Welcome to Tractate Shekalim! That is, Tractate “Head Tax Coins.” (We’ll stick with the Hebrew — it’s more elegant.) We’re going to spend the next 21 days discussing the biblically-mandated tax levied on each adult male in order to support the Temple.
This tractate may feel like a bit of a surprise. If you’ve been with us since the beginning, we’ve so far studied blessings, Shabbat and Passover — all obviously religious subjects. However, at least in the modern West, we think of money as having little to do with religion.
But our sages knew that the proper administration of taxes was essential for Temple upkeep — to keep the beating heart of ancient Jewish religion in good working order. (A modern equivalent might be synagogue dues.) And more than that, thinking through the finances of the Temple is a helpful way to explore ethical, political and religious questions.
Today’s daf juxtaposes two seemingly unrelated topics: the collection of shekels and the public reading of the Book of Esther on Purim. Here’s the opening mishnah:
On the first of Adar the court proclaims concerning the collection of shekels.
And with regard to (the obligation to uproot) forbidden mixtures of diverse kinds.
And on the 15th of Adar, the Book of Esther is read in the cities (surrounded by walls from the time of Joshua).
And they also repair the roads and the streets and the cisterns.
And at that time they perform all that is necessary for public welfare.
And they also mark the Jewish gravesites anew.
Mixed in with the collection of taxes is a list of public services scheduled for this late winter month: repairing roads that may have been damaged by severe weather, clearly marking graves (to avoid accidental corpse impurity) and getting fields ready for planting. In the Gemara, Rabbi Hizkya asks the obvious: Since the new shekels are needed by the month of Nisan (which follows Adar), is there enough time to collect the funds? After all, the residents of Babylonia live several months’ journey away.
Oh yes, it turns out that we are not in Babylonia anymore! No, friends, this is in fact the Jerusalem Talmud (also called the Palestinian Talmud). The Babylonian Talmud is incomplete — meaning it contains no Gemara for many tractates of the Mishnah. But there is Gemara on Tractate Shekalim in the Jerusalem Talmud, and it has long been printed in volumes of the Babylonian Talmud — which is why we study it for Daf Yomi. So welcome not only to a new tractate, but to a whole different Talmud!
Rabbi Ulla notes that our mishnah’s statement about collecting the half shekel in Adar contradicts a later mishnah in Shekalim (3:1) which states that money for communal offerings is in fact collected on three occasions throughout the year. So is this tax collected once or three times per year?
The Gemara finds a similar problem in the statement about Esther. Our opening mishnah says that Esther is read on the 15th of Adar in walled cities but the Gemara notes that according to Rabbi Hiyya the Great the mitzah is fulfilled on the 14th for those in walled cities, as it is for everyone else. So which day is it — 14th or 15th?
The commonality between these two debates — when to collect the Temple taxes and which day(s) to read the Book of Esther — is the all-important question of timing and deadlines. As political scientist Elizabeth F. Cohen reminds us: “Time is an important political variable that can be manipulated to achieve greater or lesser degrees of inclusion in the population.” If you think that is abstract, consider contemporary arguments about the legality or illegality of leniencies granted absentee voting, late voting, early voting, etc. — and how the neutral language of deadlines can mask substantive positions about participation. As we plunge once more into a new tractate with intricate legalistic arguments it will behoove us to always be thinking critically about what values are being encoded, why and how.
The rabbis ostensibly uphold the idea that there is a right time for the collection of the half-shekels and for walled cities to recite the Megillah. In practice, however, they found ways to permit these actions at other times, in the name of expanding publicity, access and observance of Jewish ritual, as Rabbi Mana explains:
Rabbi Mana said to Rabbi Ulla: The different collections (at different times of year) do not reflect the different times of the shekels’ arrival, but rather the entire collection of shekels arrives at one time, by the first of Nisan, and in accordance with the opinion of Rabbi Hizkiya. And why then did the Sages say that the money is collected on three occasions in the year? In order to publicize the matter, that everyone is obligated to donate half-shekels for the purchase of communal offerings.
The sages were hardly early liberals, but they often made a point of expanding the circle of participants in the service of making a holy community.
Read all of Shekalim 2 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on March 23rd, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.