Shabbat Shekalim: the power of a half-shekel

As of our hearing the haftarah chanted on Shabbat tomorrow, we begin the formal countdown to Pesakh. Yes, we have not celebrated Purim yet; but Purim, as much fun as it can be, is a minor holiday, and we are beginning to prepare for the most important Festival of the year. Pesakh, the commemoration of the Exodus from Egypt, is the most significant moment in Judaism; the Seder and the special observances of this celebration have, over the generations, become a central identity ritual for Jews.

We are regularly urged to be conscious of the Exodus from Egypt, in our Shabbat kiddush, in the ge’ulah section (think mi kamokha) of our daily Tefilah, and in numerous Psalms and other moments scattered around the Jewish week. But now, on Shabbat Shekalim, we have our first overt reminder that the Festival itself is celebrated soon. The Arba Parshiyot, the “Four Texts”, include additional Torah readings as well as a special Haftarah (which pre-empts the regular haftarah that would be read on this week). 

This Shabbat is Shabbat Shekalim, “money”, and it is related to the national yearly tax levied in ancient Israel. Because the tax was due before the first of Nisan (the beginning of the Jewish calendar’s New Year), the word went out a month early, on or before the first day of Adar. Because the best place in the pre-modern world to make an announcement and catch as many Jews as possible was in the shul on Shabbat, the date settled on was the last Shabbat before Adar (in a year such as this one, which has two months of Adar, the announcement is made on the last Shabbat before Adar II). That gave you a month to pay the tax.

But Jews avoid money on Shabbat, and even talk of money is generally considered best avoided. So how to make the announcement if one cannot just stand up and call out “tax day is coming, get your half-shekel ready”? 

The answer is in the fact that the half-shekel tax is instituted as a mitzvah in the Torah. So the special reading is of the mitzvah itself:

“This they shall give, every one that is numbered, half a shekel according to the sanctuary weight (twenty gerah to the shekel) half a shekel for an offering to HaShem.” (Ex.30.13)

Thus everyone hearing the special Torah reading for this Shabbat Shekalim is reminded of their own nearly due half-shekel.

It is said that Torah can be approached in 70 different ways, and each different reading or insight takes us deeper in the multiple layers of our relationship with her. On this Shabbat, we rely upon Torah to remind us that, despite so many generations and so much change, at essence we are still engaged in exactly the same mitzvah as our ancestors: taking of what we have to strengthen the community we share. And as the half-shekel tax itself reminds us, no one is worth more in that effort, and no one is worth less.

As Pesakh approaches, now is the time to consider your symbolic “half-shekel” contribution to the sacred space we share; what gift will you bring, and how will it express your place in the Peoplehood of Israel?

And while you’re working on that, don’t forget to plan your Purim costume and mishloakh manot – Be Happy, it’s Adar!

Shabbat Metzora: Take a Breath Before You Commit

Ever since just before Purim we’ve been encountering a series of special Shabbatot which are meant to get our attention and focus us upon the fact that Pesakh is coming. There is much to do to greet the Festival appropriately: house cleaning, Seder planning, tzedakah giving…. there are so many details and such a rush (and sometimes, such family dynamics) that it might remind you of the preparation before a wedding day.

And that, of course, leads to a midrash offered by the Rabbi Leibele Eiger, a disciple of the Ishbitzer Rabbi (who wrote the popular Torah commentary Mei Shiloakh). He writes that this Shabbat, unlike last week and unlike next week, is not one of the Arba Parshiyot, the weeks of the special “four Parshas” that we read in the run-up to Pesakh.  This Shabbat has no special extra designation; it is Shabbat Metzora, a regular Torah reading. For that reason it is known as Shabbat Penuyah, the “open”, or “uncommitted” Shabbat.

Rabbi Eiger points out that the word penuyah can also be translated “turning”, and as “single woman”. In these grammatical nuances he weaves a vision of us as a woman turning away from a former life and toward the Covenant, even as the people of Israel turned toward G-d and at Sinai entered into the Covenant as a woman enters the huppah. G-d is our partner, goes the midrash, and we are meant to live in G-d’s presence in joy and unconditional love – and complete commitment.

But first we have to be ready, to prepare ourselves, to take the time to let the ritual mean what it can mean for us. And that is what this Shabbat, I suggest, might usefully offer us. Shabbat Penuyah, the “free” Shabbat, can be designated by us the Transition Shabbat: the pause before the Big Day, a necessary moment to breathe between the preparations and the ritual itself.

When I officiate at a wedding, I require of the couple that they write me a letter telling me why they are getting married to the person they love. They are not to write it far in advance, but during the week before the wedding, when they are the most hassled by the myriad details and family dynamics and things that go wrong. It provides a moment for a deeper thinking, and feeling, about what is about to happen to their lives.

Before this Pesakh, take time to experience the transition offered you: between winter and spring, between darkness and light, between bare trees and blossoms – what does it evoke in your own soul? what does it feed in your own spiritual experience? Check in with yourself, and figure out where you are standing. Only then can you turn, with your community, toward a deeper sense of G-d’s presence, and what it really means for you to be part of this Jewish people.