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Where's the Other Half?

By: Rav Avigdor Meyerowitz

This week we begin reading, along with the weekly parsha, the first of the "Arba Parshiyot" – the four special parshiyot. This Shabbat we will read Parshat Shekalim. The reading is taken from the beginning of Parshat Ki Tisa:

Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying "When you take the sum of the Bnei Yisrael according to their numbers, let each one give to Hashem an atonement for his soul when they are counted; then there will be no plague among them when they are counted. This they shall give, everyone who goes through the counting: half a shekel according to the holy shekel. …The rich shall give no more, and the poor shall give no less than half a shekel, with which to give the offering to Hashem, to atone for your souls. You shall take the silver of the atonements from the Bnei Yisrael and use it for the work of the Tent of Meeting; it shall be a remembrance for the Bnei Yisrael before Hashem, to atone for your souls.[1]

The commentators have pondered[2] why the Torah commanded to give half a shekel and not a full one. The idea that immediately comes to mind is one of the individual expressing their connection and interdependence on the "klal" – collective entity of Am Yisrael. This idea is articulated by Rav Hirsch:

The symbol with which everyone expresses personal commitment to giving and doing is the Machatsit Hashekel -- the half-shekel. The individual's contribution – even though it be as complete as possible – can, objectively speaking, never be complete. An individual's action is never more than a small part of something; for his action to be whole there must be equal devotion on the part of his brother. The individual is not expected to complete anything: "You are not obliged to complete the work." But he is expected to contribute his share towards the whole, through the half-shekel [The shekel is the equivalent of 20 gera, and the individual offering is 10 gera]; his contribution is, in itself, subjectively complete and rounded-off. His contribution is the most perfect thing which he is able to do, and he must weigh on the scales of his conscience. His action is only partial, infinitesimal in comparison with the whole which must be done, but his duty is to not conserve any effort, talent or wealth in advancing attainment of the whole and of the general well-being. Even though "You are not required to complete the work – you are not free to desist therefrom." His half-shekel will be 10 gera of the Holy-Shrine shekel. [3]

Rav Kook as well addressed the "half – shekel" mitzvah and explained that the half–shekel donated represents the practical expression of the unity amongst Am Yisrael. However, the other half, which is not given, is the unity of thought, the ahavat Yisrael which must exist in the hearts and minds of us all, which is the primary source of unity in Am Yisrael.[4]

I would like to suggest an additional reason for the half-shekel.

A recurring concept in the above-mentioned verses is that the giving of a half shekel when counting the nation will serve as atonement for the people being counted. This atonement is also of a protective nature: "then there will be no plague among them when they are counted."[5] Anyone with even a minimal Jewish education knows that we avoid counting people.[6] What's wrong with counting and why is it necessary for there to be an atonement and a protection when being counted?

Many explanations and answers have been given for this; however, an interesting insight can be gained into this issue through studying the actions of no-one less than David Hamelekh regarding counting Bnei Yisrael.

At the end of Sefer Shemuel it tells how David Hamelekh commands Yoav to count Bnei Yisrael. Yoav tries to resist this request of David but David is insistent and imposes his imperial authority on Yoav who complies and proceeds to count Bnei Yisrael as commanded:

And again the anger of Hashem was kindled against Yisrael and He moved David against them, saying, "Go count Yisrael and Yehudah."  And the king said to Yoav the captain of the host that was with him, "Go please, to and fro throughout all the tribes of Yisrael, from Dan as far as Beer-sheva and take census of the people, so that I may know the number of the people. And Yoav said to the king, "May Hashem your G-d add to the people a hundredfold of whatsoever they may be, and the eyes of my lord, the king may see it; but my lord the king, why does he desire such a thing?” But the word of the king prevailed against Yoav, and against the captains of the host. And Yoav and the captains of the host went out from the presence of the king, to number the people, the Israelites.[7]

The commentators were troubled by the behavior of David Hamelekh regarding counting the people. Already Chazal pointed out[8] that David stumbled over something that even "tinokot shel bet raban" – young children at school know – that it is forbidden to count Bnei Yisrael. Even his chief of army, Yoav, seems to know about the dangers involved and tries to persuade David not to do so. And indeed, what ensued after this counting was a terrible plague that killed seventy thousand people within three days.

Many different explanations have been given[9] to explain the mistake that David made. I would like to share an explanation I heard from Rav Uzi Binnenfeld[10].

Rabeinu Bechaye explains that the danger in counting individuals lies in setting the individual out to stand on their own. When one is included in the whole of Am Yisrael, one merits the providence of "Klal Yisrael", however, being counted as an individual, setting oneself apart, one is inspected and scrutinized on their own merits, which are often found lacking.

Ironically, this effect is precisely what David Hamelekh was trying to evoke. David had spent a large part of his life preparing for the building of the Beit Hamikdash[11]. Yet despite all his preparations, they do not reach fruition. Something is holding back the realization of the building of the Beit Hamikdash. David's concern is that it is the people themselves that are not ready. Despite the collective strength of the nation, David is concerned that beneath the surface, the individuals themselves are not quite on the level they should be. It is precisely this aspect of the people that has to be revealed, and if necessary, fixed.

To clarify – it is not uncommon that though the collective expressions of a society can at times be very strong, one can often find behind that collective front a less than ideal reality of the individuals. Unfortunately we are all too often confronted in the press with stories of individuals, who though they are active in national or community endeavors, and even excel at their task, are found out to be failures in their personal lives, whether morally or otherwise. A society cannot endure and uphold its ideals if those ideals do not permeate the lives of each and every individual in it.

It was not incidental that it was Yoav, David’s chief of staff, who tried to foil David's plan, and it was not by chance that David insists on Yoav to do it. Yoav, a figure that devoted his entire life for the sake of the "klal Yisrael", is depicted as well as one who sometimes disregarded, in the name of the "sake of the community", even the prohibition "thou shall not kill"![12]

Chazal say in the Pesikta: "Why were the Ten Commandments given in the singular language  - so that each and every one would say : "I was commanded", for there were those individuals who transgressed them."[13] The midrash then lists people who saw fit, some for good reasons, others for less, to transgress even some of the Ten Commandments: "…Yoav dismissed ‘thou shall not kill’".[14]

This is what David Hamelekh wanted to establish, although perhaps it was premature and costly.

That is why when counting Bnei Yisrael there exists a real danger, and that is why the counting must be indirect and have an element of atonement for those being singled out. By giving half a shekel, though individually, one comes together and unites again with the collective of Klal Yisrael.

But what about the other half shekel? Where is it and what does it represent? Perhaps that other half is what remains with us; we who have given our half to unite with the collective and share their hashgacha have to remember that it is only half of what is required. The other half is upon us, each and every one of us, to make sure that the Kedusha-holiness is not only external and important outside in the public domain, on the collective realm, but also has to imbue our very existence, private existence with kedusha as well. 


[1] Shmot 30; 11-16.

[2] See amongst others, Alshikh, Kli Yakar, Da'at Zekainim, Rosh and Chizkuni to Shmot 30; 13.

[3] Rav Hirsch, commentary to Shmot 30; 13.

[4] Rav Kook, Midbar Shur;15.

[5] Shmot 30;12.

[6]" Why do they count the number they have agreed upon by the fingers they stuck out instead of counting the people themselves? Because it is forbidden to count Jews except via another entity, as [I Shmuel 15:4] states: "And he counted them with lambs." "Rambam, Temidin 4;4.

[7] Shemuel 2, 24;1-4.

[8] Berachot 62;b.

[9] For an overview see Hagut Beparshiyot Hatorah, Yehuda Gershoni, Vol 1, 353-355.

[10] Rav Uzi Binnenfeld is the Rosh Midrasha of Orot Etzion where my daughter spent a year in midrasha.

[11] See Divrei Hayamim 1, Chapters 28, 29, where is depicted all the preparations David Hamelekh had made and passed on to his son Shlomo.

[12] Melakhim 1, 2;5.

[13] Pesikta Zutrata, Devarim Va'etchanan 9.a.

[14] Ibid.


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