The Pentateuch and Haftorahs
11-16. The Law of the Shekel
Whenever a census of the warriors was taken, every adult Israelite was to pay a Half-Shekel.
12. their number. Their mustering, as an army before going to war.
a ransom. Heb. Kopher. This technical expression for 'ransom' occurs three times in the Torah, and each time it refers to the money paid by one who is guilty of taking human life in circumstances that do not constitute murder. Thus, the owner of the ox that had killed a man after the owner had received warning that the animal was dangerous, was charged with the death of a man; but as his crime was not intentional, he was permitted to pay a ransom (Kopher). Such a ransom was forbidden in the case of deliberate murder. This is the conception that underlies the law of the Half-Shekel in this chapter. The soldier who is ready to march into battle is in the eyes of Heaven a potential taker of life, though not a deliberate murderer. Hence he requires 'a ransom for his life' (B. Jacob). when thou numberest them. The soldier is to be impressed with the fact that, high as the aims for which he goes into battle may be, war remains a necessary evil. The ransom is, therefore, to be paid at the time of the mustering, long before the actual fighting begins.
plague. Heb. Negeph. This word comes from the same root as the Heb. word for 'slaughter in battle'; and a noted Karaite commentator translates the phrase, 'that they suffer not defeat in battle.'
when thou numberest them. According to the above explanation, this phrase would begin v.13.
13. every one that passeth. Before the officers mustering the forces for battle.
Shekel of the Sanctuary. The full weight Shekel used in connection with sacred things.
offering to the Lord-. Heb. Terumah, 'contribution'; the same phrase is used in Num. XXXI, 52.
14. twenty years. The Israelite's military age.
15. and the poor shall not give less. All souls are of equal value in the eyes of G-d. Hence, all are to give the same ransom.
to make atonement for your souls. Heb. Lekapher al Nafshoteichem. This phrase is an amplification of Kopher, and is repeated in the next verse. Even a rationalist commentator like Ehrlich rightly sees in the use of this last phrase one of the sublimest teachings of Scripture, unparalleled in any other sacred Book, ancient or modern. The same phrase is used in connection with the Midianite battle in Num. XXXI, 52. After signally defeating the Midianites, the victorious warriors come to the Tabernacle, bringing jewels and other valuable booty as an offering in order to make atonement for their souls before the Lord. 'Other peoples sing songs of triumph after a victory over their enemies; why then did these warriors offer sarifices of atonement for their souls at such an hour?' asks Ehrlich; 'it is another indication of the horror of shedding human blood that the Torah inculcates. It is the same feeling that prompted the Jewish Sages to tell that the angels, when about to break forth in song over the Egyptian hosts drowning in the Red Sea, were silenced by G-d in the words, "My creatures are perishing, and ye are ready to sing!"'
16. for the service. The silver of the Shekels was used for the bases of the pillars of the Sanctuary, and also for the hooks to keep the boards together (XXXVIII, 27).
a memorial. i.e. that the Lord remember the children of Israel in grace, and grant them atonement for the blood shed in battle.
In later ages, the Half-Shekel became an annual tax devoted to maintaining the public services of the Temple; the daily worship was thus carried on by the entire People and not by the gifts of a few rich donors. The fact that the rich were not to give more, nor the poor less, than a Half-Shekel taught that, 'weighed in the balance of the Sanctuary' (which is the lit. meaning of B'Shekel HaKodesh), differences of rank and wealth do not exist. The fact, furthermore, that only a Half-Shekel was to be paid, taught that an individual's contribution to the community was but a fragment. For any complete work to be achieved on behalf of the Sanctuary, the efforts of all, high and low, rich and poor alike, are required.
The Jews outside Palestine were, throughout the ancient world, as zealous in their contribution of this Temple tax as the inhabitants of Judea. Anti-Semites, in consequence, even raised the cry that the Jews 'were sending too much money out of the country'. One of the Roman Provincial Governors, who seized these offerings, was defended by Cicero in an anti-Jewish speech. After the destruction of the Temple, the Jews of the Empire were compelled to pay this contribution to the Temple of Jupiter at Rome! When this iniquitous tax was eventually abolished, the contribution from the Jews in the Diaspora was used for the support of the Rabbinical Academies in Palestine.
At the present day, the memory of the Half-Shekel is still kept alive by the reading of Exodus XXX, 11-16, on the Sabbath before the month of Adar, with a special Haftorah, Shekalim; and by donating half the value of a current silver coin to some worthy charitable cause on Purim. With the rise of the Jewish Nationalist Movement, the payment of the Shekel, i.e. of an amount roughly equivalent to it in some modern currency, was revived as a token of sympathy with the aims of that movement.