Friday, February 12, 2010

What is Shabbat Shekalim?

See also the prior posting: Why Name a Shabbat After Israeli Currency?

This week we begin the series of special Shabbats that will lead us along the path guiding our preparations for Passover. There are four special portions (parshiot) that are read. Some excellent background is found at the O-U website, beginning with this week’s special portion: Shekalim: See the following discussion from the OU website:

Shabbat Shekalim

Resh Lakish said "On the first of Adar, an announcement is made concerning the Shekalim." (Bab. Tal. Tractate Megillah)

The first of the Four Special Shabbatot is Shabbat Parshat Shekalim. It occurs either on the last Shabbat of the month of Shevat, or on the Shabbat which in that year coincides with Rosh Chodesh Adar, or on a Shabbat early in Adar. A special reading, taken from Parshat Ki Tisa (Shemot 30:11-16) is appended to the regular Torah reading.

The reading describes a census of the Jewish People that was taken while the Jews were in the Wilderness, after their Exodus from Egypt. The Torah, here and in other places, teaches that it is forbidden to count Jews in the ordinary manner; rather, the People should be called upon to contribute items, which would then be counted.

In the case of this census, the item that was contributed, by rich and poor alike, was a half shekel, the "shekel" being the coin in use at the time, roughly equivalent to our dollar. The collected shekels, or "shekalim, in Hebrew, were then used for the construction and upkeep of the Mishkan, the portable Temple, which was used until the Temple found its permanent residence (despite its destruction twice, the place retains its holiness) in Jerusalem.

The equal participation of all the People symbolizes that all Jews must share in achieving national goals, by giving up his selfish, personal interests for the sake of the nation. One who does so gains infinite benefit, because the mission of Israel is dependent upon the unity of the whole. (Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, cited in the ArtScroll Stone Edition of the Chumash)

The verses also speak in terms of atonement that is achieved by participation in this half-shekel assessment… A solitary human being can seldom survive Divine scrutiny; what person is free of sin and shortcomings? But when a nation becomes one, it ascends to a higher plane, because all its individuals merge their virtues with one another. This is also the reason that it is better to pray with a "minyan," a quorum, to establish a community, whose virtues can merge, instead of praying individually.

Parshat Shekalim recalls the time of Purim, which was also a time of Divine scrutiny and judgment for the Jewish People. The name of the Day of Atonement, Yom HaKippurim, the "Day which is like Purim," is also suggestive of this relationship, although Purim also contains the word "Pur," lottery, to suggest how G-d uses what seems to be "chance" in His administration of the world.

At the time of Purim, an edict had been issued by an earthly "court;" namely, the "court" of Haman and Achashverosh (often acting unknowingly as an emissary of the Heavenly Court), calling for the harsh punishment, if not the total destruction, G-d Forbid, of the Jewish People. The Fast of Taanit Esther, combined with the Repentance of the Jewish People, drew the nation into a unity, which was once again able to receive upon itself the "yoke of the Kingdom of Heaven," and renew their acceptance of the Torah, "the Jews accepted again what they had begun to do," (Megillat Esther 9:23), and thus merit their redemption.

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