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What is the Machatzit Hashekel?

by Rabbi Naftali Silberberg

  

Library » Holidays » Purim » Fast of Esther | Subscribe | What is RSS?


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"Machatzit Hashekel" means a half of a shekel. When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, every Jewish man over the age of twenty (according to other Halachic authorities, from the age of thirteen) was annually required to donate half a silver Shekel to the Temple coffers. “Shekel” is the name of the currency which circulated in Israel during Biblical times. [In fact, the Shekel is also the name of the modern-day Israeli currency.] A half Shekel was approximately 10 grams of silver.

The Half Shekels were primarily used to purchase cattle for the communal sacrifices which were offered daily, as well as the additional sacrifices offered on Shabbat and holidays. The leftover funds were used for a variety of communal purposes, including providing salaries for the judges and maintenance of the Temple, its vessels, and the city walls. This annual tax was due on the 1st of Nissan. One month earlier, on the 1st of Adar, The courts would begin posting reminders about this Biblical obligation. We commemorate this Biblical law by giving a Machatzit Hashekel to charity.

Before Minchah of the Fast of Esther we give to charity a coin which is half of the local currency. In the USA this means giving a half-dollar coin. Don’t sweat if you don’t possess such a coin—at the Minchah service most synagogues provide such coins to their congregants at price. It is actually customary to give three half-dollars for every member of the family. This commemorates the three contributions the Jews gave for the building of the Tabernacle and its sacrifices (see Rashi's commentary on Exodus 25:2).

See also Why do we give the Machatzit Hashekel to charity on the Fast of Esther?

We also commemorate this Mitzvah on the Shabbat directly preceding the month of Adar by reading the portion in the Torah which speaks of this commandment.1 On this Shabbat, known as "Parshat Shekalim," we take out of the ark a second Torah and from it we read the section dealing with the Half Shekel.

Footnotes

  • 1. Exodus 30:11-16

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Mitzvah
(pl. Mitzvot). A commandment from G-d. Mitzvah also means a connection, for a Jew connects with G–d through fulfilling His commandments.
Shabbat
(pl: Shabbatot). Hebrew word meaning "rest." It is a Biblical commandment to sanctify and rest on Saturday, the seventh day of the week. This commemorates the fact that after creating the world in six days, G-d rested on the seventh.
Torah
Torah is G–d’s teaching to man. In general terms, we refer to the Five Books of Moses as “The Torah.” But in truth, all Jewish beliefs and laws are part of the Torah.
Halachic
Pertaining to Jewish Law.
Rashi
Acronym for Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki (1040-1105). Legendary French scholar who authored the fundemental and widely accepted "Rashi commentary" on the entire Bible and Talmud.
Esther
1. Jewish wife of Persian King Ahasuerus in the 4th century BCE. Foiled the plot of Haman, the prime minister, to exterminate all the Jews. The holiday of Purim commemorates this miraculous salvation. 2. One of the 24 Books of the Bible, which chronicles the abovementioned story.
Adar
The twelfth month on the Jewish calendar. This month (which falls out approx. February-March), is the most joyous month on the calendar due to the holiday of Purim which is on the 14th and 15th of this month.
Nissan
The first month of the Jewish calendar. This month, which falls out in early spring, is known for the holiday of Passover which starts on the 15th of Nissan.
Jerusalem
Established by King David to be the eternal capital of Israel. Both Temples were built there, and the third Temple will be situated there when the Messiah comes.
shekel
(pl. Shekalim) Currency used in ancient Israel. [Modern Israeli currency also carries the same name.]
Shekalim
Plural form of Shekel. Currency used in ancient Israel. [Modern Israeli currency also carries the same name.]
Machatzit Hashekel
Half a Shekel (ancient Jewish currency). When the Holy Temple stood in Jerusalem, every Jewish man was required annually to donate half a silver Shekel to the Temple coffers.
Exodus
1. The miraculous departure of the Israelites from Egyptian bondage in 1312 BCE. 2. The second of the Five Books of Moses. This book describes the aforementioned Exodus, the giving of the Torah, and the erection of the Tabernacle.
Tabernacle
Mobile sanctuary which traveled with the Jews in the desert, containing the Ark with the Tablets, and the sacrificial altars. When the Jews entered Israel, it was erected in the city of Shiloh where it remained for more than 300 years. It was buried when the permanent Holy Temple was erected in Jerusalem.
Minchah
Afternoon prayer service. One of the three prayers a Jew is obligated to pray every day.
Temple
1. Usually a reference to the Holy Temple which was/will be situated in Jerusalem. 1st Temple was built in 825 BCE and was destroyed in 423 BCE. The 2nd Temple was built in 350 BCE and was destroyed in 70 CE. The 3rd Temple will be built by the Messiah. 2. A synagogue.