A Guide to Shabbat Shekalim, Zachor, Purim, and Ki Tisa

This is the sixth time that this sequence has occurred in the last 30 years.

Daniel Pinner,

Judaism Daniel Pinner
Daniel Pinner

Parashat Ki Tissa generally falls on the first Shabbat after Purim, and this year the connexion is closer yet. Purim falls on Thursday, Shushan Purim falls on Friday, and as Shushan Purim goes out on Friday evening, Shabbat Parashat Ki Tissa comes in. This is the sixth time that this sequence has occurred in the last 30 years; and additionally, in 5754 (1994) Shushan Purim fell on Shabbat Parashat Ki Tissa itself.

Parashat Ki Tissa begins with the words, “Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: When you take a census 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).

This is the second time in three weeks that this paragraph is read in the Synagogue Torah-reading. Three weeks earlier, this same paragraph constituted the Maftir-reading for Shabbat Shekalim.

Shabbat Shekalim is the Shabbat which either coincides with or which immediately precedes Rosh Chodesh Adar or, in a leap year, Rosh Chodesh Adar II (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 685:1; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 140:1).

Usually two Shabbatot after Shabbat Shekalim (occasionally the Shabbat immediately after it) is Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat of Remembrance, the Shabbat immediately preceding 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).

Clearly, this census of the Children of Israel, in which every adult male donated half a shekel, is intimately connected with Purim: we read it as Purim begins to approach (on Shabbat Shekalim), and again immediately after Purim (on Shabbat Parashat Ki Tissa).

Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish) addresses the juxtaposition of Shabbat Shekalim followed by Shabbat Zachor followed by Purim: “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).

Reish Lakish refers here to Haman, the descendant of Amalek, who 957 years after G-d commanded the Children of Israel to donate the half-shekels to the Mishkan (Tabernacle), goaded King Achashverosh into signing the decree of genocide against all the Jews in his empire.

“Haman said to King Achashverosh: There is one nation scattered and dispersed among the nations in all the provinces of your kingdom, whose laws are different from every nation, and who do not obey the king’s laws, and it is not worthwhile for the king to let them remain. If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed – and I will weigh out ten thousand silver talents, by the hands of those who do this work, into the king’s treasuries” (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 is 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”.

Way 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 and later for the Holy Temple.

This all seems like a comparatively straightforward mathematical calculation. But what really is the connexion between the annual half-shekel that every Jewish male aged 20 years and above donated to the Mishkan and later to the Holy Temple, and Haman’s plot to exterminate every Jew in the Persian Empire?

Let us begin our answer by going back to the Maftir-reading for Shabbat Zachor, the Shabbat immediately preceding Purim: “Remember what Amalek did to you when you were on your way out of Egypt – how he chanced upon you on the way…” (Deuteronomy 25:17-18).

The Hebrew word kar’cha, which we have translated here as “chanced upon you”, is an unusual and highly ambiguous word. Targum Onkelos translates into Aramaic using the verb ערע, meaning “meet”, with the connotation of a chance meeting. Targum Yonatan and Targum Yerushalmi both use the similar verb ארע, denoting both “attack” and “befall” – an unfortunate but chance event. The Ibn Ezra follows the same understanding.

The Sifrei (Ki Teitzei 296) explains kar’cha to mean “chanced upon” (the translation we have followed here), which Rashi and the Rashbam (commentary to Deuteronomy 25:18) derive from mikra (coincidence).

This is the very essence of Amalek: he interprets all of history as chance encounters, coincidence, random events with neither purpose nor design. There is no room for G-d in Amalek’s vision of the world.

A universe which has no design also has no Designer, a world without purpose has no Creator, no Judge, no Guide, no absolute right or wrong, no objective good or evil. As much as history is a sequence of random chance events with neither meaning nor purpose, so too morality is capricious.

Haman followed his ancestor Amalek’s ideology faithfully. He sincerely and genuinely believed that both events and morality are mere happenstance.

This was why Haman and Achashverosh could with equanimity decree the genocide of all the Jews in the Persian Empire with nary a qualm of conscience: “The messengers went out in haste by order of the king, the decree was proclaimed in Shushan the capital, and the king and Haman sat down to drink” (Esther 3:15).

Of the entire Megillat Esther, this verse is perhaps the most chilling. Achashverosh and Haman have just issued a decree of mass murder nearly one year hence – and there is not the slightest shadow over their brows, no premonition of darkness, no dampening of their spirits. They celebrated, “sat down to drink”, merrily unperturbed by the enormity of what they have just decreed.

(Eerily reminiscent of Nazis who could pump poison gas into the chambers, shovel Jews into crematoria, watch thousands of people writhe and scream in death-agony…and then causally listen to Strauss waltzes and drink their beer.)

And Haman chose the date on which to perpetrate the genocide with the same capricious casualness. “Someone cast the pur – that is the lot – before Haman, from day to day and from month to the twelfth month, which is the month of Adar” (Esther 3:7).

Haman chose the date and the month for his decree of extermination by casting a lot, leaving the decision to random chance.

And now comes the lesson of Purim, our response to Haman.

Haman thought of the lot as random chance. But the Torah teaches us that the lot is directed and orchestrated by G-d. The Persian word pur translates into the Hebrew word goral, which occurs in the Torah in two contexts. The first is the goat which is sacrificed on Yom Kippur: “Aaron shall place lots on the two goats – one goral (lot) ‘For Hashem’, and one goral (lot) ‘for Azazel’” (Leviticus 16:8).

The second is the division of the Land of Israel among the Twelve Tribes, the division being carried out by lots (Numbers 26:55-56, 33:54, 36:2-3 et. al.).

In both of these cases, the decision was left to G-d. The Hebrew word goral, which translates into Persian as pur, perfectly encapsulates the difference between the Jewish and Amalekite world-views. For Amalek, casting lots means leaving the decision to random chance; for us, casting lots means leaving the decision entirely to G-d.

Hence in Joshua chapters 15 to 21, the word goral appears dozens of times in apportioning the Land of Israel among the Tribes.

And two-thirds of a millennium later, the prophet Isaiah prophesied the future downfall of Damascus and the turmoil which will engulf great nations (sounds familiar?), and concludes, “this is the goral (the lot) of those who pillage us” (Isaiah 17:14).

Amalek attributes the destruction of Israel’s enemies to the bludgeonings of chance and the fell clutch of circumstance: for him, the goral or the pur is random happenstance and therefore outside of human control.

The Torah teaches that everything is deliberately calibrated for the sake of the Nation of Israel: for us, the goral or the pur is G-d’s providence in the world, and therefore outside of human control.

No, it was no idle coincidence that the 10,000 silver talents which Haman offered to Achashverosh precisely matched the half-shekel donation which the generation of desert began to donate.

The entire Megillat Esther is the narrative of seemingly random events – a king who throws an extravagant party, a queen who refuses her husband’s summons, a Jewish girl who is chosen as new queen in her place and who succeeds in hiding her Jewish identity even from her husband, a plot to assassinate the king which is discovered in time, a second-in-command to the king who plots the extermination of all the Jews, a king who suffers from insomnia and whose attendants just happen to read to him the chronicles of how Mordechai had saved his life on the very night that Haman comes with his request to hang Mordechai – the list goes on.

The Name of G-d is never mentioned directly in the Megillat Esther, although there are several places where it appears, although concealed, always at the critical junctures when G-d’s intervention is most critical.

For example: Esther began her plan of saving the Jews by inviting Achashverosh and Haman to her party with the words, “Let the king and Haman come today…” (Esther 5:4). The Hebrew words יבוא המלך והמן היום are the acronym Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh, the Name of G-d.

And when Haman told his wife and friends of the tremendous honour he had by being the king and queen’s sole guest at their party the next day, he complained, “yet all this is worthless to me as long as I see that Jew Mordechai sitting at the king’s gate” (Esther 5:13). Haman’s words זה איננו שוה לי are the exact opposite of Esther’s: the final letters spell out the Name Yud-Heh-Vav-Heh in reverse.

And when Esther told Achashverosh of the plot to kill her and her nation, the king exclaims in his drunken rage, “Who is he and where is he who dares to do this?!” (Esther 7:5).

The Hebrew phrase מי הוא זה ואי זה הוא אשר contains an exquisite hidden reference. The words הוא זה ואי זה end with the letters אהיה, “I will be”. Then comes the word אשר, “that”. Then the words זה ואי זה הוא again end with the letters אהיה, “I will be”, this time spelt backwards. Hence Achashverosh’s cry of rage contains a veiled reference to the words that G-d used to introduce Himself to Moshe at the Burning Bush, אהיה אשר אהיה – “I will be that which I will be” (Exodus 3:14).

The writer of the Megillat Esther gives us a subtle message: nothing is mere happenstance. Though He is hidden, G-d nevertheless controls events.

It was no coincidence that Haman chose to pay 10,000 silver talents into the Persian royal treasury for the honour of exterminating the Jews, paralleling the half-shekels which G-d commanded us to donate to the Mishkan in Parashat Ki Tissa.

The sequence of Shabbat Shekalim, Shabbat Zachor, Purim, and Parashat Ki Tissa epitomises the eternal conflict between Jewish and Amalekite ideologies. Let Amalek and his descendants throughout the generations interpret history as random happenstance – “and we will walk in the Name of Hashem our G-d forever and ever” (Micah 4:5).