Commentary for Pekudei and Shabbat Shekalim

3 Mar

This week’s parshah starts off with an accounting of all of the metal donated for the construction of the Tabernacle, and what piece or instruments of the Tabernacle that metal was used to make.  This total included both the donations offered in last week’s parshah and the mandatory tax of half a shekel levied upon every Israelite male aged twenty years or older, as was commanded in the beginning of parashat Ki Tisa, which we read as this week’s special maftir.  This tax, collected annually, would go to purchasing of sheep for the two sacrifices given on behalf of the whole Jewish People every day of the year.  The tax was due on the first day of the month of Nissan, which marked the beginning of a new fiscal year.  In order to give people time to collect the money and pay the tax, the Rabbis instituted the reading of this special maftir on Shabbat before the beginning of the month of Adar as a reminder that this tax was soon due.  After the destruction of the Temple, Rabbis instituted a mitzvah of giving three coins equal to half the standard unit of currency to the local shul for the purposes of helping with the upkeep and feeding the poor at this time of year in order to help remember the biblical commandment.

In more recent times this mitzvah has become closely associated with Purim, despite the fact that the biblical commandment predates Purim by almost a millennium.  In most communities the collection of this donation usually occurs after the afternoon service on the day before Purim; the Fast of Esther.  The Fast of Esther is observed in commemoration of the fast undertaken by the Jews of Shushan in solidarity with Esther as she prepared herself to appear before the king and set into motion her plan to save the Jewish People from Haman’s decree.  In exchange for a royal order to kill the Jews, Haman offers to pay the king a large amount of silver.  The Gemarah (Megillah 13b) notes this and points out that God had a countermeasure already in place against Haman’s plan: the annual tax of a half-shekel of silver. In addition to supporting the Temple, the tax’s age and gender restriction also allowed it to function as a census for a military draft if one was necessary.

Megillat Esther readily admits that such a military action was necessary to defend the Jewish People against those who tried to carry out Haman’s plan even after Esther had convinced the king to rescind his decree, it is quickly glossed over because it is not something we are supposed to focus on.  There is nothing wrong with being ready to defend yourself, but violence should only be done when all other options have been exhausted.  While the half-shekel tax can function as military census, we would much rather use it as it is used in this week’s parshah; for its designated purpose is to support the community’s holy endeavors

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