The half shekel tax, as we have already seen, derives from an explicit biblical obligation. In the Torah, the collection of shekels serves the dual purpose of taxation and census-taking, and the obligation is incumbent on everyone over the age of twenty — an equal obligation for both rich and poor, with no one paying any more or less.
The Torah also explains why. The half shekel was collected “in order that no plague come upon them...” (Exodus 30:12). As opposed to what we have been reading for the last few days, the Bible understands this not as taxation for road maintenance, but as a shield against future plague — that is, against divine wrath.
The Bible has an idea that counting people is dangerous. There is a narrative in 2 Samuel 24 that explicitly connects King David’s census of the fighting men to a plague sent by the Lord as a punishment. (I Chronicles 21:1 even puts the blame for David’s decision to count the Israelites on Satan!) In the Torah, the half shekel is a means of attenuating that danger.
On our daf today, we find alternative explanations for the half-shekel obligation, and though they also may amount to assuaging divine wrath, in this case the midrashim lean heavily on the description of the half shekel has “expiation money” (kesef kipurim) found in Exodus 13:16. That is, the half shekel atones for previous sins.
Several midrashim link the half-shekel tax to the sin of the Golden Calf, the moment when Moses went up Mount Sinai to receive God’s commandments and Israel, distraught without their leader, turned to idolatry:
Rabbi Yehudah and Rabbi Nehemaya.
One says: Since they sinned half the day let them give one shekel.
The other says: Since they sinned at six hours into the day, let them give half a shekel, which makes six garmesin.
Both of these explanations are based on a midrash in Shabbat 89a that calculates the timing of the sin of the Golden Calf at six hours into the daylight hours, or the midpoint of the day. The first position makes it simple: half a day’s worth of sin means a half-shekel of atonement money is required. The second position is based on a slightly more complex monetary calculation: six garmesin (one for each hour of sin) which equals half a shekel.
A third explanation, from Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, also links the half-shekel to the sin of the Gold Calf, but the currency calculation is again different. In this case, Israel owes ten geirah, one for each of the Ten Commandments (and this, too, is the equivalent of half a shekel).
But the fourth and final suggestion links the half shekel obligation to a very different ancient sin: the sale of Joseph into slavery.
Rabbi Pinchas in the name of Rabbi Levi says: Because they (Joseph’s brothers) sold the first born of Rachel for twenty pieces of silver and each one of the brothers received a tabaah, therefore let each one give for his shekel obligation a tabaah.
Yet more ancient currency conversion! In the end each brother ended up with — you guessed it! — the equivalent of half a shekel. Israel repays that half shekel every year in atonement for this sin that involved the ancestors of the entire community.
Whether linked with the sin of the Golden Calf or the sale of Joseph into slavery, these midrashim render the half-shekel a symbol of communal responsibility, not just in the present, but in the past as well. Thus, what originally appeared a simple tax turns out to be a means of fulfilling one’s obligation not only to one’s present community, but also forging connection with the community that came before.
Like later generations in Israel, we personally neither worshipped the calf nor sold our brother into slavery (at least I hope you’ve never done those things!) but these crimes are part of our story, and as we give our half shekel, that is, when we give to contribute to the maintenance of our present community, we are meant to remember the ways in which those sins, and others too perhaps, remain an essential part of who we are, and who we wish to be.
Read all of Shekalim 6 on Sefaria.