Mishpatim is a very special parashah for me. It is also known as Shabbat Shekalim and it was on Shabbat Shekalim that I read Torah for the very first time in 1993. I am attaching a link to a podcast from R. Alex Israel who is with PARDES, who speaks about the history of the half-shekel: https://elmad.pardes.org/2018/02/the-half-shekel/
Many people think of money as a curse or as the “source of all evil.” But money is just a means of exchange, and a means for us to engage in mitzvot through tzedakah. Money is a necessary element in our personal and community livelihoods.
In this Torah reading God asks each adult male to contribute half a shekel; the coins act both as a census (soldiers will be needed in times of war) and used towards the upkeep of the Mishkan. Each adult male must contribute – “rich and poor alike.”
Each person contributes equally towards both the protection and maintenance of their community. No special influence can be gained by contributing more and everyone must contribute – creating an equal sense of obligation and connection amongst all of the Israelites. I have always loved this message; that true equality comes from everyone feeling equally part of an organization. Some of us are able to give more because of our greater income, but the lesson of Shabbat Shekalim is important message. Our Jewish organizations can hold a base-line entry point that requires participation by all members. A half-shekel also teaches us that my half necessarily requires another person’s contribution to create wholeness. What is the value of this half-shekel? Rabbi Eliezer Posner proposes the following:
What was the value of a half shekel? Maimonides writes (Laws of Shekalim 1:5) that the half shekel mentioned in the Torah – the annual contribution every Jew was required to give to the Temple coffers – is equal to 160 grains of barley, which, in modern measurements, would be approximately eight grams of silver.
It is impossible to know silver’s value in biblical times. At today’s rate of approximately 17 US dollars per ounce, 8 grams of silver is around five dollars.