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Parashat Ki Tisa: "Machatzit Ha-shekel" (The Half Shekel)

  • Rav Binyamin Tabory
The Israel Koschitzky Virtual Beit Midrash

The Weekly Mitzva
Yeshivat Har Etzion




Shiur #21: "Machatzit Ha-Shekel" (The Half-Shekel)

By Rav Binyamin Tabory



            The Torah told us that when we count our nation, every man ("ish") should give money as an atonement in order to prevent a plague which could strike us during the census.  There follows the instruction that everyone who is counted should give "machatzit ha-shekel" – a half-shekel.  The Torah adds that a poor man may not give less and the rich man may not give more (Shemot 30:11-16).


            Although the introduction seems to imply that every person should give machatzit ha-shekel, the latter statement states quite clearly that only those who are counted must do so.  Since the census included only people over twenty years of age, it would seem that anyone below that age is exempt from this mitzva.


            In truth, however, this point is subject to a debate among the Rishonim. In this section the Torah actually alludes to three separate "terumot" (literally, "portions") that had to be collected from Benei Yisrael (see Rashi, ad loc. V.15).  There was one donation to be used for the sockets of the Mishkan (Sanctuary), another for the general expenses of building the edifice itself, and a third that went towards the purchase of the necessary sacrifices.

The Ramban (ad loc.) explains that the obligation to donate machatzit ha-shekel for the sacrifices – as opposed to the other terumot - is a yearly mitzva and applies to everyone above the age of bar-mitzva.  He adds that this is implied by the Torah's reference to atonement as the purpose behind this donation, indicating that all those in need of atonement  - presumably every bar-mitzva - must give machatzit ha-shekel.  Apparently, the Ramban understood that the connection between the census and the machatzit ha-shekel obligation applies only to the money given for the Mishkan itself.  The half-shekel donated for the purpose of purchasing sacrifices, however, does not depend upon the census, and thus applies even to those below the age of twenty.


            The Sefer Ha-Chinukh, by contrast, ruled that the obligation includes only men above the age of twenty (Mitzva 105).  Interestingly, this position marks a deviation from the Chinukh's strong tendency to follow the opinion of the Rambam.  The Rambam obligates all adults to give machatzit ha-shekel (Hilkhot Shekalim 1:1), stating plainly that minors (below the age of bar-mitzva) are excluded.


            Regarding women's obligation in this mitzva, the commonly accepted view maintains - based on the mishna in Shekalim (1:4) - that women do not have to give machatzit ha-shekel.  The Rambam (Sefer Ha-Mitzvot – Mitzvat Asei 171) deduced this exemption from the clause in the pasuk which says that everyone included in the census must give machatzit ha-shekel.  This rationale, however, appears to contradict the aforementioned ruling of the Rambam in Hilkhot Shekalim, where he obligates everyone above the age of bar-mitzva.  This ruling implies that he understood as the Ramban did, that although only those included in the census were obligated in all three types of "teruma," everyone was included in the "teruma" for the purchasing of sacrifices.  It is therefore difficult to understand how the Rambam used the connection between the census and the obligation of giving "teruma" for the Miskhan as a source to exclude women from the "teruma" for the sacrifices.  It has been suggested for other reasons that the Rambam changed his views after writing Sefer Ha-Mitzvot (see Minchat Asher – Shemot, p.384).  If this is true, then perhaps the Rambam in Sefer Ha-Mitzvot only obligated men above twenty.  Therefore, in Sefer Ha-mitzvot he may have maintained (like the Chinukh) that the entire obligation of "teruma" is only incumbent upon those involved in the census.  By the time he wrote the Mishneh Torah, however, he changed his mind and wrote that all male adults are obligated.  If, indeed, the mitzva includes all adults, even those not included in the census, then we must find a different source to exempt women from machatzit ha-shekel.


            The Meiri (Shekalim ibid.) explained that women are exempt from this mitzva because it is a time-related mitzva ("zeman gerama").  Rav A. Sofer, in his commentary on the Meiri, remarked that this reason is difficult to understand, given that there does not exist any specific time to give machatzit ha-shekel.  Perhaps the Meiri felt that the obligation is to give it every fiscal year.  Once the new year has begun, the onset of the new year creates a new obligation, and we must therefore consider this mitzva time-related.


            Rav Ovadya Bartenura (commentary to Mishna, ibid.) suggests a different source for the exemption of women from machatzit ha-shekel: the use of the word "ish" in the pasuk (Shemot 30:12), which would seem to exclude women from all three "terumot."


            The mishna did not give any source for this exemption, but merely ruled that we do not coerce women to give machatzit ha-shekel.  This led Rav Moshe Sternbuch to suggest a very novel theory, that women should, in fact, give machatzit ha-shekel because they are included in the atonement attained by the sacrifices.  They may and should donate this money, but we would not force them to do so ("Moadim U-zemanim" vol.2, p.119).


            The Rama (O.C. 694:1) ruled that we should give one half of the local coin (one half-dollar, half a pound, etc.) as a "zekher" (commemoration) of machatzit ha-shekel.  He adds that inasmuch as there were three separate "terumot," we should give three "machatziyot ha-shekel."  He writes, however, that this obligation applies only to those twenty years of age and above.


            The Magen Avraham (ad loc.) explains that the Rama is based on the opinion of Bartenura (which we saw in the Chinukh).  However, many poskim (we have seen the Rambam and Ramban) say that all benei-mitzva must give machatzit ha-shekel, and therefore even those in between ages thirteen and twenty should give the "zekher."  A novel idea of the Mateh Yehuda (cited in Mikraei Kodesh – Purim, p.70) maintains that the Rama limited the obligation to those twenty years of age and older only with regard to all three "terumot."  The Rama would concede, however, that every bar-mitzva – even below the age of twenty - should give one machatzit ha-shekel as a reminder of that which was given to buy the sacrifices.


            The Rama makes no mention of the halakha concerning women's inclusion in or exemption from this obligation.  The Magen Avraham (ad loc.), however, cites an opinion that they too, must give the "zekher."  The Magen Avraham comments, though, that he knows no source for that opinion.  Quite possibly, this opinion felt that even women should give the machatzit ha-shekel for the purchase of the sacrifices, but we do not coerce them to do so.  It is proper, therefore, for women to give the "zekher" as well.


            The Kaf Ha-Chayim writes that inasmuch as the purpose of this donation is to attain atonement, every person should be included.  Yalkut Yosef (vol. 5 page 313) cites the controversy as to whether men between the age of thirteen and twenty are obligated and recommends that we follow the stringent opinion.  He then states categorically that women must also give the "zekher."  The Torah Temima (Shemot 30:13) writes that although the original machatzit ha-shekel was given only by those included in the census, everyone should give the "zekher."  He cites in this context the gemara's comment that we give the "zekher" before Purim to remember that Haman offered shekalim as an incentive to murder all the Jews.  We, therefore, give shekalim to avert disaster.  The "zekher" then should be given on behalf of all those who were threatened by Haman - men, women and children.  The Mishna Berura (ad loc.) observes that the general custom is to give for all people, including embryos.