Judaism: Shabbat Parshat Shekalim
This Shabbat, which falls on the 29th of Adar I, is Shabbat Shekalim: “If Rosh Chodesh Adar falls on Shabbat, then [on that Shabbat] we read the section of the Shekalim. If [Rosh Chodesh Adar] falls during the week, then we advance [the reading of the section of the Shekalim] to the previous Shabbat” (Mishnah, Megillah 3:4).
Shabbat Shekalim, then, is the Shabbat which either coincides with or which immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Adar. In a leap year (as this year 5774 is), Shabbat Shekalim is the Shabbat immediately preceding Rosh Chodesh Adar II (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 685:1; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 140:1).
This section is read as the Maftir (last)-reading for Shabbat Shekalim: “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: When you take a census of the Children of Israel [literally ‘When you elevate the head of the Children of Israel’] according to their numbers, each man shall give an atonement for his soul to Hashem… This is what they shall give… – a half-shekel of the holy shekel… Everyone who passes the mustering, from twenty years old and upward, shall give Hashem’s donation… It will be a memorial for the Children of Israel before Hashem, to atone for their souls” (Exodus 30:11-16).
Introducing the month of Adar with this reading memorialises the mitzvah of the half-shekel which every Jew was obligated to give to the Temple treasury for the daily offering each year. In the words of the Rambam, “On the first of Adar the announcements concerning the shekalim were made, so that everyone would prepare his half-shekel and would be ready to give it. On the fifteenth, the treasurers would sit in each city, and demand [the half-shekel due] gently; whoever would give it to them, they would accept it from them, and those who did not give, they did not force them to give. On the twenty-fifth they would sit in the Temple to collect it; and from then on, they would force those who had not yet given to pay up” (Laws of Shekalim 1:9).
These half-shekel taxes were then used, from the first of Nisan a few days later until the first of Nisan the following year, for the Tamid (twice-daily sacrifice) and the Musaf offerings (the additional sacrifices on Rosh Chodesh, Pesach, Shavuot, Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot) of that year (Tiferet Yisrael to Mishnah Shekalim 1:1). So in memory of the half-shekel donation that once was, and looking forward to the half-shekel donation that will be again, we read this portion in the same week that the Sanhedrin would once begin to impose (and will again begin to impose) this tax.
The Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (also called Aggadat Eretz Yisra’el, a very early Midrash Aggadah attributed to the third-generation Eretz Yisrael Amora, Rabbi Abba bar Kahana) begins its exposition on Shabbat Shekalim (which passage also appears in the Midrash Tanhuma, Ki Tissa 4) by quoting Psalms 3:3-4, “Rabim (“Many” or “The great ones”) have said of my soul, he will have no salvation from G-d, Selah. But You, O Hashem, are a shield on my behalf, You are my Glory and You raised my head”. The Midrash then cites two opinions as to what King David referred to when he wrote this.
Rav Shmuel bar Ami interpreted the word “rabim” to mean “the great ones”, and understood it to refer to the two figures of Doeg and Ahitophel; Doeg supported King Saul over David in the first civil war, and Ahitophel supported Avshalom (Absalom) over King David in the later civil war.
Though both of these men supported the wrong sides in opposing King David, they were both great in Torah. They said to David: A man who took the ewe captive [i.e. took Bat-Sheva] and killed the shepherd [her husband, Uriah the Hittite] and caused Israel to fall by the sword – can he have any salvation? No, “he will have no salvation from G-d, Selah”.
[The comments in square brackets are the explanations of the Etz Yosef commentary on the Tanhuma.]
King David admitted that their arguments might be justified. “David said: You agreed with them, You wrote in Your Torah, ‘The adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death’ (Leviticus 20:10). ‘But You, O Hashem, are a shield on my behalf’ (Psalms 3:4), and You protected me in the merit of my ancestors. ‘You are my Glory’ (ibid.) because You restored me to my kingdom, ‘and You raised my head’ (ibid), for even though I deserved to have my head cut off, You exalted my head”.
The Rabbis interpreted the word “rabim” in Psalms 3:3 to mean “many”, and understood it to refer to the nations of the world, hence: “The many nations have said of my soul, he will have no salvation from G-d, Selah”.
The Pesikta de-Rav Kahana expounds: “The nations…say to Israel: The nation which heard ‘You shall no other gods before Me’ (Exodus 20:3) from the mouth of G-d at Mount Sinai, yet which after forty days said to the golden calf ‘these are your gods, O Israel’ (32:4) – can it have any salvation? No, ‘it will have no salvation from G-d, Selah’. And Israel said: You, Hashem, agreed with them, You wrote in Your Torah ‘one who sacrifices to the gods shall be destroyed’ (22:19). ‘But You, O Hashem, are a shield on my behalf’, and You protected us in the merit of our ancestors. ‘You are my Glory’, so You infused Your Shekhinah (Divine Presence) into our midst – ‘they shall make Me a Sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst’ (25:8). ‘And You raised our head’, for even though we deserved to have our heads cut off, You exalted our head at Moshe’s hand, as it says ‘When you elevate the head of the Children of Israel’”.
Thus the census – the “elevation of the head of the Children of Israel”, the Maftir-reading for Shabbat Shekalim – was the seal of G-d’s forgiveness for the sin of the golden calf.
We expand on this thought by putting Shabbat Shekalim into its calendric context. As we have seen, Shabbat Shekalim is the Shabbat which either coincides with or which immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Adar.
Two Shabbatot after it (occasionally the Shabbat immediately after it) is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance, the Shabbat immediately before Purim, the Shabbat on which we are obligated to remember Amalek’s attack on us and attempt to annihilate us while still in the Sinai Desert (Exodus 17:8-16, Deuteronomy 25:17-19).
Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish) addresses the juxtaposition of Shabbat Shekalim followed by Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath when the last part of the reading is about killing the Amalekites: “It was known and revealed before He by Whose Word the world was created that Haman would one day weigh out the shekalim to annihilate Israel; therefore He placed their shekalim before [Haman’s] shekalim” (Megillah 13b; Yalkut Shimoni, Exodus 386 and Esther 1054).
This is a reference to Haman, the descendant of Amalek, who weighed out 10,000 silver talents to King Achashverosh to persuade him to proclaim the decree of genocide against all the Jews of his empire (Esther 3:8-9).
The Tosafot (Megillah 16a) observes that “10,000 silver talents are equivalent to half a shekel for every one of Israel, because there were 600,000 when they left Egypt”.
The Bach (Bayit Chadash, Talmudic commentary written by Yoel ben Shmuel Sirkis, 1561-1640) explains: “A talent is worth 60 manehs, and a maneh is worth 25 selas [a sela is the Talmudic term for the Biblical shekel]. Haman gave 10,000 ordinary talents, which are equivalent to 5,000 holy shekels. Half a shekel for each of 600,000 Jews for one year equals one holy talent; a lifespan is 70 years , and one starts donating the half-shekel at 20 years of age to redeem one’s soul. Thus Haman gave the same amount that 600,000 Jews would donate in 50 years”.
Before Haman was even a glint in Amalek’s eye, we had already redeemed our souls, so to speak, with the 10,000 talents which we had donated, generation after generation, for the Mishkan (the Sanctuary) and later for the Holy Temple.
This year, as in most leap years, Shabbat Shekalim coincides with Parashat Pekudei, the portion which completes the Book of Exodus, the portion whose entire theme is the construction of the Mishkan. (In some leap years Shabbat Shekalim coincides with Parashat Vayak’hel, which also describes the construction of the Mishkan. The last time this happened was in 5763/2003, and the next time it will happen will be 5776/2016.)
In his Introduction to the Book of Exodus, the Ramban writes: “The subject of the Book of Exodus is the first exile which had been explicitly decreed , and the redemption from it… Now, the exile was not ended until the day of their return to their place, and when they were restored to their forefathers’ level. When they left Egypt, even though they had left the house of slavery, they were still considered exiles, because they were ‘in a land not theirs’ , wandering through the desert. And when they came to Mount Sinai and built the Mishkan, and G-d restored His Divine Presence to their midst, then they were restored to their Forefathers’ level…and then they were considered redeemed. And therefore, this Book concludes with the completion of the Mishkan, and the Glory of Hashem filling it perpetually”.
According to the Ramban, then, the building of the Mishkan was the pinnacle of the redemption from Egypt. It was only when the Mishkan was complete, on the first of Nissan almost a year after the Exodus (Exodus 40:17) that we were truly redeemed, even though we had long since physically left Egypt and received the Torah.
The Mishkan, whose construction Moshe had overseen and which was completed in this week’s portion, was to serve the nation for the next 479 years. It was then replaced by the Holy Temple which King Solomon built in Jerusalem, 480 years after the Exodus (1 Kings 6:1). The narrative of King Solomon’s dedication of the Holy Temple usually forms the Haftarah for Parashat Pekudey; however, this year the regular Haftarah is replaced by the Haftarah for Shabbat Shekalim.
The redemption from Egypt was complete the day that we erected the Mishkan in the desert. And since the redemption from Egypt was the paradigm for the final redemption, the final redemption which has started in these last few generations will be complete on the day that we will rebuild the third Holy Temple in Jerusalem. On that day, when the Glory of Hashem will fill the Holy Temple, we will conclude the exile which began on that bleak summer’s day 1,944 years ago when the Roman legions destroyed the Second Temple.
On that happy day, we will complete the redemption and achieve the purpose of Creation – physical and spiritual perfection in this world. And on that day, in the words of the Haftarah for Shabbat Shekalim, “the entire nation in the Land will rejoice, and the City [of Jerusalem] will be tranquil” (2 Kings 11:20).