Shabbat Parashat Vayikra | 5768
The Basis for Giving Machatzit Hashekel before Purim
Ask the Rabbi
Question: Please explain the basis and parameters of giving machatzit hashekel before Purim. Specifically, how much must I give, and does everyone in the family have to take part?
Answer: Let us first clarify a few things about the minhag before dealing with specifics. There is a mitzva from the Torah to donate every year (during the month of Adar) a half shekel for the upcoming year’s public sacrifices (see last week’s Hemdat Yamim). While this does not apply now, a minhag has developed to give a donation in memory (zecher) of the practice. (It should be clear though that it is only zecher; an attempt to make a real machatzit hashekel would produce hekdesh coins that may not be used outside the Beit Hamikdash.) Notably, this old minhag (found in the Mordechai, over 700 years ago) was not cited by such basic sources as the Rambam and Shulchan Aruch but is in the Rama (Orach Chayim 694:1). At some point in history, Sephardim have adopted the minhag (see Kaf Hachayim, ad loc. and Yalkut Yosef, Moadim pp. 310-314).
One might have expected that one would give one half shekel coin (see Biur Halacha, ad loc.). However, since the Torah [in last week’s maftir] mentions the word “terumah” three times (in the first year of donation, when the Mishkan was being assembled, there were three donations), the Rama says to give three coins. The standard practice is to give half denominations of the local currency; the Rama mentions specific coins appropriate in his time in different places. In our time, the Israeli half shekel and the American half dollar are appropriate, respectively. Since the classical coins from the Beit Hamikdash’s times were made out of silver, there are shuls that provide old half dollar coins, which contain a sufficient amount of silver, but this is not a real requirement. These shuls usually allow people to buy the special coins for whatever price they like, and, of course, they donate the coins back to the “pot.” Some say that one should give the value of three coins, each of which is worth the amount of a Torah half shekel (approximately 10 grams of silver, which comes out these days to around $6 per coin) (Kaf Hachayim 694:20; see Yalkut Yosef ibid.). Some people take the opportunity to make more significant donations. (Anything above the minimum amount, according to the various opinions, can be taken from ma’aser money- Yalkut Yosef, p. 314.)
The Rama says that only men above the age of 20 need to give the machatzit hashekel, as the pasuk (Shemot 30:14) seems to indicate (see Bartenura to Shekalim 1:3). On the other hand, the Tosafot Yom Tov (to Shekalim 1:4) says that involvement in the donation for the korbanot applies to all male adults, as the age limit refers to the one-time donation also referred to by the pasuk. The Mishna Berura (694:5) points out that it is customary to give even on behalf of women and young children. A reasonable compromise is for men over 20 to give the larger amount for themselves and give the smaller amount for those whose obligation is based on a stringent minhag.
There are various opinions about the optimal time to give the machatzit hashekel. Although the Mishna Berura cites an opinion to do it before the morning reading of Megillat Esther, the more prevalent minhag is to give it before (or after) Mincha on the day before Purim, which is usually Ta’anit Esther. Indeed, the Kaf Hachayim (694:25) says that the Mincha of the fast is the appropriate time to give this money, which will go to tzedaka. His implication is that even Jerusalemites, for whom the day before Purim is everyone else’s Purim, would give the machatzit hashekel on Ta’anit Esther. However, the more prevalent practice seems to be for Jerusalemites to give it at the Mincha before their Purim, except on a Purim Meshulash year [like this one], when they give it on Ta’anit Esther (=Thursday- Purim Meshulash 2:1; see Riv’vot Ephrayim II, 194).
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This edition of Hemdat Yamim is dedicated in loving memory of
Yehudah ben Naftali Hertz Cohen (Kamofsky) and
R ' Meir ben Yechezkel Shraga Brachfeld
Hemdat Yamim is endowed by Les & Ethel Sutker of
Max and Mary Sutker
and Louis and Lillian Klein, z”l.