"This shall they give - everyone who passes through the census - a half shekel of the sacred shekel, the shekel is 20 geras, half a shekel as a portion to Hashem." (1)

In Parshas Ki Sisa, the Torah instructs every man to give half a shekel (known as machsit hashekel) towards the communal offering given in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). Since the destruction of the Temple, we no longer merit to have this mitzvah, however, we remember it every year when we read Parshat Shekalim. Accordingly, there still remain valuable lessons that can be derived from the machsit hashekel.

The Midrash Rabbah offers a surprising reason for the mitzvah, and in particular, why the specific value of half a shekel, must be given. The Midrash explains that the giving of the half shekel is an atonement for the sale of Joseph by his brothers. The brothers sold Joseph for twenty pieces of silver. This is equivalent to five shekel. Ten of the brothers sold Joseph, each one receiving one tenth of this value, making a half shekel each. Accordingly, since each brother gained half a shekel in the sale, their descendants were instructed to give half a shekel as an atonement. (2) The obvious question to be asked is what is the connection between the giving of half a shekel and the sale of Joseph?

In order to answer this, we need to deepen our understanding of the sale of Joseph. The brothers knew that twelve tribes were destined to come from Jacob. Each tribe would have its own unique qualities and they would all join together to combine to make up the Jewish people as a whole, with tribe complementing the others. The brothers decided that Joseph had lost his right to be part of this group, because of what they perceived to be his dangerous attitude and behavior. Therefore, they believed that they could remove Joseph from the destined 12 tribes, and be left with only eleven. The chiddush (novelty) of this approach was that they planned to remove one of the twelve pieces to the puzzle that would constitute the Jewish people. They felt that they could do without Joseph's potential contribution to the Jewish people, and the Jewish people could continue without him.

With this understanding we can now explain how the mitzvah of Shekalim atones for the sale of Joseph. The commentaries note the significance of the fact that one must give half a shekel as opposed to a full shekel. Many explain that it comes to teach us about the importance of unity amongst the Jewish people by showing that each person is only 'half a person' without combining with the strengths of his fellow man. (3) One should not think that he can separate from his fellow Jews and be unaffected. A person who ha this attitude he will be incomplete. In this way, the mitzvah of giving half a shekel can act as an atonement for the sale of Joseph. Joseph's brothers thought that they could get along fine without Joseph's contribution to the Jewish people. Their mistake was that even if they believed him to be erring, he was still an essential part of the Jewish people. By giving half a shekel we remind ourselves that this is not the correct attitude - all Jews are part of a unified whole, and everyone needs to combine with their fellow.

This idea even extends itself to people who are not behaving in the most optimal fashion. Shortly after the mitzvah of giving half a shekel, God commands us to combine a number of spices to make the incense. One of these is the chelbanah, which the Sages tell us has a foul smelling odor. Why then is it included in the ingredients for the incense? The Talmud explains that any communal fast that does not include sinners is not considered a proper fast. (4) Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz explains that when the Jewish people are not united, then they are not considered one unit, and therefore the power of the community is drastically weakened.(5)

The Bostoner Rebbe epitomized the attitude that every Jew should be treated with respect regardless of his religious affiliation. His funeral testified to this by the fact that there were numerous people attending who would not be classified as regular Bostoner Chassidim. He expressed his attitude in this area briefly: He said, "When people try to disassociate one group from another, that's part of the 'Torah' of sinat Yisrael (hatred of Jews). Every person can improve. Every group can improve. But it doesn't mean that these people have to be blackballed because some people think that they're not exactly the way they are..." (6)

We have seen how the Midrash connecting the episode of the sale of Joseph to the mitzvah of giving half a shekel, teaches us that we should realize that we should never 'blackball' other Jews, regardless of who they are. May we all merit to learn from the words of the Bostoner Rebbe and emulate his actions, in striving to unite all Jews.


1. Ki Sisa, 30:13.

2. Bereishit Rabbah, 84:17. With commentary of 'Matnot Kehunah'. One may ask, that according to this reasoning, the descendants of Joseph and Benjamin (who was not involved in the sale) should be exempt from this Mitzva. It seems that there are other reasons for the Mitzva of Shekalim which obligate every man to give it, however the amount of half a shekel is fixed by the calculation made by the Midrash.

3. See Tallelei Orot, Shemot, chelek 2, p. 202 in the name of the Chida, and beshem amroo, Shemot, Ki Tisa, 30:13 in the name of Arvei Hanachal (author of Levushei Srad on Shulchan Aruch).

4. Krisus, 6b.

5. Sichot Mussar, Maamer 54, p. 231.

6. Quoted in Mishpacha Magazine, Issue 287, 22 Kislev, 5770, p. 41.