Shabbat Shekalim (plural of shekel) marks the beginning of spring on our calendar. Adar is here, which means that Nisan and Pesah are right around the corner. People get ready!
Preparation commences with the announcement of a levy, a per capita tax described in the special Torah reading for Shabbat Shekalim.
“This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-shekel by the sanctuary weight—twenty gerahs to the shekel—a half-shekel as an offering to the LORD.” [Exodus 30:13] The Hebrew for ‘sanctuary weight’ is the phrase shekel ha-kodesh, literally ‘sacred or holy shekel’.
In Biblical times, a shekel was a weight or measure. By late antiquity, coins were called shekalim. So, what makes a coin, a shekel, holy?
My teacher and mentor, Rabbi Gordon Tucker, cites a famous passage in the Mishnah in articulating his answer to that question.
“When a person stamps coins with a single seal they all appear identical to one another. But the supreme Sovereign of sovereigns of sovereigns, the Blessed Holy One, stamped all people with the seal that was given to Adam, and not one of them is similar to another”. [Mishhan Sanhedrin 4:5]
Here are Rabbi Tucker’s words: “What this mishnah testifies to is that in late antiquity, there was a Jewish cultural meme that we are, metaphorically, God’s coins, stamped with the image of the divine.” Pushing it a bit farther, “later tradition understood the physical coin given to the Temple to be a metonym (a surrogate) for the human giving it, an act that signified devotion to the One whose Temple it was, and whose image was stamped on each person.”
We, you and I, are the coin, and our gift to God’s sanctuary represents our ‘devotion to the One whose Temple it was.’ The actual ask of Shabbat Shekalim, then, is ‘give yourself’!
The Piaseczner Rav – R Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1889-1943) – pushes the idea still farther.
“Moses our teacher was perplexed: How is it possible to offer atonement for our souls [with the donation of a physical coin]? Don’t we need to give our souls over [to God]? [Can we achieve repentance and reunion with God at the cost of half a shekel?] Coins have no inherent value. Coins only possess [monetary] value because human beings pursue them.” The Piaseczner then quotes a powerful and perplexing teaching found in the Talmud of the Land of Israel (Shekalim 1:6]: ‘Rabbi Meir taught: God manifested the likeness of a fiery coin from underneath the Throne of Glory. God showed it to Moses and said to him: ‘This they shall give.’ (Exodus 30:13). The likeness of this they shall give.’
That burning coin is the human soul, yours and mine. And it is that fire – our passion, our desire, our aspiration – that we are asked to invest with and in divine and sacred purpose. As my teacher, Rabbi Yael Saidoff, beautifully puts it: “God asked for the shekel coins, not because God wants our money, but because God wants the burning passion we attach to such objects… The fire around the shekel coin symbolizes Israel’s passion and devotion.”
Shabbat Shekalim is here; Adar, too! Nisan and Pesah can’t be too far off. People, get ready!
Shabbat Shalom. Hodesh Tov.