“Reish Lakish said: It was well known beforehand to Him at whose word the world came into being that Haman would one day pay shekels for the destruction of Israel. Therefore, He anticipated his shekels with the [half] shekel of Israel. And so we have learned, on the first of Adar, we announce [the obligation of giving] shekalim” (Megillah 13b).
The obligation for all Jewish males over the age of twenty to give a half shekel is described in the Torah itself as a method to be used in counting the population. Presumably, this census was needed in order to ascertain the number of soldiers that would be available for the conquest of the land of Israel; thus, the mitzvah is only operative from the age of twenty, the age of biblical army service. The Mishna “expands the role” of the half shekel, detailing how the money raised from this collection would serve as the main source of revenue for the running of the Temple in Jerusalem. Yet Reish Lakish, living in an era where there was no census and no Temple, saw the half shekel as the protector of the Jewish people. “Each one shall be counted by giving a kofer, an atonement offering, for his life” (Shemot 31:12).
The machazit hashekel was our pre-emptive strike against Haman, somehow ensuring that nothing would come of his plan to raise shekalim towards the destruction of the Jewish people. Apparently the half shekel the Jews gave was so powerful, its effect was felt nearly 1,000 years later in the Persian Empire. How did that work?
The machazit hashekel served to unify the Jewish people. Each family had to participate, and participate equally. “The rich may not give more and the poor may not give less than this half shekel” (31:15). Even the notion of a half shekel speaks to the unity of the Jewish people. The individual Jew is incomplete, needing a fellow Jew to become whole. It was the half shekel that enabled the Temple to function, and when the Jewish people started to demonstrate discord—engaging in fighting and hatred—the shekel became just a worthless coin, and the Temple was lost.
Haman, very possibly having witnessed the destruction of the Temple, surmised that the time was ripe to finish off the Jewish people. “And Haman said to King Achashverosh: There is a nation, mefuzar umefurad, scattered and dispersed amongst the people” (Esther 3:8). While normally understood as Haman's pointing out how the Jews are different from all others and unworthy of protection, mefuzar umefurad can be understood to refer to the internal status of the Jewish people; they are separate and divided from each other. Haman's next argument, “V’dateihem shonot , and their religions are different”, would be referring to the “many religions” (note v’dateihem is in plural) of the Jews. The Jewish people had divided into differing religious factions, rendering our shelakim useless and setting the stage for Haman to literally buy off the King and carry out his plan of genocide.
“And Mordechai knew all that had transpired” (4:1); “and Esther said to reply to Mordechai, ‘Go gather all the Jews to be found in Shushan’” (4:15). Mordechai and Esther understood that in order to thwart Haman, all Jews would have to join forces. It is no coincidence that Purim is celebrated by sending gifts to poor and rich alike. The mishloach manot and matanot l'evyonim are not just ways to celebrate the victory of the Jewish people; they are the reason for that victory.
Our Sages teach that on Purim there was a reacceptance by the Jewish people of the Torah. Just as at Sinai, where the Jews stood “with one heart, like one person”, the renewal of Torah at Purim could only be accomplished by all Jews joining as one. Soon after the story of Purim, the second Temple was built. Unfortunately, over time, the message of the machazit hashekel and Purim was forgotten, and a long and often bitter exile ensued.
Our generation has merited returning to the land of Israel and the ingathering of so many exiles. Let us ensure we meticulously remember the importance of that little half shekel.