The Message of Shabbat Shekalim

This Shabbat, known as “Shabbat Shekalim,” is the first of four special Shabbatot that occur in the weeks before Passover. Its name derives from a passage taken from the Book of Exodus that is read as a special supplement (maftir) to the main Torah reading:

“This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay…a half-shekel by sanctuary weight. Everyone…from the age of 20 years and up shall give the Lord’s offering. The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” (Exodus 30:11-16)

A half-shekel was collected from Israelites 20 years and older both as a way of assessing the size of the nation’s fighting force and as a way of raising money for the maintenance of the Temple. The tax was due on the first of Nisan (the beginning of the year in the Biblical and Temple periods), and people were reminded a month in advance to pay. We recall this tradition in our own time by reading the relevant passage from the Torah on the Sabbath prior to Rosh Chodesh Adar (the beginning of the month of Adar, which is one month before Nisan). That Sabbath is called “Shabbat Shekalim,” the Sabbath of the Shekel. Other than recalling an ancient tradition of donating a half-shekel, does this occasion have any meaning for us? Two points come to mind.

The first is that we are nothing other than the sum of our parts. Every individual matters to the success of our community. While it’s true that the half-shekel was collected from those able to serve in the army, there is no doubt that our community, just like that of the ancient Israelites, needs the talents and attention of each one of its members. That means that, as a former Oheb Shalom member who has passed on once wrote, “We make of our congregation what it is and what it will become. Its pews will be filled if we fill them. It will be friendly if we are friendly. It will do great and noble things if we help to make great things happen.” Shabbat Shekalim reminds us that we each have an opportunity—indeed, a responsibility—to enhance our congregation.

The second point is captured by the verse that says “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel.” Perhaps this equalizing of payments was meant to ensure an accurate count of the nation’s fighting force. But there is something else implied by these words—every person matters equally. Of course, charitable institutions, including synagogues, benefit from and even rely on the generosity of people who possess financial resources. That generosity should be applauded and received with gratitude. Yet, there is something symbolic, something deeply meaningful, in stating that the members of a community, those who are well off and those who are struggling and everyone in between, all have something to contribute to its vitality. While we do not all have equal financial means, we all have something of equal value to contribute to the success of our synagogue—our caring and our love. To paraphrase the Torah, the rich and the poor give equal portions of caring and love to synagogue.

Oheb Shalom relies on your gifts of caring and love, given in equal measure by all of our members, to succeed in what we do. We cannot, and will not, take them for granted.

Shabbat Shalom.


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