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On love, Plato, and the gender of half shekel gold coins

This was the Dvar Torah I delivered at the Toronto Partnership Minyan, March 5, 2016: The “half shekel” is a fascinating story. In this community custom, which began in the desert and continued throughout the Temple periods, Jewish adult men would have a half shekel to the priest leadership during the month of Adar each year, in advance of the new fiscal year, which began on the first of Nisan.  According to the Mishna (Shekalim, chap. 4) the courts would post reminders regarding this tax a month earlier, on the 1st of Adar. The practice can be viewed in one of three ways. It can be seen as a tax, as a charity, or as a spiritual practice. Viewed as a tax, the half shekel was a collection that enabled the new leadership to provide services for the collective. According to the Mishna, the half shekel tax was used to purchase the animals which were used for the communal sacrifices. The leftover funds were used for a variety of communal purposes, including providing salaries for the judges and maintenance of the Temple and the city walls )Mishna Shekalim chapter 4). The tax view gives it a bit of a cynical rendering. In political theory, what gives a governing entity authority is the ability to incarcerate and to tax. It is an expression of “Consent of the governed” – that is, if you can convince people to part with their money, you have authority. In that sense, if this is a tax, it is about giving authority to the priests by giving them the ability to tax, thereby creating a powerful financial component to the central religious authority. Viewed as more of a charity, the practice is more utopian and less cynical. It is perhaps the original charity offering of the Jews. Put differently, it was the Jews’ first collective budgeting tool – like a precursor to the Federation system or to giving circles.  It is about coming together to embrace giving to create a collective enterprise. Perhaps it had echoes of the kibbutz – pooling what you have in order to create a communal life built on a shared ethos. It gave everyone an equal part in the collective. The constancy of the donation, built on a vision of horizontal equality, may have been natural in the desert, where there was actual equality. Everyone had the same tent, the same lifestyle, the same expectations, the same amount of rain. Nobody was getting rich off of the manna or building gold-plated bathrooms. Among Israelite men, equality was the given. The half-shekel practice in later generations – even when conditions changed towards more stratifications –idealized the equality-among-brothers, maintaining an echo of desert life in the community’s consciousness. Thus, even in temple times, when socio-economic differences existed, the Torah insisted on equal half-shekel donations to remind people of fundamental human equality, at least among free Jewish men. “The rich [man] will not give more and the poor [man] will not give less than the...

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