March 5 is Shabbat Shekalim, one of four special Shabbats preceding Passover in the Hebrew month of Adar that have special thematic Torah readings in addition to the scheduled Torah portion for that Shabbat.
Exodus 30:11-16, Shabbat Shekalim’s special reading, commands every Israelite male to give a half-shekel of silver toward the operation of the mishkan, the portable sanctuary for sacrifices to G-d. This was due to be paid on the first on Nisan, the month of Passover, which was the busy season for sacrifices.
This week’s regularly assigned Torah reading, Exodus 38:21-40:38, also discusses shekels to describe the amount of gold, silver and copper used in building the mishkan. Verses 24-29 of chapter 30 describe in monetary amounts how much gold, silver and copper was used in its construction. There are discrepancies among biblical scholars as to what the exact weight of a talent and a shekel were in the times of the Torah, but we know that a talent equaled 3,000 shekels and that 10 grams is a conservative assumptive weight of a shekel. As the following table demonstrates though, it was a lot of money in today’s standards even by a conservative estimate.
So by this conservative estimation of the amounts given in this week’s Torah portion, over $41 million of precious metals at today’s value were used in constructing and decorating the mishkan. This was the equivilant of a biblical capital campaign. But, according to the silver half-shekel commandment, each male regardless of actual ability was required to make a yearly contribution (like a biblical annual campaign) of only $5 at today’s value to maintain it.
Compare this to our current method of voluntary contribution to supporting the Jewish community; $41 million capital campaigns are not unheard of in today’s Jewish world; a hospital wing in Israel or a new museum building in Chicago can easily cost that much or more. Even in this recessive economy, those campaigns would have a reasonable chance for success, too, because as a people we Jews like to build new things. Where we struggle is in maintaining what we have currently.
The Torah recognized that even when new efforts were getting the community’s attention, funds were still needed to maintain the biblical central institution of Jewish life. Our tzedakka dollars do the same thing today.
We each have our own definition of what major and manageable means in terms of monetary gifts and all of us have causes that inspire major giving from us, but making manageable consistent gifts to the community to support our social and educational services insures the sacred task of meeting the daily needs of everyone, everyday. That is a teaching from the Torah you can take to the bank.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)