Shabbat Shekalim: Tax Time in Ancient Israel

half-shekel

half-shekel

This Shabbat, on which we are reading Pekudei as the parashat hashavua, is also known as Shabbat Shekalim. Yes, the Shabbat of the Shekels. This special Shabbat is not necessarily tied to the parashah called Pekudei, but it’s not entirely inappropriate, since this last reading in Exodus consists of an audit of the records (in Hebrew, “records” is pekudim) as well as the account of, finally, the erection of the Mishkan, the space the Israelites are constructing in order to have a designated place for their kavanah (spiritual intention). Thus the place is called the place to meet G-d, although everyone agrees that no one space contains the holy.

This Shabbat is called Shekalim because it is the first of four special Shabbatot that focus on the upcoming Festival of Pesakh. Shabbat Shekalim always occurs on the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh (the beginning of the month of) Adar (or Adar II in leap years such as this year). On this Shabbat, a special extra reading is added to the regular Torah readings for Pekudei. The extra (maftir) reading comes from a text earlier in Exodus which describes a half-shekel tax collected from all the Israelites. It is read on this Shabbat because the tax, which became a yearly tax in later Israelite history, was due on the first of the New Year, which begins with Rosh Hodesh Nisan.

This raises some interesting questions which shed light on our ancestors’ culture and social organization.

1. What was the original purpose of the tax? It was a way of conducting a census. Since it was believed that counting the people was bad luck and had been demonstrated in the Torah to bring on a plague, there was – and still is – a reluctance (call it a superstition) to count people. Even in a traditional shul today, one does not count people when checking to see if we’ve reached the minyan number of ten; rather, a gabbai might use a verse such as Psalms 5.8.

 וַאֲנִי–בְּרֹב חַסְדְּךָ, אָבוֹא בֵיתֶךָ;    אֶשְׁתַּחֲוֶה אֶל-הֵיכַל-קָדְשְׁךָ, בְּיִרְאָתֶךָ.

As for me, I come into Your house filled with the joy of Your Presence; I bow in awe of the holiness of your Plac e.

2. Why use a Shabbat as a reminder that tax time is coming? It is striking, after all, in a religious tradition that shuns money on Shabbat and holy days, to consider the prominent place of  money in this Shabbat’s theme. In the ancient past, and continuing right up until the last generation or so, Shabbat was the weekly gathering time of the Jewish community, and the shul was the equivalent of the public square. If you wanted to reach the most Jews with the important announcements of community news, the way to do it was to incorporate it into the Shabbat prayer ritual. The Rabbis of the Talmudic period, who devised the intricate plan of what to read when all year long, mandated certain Torah and Haftarah readings which emphasized aspects of the community. Sometimes the special Shabbat reading brought depth of meaning to the day itself, and sometimes it served, as well, as a reminder of something important coming up. In the same way that we read three haftarot of gathering doom before Tisha B’Av (when the Temple and Jerusalem itself were destroyed, and we went into exile), we – on a happier note – have special readings that recall and add to the excitement of the upcoming Festival of the Spring Harvest, the Festival of Matzah.It’s quite convenient that this verse is part of the first song we sing upon beginning our prayers, so that while you are singing, you can simply let your eyes rest on each person as you chant each word of the verse. You are not precisely counting the people, yet you know if you’ve got your minyan. (Another way to count people is to point to each one and say “not one”, “not two”…..)

3. Why a half-shekel apiece? isn’t that a regressive sort of flat tax?  There are other taxes that are tied to one’s income; this small contribution has a more symbolic value, that of reminding us that this Temple tax asserts that we are all equal before G-d. Further, the application of this tax to all of us demonstrates our belief that each of us has an equally valuable contribution to make to our congregation.

“The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less; it is an atonement for your souls.” (Exodus 30.15)

The last phrase of the mitzvah (the obligation commanded here) is the most provocative, describing the tax as an “atonement”. It is easy to see, and assert, that no one is too poor to give, and to understand why the rich are not allowed to give more, but why is the giving an atonement? Perhaps because each of us needs to atone for either feeling sorry for ourselves that we don’t have more, or looking down on others who don’t have as much as we do. In the act of giving the very same thing, each one of us and all together, we are invited to atone, which is to say, to return to a place of at-one-ment with each other.

Our Mishkan, our sacred space, exists because of the support of each one of us, and that support is equally valuable, equally necessary. The offerings of our hearts, minds and wherewithall are all needed if we are to fulfill the mitzvah “with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your might”, from the Shema.

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