One of the 613 commandments of the Torah commands all Jewish males above the age of Bar Mitzvah to contribute a half-shekel each year to the Temple. All the public sacrifices that are brought in the Temple in the course of the year are purchased from the accumulated funds.
For the purposes of the half-shekel commandment, the year renews itself on the first day of Nisan - the month of the Redemption, the first month the Israelites counted after being instructed to start a new calendar based on the lunar cycle just prior to the exodus from Egypt. From the first of Nisan, only offerings purchased from the fresh half-shekel contributions are acceptable. The half-shekels that fund the offerings of the following year must therefore reach the hands of the overseers by the first of Nisan.
During Temple times, an announcement to bring the half-shekels was issued each year on the first day of Adar, a month prior to the due date. Reminiscent of this custom, we read the Torah section that contains this commandment - the first chapter of Parshat Ki Tisa, known as Parshat Shkalim - on the Shabbat just before Rosh Chodesh Adar. [In a leap year we read it just prior to the second Adar]
THE SHEKEL OF FIRE
It is a pretty straightforward commandment as Torah commandments go. The sum is unambiguous, the date is clear; there is nothing that seems complex. Yet there must be more to this commandment than it first appears:
Rabbi Meir said, "The Holy One pulled out a coin of fire from underneath his glorious throne and showed it to Moses." (Jerusalem Talmud, Shkalim, 46b)
Apparently there was something very difficult to understand about this commandment. God had to demonstrate the coin personally to ensure that Moses would fully grasp the significance of this half shekel. What could be so obscure about a commandment that involves nothing more than the donation of a simple coin?
We find another provocative reference to these half-shekels in the Book of Esther:
"If it pleases the King, let it be recorded that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand silver talents (shekels) ... to the King's treasury." (Esther 3:9)
Reish Lakish said: "It was known to the One Who spoke and brought the world into being that Haman would expend Shekels to destroy Israel, therefore he made sure that their (Jewish) Shekels preceded his (Haman's) Shekels. It is written that on the first day of Adar an announcement is issued regarding the bringing of Shekels." (Talmud, Megillah 13b)
In some mysterious fashion, our half Shekels are required to serve as a counterweight to Haman's Shekels. We would be lost without their protection. [See Tosefoth, Megilah 16a, who works out the balance in terms of the numbers] What does all this information signify?
SHEKEL AS SYMBOL
The Shekel symbolizes all money.
Although a phenomenon of the physical world, money has some spiritual attributes. For one thing, money is the primary social unifier. According to social contract theory, we human beings organize ourselves into societies as a survival device. Without social co-operation and integration, every individual would have to worry about providing himself with food, shelter, clothing, security, education and entertainment, clearly an impossible task. By organizing ourselves into groups and pooling our resources, we allow each person to specialize at one particular task thus ensuring that we all survive. Some people worry about food others are placed in charge of shelter etc., and we exchange our products with each other.
This type of barter system requires an efficient medium of exchange to make it work. There must be some way to determine the amount of food that equals a suit of clothing, and how much food and clothing should be offered in exchange for security or entertainment. Money is the medium of exchange that we have invented to meet this need.
The literal translation of the word shekel in Hebrew is "weight." The relative weight of all things is decided by the monetary value attached to them. The determination of the monetary value of services allows for the establishment of social harmony, provided all people are in substantial agreement regarding the fairness of the values that are set.
For example, if soldiers feel that their services are undervalued, and they are not receiving a fair exchange for their contribution, there is a danger that society will implode. Throughout human history it is disgruntled armies that have most frequently destroyed the old social order and replaced it with a new one. This type of occurrence is still quite common in South America.
Social harmony is a function of widespread satisfaction with the reliability of the monetary system and its ability to accurately weigh and balance the value of goods and services, so that the great majority of people feel satisfied that they are receiving a fair exchange for their contribution.
Alternative systems that have been attempted throughout history - such as communism, where compensation was separated from the value of the individual's social contribution - have simply not worked. Only the translation of goods and services into money by the free market has worked as a principle of social unity over the ages.
DETERMINING SPIRITUAL VALUE
But while money has always functioned efficiently to establish the exchange value of physical goods and services to everyone's satisfaction, it has never worked well as a determinant of the value of spiritual inputs.
The great moral philosophers of history have rarely been fairly compensated for the inspiration they provided society with their theories and ideas. We are all familiar with the stereotyped image of the talented artist who starves unrecognized in a garret for the greater part of his life even as he creates the priceless masterpieces that still enrich our lives many centuries after his death.
The free market is notoriously poor at assigning a proper value to spiritual commodities. Great paintings that can only be obtained for astronomic sums can be picked up for pennies before the artist becomes famous.
Because spirituality is not a necessity of life in a secular society, this lack of efficiency at valuating spiritual commodities does not seriously affect social harmony. But suppose we were to organize an entire society for purely spiritual aims. Money would obviously be a very poor means of fairly evaluating the spiritual goods and services, a process that would be essential for the unification of such a society.
Jewish society was organized for precisely such a spiritual purpose. In the prelude to the Covenant of Sinai, God declares:
"And now, if you hearken well to Me and observe My covenant, you shall be to Me the most beloved treasure of all peoples, for Mine is the entire world. You shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation." (Exodus 19:5-6)
Nevertheless, we find that the great Sages of Israel were often poverty stricken. For example: Rabbi Chanina ben Dosa (see Talmud, Brochot 17b), Rabbi Yehoshua (see Talmud Brachot 28a) and Rabbi Akiva (see Talmud, Ketubot, 63a). It seems that even in spiritual societies money is little more efficient at evaluating spiritual products than in purely secular societies. If we nevertheless find spiritual harmony among the Jewish people as a spiritual entity, its existence points to an alternative unifying device that must be at work.
DETERMINING SOCIAL STATUS
In a secular society organized around social contract theory, individual wealth roughly corresponds to the amount of physical goods and services that individuals provide society. The greater contributors of goods and services to the social welfare end up with greater wealth than those that contribute less. We are not surprised to find that wealth is also associated with social status; the people with greater amounts of wealth tend to be those who make greater contributions to the physical welfare of all human beings and are therefore deserving of greater honor. Wealth, status and honor tend to correspond.
In a society organized around spirituality, wealth and social status are divorced from one another. Generally speaking, people who excel spiritually tend to be uninterested in money; there is even a loose negative correlation between money and status in such a society. When Israel was spiritually healthy, there was absolutely no connection between a person's wealth and his position in society. The great sages of Israel were and still are universally admired and listened to despite the humility of their physical circumstances.
UNDERSTANDING HAMAN'S SHEKELS
We have now laid the foundation that will help us appreciate the significance of Haman's Shekels.
Haman rose to prominence under the rule of King Ahasuerus, the ruler of the Medean (Persian) Empire that extended over 127 countries. This same King Ahasuerus was not of royal lineage; he was an immensely wealthy individual and he purchased his power with money. (See Talmud, Megilla, 11a.) The Book of Esther begins with a lengthy description of the party he threw in the third year of his reign, a party whose entire purpose was to impress his subjects with the vastness of his wealth. (See Esther 1:4.)
Later in the story, this same monarch elevates one of his ministers, Haman, to such a lofty height, that a command is issued that mandates everyone to bow down to him. (See Esther 3:1.) Haman's rise in status is also related to money. The Midrash informs us that Haman was one of the wealthiest people who ever lived and that Ahasuerus elevated him because of his immense wealth. The clash of cultures that resulted in the edict of destruction against the Jewish people was triggered by Mordechai's refusal to obey the edict to bow to Haman. In a sense, the entire Esther story revolves around a clash of values concerning the importance of money.
We have pointed out many times in the course of these essays that the Torah does not spend time discussing the plans and ambitions of primitive people, nor does it treat such people with any respect. The people described in the Esther story created the background for a potential Holocaust that was only miraculously aborted at the last minute. We still celebrate the defeat of Haman after all these centuries on the Festival of Purim indicating that the thwarting of his evil designs remains relevant to us after all these centuries. We can be sure that neither Ahasuerus nor Haman was primitive or stupid.
KING AHASUERUS: THE REAL STORY
Ahasuerus came to power 70 years after the destruction of the Temple. The prophets had foretold that the Babylonian Exile would last for no longer than 70 years and the Jews would be redeemed from exile when they were up. As they were all familiar with this prophecy, both the Babylonians and the Persians who took over the empire attempted to avoid starting up with the Jewish people until they were certain that the Redeemer was not coming and that God had abandoned the Jewish people for good in exile.
The Talmud recounts how all the tyrants who ruled over the Jews waited out what they reckoned to be the full seventy years; it turned out that they were all mistaken regarding the correct manner to count the seventy years. The redeemer actually arrived right on schedule. (See Talmud, Megila 11b.) Ahasuerus waited longer than the others but even he finally felt safe in concluding that the 70-year deadline had passed and that the Redeemer was simply not coming.
But Ahasuerus also perceived an implication of the failure of the Redeemer to arrive that no one else seemed to have noticed. He realized that the abandonment of the Jewish people in exile meant that God had withdrawn His Presence from the world. There was therefore a new world order.
Ahasuerus had the opportunity to introduce a new unifying principle that would leave him in control of a global empire. God was the predominant force in human history up until this time. The worship of God and the interest in spirituality that was its inevitable companion dominated human ideas, and was the basic unifying principle in human affairs.
Mankind was united by the principle of worship. The entire Torah is replete with injunctions and warnings against the worship of idols. Worship of other gods was the prime cause of assimilation. The fact that each people had its own unique way of worshipping God does not defeat the principle of god-worship as a unifying principle. All men were focused on the same goal, to interrelate successfully with the Divine.
But this entire world of worship was now at an end. The God of Israel who was the ultimate source of all the local Divinities that people worshipped [see Maimonides, Yad Hachazaka, Laws of Idol Worship, Ch.1] had abandoned the physical world for good. Mankind needed a new unifying principle.
THE NEW UNITY
Although Haman's plans were ultimately frustrated and the Esther saga ended triumphantly, in many ways this analyses was right on target. While the redemption finally did arrive and the second Temple was duly built, God has never fully returned; He no longer rests His Presence (Shechinah) among us. He no longer communicates with us through His chosen prophets. We have no open manifestation of His presence in the physical world.
Ahasuerus proposed to introduce a secular social contract organized around the idea of wealth and money to replace God worship as the new unifying principle. His plan to annihilate the Jews was frustrated, but the new world order he introduced is still with us.
We are all familiar with the underlying idea of Ahasuerus' unifying principle. If all men pooled their resources together intelligently and we learned to exploit the bounties of nature, every man would be assured of a steadily increasing standard of living through ever-increasing human productivity. There would no longer be any need for Divine intervention.
In the past man had to turn to God for more bounty if he wanted to be better off. But money is potentially such a superb unifying principle that it can eliminate the need to worship God almost entirely. We can improve our own lot without His assistance or intervention. (In conjunction with this idea here is an ironic observation; the American greenback, the quintessential symbol of money in modern times is inscribed with the motto 'In God we trust.')
What better human symbol can there be to represent the new order than the world's richest man, who rose to dizzying heights through his own creative drive, Haman? He was the perfect person to embody the new dream of a secular Utopia. So much for the events of the Esther story as seen from the non-Jewish side.
Simultaneously with these events in the secular world, an upheaval of major proportions was taking place among the Jews.
Nachmanides presents it thus (Talmud, Sabbath 88a); the Jews of Persia had decided that the covenant made at Sinai had come to its conclusion. God had kicked the Jews out of Israel. In the circumstances of exile, continuing to observe the commandments was simply not practical. In a secular world, the Jews had to adjust to a new reality.
Shmuel said: "Ten representatives [of the Jewish people] came and sat before the prophet. [Ezekiel] He told them, 'Repent.' They answered him, 'A slave that was sold by his master, or a wife who was divorced by her husband, do they have any attachment left to each other?' God said to the prophet, 'Tell them: "Where is your document of divorce that I sent you, or where are the creditors to whom I sold you. It was for your sins that you were sold, and for your rebelliousness that you were sent away. "(Isaiah 50) ... "What you are thinking will never come to pass! That you say, 'We will be as other nations, like the families of the earth, we shall also serve trees and stones.' 'By my life,' says the Lord God, 'If I will not rule you with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, and pouring anger if need be.'" (Ezekiel 20) (Talmud, Sanhedrin, 105a)
This problem has plagued the Jewish people ever since. In a world where we are not under the protective umbrella of the Divine presence, it has always been difficult to remain an observant Jew. Countless Jews have abandoned observance over the ages on the grounds of practicality. As a result, we have suffered the tribulationof countless Haman's unfortunately often without any triumphant conclusion.
Mordechai symbolizes the Torah Jew who remains steadfast to Torah values in a changing world. His refusal to bow to Haman is the refusal to adjust to the new world order. For Mordechai the world never changes. He can always perceive the Presence of God even when worship is no longer the prevailing culture. As Mordechai was a leader of his people who, to their great credit, neither rejected him or made any attempt to officially distance themselves from him, Haman decided that the entire Jewish people would have to go so that the new world order could be successfully implemented. Because we stood unified behind our leader Mordechai, we prevailed.
THE FIERY HALF-SHEKEL
We can finally return to the commandment of the half-Shekel.
The special grace of spiritual societies is that they do not value people according to any physical standard. People are valued according to how much they contribute to the spiritual welfare of their society rather than on the basis of the size of their material contribution.
In Hebrew the numerical value of the word shekel, meaning "weight", or "money," is 430, equivalent to the numerical value of the word nefesh, meaning "soul," which is also 430. The commandment to contribute the half Shekel has to be understood in the light of this hidden correspondence. It is actually an injunction to employ money, one of the physical resources of the world, to achieve atonement for one's soul. (See Exodus 30:12.)
Moses found this idea conceptually difficult. What do money and soul have to do with each other? Spirituality and interest in money seem to be mutually exclusive. Giving half a shekel hardly constitutes a great personal sacrifice, so how can it possibly be understood as atonement?
The image of a fiery coin from beneath God's throne was presented in response to Moses' bewilderment. The commandment to give the half-shekel is to be understood as a dismissal of money as the principle of unity.
In a society where a person is valued according to the size of his contribution in goods and services, people never weigh the same. The fairest way to tax people is to assess each person according to his means. All goods and services are valued in terms of money, so the wealthy naturally possess a greater share of the social pie. When society as a whole has to pay for something, the wealthy must contribute their proportionate share. If a democratic secular society ever needed to impose a spiritual tax to raise money for the offering of a communal sacrifice, this tax would be graduated like any other.
God displayed the image of the fiery half-shekel to teach Moses to relate to people as sources of light. The word nefesh, which equals the numerical value of the word "shekel," also forms an acrostic for the word ner, meaning "lamp"; Ner, the stand, shemen, the "oil," and psilo, the "wick" - each person's soul is a repository of the Divine flame that originates in God's throne.
A lamp is only the vehicle that holds the flame; the brightness of the light it sheds is the lamp's most important feature; the humblest lamp is more worthy than the most expensive if it gives off the brighter flame.
All Jews are lamps; they are the carriers of the Divine flame and they were given the task to light up the world. Fusing all the individual Jewish flames into a single fire whose intense luminosity can dispel the darkness of the world forms the social unity of the Congregation of Israel. The spiritual services associated with the maintenance of this fused national fire may cost only half a shekel per person, but that is because the lamp is never important per se; its significance is only in that it sustains the fire.
Our present Diaspora is extremely similar to the one described in the Book of Esther. We also live in a materialistic society that measures the quality of life in terms of the goods and services at the disposal of individual citizens. Such an exile always raises the specter of the threat of overindulgence in the 'party':
The students of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai asked him: "Why did the Jews of that generation deserve to be placed under an edict of destruction?" He told them: "You know the answer." They told him: "Because they went to enjoy the party of Ahasuerus." (Talmud, Megila 12a)
Jews are the repositories of God's flame. We must not lose ourselves in the enjoyment of the party served up by our wealthy and materialistic society. Our job is to light up the materialistic darkness with the bright light of God's spiritual flame. When we sit with abandon at Ahasurerus' table we risk our own destruction. Our half shekels take precedence over Haman's only as long as they are employed to sustain the holy flame.