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 BeShalakh: Birds, Trees, and Song

Shabbat BeShalakh describes a moment in Jewish religious history that still reverberates throughout our study and practice. This is the parashah which retells our exodus out of Egypt. We tell the story over and over again:

* in the Shabbat Kiddush over wine: ki hu yom mikra’ey kodesh, zekher l’tziyat Mitzrayim – “this is a day of holy gathering, a reminder of going out of Egypt”

* in the Shema section of the daily prayers: miMitzrayim ga’altanu HaShem Elokeynu, umibeit avadim piditanu – “From Egypt HaShem our G-d redeemed us, from a house of slavery we were brought out”

* in the Haggadah of Pesakh….

There are many lessons we are meant to draw from the retelling of the Exodus, and even more good questions. For example:  just how would one commemorate a redemption like this? What is the proper response? For our people, it was song – and the special name for this Shabbat is Shabbat Shirah, the Shabbat of the Song [of the Sea], led by Moshe and Miriam. (Her version includes tambourines, leading to the surmise that perhaps she has a better sense of rhythm.)

We celebrate this Shabbat of Song with a special ritual during the chanting of the Song itself from the Torah, and there is also a sweet custom to give thanks for all the kinds of song in Creation by putting out food for birds on this Shabbat, in honor of their songs. 

The proximity of Tu B’Shevat to Shabbat Shirah this year allows us to embrace even more of the world around us in appreciation and in respect. Many birds, after all, depend upon trees, and Tu B’Shevat is the New Year of Trees. The most Portland-ish of all Jewish holy days!

Singing is an expression of the soul that reaches deeper in, and farther out, than words can. On this Shabbat, give yourself over to the hope of small, fundamental things: the fragile beauty of a finch, the grand glory of a sequoia, the sweetness of a shared song. And let that song give you the courage to head back out there, as our people has always done, armed with the kiddush, the mi kamokha, the Haggadah, reminding us that we belong to a millennial journey whose most beautiful moments are still to be known.