This week’s parashah records the first time that the Jewish nation performed the mitzvah of machatzis ha-shekel, the half-shekel contribution used to purchase animals for sacrifice. Although today we are sadly without the Temple and the sacrificial order, it remains the custom to give a half-shekel contribution during this time of year. With the festival of Purim coming up (on a regular year, this Friday would be the day of Purim) we take the opportunity to discuss the laws and details of this custom.
The Custom of Donating Half-Shekel Pieces
The primary source for the custom of giving the half-shekel, 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 breisa goes on to explain that the half-shekel pieces of Israel came to offset the shekalim that Hashem knew Haman would present to Achashveirosh for the right to annihilate the Jewish people. 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] only a donation.”
The fact that Chazal are careful that the shekalim not be termed “kofer” indicates that the breisa was not referring to Temple times. During the times of the Temple, the coins were consecrated for the purchase of sacrifices. Now after the Destruction, one must beware lest the coins become sanctified and unfit for use. Thus, we find an explicit source for the prevalent custom of a half-shekel donation, even once the money no longer went towards the purchase of animals for sacrifice.
A number of Geonim (from the Geonic Era) also mentioned the custom and objected to it, sanctioning only the giving of charity as matanos la’evyonim (see Rav Amram Gaon, p. 190, no. 76; Geonei Mizrach U-Maarav 40). Their opposition stemmed out of concern that the coins would be mistakenly consecrated, and people who would use them would unintentionally commit the sin of Meila.
Yet, the accepted custom, as mentioned by Rishonim and Acharonim alike, is to give the yearly half-shekel donation. Many of these sources will be quoted in the following article.
How Many Coins are Given?
The Mordechai (Megilla 777) writes: “Three half-shekels are given because the term ‘machatzis ha-sheke’l appears three times in Parashas Ki Tisa.“
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] 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 for the sake of Heaven, whereas ‘Purim money’ is allocated to the poor for Purim, together with other charity donations.”
According to Maharil, there are thus two obligations that combine into the yearly custom:
1. Giving three half-coins of the local currency, which are considered “Purim money” and,
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 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 simple custom was to give only three half-shekel coins. Rema thus cites Maharil, yet concludes (Orach Chaim 694:1): “This is not the prevalent custom.”
However, it is noteworthy that Biur Halachah (694, s.v. veyeish) writes that “one whom Hashem has aided, and is able to give one ruble for the half-shekel, and another three coins corresponding to the three mentions in the parashah—following the second opinion mentioned in Rema—is praised, and it is good for him.” [See also below, concerning the value of the coins one should give.]
Whom is the Donation Given To?
A number of sources state that the money donated as half-coin pieces correspond with ma’os purim – money given to the poor for Purim expenses. This is clear from the words of the Mordechai (Megillah 777), Levush (686:12), and other recordings of Jewish customs.
Yet, the prevalent custom today is not to designate the contribution only for the poor, but to give it to any worthy cause. A source for this can be found in Masas Binyamin, who describes the custom of giving “Purim money” to the chazzan who read the Megillah. He adds that this does not involve the offense of redirecting charity money to other uses, because the money was not initially designated as charity.
This ruling is accepted by the Magen Avraham (3). The Be’er Heitev associates the custom with machatzis ha-shekel, understanding that the half-shekel donation can be given to the chazzan as well as to any other worthy cause.
Yet, Shaarei Teshuvah (694:2) makes a distinction between “Purim money” and the half-shekel, explaining that only “Purim money,” and not the half-shekel donation, may be given to the chazzan. This ruling, whereby the half-shekel should be given specifically to the poor, is also given by Rav Ovadyah Yosef (Yechaveh Daas 1:86). He cites the principle from a number of authorities (see Eliyah Rabba 685:11), and adds that the donation should preferably go towards the support of Torah study:
“Indeed, it is proper to donate the money to Torah institutions, the holy yeshivos, for Chazal state (Berachos 8a) that since the Temple was destroyed Hakadosh Baruch Hu has nothing in His world but four amos of Torah…. The Midrash writes (Tanchuma) that the Torah atones for the sins of Israel in place of the offerings which we no longer have. Indeed, those were the exact offerings which were brought from the half-shekel contributions, referred to in the Torah as atonement for sins. Furthermore, Chazal state that the mitzvah of Torah study is greater even than the offering of sacrifices….”
With regard to the extra half-shekel piece mandated by Maharil; Maharil himself writes that the custom was to give the money to support those travelling 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 made to “those who toil in Torah study,” and Ruach Chaim (694:2) states that the money is divided among the Torah scholars of the city.
When is the Donation Made?
Concerning the timing of the donation, medieval 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 that they should give (upon demand) ma’os purim” (this enactment was understood by later authorities as referring to machatzis ha-shekel).
Chemdas Hayamim (loc. cit.) also mentions that this is the proper timing for the custom (from the beginning of Adar), adding that the donations were pronounced at the reading of parashas shekalim. Maseches Sofrim likewise mentions that the time for the donation is before parashas Zachor.
Despite the above, the prevalent custom is to make the donation of shekalim specifically on Taanis Esther. Some mention that the correct timing for the custom is after the fast, on Purim eve (see Eliyah Rabba 686:3; Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 141:5). This was also mentioned as 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).
However, the accepted norm is to make the donation at the time of Minchah. This custom has a number of sources, including Maharam of Rothenberg (Customs, p. 74), Maharil, and the ruling of Rema. 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).
It is interesting to note that Yesod Veshoresh Ha-Avodah (12:3) made a point of giving the donation “before Minchah.” It appears that the general custom is not careful of this.
Who has to Donate?
Authorities disagree over when the half-shekel obligation begins. 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 yearly mitzvah of machatzis ha-shekel (the actual donation to the Temple sacrifices) was only mandatory for those above the age of twenty (Chinuch 105; Ra’av, Shekalim 1:3).
According to this opinion, we can assume that the customary half-shekel donation today is no more stringent than the original obligation to donate to the Temple offerings. Therefore, the custom applies only from the age of twenty and up. This, indeed, is the ruling of Rema, based on Maharil.
Others, however, rule that only the initial obligation in the wilderness began from the age of twenty. The ensuing donations to the Temple offerings were mandatory for all males over the age of bar-mitzvah (see commentary of Rambam to Mishnah, Shekalim; Tosafos Yom-Tov; 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, Mateh Yehudah (694:4) rules that the donation of machatzis hashekel must be given from the age of thirteen. Mishnah Berurah (694:5) cites both sides of the dispute, without settling between them, yet Yechaveh Daas writes that one should follow the more stringent opinion, and give the donation from the age of bar-mitzvah.
The Custom of Giving for Women and Children
Taking the custom a step further, we find a number of sources for donating the half-shekel even on behalf of minors (children under bar-mitzvah), and unborn babies! This custom is cited by Magen Avraham. Although Magen Avraham questions why this should be the case (his question refers the inclusion of women, understood by him as included in the custom), Da’as Torah cites a source for the idea from a statement in the Yerushalmi (Shekalim 1:3).
Darchei Moshe also quotes from Mahari Bin that pregnant women give the half-shekel donation on behalf of the unborn infant, and Yaavatz (2:471) writes that the custom is to give on behalf of young children. Giving for children is a stringency beyond the basic custom, but 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. This ruling is based on the Mishnah in Shekalim, and is quoted by Magen Avraham, Chayei Adam (155:4), and Mishnah Berurah (5).
Although most of the sources above refer specifically to males—boys, or the possibility of an unborn baby boy—some sources, such as the Yerushalmi quoted by Daas Torah, refer even to women and girls. A number of authorities thus mention the custom of giving the half-shekel even with respect to girls (see Shevet Halevi 7:183), and Kaf Hachaim writes that based on the atonement offered by the donation, it is commendable to give even for women and girls.
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 Rema, as based on Maharil.
Yet, as we have seen, some are careful to give the value of the original half-shekel coin, which is the value of approximately ten grams of silver. Kaf Hachaim writes that it is proper to donate three “half-coins” that reach 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 (loc. cit.) similarly rules that giving the amount of the original coin is considered a commemoration of the mitzvah, citing this ruling from a number of authorities. The custom of both Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach zata“l (as quoted in Halichos Shlomo, Adar 9) and Rav Elyashiv yblt”a is 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 is actually silver—though this does not apply to modern half-dollar coins. The idea of giving specifically silver coins is found in Kaf Hachaim, and it was also the custom of Chasam Sofer to give specifically silver coins.
Where there is no coin that is minted with a “half-value,” some state that the custom of giving three coins for machatzis ha-shekel does not apply (Shoel Veyishal 1:138). He adds, however, that it is proper to commemorate the machatzis ha-shekel by giving the value of the original coin (as cited above from Kaf Hachaim). Maharsham (8:97), however, writes that one should give three coins, and have intention that only half of their value should be donated as machatzis ha-shekel, the other half being a regular gift. Alternatively, he suggests that two individuals share whole coins.
When Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was asked by a Russian Jew what to do in Russia where there were no “half-coins”, he replied that the “half” was not crucial, and stated that half-dollars, rather than half-shekels, should be used, because of the universal nature of the American dollar.
- The custom of giving half-shekels, to commemorate the machatzis ha-shekel that was given for the Temple offerings, is an ancient custom, and must be carefully followed.
- The simple custom is to give three half-denomination coins. Some add a fourth coin, which is equivalent in value to the original half-shekel coin. Others are careful to ensure that the three coins reach this value, which is equivalent to the value of 10 grams of silver.
- 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 to the yeshivos. However, the common custom is to use the money for other worthy causes, too.
- Although different times are mentioned for fulfilling the custom, the most common practice is to donate the shekalim on Taanis Esther. Some give the shekalim after the taanis concludes.
- Authorities dispute whether the shekalim must be given (by men) from the age of twenty, or thirteen (bar-mitzvah). They conclude that one should be stringent to fulfill the custom from the age of thirteen. However, it is commonly practiced on behalf of younger children, and even for unborn babies. In addition, some write that women and girls should also perform the custom.