What lies beneath

A Half Shekel, A Whole Heart

By: Rabbi Dovid Samuels

Whereas Chanukah is a festival celebrating open miracles that happened to the Jewish people against our enemies, the Purim miracle was of a completely different nature. Woven into ‘normal’ and explainable events, Hashem’s Hand brought about the salvation of the Jews in a way that, without Megillas Esther, we might have attributed to ‘chance’, or good luck. Starting with Vashti’s execution at the royal banquet, which saw the palace doors opening for Esther; then Bigsan and Teresh’s assassination attempt, which forged a debt of gratitude between King Achashveirosh and Mordechai; one by one the seemingly unconnected events linked together with precision to bring about the death of Haman, the rescue of the Jews, and one big Purim miracle.

As we disguise ourselves on Purim, we are forced to ask ourselves the question: what really lies behind the surface? Wine can show who we really are, costumes can remove our insecurities, and the mitzvos of the day, especially mishloach manos and matanos l’evyonim, show the deep – sometimes hidden – connection that exists between Jews. So when we read the story of the Megillah, and we see the more apparent and visible aspects of the Purim miracle, we again have to ask ourselves: what lies beneath?

To shed some light on this question, Chazal teach us[1] that behind the physical events that all became part of the Purim story, there was a hidden pulse – a more spiritual element – upon which the whole story was built. The events of the story are known, but why did the events pan out the way they did, in our favour? “Reish Lakish said: ‘It is revealed and known in advance to the One Who spoke and the world came into being, that in the future Haman was going to weigh out shekels against the Jewish people; therefore, Hashem arranged that the Jewish people’s shekels preceded Haman’s shekels.’” In other words, Hashem pre-empted Haman’s silver coins with those of the Jewish people, stemming from their mitzvah of Machtzis HaShekel – the half silver shekel.

A bit of background: Jews are commanded to give one half shekel every year to the Temple. This started in the times of the Mishkan and continued during the times of the Beis Hamikdash in Yerushalayim. The funds were used for certain purposes in the Temple, including purchasing the daily communal offerings. When Haman wanted to use silver against us by purchasing the right to destroy us from King Achashveirosh, he used a very specific amount: 10 000 silver loaves. Rabbi Yoel Sirkis[2] says[3] that this amount equals the amount given by the Jews leaving Egypt. He explains, with sheer genius: in an average lifetime of 70 years, a man will give a half-shekel 50 times between the ages of 20 and 70, or 25 shekels in total. 600 000 men who left Egypt giving 25 shekels would be 15 million shekels. The value of a loaf of silver, as valued by the Beis Hamikdash, was 1 500 shekels. Therefore, the 15 million shekels divided by 1 500 is exactly 10 000 loaves. To this day, Jews customarily give a half coin to tzedakah just prior to Purim.

That this mitzvah had a special protective element for the Jewish people was no secret. Haman, no fool himself, even knew the exceptional nature of our half-shekel donations, which is why he used that exact amount against us. The Midrash[4] relates a discussion between Haman and King Achashveirosh about this very topic. Achashveirosh was very wary to take any action against the Jews, lest he suffer the same fate that befell all of those who attempted the same thing before him: Sisra, Sancheriv, Nevuchadnetzar, and so many more. Haman, assuaging his king’s fears, said, “All of this concern is when the Jews have their Beis Hamikdash, when Hashem favours them, and they are able to donate their shekel offering. But now He is angry with them…” At this, Haman weighed out his silver to purchase the lives of the Jews.

Simply, Haman was trying to buy the lives of the Jews for silver, only our silver outweighed his, so-to-speak. But what lies beneath this rather random connection between our silver donation and Haman’s attempted final solution to the Jewish problem? And how did our silver outweigh his, especially since we no longer could perform the mitzvah without the Beis Hamikdash?

To explain, let us take a look at the verse which commands us to give the half-shekel donation: “This is what everyone who is in the census shall pay: a half-shekel by the holy shekel weight – twenty gerahs to the shekel – a half-shekel as an offering to Hashem.”[5] The Chasam Sofer interprets this verse masterfully, shedding new light on this rather obscure mitzvah. He points out the seeming repetition in the verse: “pay a half shekel…a half shekel offering to Hashem”. Why emphasise the donation twice? Also, why is it a half shekel, not a full one – or simply 20 gerahs? His answer to these questions is that the Torah is teaching us that there are, in fact, two parts to this single donation. There is the physical payment of one half shekel, equalling 20 gerahs. But then there is a second part – the part which lies beneath the physical act: the joy of the heart and the generosity of spirit that accompanies the giving. The limitation of only a half shekel is to hint to us that there is another half to this mitzvah, and in that second half there is really no limitation whatsoever, as there is no limit to the feelings that can fill a Jew’s heart while he performs Hashem’s commandments. According to the Chasam Sofer, that is why the Torah repeats the half shekel donation, to teach us that we are being asked to donate our heart and feelings as an offering to Hashem, together with the actual half shekel coin.

By the time of Purim, the Jews had slipped in their connection with Hashem, especially following the first destruction of the Beis Hamikdash. By attending the grotesque banquet of Achashveirosh, and by bowing down to an idol of Nevuchadnetzar before that, we had brought the dark threat of Haman upon ourselves. But when Hashem allowed the evil machinations of the wicked Haman to begin to take shape, He gave Haman the idea to ‘seal the deal’ with 10 000 loaves of silver. This was by no means random. It was a sharp message to the Jews: “See how your predecessors who left Egypt donated not only their silver to Me, but they gave Me their hearts as well. I want the same from you now.” It was a warning, but it offered the remedy with it: Your lives are in the balance, but your hearts can tip the scales.

This ‘hidden’ element that exists inside every Jew, just waiting to be expressed, is our tool to fight against our enemies. When Yitzchak Avinu met his son, Yaakov, in disguise, he held his son’s arms and proclaimed: “The hands are the hands of Eisav, but the voice is the voice of Yaakov.” Eisav, from whom Amalek and Haman himself descended, is represented by the hands, whereas Yaakov, and the Jewish people, is represented by the voice. The hands are visible, they are apparent, and they are external. But the voice is subtle, it is invisible, and it comes from the inside of a person. Eisav, Amalek, and Haman’s power against the Jews was rooted in getting us to view things superficially and externally. That was their domain, and as long as we were caught up in the outer trappings of life, we were imprisoned in their realm. But the voice of Yaakov is a call to delve deeper and to see things from a more inner and subtle place. To view the pleasures of this world for what they really are: temporary. To view the trendy ideologies sweeping through society as man-made and fallible. Even our service of Hashem must be viewed from a deeper perspective. Mitzvos are not merely a list of dos and don’ts, they are opportunities to forge and maintain a deep emotional bond between us and the Source of all Perfection. As long as we are living life from a more inner-focused perspective, we will be able to see through and survive the attacks made by the ‘hands’ of Eisav. With this outlook, a half shekel stops being a mere monetary donation; rather it becomes a fire in the heart that has no limits.

Brought to mind is the story of the Bluzhever Rebbe[6] ztz”l who somehow managed to procure the ingredients needed to ignite Chanukah lights in the pit of hell, Bergen-Belsen. Around him, in secrecy, gathered broken figures who defied the rules of life with every heartbeat, waiting to see the holy Rabbi’s mitzvah, and perhaps see some light emanating from pure darkness. He recited the first blessings, but as he reached ‘Shehecheyanu’ he was challenged with the thought: “How can I bless Hashem for bringing me to times like these?” Looking around, he saw the fire of hope and desire for holiness in the eyes and hearts of the still, silent, and defiant mass of huddled and beaten Jews around him. He said to himself, “If Hashem has brought me to this point, to see such fire in the eyes of a Jew who is standing mere footsteps away from his dead brothers, still alive with a hope and longing to be close with his Creator, with a fiery faith and fervour, then I certainly have what to say Shehecheyanu about. With that, his holy voice called out a sincere blessing to his Creator.

The mitzvah of the half shekel donation represents the intense love and passion that each Jew can feel towards Hashem. A passion for fulfilling Hashem’s laws, learning His Torah, following the Torah leaders that He has established for us, and instilling that same love and passion in our children, for all generations. When you put that on the scales, it surely outweighs any silver that our enemies might weigh against us. The Jews were forced to see what lay beneath the mitzvah of Machtzis HaShekel in order to discover and empower what lay within themselves. The Beis Hamikdash had been taken from us, and with it the actual mitzvah of donating the half shekel, but the other half of the coin was still burning within us. We could still make that donation to Hashem. For a long while, the Jewish people had been covering that deep fiery love with the costumes of their foreign environment, the attitudes and behaviours of those who were not chosen to serve Hashem. But the miracle of Purim was about exposing what was hidden inside the hearts of the Jewish people all along: a deep and unextinguishable love for our Creator. That is what saved the Jewish people then, and that is what keeps us alive to this day.

  1. Megillah 13b
  2. 1561-1640, Poland. Known as the Bach, after his encyclopedic halachic work the Bayis Chadash.
  3. Based on Tosfos
  4. Yalkut Shimoni, Esther 3:9
  5. Shemos 30:13
  6. Rabbi Yisroel Spira. 1889-1989.

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