This week, we are celebrating our first Shabbat in February, but since our festivals and holidays are coming early this year, it’s already time to start planning for Pesach (Passover), which begins in March.
Our Jewish calendar also reminds us that Passover is on its way, for this week begins the first of the arba parshiyot (the four Torah portions), that are read in the weeks leading up to Passover. Each of the four Torah portions has a special name, and all four precede the special Shabbat that falls right before Pesach — Shabbat HaGadol (The Great Sabbath).
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shekalim. So what exactly does this mean? Shekalim is the plural of the Hebrew word shekel, the currency used by the ancient Israelites as well as the currency of modern day Israel. In biblical times, every male Israelite, age 20 years and older, had to contribute a half-shekel annually to the maintenance of the Temple in Jerusalem. This is parallel to our modern day concept of maintaining our house of worship with dues. This practice comes from Exodus 30:14-16: “Everyone who is entered in the records, from the age of twenty years up, shall give Adonai’s offering. The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the Lord’s offering as expiation [or atonement] for your persons. You shall take the expiation money from the Israelites and assign it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve the Israelites as a reminder before Adonai, as expiation for your persons.” (JPS)
The half-shekel had to be paid before the first of the Hebrew month of Nisan. However, in order to remind the people of this duty, proclamations were made for payment on the first of Adar — the month that comes before Nisan on the Hebrew calendar. (To put this into context, Purim falls in Adar and Passover in Nisan).
The Mishna, codified around 200 C.E. also speaks about this practice. It says: “On the first day of Adar they give warning of the Shekel dues. On the 15th thereof, they read the Megilla in walled cities (meaning the scroll of Esther); and repair the paths and roads and pools of water.” (Shekalim 1:1)
The paths and roads needed to be repaired after the winter rains in readiness for the Passover pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and the pools of water, or mikvas, needed to be equipped in a fashion that would make them kosher, or valid. So again, even though the dues technically needed to be paid by the first of Nisan, the announcement began in Adar. As a result of this ruling by the rabbis, it became customary on the Shabbat before the first of Adar, to read from two Torah scrolls — the weekly Torah portion from one and the verses about paying the half-shekel, from the other.
As we usher in Rosh Chodesh Adar in the coming days, let each of us renew our financial commitment to our own house of worship. And may we have a joyous month of Adar and a zeisen Pesach.
(This column is a service of the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Association.)