Half a Shekel

Alex Braver
March 6, 2013
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God is a God of taxes.  Or at least, it might have seemed that way to ancient Jewish farmers living in the land of Israel.  They had to give a gift offering to the priests, then take a tenth of what was left and give it to the Levites, then another tenth to be eaten in celebration in Jerusalem (or, on some years, given to the poor).  That was on top of leaving the corners of their fields and their forgotten sheaves of grain for the needy, and offering up their first fruits and flocks to the Temple.  And of course, how can we forget the various (and expensive) animals they had to sacrifice?  All together, this system makes synagogue dues look cheap. In fact, one of the first things the Talmud says we must tell potential converts is that they will have to fulfill mitzvot that sustain the poor at their own financial expense! (bYevamot 47a)

There is yet another tax mentioned in Exodus.  Amidst discussions about the construction of the mishkan, God’s mobile dwelling place within the Israelite camp, Moses is commanded to number the people.  This was done by collecting a half-shekel tax from each adult as a  “כופר נפשו”, a “ransom for their soul” to God (Exodus 30:15).  The Torah is explicit in describing this tax is a flat fee, saying “the rich shall not give more, and the poor should not pay less.”  This is a great lesson about equality, but I’m not sure it works so well as a fiscal policy for a modern-day synagogue.  In fact, many of our Jewish communal institutions could not function on this model.  Instead, they rely upon large contributions from a small number of donors.  I admit, as a twentysomething who has never payed synagogue dues in his life, that I am part of the problem.  Perhaps in an ideal world, everyone would pay an equal amount.

But there is a deeper meaning to this equality-of-payment that emerges from a bit of rabbinic interpretation (Midrash Tanhuma Ki Tissa 9). A half-shekel seems a little cheap for a “ransom of a soul.” It’s not even a full shekel, just a half!  How could the value of a human life be so small?  So, God picks up a fiery coin from beneath the heavenly throne and says to Moses, “this is the coin that they will pay.”  What we thought was practically worthless, not even a full coin, God sees as divine, fiery and passionate, worthy of a place by God’s very own throne!

This raises the stakes from our first interpretation of this half-shekel tax, which we imagined as just a lesson about equality of payment.  Not only are people seen as equally valuable, but each and every one of them is also completely and uniquely invaluable.  According to this reading, the idea that “the rich shall not give more, and the poor should not pay less,” is more than just a statement prohibiting the wealthy from showing off their money.  If the “half-shekel” we are talking about stands for the fiery, divine, unique, and inalienable worth of a human being, how could you even think that the rich would be able to pay more?  How could all of their wealth match a half-shekel drawn from God’s own heavenly treasury?

The word shekel comes from the same root as the verb lishkol, to weigh. This, according to the Hassidic master Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev, hints at God’s ability to weigh out the shefa, the flow of Divine energy and insight, to each and every person according to their capacity (Kedushat Levi Shekalim).  It is our task too to measure the unique abilities of our community members, to know that each is capable and worthy of participating and contributing. Even if all we can see of them is their meager half shekel, our tradition reminds us that their value is far greater than we can perceive.

Synagogues and Jewish institutions need money to pay for things, and sometimes that will need to come from small numbers of large donors.  And active and engaged Jews–like the converts mentioned in the Talmud–must be willing to accept some financial burden to help sustain their communities.  That much I concede.  But the most important tax we can collect is the heavenly half-shekel of each individual’s unique, burning passion to participate in the life of the community. Deep engagement with a life of Jewish meaning is the most fundamental, the most costly, and the most valuable resource we have for maintaining our sacred spaces. Without it, all of our Jewish communal institutions are worth nothing.   When measuring our tax-yield with this divine unit of currency, it seems obvious that “the rich shall not give more, and the poor should not pay less.”


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Alex Braver is a rabbinic fellow at B'nai Jeshurun and a third-year rabbinical student at the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has also served as a student chaplain, studied at Yeshivat Hadar, and tutored remedial math and English at a charter school in Boston. He graduated from Brandeis University in 2009 with majors in history and politics.

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