Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 19 February 2022 / 18 Adar Alef 5782

A Complete Half-Shekel

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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One half, one, one and a half, two, two and a half, three…. Take the final count and multiply by two, and you have the total population. Would it not have been simpler to count by ones?

The counting of Israel is in halves — each Jew was commanded to donate one half-Shekel to the construction of the Mishkan, and through this donation, the people were counted. In later years, this half-Shekel would be collected annually for the communal sacrificial offerings.

It is significant that the count is accomplished by way of donation. In order to be counted among the people of Israel, an individual must contribute. A person who merely exists and lives for himself does not become an integral part of the nation. Rather, he who gives and contributes earns his place in the community. He may then become “one of the counted.” (Shemot 30:13) Only one who asks not what the community can do for him, but resolves to do for the community, joins the ennobled circle of those counted before G-d.

He does not give a full Shekel, but one half-Shekel. Even the fullest, whole-hearted contribution to community can only be a “half.” One member can never accomplish all of the work. His accomplishments must always be met by the contribution of his brother. The half-Shekel reminds each member, the task is not for you to complete. (Avot 2:16)

One Shekel was equivalent to twenty geirah (approximately 20 grams), and thus the half-Shekel was ten geirah. Although he gives one half-Shekel, the measurement is a unit of ten, a number which represents a complete unit, a full set. Subjectively, he is to give a complete measure of himself, of his talents, of his efforts. He is not to view his effort as half-hearted, waiting for someone else to pitch in. Rather, he gives his full ten geirah, understanding that while the task is not his to complete, he is not free to excuse himself from his part. (Avot 2:16)

We all become co-builders of the Mishkan, of the community when we make our individual donations. The rich give no more than the poor — everyone gives his “half.” When each gives his whole half, his full contribution, the total strength of the community is realized, and we may be counted among those who G-d numbers as His own.

  • Sources: Commentary, Shemot 30:12-13; Collected Writings, Vol. II, Adar II, p. 380

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