The Divisive Half-Shekel

The Divisive Half-Shekel
THOUGHTS ON THE PARASHAH
Rabbi Evan Hoffman – Congregation Anshe Sholom
Parshat Shekalim – פרשת שקלים
February 13, 2021 – א אדר תשפא
This essay is sponsored by Gary & Yehudit Waller in loving memory of הינדא בת מאיר.
The Divisive Half-Shekel
Scripture requires that adult Israelite males contribute a half-shekel (machatzit ha-shekel) coin to the sacred coffers. During the Second Temple era, this tax was collected annually in the month of Adar.  The funds were used to purchase animals and food necessary for the sacrificial cult.  After the destruction of the Temple, giving the half-shekel ceased to be a religious obligation (Mishnah Shekalim 8:8), although the Romans forced Jews to pay an equivalent Fiscus Judaicus, which supported the Temple of Jupiter in Rome.
In the modern era, the half-shekel is remembered with a special Torah reading -- Parshat Shekalim -- on the Sabbath preceding the New Moon of Adar, and with a faux version of machatzit ha-shekel observed on Purim, with money on that holiday going to charity or synagogue maintenance.
It is common practice for rabbis to sermonize on the significance of the half-shekel as opposed to a whole shekel.  The purported lesson is that no Jew can be truly complete if he is alone.  Only when joined in solidarity and interdependence with the rest of world Jewry can an individual Jew achieve completion.  The classic Talmudic slogan is: “All Israel are guarantors for one another” (Shevuot 39a).
Yet, as a matter of history, the half-shekel was quite controversial, and it disturbed – not cemented -- Jewish unity, both practically and ideologically.
Intense debate raged regarding whether Kohanim were obligated to pay the half-shekel tax.  Ben Bukhri testified at the conclave in Yavneh that a Kohen who pays the half-shekel has not sinned (Mishnah Shekalim 1:4).  His view was that the priestly class is technically exempt from the obligation, but that individual Kohanim are permitted voluntarily to remit payment.  This school of thought adduced support for its position from a verse regulating meal offerings: “Every meal offering of the priest shall be wholly made to smoke; it shall not be eaten (Leviticus 6:16).”  The Kohanim are permitted, and in fact required, to partake of each of the Omer offering, the Two-Loaves, and the Showbread.  All these meal offerings are directly funded by the half-shekel payments of world Jewry.  The reasoning was that consumption of the various sacrificial breads would be possible only if Kohanim played no role in (actively) funding these Temple expenditures.  (The Talmud questions how Ben Bukhri’s reasoning could tolerate even voluntary priestly remittances. The answer given is that such priestly donation to the Temple is made wholeheartedly, unconditionally, and generally; it therefore does not support any specific Temple expenditure (Menahot 21b).)
In describing who must pay the half-shekel, the Bible states, “This they shall give, every one that passes among them to be numbered (Exodus 30:13).”  A plain reading of the text seems to support Ben Bukhri’s assertion that Kohanim are exempt from paying the head tax, since the tribe of Levi was excluded from the general census of Israel (Numbers 1:49). Moses counted the Levites separately, and without their having to pass before him (Numbers 3:16).  The Midrash explains that Moses walked from house to house in the camp of the Levites, and at the entrance to each home he heard a Heavenly Voice informing him how many people lived inside (Pesikta Zut-reta Numbers 84b).  Furthermore, the half-shekel tax was imposed upon those counted from the age of twenty (Exodus 30:14), while Levites were counted starting from the age of one-month (Number 3:15).[i]
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai posits that any Kohen who fails to pay the half-shekel has sinned.  The Yerushalmi supports this view by noting that the numerical value of זה is twelve, indicating that all twelve tribes of Israel – including the tribe of Levi and its subclass of Kohanim – are obligated to pay the half-shekel.  As for the verse which seems to connect the census with the half-shekel, this school of thought would interpret the phrase “every one that passes among them” as referring to the crossing of the Red Sea, not to the wilderness headcount.  All Israelites, the priestly class included, passed through the Red Sea and thus owe a debt to the Almighty.
As for the claim that Kohanim are forbidden to fund the Showbread, Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai would distinguish between 1) the private meal offering of a Kohen, which must be entirely burnt, and 2) public meal offerings, to which this regulation does not apply.
The debate over priestly participation in the half-shekel tax was part of larger Kulturkampf between Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai and the Kohanim in the immediate post-Temple era.  The priestly class seemed doomed to permanent irrelevance in the absence of their power base -- the Holy Temple, physically standing.  Not keen on losing its exalted social and religious status, the priestly class continued to assert its uniqueness by imposing ever-higher standards of purity upon itself.
Ostensibly to prevent contamination, the Kohanim no longer allowed commoners to touch the priestly emoluments (Bekhorot 30b).  They expanded the classes of Jews forbidden to marry Kohanim (Kiddushin 78b).  In cases of the slightest doubt regarding whether a woman was suitable as a wife for a Kohen, and even when the letter of the law implied, or called for, leniency, the Kohanim would follow a judicial verdict only if it reached a stringent result (Mishnah Eduyot 8:3).
Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai (RYBZ), who established the religious and intellectual center of Yavneh as a successor to the Temple after it was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE, was viewed negatively by many Kohanim.  Most importantly, RYBZ was despised by the zealously nationalistic priests for his leadership of the Jewish peace camp during the immediately preceding Great Revolt.  Some may have even blamed him for the loss of the Temple.  Many of the great sages of the late Temple period, including the prominent Kohanim among them, boycotted the conclave at Yavneh.  That newly established academy and Sanhedrin did not give admissions priority to the priestly class.  They valued instead intellectual and spiritual merit.  RYBZ was unimpressed with the newly heightened purity standards of the Kohanim and exposed the ignorance of priests who did not know basic Biblical law (Avot d’Rabbi Natan 1:12).
Claiming exemption from the half-shekel tax was part of the larger priestly strategy of setting themselves apart from the rest of Jewry.  Hoping for a more egalitarian Jewish society and trying to foster Jewish unity after witnessing the disastrous consequences of Jewish divisiveness, RYBZ rejected the arguments of Ben Bukhri.  He went so far as to claim that the Kohanim intentionally misinterpreted Scripture דורשין מקרא זה לעצמן.  The commentators explain לעצמן, for themselves, as להנאתן, for their financial gain (Rashi Menahot 21b).
Charging one’s adversary with intellectual dishonesty tends significantly to increase the ferocity of the battle.  Was RYBZ’s pointed accusation justified?  Sadducean priests were partly motivated by petty financial considerations in explaining “the morrow of the Sabbath (Leviticus 23:15)” to mean that Shavuot is always on Sunday (Menahot 65a).  A weekend festival avoided practical inconvenience and the need to pay for room and board for those Kohanim scheduled to serve in the Temple before and after the holiday.  Kohanim were adamant that the First Tithe could be, and possibly should be, paid to them instead of to the Levites (Hullin 131b).  Kohanim were not trusted to say that a Firstling naturally developed a blemish, thereby rendering the animal unconsecrated priestly property.  Outside testimony was demanded (Bekhorot 35a).  The Kohanim were an ecclesiastical hierarchy accustomed to preferential treatment and the perquisites of public service.  It is not unreasonable to infer that stretching the truth, at the levels of Biblical exegesis and specific case law, was not beyond the moral scruples of at least some priests.
Ultimately, it was decided that Kohanim must pay the annual half-shekel.  However, unlike the case with regular Israelites, from whom collateral was extracted by the authorized collectors as security for non-payment, no collateral was taken from Kohanim so as not to disturb the peace (Mishnah Shekalim 1:3, Rambam Hilkhot Shekalim 1:10).
All of this teaches us a valuable lesson in Jewish conflict resolution:  An aloof group or faction claiming preferential treatment at the expense of the majority should (in most cases) realize that it is in the wrong, and that its position is not the product of an honest interpretation of the sources.  Nonetheless, in enforcing the law, the authorities should use discretion and avoid extreme and coercive methods of social integration.
[i]This justification for Ben Bukhri’s opinion, though it appears in the Yerushalmi (Shekalim 3b), is flawed in that Ben Bukhri did not exempt the entire tribe of Levi; he exempted only the Kohanim. Efforts by later commentators to get around this obvious logical difficulty are unconvincing.