With Parashas Shekalim behind us, and with the festival of Purim ahead, we take the opportunity to discuss the laws and details of the Machatzis HaShekel obligation. Chazal underscore the importance of the half-Shekel obligation: “It was revealed and known to the Creator of the world that Haman would weigh Shekels against Israel. Therefore, He preceded our Shekels to his (Haman’s). Therefore it is taught (in the Mishnah): On the first of Adar a proclamation was heard from the Sanhedrin for all Israel to bring their half-Shekel donations to the Temple” (Megillah 13b). The passage implies that for all generations, our half-Shekels overcome the decree of Haman. Today, in the absence of the Temple service, the half-Shekel obligation to the Mikdash does not apply. We continue with a custom to donate a half-Shekel, recalling the initial obligation, and we precede our half-Shekels to the festival of Purim. Many questions are asked every year on our Din websites concerning this customary donation: When must the donation be made? What kind of coins should be given? Who is obligated to make the donation, and to which causes should it be given? We take this opportunity to discuss these questions, among others, seeking to clarify the laws and details of this important custom. The Custom of Donating half-Shekel Pieces The primary source for the custom of donating the half-Shekel piece even when the Temple is no longer standing is in Maseches Sofrim (chap. 21, no. 4): “On the first of Adar the Shekalim are announced.” The passage concludes: “All of Israel must give their Shekalim before Shabbos Zachor, and it is forbidden to pronounce them as a kofer (atonement). [Rather, they should be] merely a donation.” Today, the coins we donate are not consecrated, which is what Chazal mean when they state that they must not be pronounced a kofer. During the Temple period, the coins were used to purchase of sacrifices. Today one must beware lest the coins become sanctified and thereby unfit for use – since we no longer have the Mikdash. A number of Geonim raised objections to this custom (see Rav Amram Gaon, p. 190, no. 76; Geonei Mizrach U-Maarav 40). Their opposition derives from the concern that coins might mistakenly be consecrated, and people who use them would thus commit the sin of me’ilah – using consecrated objects for secular purposes. Nevertheless, the accepted custom, as mentioned by Rishonim and Acharonim alike, is to give the yearly half-Shekel donation. How Many Coins Are Given? The Mordechai (Megilla 777) writes: “Three half-Shekels are given because the term machatzis ha-Shekel appears three times in Parashas Ki Tisa.” The Maharil (Laws of Purim, p. 421, no. 4) writes that instead of three coins, the proper custom is to use four coins: “At Minchah time, when one goes to shul, one gives the half-Shekel ma’os purim (“Purim money”) […] the value [of the half-Shekel coin of the Torah] is equivalent to thirty four helis […] one who contributes the half-Shekel must also give Purim money, which are three local half-coins. The half-Shekel is given to support those who go to the Holy Land, whereas Purim money is allocated to the poor for Purim, together with other charity donations.” According to the Maharil, the annual custom thus has two components: 1. Giving three half-coins of the local currency, which are Purim money; 2. An additional donation of the current value of the original half-Shekel coin, given to support travelers to the Holy Land. The custom cited by the Maharil was prevalent in Germany and the surrounding lands, as the Chida writes (Yosef Ometz 1087): “The custom here is to give a half-Shekel constituting thirty-four peshitim […] and another four peshitim for matanos la-evyonim.” However, in Poland and the bordering lands, this custom was not accepted. The custom was to give three half-Shekel (half-currency) coins alone. The Rema cites Maharil, but concludes (Orach Chaim 694:1): “This is not the prevalent custom.” Yet, the Biur Halachah (694, s.v. veyeish) writes, “One whom Hashem has aided, and is able to give one ruble for the half-Shekel, and another three coins (of low value) corresponding to the three times ‘shekel’ is mentioned in the parashah – is worthy of praise, and it is good for him.” [See below concerning the value of the coins one should give.] To Whom is the Donation Given? Although Maharil, as noted above, differentiates between the half-Shekel donation and ma’os purim – money given to the poor to assist with Purim expenses – a number of sources equate the two. This is clear from the Mordechai (Megillah 777), the Levush (686:12) and others. The prevalent custom today is not to designate the contribution for the poor, but to give it to any worthy cause. A source for this is in Masas Binyamin, who describes the custom of the community giving the Purim money to the chazzan who reads the Megillah. He adds that this is not redirecting charity money to other uses, because the money was not initially designated as charity by the donor. This ruling is accepted by the Magen Avraham (3). The Be’er Heitev understands that this refers to the half-Shekel donation itself. Yet, the Shaarei Teshuvah (694:2) disagrees with this ruling, and makes a distinction between Purim money and the half-Shekel: only Purim money may be given to the chazzan and not the half-Shekel donation. This ruling, that the half-Shekel should be given specifically to the poor, is also given by Rav Ovadyah Yosef (Yecheveh Daas 1:86). He cites a number of authorities (for example, Eliyah Rabba 685:11) as support, and adds that the donation should preferably also support Torah study. As noted above, the Maharil writes that an extra half-Shekel piece should be donated for those traveling to the Holy Land. This could be another source for the prevalent custom today of not designating the half-Shekel donation specifically for the poor. However, Chemdas Hayamim (Part II, Purim) writes that the donation should be given to “those who toil in Torah study,” and Ruach Chaim (694:2) states that the money is customarily divided among the Torah scholars of the city. When is the Donation Made? Concerning the timing of the donation, sources indicate that the custom was to give the Shekalim from Rosh Chodesh Adar, as Rabbeinu Tam enacted (cited by the Maharam of Rothenberg 153): “After Adar begins, there is a ban on all those who pass through the towns and do not contribute (upon demand) ma’os purim” (this enactment was understood by later authorities as referring to the machatzis hashekel). We have already noted that Maseches Sofrim writes that the time for the donation is before Parashas Zachor, and it is also the prevalent custom to announce the donation at the time of Rosh Chodesh Adar. Nonetheless, the prevalent custom is to make the donation of Shekalim on Taanis Esther. Some mention that the correct time for the custom is after the fast, on Purim eve (see Eliyah Rabba 686:3; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 141:5). This was also the custom of Chasam Sofer (quoted in Customs of Chasam Sofer, p. 151, no. 4), and Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (Halichos Shlomo, Adar, no. 9). The accepted norm is to make the donation at the time of Minchah on Ta’anis Esther, a custom supported by a number of sources (see Maharam of Rothenberg, Customs, p. 74; Maharil, Rema, ibid.). According to this custom, the half-Shekel is donated on the Fast of Esther, even when Purim falls on Sunday and the fast is observed on the preceding Thursday (Kaf Hachaim 696:25). Who Has to Donate? Authorities disagree about the age a person should begin fulfilling the half-Shekel customary donation. From the Torah verses, it is clear that the original contribution in the wilderness was made only by males above the age of twenty. Following this, several authorities rule that the annual mitzvah of machatzis hashekel – meaning the contribution to the Temple service – is only mandatory for those above the age of twenty (Chinuch 105; Ra’av of Bartenura in his commentary to Shekalim 1:3). The custom today of donating a half-Shekel should, it seems, reflect the original obligation, so that it would apply to males over the age of twenty. This is the ruling of the Rema, based on the Maharil. Others, however, rule that only the first obligation in the wilderness began from the age of twenty, but the ensuing yearly obligation to contribute to the Temple offerings was mandatory for all males over the age of bar-mitzvah (see Commentary of Rambam to Mishnah, Shekalim 1:3; Tosafos Yom-Tov 1:4; Ramban, commentary to Ki Tisa). The rationale for this opinion is that from the age of bar-mitzvah a person requires atonement for his sins, and this was achieved by taking part in the Temple sacrifices. Thus, the Mateh Yehudah (694:4) rules that the donation of machatzis hashekel must be given from the age of thirteen. The Mishnah Berurah (694:5) cites both sides of the dispute without deciding between them, while the Rav Ovadia Yosef (Yechaveh Daas) writes that one should follow the more stringent opinion. Some take the custom a step further and apply the donation even to women and children, as noted by the Magen Avraham (694). He proceeds to question this custom (concerning women), but Da’as Torah cites a source for the idea from a statement in the Yerushalmi (Shekalim 1:3), and some authorities note that based on the atonement offered by the donation, it is commendable to give even for women and girls (see Kaf Hachaim; Shevet haLevi 7:183). The Darchei Moshe, quoting Mahari Brin, goes so far as to apply the custom to pregnant women who should give a half-Shekel donation on behalf of their unborn infant. Note that if a father begins to donate on behalf of his child (with the intention of continuing to do so), he is obligated to donate even in subsequent years, because his doing so constitutes a neder (Chayei Adam 155:4; Mishnah Berurah 694:5; the ruling is based on a Mishnah). Which Coins and of Which Value? According to most authorities, the three coins used for machatzis hashekel should be half-coins – meaning coins worth half of one local currency unit. This is the ruling given by the Rema, based on Maharil. Some are careful to give the value of the original half-Shekel coin, which is the value of approximately eleven grams of silver, or, to be precise, the value of 0.025 pounds of silver. The Kaf Hachaim writes that it is proper to donate three half-coins that together are at least the sum of the original half-Shekel coin. If this is not possible, he writes to give the monetary equivalent of the half-Shekel. Rav Ovadyah Yosef (ibid.) similarly rules that donating the value of the original coin is a commemoration of the mitzvah, citing this ruling from a number of authorities. The custom of Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach (cited in Halichos Shlomo, Adar 9) was to give three half-dollar coins. This was to ensure that the word “half” appears on the coin, besides giving a donation of a coin that was actually silver – though today’s half-dollar coins are not silver. The idea of giving specifically silver coins is found in the Kaf Hachaim, and it was also the custom of the Chasam Sofer. The Biur Halachah (694, s.v. yesh) notes that although giving three half-currency coins fulfills the custom, this can sometimes amount to a fairly insignificant amount. Clearly wishing the contribution to be something substantial, he notes several leading authorities who were careful to donate a significant half-coin (he mentions that the Vilna Gaon would give a single, significant half-currency coin). In conclusion, as mentioned above, he writes as an ideal to give a large coin to commemorate the half-Shekel contribution, and three small half-currency coins as noted by the Rema. Summary:
- The custom of giving half-Shekels to commemorate the machatzis hashekel that was given for the Temple offerings is an ancient custom, and must be carefully followed.
- The basic custom is to give three half-currency coins. Some add a fourth coin equivalent in value to the original half-Shekel coin, that need not be a half-coin. Others are careful to ensure that the three coins reach this value, which is equivalent to the value of 11 grams of silver, which works out to approx. $5.40 at today’s prices (Adar II 5776). It is a worthy practice to give a significant donation.
- The original custom was apparently to give the money of the Shekalim to the poor, to be used on Purim. Some authorities write that one should be particular about this, and some state that the money should be used for the support of Torah and yeshivos. However, the common custom is to use the money for other worthy causes, too.
- Although different times are mentioned for fulfilling the custom, common practice is to donate the Shekalim on Taanis Esther. Some give them after the taanis
- Authorities dispute whether the Shekalim must be given by men from the age of twenty, or thirteen (bar-mitzvah). The custom is to be stringent and fulfill the custom from the age of thirteen. Some give on behalf of younger children, and even for unborn babies. Some write that even women and girls should perform the custom-one should follow his parent’s or community’s custom.