, he commanded them that whosoever knew concerning himself that he was above the age of twenty should contribute this amount, and the people brought the half-shekels along with their daily contributions of the other precious materials…and therefore Aharon and the tribal elders were not needed to assist him with this census…The text is ambiguous as to whether this constitutes an eternal statute or rather only applied to Moshe while the people of Israel were in the wilderness…(commentary to 30:12).


            The Ramban informs us of two possible but mutually exclusive readings that are not immediately obvious from our Parasha.  According to the first approach, by virtue of the fact that Parashat Pekudei associates the 100 talents of silver used to fashion the sockets with the number of adult Israelite males indicates that there MUST have been a census undertaken on the eve of the Mishkan's construction, though the Torah is entirely silent concerning the details.  If our Parasha opens with a provision to collect one half-shekel of silver from each Israelite male above the age of twenty and we later learn that the silver was used for the formation of the sockets, it therefore follows that the people were in fact counted at this time.  But why was the Torah silent about this census, preferring to leave the matter as an implication?  Because, avers the Ramban, the Parasha means to inform us that ANYTIME a census is undertaken, it must be accomplished through the collection of the half-shekels rather than through a direct count of the people.  According to this reading, the provision to count the people of Israel through the instrument of the half-shekel is AN ETERNAL STATUTE THAT APPLIES FOR ALL TIME.  Though in our context, there was an immediate need for the silver in order to fashion the Mishkan, the mitzva of collecting the half-shekel from adult male Israelites is forever.  There is therefore no fundamental difference between the implied census undertaken in our Parasha and the census of Parashat Bemidbar.  We must therefore assume that our Parasha neglects to mention the details of the census because these are superfluous.  It was clearly understood by Moshe that a census was called for, and that is what he did.


            In his alternative reading, the Ramban suggests that our census and that of Parashat Bemidbar are in fact markedly dissimilar.  While that of Parashat Bemidbar mentions Aharon and the tribal elders as assisting Moshe, and carefully enumerates each tribe by name and by population, our census fails to mention any of this.  The reason for the omission is straightforward enough: the census of Parashat Ki Tisa was unlike that of Parashat Bemidbar.  Our census did not involve an individual counting of the people that was undertaken by a dedicated body of elders.  Rather, each adult male was asked to contribute a half-shekel of silver towards the construction of the Mishkan, and this was duly brought ALONG WITH ALL OF THE OTHER PRECIOUS MATERIALS THAT WERE COLLECTED FROM THE PEOPLE.  But whereas the other materials – gold, bronze, sky blue, purple, scarlet, precious stones, etc. – were contributed as freewill offerings by whosoever wanted to participate, the half-shekels of silver were a required contribution of the adult males.  Significantly, according to this reading, the provision to contribute a half-shekel of silver, cohesively linked as it was to the immediate needs of the construction of the Mishkan, MAY NOT HAVE BEEN AN ETERNAL STATUTE AT ALL, so that a later census of the people of Israel undertaken after the wilderness wanderings were completed may not have required the half-shekel instrument.  To be fair, the Ramban concludes that in fact the half-shekel contribution was needed for every census of the people and that the opening of our Parasha therefore constitutes an eternal mitzva that applies for all time, but this does not negate his fundamental proposition that our census was different than that of Parashat Bemidbar.





            Of course, in light of the Ramban's conclusion, the question must be asked: it is readily apparent that the silver collected in our Parasha had an immediate use, namely to fashion the sockets for the boards.  But what of the silver collected in the other censes?  For what purposes would it have been used?  According to Rabbinic tradition (see Mishna Shekalim 4:1-3), this silver would have two distinct but nevertheless intertwined applications: firstly, the half-shekel contributions would be utilized for the purchase of communal sacrifices, that is those sacrifices offered on behalf of the entire people of Israel.  Secondly, the funds would be disbursed for any expenses associated with the maintenance of the Mishkan/Temple physical plant. 


            These two applications are of course decidedly national in nature, as they pertain especially to the communal services and to the upkeep of the Mishkan/Temple complex.  As such, they are perfect analogs to the silver sockets of the Mishkan's construction.  Recall that these sockets constituted the very foundation of the Mishkan, and the fact that the silver for their construction was contributed by all of the adult Israelite males broadcast a very powerful message: the House of God was built by all of His people and no one could claim that he had contributed more.  For this reason, all adult males – rich or poor - contributed the exact same amount, an amount that by its very denomination made it abundantly clear that this was a national undertaking.  Standing alone, the individual Israelite could only provide a half-shekel, a profound commentary on the need for communal and national involvement in order to achieve self-actualization.  Only by coming together with others, could the half-shekels become whole and complete.


            In a similar vein, the ancient Rabbis correctly intuited that any future census that was predicated on the collection of the half-shekel contributions had to also address national goals and aspirations.  That is to say that the collected funds could not be used for any sort of individual needs of the Kohanim or others, vital as those may have been.  The communal sacrifices and the physical preservation of the Temple, however, were the concerns of all Israelites as a people, and the funds could therefore be justifiably directed towards those decidedly national and noble needs. 


            In essence, then, we may summarize by saying that all of the features of the mitzva point us to a perfect paradigm for peoplehood.  The half-shekels become whole when brought together, the collected funds maintain the national service and the national shrine, and the impetus for the entire endeavor is a count that includes the entire adult male population of the people of Israel.  As Pesach approaches and we recall the half-shekel tax that was paid at this time of year (see Mishna Shekalim 1:1), let us hope and pray that this season brings us the national restoration that we so sorely need.


Shabbat Shalom