And just like that, three weeks after we began, we have arrived at the last page of Tractate Shekalim.
This tractate has been exceptional in many respects. Until now, we were studying the Babylonian Talmud, but this tractate was originally composed for the Jerusalem Talmud and, in keeping with the style of that Talmud, is far more laconic than other texts we have studied.
We are still in the second order of the Talmud (called Moed), the section dealing with holidays, but in this tractate we found ourselves discussing a very different matter — the collection of the half-shekel Temple tax and the general bureaucratic procedures necessary for keeping God’s house in good working order.
Before this tractate, we had mostly seen the rabbis wrestle with matters we think of as “religious,” but the concerns of this tractate seem far more “secular.” (The truth is, the rabbis did not draw a distinction between religious and secular law as we do in the present day.)
All of which can make this little tractate seem completely archaic — with no obvious connection to contemporary Jewish practice. After all, we don’t have a Temple, so we don’t set aside the half shekel tax — right?
Right! On the last page of the tractate, we receive this confirmation. In most of the Talmud, we find the rabbis thinking, teaching, arguing about the Temple as if it were still standing. But of course, the Temple was not standing. It had been destroyed in 70 C.E. and a disastrous attempt at bringing about its return, the Bar Kochba Revolt, had only made reconstruction seem more remote. Yet the rabbis did not give up hope.
As we close this chapter, we see one of those rare rabbinic discussions that acknowledges the present, Temple-free reality of the rabbis. It begins with a mishnah:
The obligations to give a half shekel to the Temple and bring first fruits are practiced only in the presence of a Temple, though the obligations of grain tithes, animal tithes and sanctification of firstborn animals take place whether or not there is a Temple.
However, if (in the present day with no Temple) one does set aside a half shekel or first fruits, these are consecrated. Rabbi Shimon says: This does not apply to first fruits (even if set aside, they are not consecrated).
Without a Temple, the rabbis reason, Jews are not obligated to set aside a half shekel each year. The Gemara discusses what happens if one accidentally does so anyway: the half shekel is thrown into the Dead Sea — a super salty abyss that will ensure no one can accidentally benefit from the sacred funds that now belong to God. Likewise with other items consecrated in the absence of a Temple. Accidentally consecrated clothing is burned. An accidentally consecrated animal is destroyed: it is closed in its stall and allowed to starve to death. Please, everyone, do not accidentally consecrate your animals.
There is also a view that maybe the consecration of shekels in the absence of a Temple is simply invalid — it doesn’t work. The Gemara reasons this might likewise apply to a quarter dinar of silver that a new convert might consecrate in order to purchase a pair of doves for an offering. But then again, maybe that quarter dinar of silver is consecrated after all because, as we read in one of the last lines in this tractate:
Perhaps the Temple will be rebuilt as at first.
What they clearly mean is that perhaps the Temple will be rebuilt in the lifetime of that convert. As Jews now still say in the traditional daily prayers, they hoped it might be rebuilt “speedily in our own day.”
Read all of Shekalim 22 on Sefaria.