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Should women give Machatzit HaShekel?

By Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Adar 5780 | March 2020
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The original obligation

In the month of Adar when the Temple stood tables were set up in towns all over the country to collect a half shekel for the next year’s sacrifices. (Mishna Shekalim Chapter 1) The first mention of this practice is in Parshat Terumah, where we read that G-d commanded Moshe to count the Children of Israel through half shekel coins:

“… From twenty years and above they shall give a donation to the Lord. The rich man may not give more and the poor may not give less than a half shekel to give a donation to the Lord to atone for yourselves. You shall take the money of atonement from the Children of Israel and give it to the service of the Tent [of Assembly] and it will be a remembrance before God for the Children of Israel, to atone for yourselves.” (Shmot 30, 14-16)

Rashi (verse 15) notes that the word terumah (donation) is used three times to allude to three half shekel donations given at this time – one for the adanim (sockets on the boards that made up the Tabernacle’s walls), one for general building expenses, and the final for the year’s sacrifices. Following this initial outlay, the Torah obligates a yearly half shekel donation. While this donation was fixed so that everyone had the same share in the year’s sacrifices, the Jerusalem Talmud explains that there were different levels of obligation. Women and children under 13 were exempt, boys ages 13-20 were obligated to donate if they had the money to do so, and men over age 20 were obligated to contribute and were forced to do so even if they had to borrow the money.

Understanding women’s exemption

While women’s exemption is clear, the reason for it is debated. Ralbag and Rosh learn the source from specific masculine phrases used by the Torah (“ish,” “Bnei Yisrael”). Rambam explains that since the half shekel is also used for the census and women are excluded from the census, they are also exempt from the donation. Meiri considers this once a year donation to be an example of a positive time bound commandment, and in general women are exempt from such commandments.

But all these explanations leave us with the same question: how could women be exempt from contributing to the daily Temple service? Don’t they need atonement as well? Melechet Shlomo brings the opinion of Rav Solomon Sirilio who explains that women’s exemption was based on a technical problem – they didn’t have any money. Most women were daughters supported by their fathers or wives supported by their husbands. This would also explain why there was a special category for men between ages 13-20 – this way those that were still supported by their father and had no funds of their own would also be exempt. Similarly, Rav Moshe Shternbuch states that women should give the half shekel, and the Mishna merely exempts women from forced donation if they did not have the money. (Moadim v”Zmanim II 119)

The modern practice

Even though it is not mentioned in Shulchan Aruch, Rema brings the custom to give three half coins in memory of the of half shekel (zecher l’machatzit ha-shekel) and in accordance with Rashi’s opinion that the original donation was three half shekel coins. Like most others who mention this custom he rules that women are exempt. Yet Magen Avraham relates a curious Hagahot Maimoniyot that includes women in this custom. Kaf Hachayim explains that while not obligated, the Jerusalem Talmud rules that if women were to donate the half-shekel then it was accepted, as it was given for atonement through the Temple service. Our modern zecher l’machatzit ha-shekel is in keeping with the original intent of the donation; many congregations use this money to support the synagogue, poor people, or Torah scholars. As Kaf Hachaim notes, women too need this atonement.

An additional reason to include women is brought by the Torah Temima (Shmot 30, 13). He mentions the opinion of Reish Lakish (TB Megilla 13b) who connects the half shekel donation to the story of Purim, and taught that while Haman solidified his plot against Israel through his donation to Achashverosh’s coffers, Israel was protected by their donations of shekels to the Divine service. Torah Temima claims that our modern half-shekel donation is in memory of this protection. Therefore women are obligated in this custom based on the principle of “af hen hayu b’oto ha-nes” “they were part of the miracle” – since women were included in the miraculous salvation of Purim they are also obligated in everything that commemorates it.

Purim is a time of giving. For those of us women who are blessed with sufficient funds and the ability to do so, it is a great time to contribute our part to support our community, financially and spiritually, and donate zecher l’machatzit ha-shekel.

Rabbanit Debbie Zimmerman

Debbie Zimmerman graduated from the first cohort of Hilkhata – Matan’s Advanced Halakhic Institute and is a Halakhic Responder. She is a multi-disciplinary Jewish educator, with over a decade of experience in adolescent and adult education. After completing a BA in Social Work, Debbie studied Tanakh in the Master’s Program for Bible in Matan and Talmud in Beit Morasha.