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Shabbat Shekalim and Giving

Updated: Dec 26, 2023

Since Ron proposed to me on May 8, 2016, Shabbat Shekalim will never be the same to me again. Tonight we usher in a special Shabbat, Shabbat Shekalim, as we read in the book of Exodus that every adult (male in the Torah) was to give a half shekel to sustain the religious life of the community. The Torah specifies that “the rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less” (Exodus 30:15)- each person was to give the same half shekel. This portion is read every year on the Shabbat prior to Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the month of Adar, the month of Purim. Adar begins next Thursday night and Friday, and the rabbis say that when Adar enters, happiness increases- may it be so in each of our lives.

In essence, Shabbat Shekalim serves as a reminder that taxes will be due soon, yet its meaning is so much deeper. Here is a half shekel. (show coin)   Ron and I had hiked to the top of a hill in the mountain preserve, and we sat for a while enjoying the view. Out of nowhere and totally by surprise, he slid down onto one knee, pulled this coin out of his pocket, and began talking about how he had brought the half shekel home from a trip to Israel, in hopes of finding his other half. I was so shocked that I didn’t grasp what he was saying, but eventually it became clear that he was asking for my hand in marriage. I said yes, of course, and here we are.

The half shekel is a reminder of how much we all need each other, how much we need to be in community, and how each of us has something to offer, whoever we are, rich or poor. None of us is complete on our own, we are all imperfect, yet, with each of our contributions, the community is complete. We are all on the receiving end and the giving end at different times in our lives, we are each half a shekel and together we become whole.

Recognizing our interconnection, we understand the need to give. The half shekel represents sharing our physical resources. Generosity is a fundamental middah, a soul-trait, and it is one that we cultivate through our generous giving. Personally, I can have a tendency to be less than generous, and I know that I struggle with fear of scarcity, concern that if I give to individuals or to organizations that I support, that I will not have enough for my own needs. Our tradition assures us that no one will go broke from giving tzedakah. Maimonides encourages us that we acquire the quality of being generous through repeated acts of giving, that the person who gives 100 coins to 100 people will become more generous than the person who gives 100 coins all at once. We need to constantly reinforce the quality of generosity. So, when we were coming home from NY on Wednesday, I held my tongue when Ron gave the driver $50. for a $38. drive to the airport. I know I need to practice generosity at every opportunity! As Jews, I think we need to be especially sensitive to stereotypes that portray Jewish people as less than generous. We can counter these stereotypes by our gracious giving.

We can give of ourselves beyond tzedakah. When we rejoice at a wedding or sit with the bereaved, we are giving generously of our time. When we share our wisdom and experience we are giving generously to support the growth of others. All of these are acts of generosity.

The story is told of[Rabbi Elijah (Elya) Chaim Meisel of Lodz, who, during an exceptionally cold winter, went to a rich citizen to ask for funds for firewood to heat the homes of the poor. The rabbi knocked, and the wealthy man came to the door in his evening jacket. Honored by the appearance of the distinguished rabbi, he invited him into the house. Rabbi Elya Chaim responded that since he would be staying just a minute there was no need to go inside. He then engaged the man in conversation, asking in great detail about each family member. Out of respect for the rabbi, the man answered all his questions, but by now his teeth were chattering. Still the rabbi refused to enter. Finally, the man said, “Rabbi, why did you come here? What is it that you want?”

“I need money to buy wood for the poor. They are suffering greatly from the cold.” The shivering man promised to give a hundred rubles, a huge sum, whereupon the rabbi entered his house and sat down in the living room in front of a warm fireplace. The man brought the rabbi a glass of tea and they sat and spoke. Finally, unable to restrain himself, the man said to Rabbi Elya Chaim: “Why didn’t you just come in right away, and ask for the donation? You know I wouldn’t refuse you.”

The rabbi answered: “Standing outside in the cold, you started to shiver, and when I told you how cold the poor were, you felt in your own bones the truth of my words. That’s why you gave a hundred rubles. But had you and I sat together in comfortable chairs in front of a warm fireplace, drinking hot tea, and I had spoken to you of the sufferings of the poor, you wouldn’t have felt it in the same way, and would have contented yourself with a ten-ruble contribution.

Generosity begins when we recognize that we are all connected; it begins with the half-shekel.

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