The half-shekel is one of those obscure commandments that often gets overlooked or ignored, but it’s importance has not changed since the day it was given.
In this week’s readings, Parsha Vayeshev, we see a hidden connection to the half-shekel, and why this commandment is so important to the community.
In this parsha, Ya’aqob is finally settled back in in his hometown, hoping for once in his life to have some peace. But, that doesn’t happen.
His son Yoseph dreams and prophesies of his future leadership in the family, and his brothers, who aren’t too fond of that idea, decide to kill him in their jealousy.
But thanks to Reuben’s intervention, they don’t kill him. Instead they put him in a pit, and later decide to sell him to some traders who take him down to Mitsrayim (Egypt) as a slave.
The brothers sold Yoseph for 20 pieces of silver. They most likely split it among themselves, each getting 2 pieces. These two pieces were worth a half-shekel.
If you're interested in the math...
20 pieces of silver split between 10 brothers is 2 pieces each (20 / 10 = 2)
Each piece is valued at 5 gerahs, so each brother got 10 gerahs (5 x 2 = 10)
20 gerahs equals one shekel, so 10 gerahs is ½ a shekel.
They turned against their brother to gain half a shekel.
YAHUAH commands us to give half a shekel.
(11) And יהוה spoke to Mosheh, saying,
(12) “When you take the census of the children of Yisra’el, to register them, then each one shall give an atonement for his life to יהוה, when you register them, so that there is no plague among them when you register them.
(13) “Everyone among those who are registered is to give this: half a sheqel according to the sheqel of the set-apart place, twenty gerahs being a sheqel. The half-sheqel is the contribution to יהוה.
(14) “Everyone passing over to be registered, from twenty years old and above, gives a contribution to יהוה.
(15) “The rich does not give more and the poor does not give less than half a sheqel, when you give a contribution to יהוה, to make atonement for yourselves.
(16) “And you shall take the silver for the atonement from the children of Yisra’el, and give it for the service of the Tent of Meeting. And it shall be to the children of Yisra’el for a remembrance before יהוה, to make atonement for yourselves.”
Everyone of Yisra’el, twenty years old and above, was to give a half-shekel of silver, the atonement for their soul, so the plague would not be among them.
The silver was first used in building the Tabernacle in the wilderness. Later, the silver was used in maintaining the Set-Apart Place. It was used to pay for the communal offerings, maintain the vessels, utensils, and furniture, to make repairs, to compensate judges and others who served, and to give to the poor.
The Set-Apart Place functioned as the House of worship, the courthouse, and the social services building all in one. Everything the community needed was there at the Set-Apart Place.
So, everyone in the community gave a half-shekel to benefit the community.
The brothers gained a half-shekel through callousness, divisiveness, jealousy, and baseless hatred.
Giving a half-shekel reverses that.
Everyone coming together to support the Set-Apart Place shows unity and oneness. It shows kindness, compassion, and love because from the Set-Apart Place, atonement was made for everyone, and anyone in need could go there and find help. Also, when everyone gave, there was no plague among them.
Not only does the half-shekel atone for your own soul and stop the plague in your own life, it also demonstrates a love for your brother.
The brotherly hatred that started with a half-shekel is reversed - atoned for - with a half-shekel.