What is the mitzvah of mahatzit hashekel?

In the times of the Bet Hamikdash, there was a mitzvah for every adult male to donate a half-shekel each year to the Bet Hamikdash. The money was collected and stored in a vault (called the lishkah) in the compound of the Bet Hamikdash, and three times a year, a portion of this money was taken from the vault and then used to purchase the sacrifices (see question #2). This event was called terumat halishkah.

2                   What was the money from mahatzit hashekel
used for in the times of the Bet Hamikdash?

The Mishnah (Shekalim 4:1) explains that the money was primarily used to purchase the materials needed for the public sacrifices, such asthe animals and wine for libations. Money that was left over was used for other public needs, such as road maintenance and the like.

3            Does the mitzvah of mahatzit hashekel
apply today?

Although the mitzvah of mahatzit hashekelapplies only in the time of the Bet Hamikdash, it has become customary among all Jewish communities to give money to charity in commemoration of this mitzvah (Rambam, Hilchot Shekalim1:8). Since this donation serves only as a commemoration, one must ensure when giving the money to declare that it is given “zecher lamahatzit hashekel”– to commemorate the mahatzit hashekel– and not as the actual mahatzit hashekel.

4            Who is included in the
mahatzit hashekelobligation?

The obligation of mahatzit hashekelapplies to all males from the age of 20. However, some authorities maintain that the custom to commemorate the mahatzit hashekelincludes all males from the age of 13, and it is proper to follow this view. Many have the custom that women give the zecher lamahatzit hashekel, as well. One should preferably make a donation on behalf of his young children, though this is not strictly required. If one cannot afford to donate the full amount of mahatzit hashekelfor all his family members, he should give the full amount once and then add a coin for as many family members as he can (Yalkut Yosef).


               How much money must one donate to
fulfill this custom?

It is proper to donate the value of approximately nine grams of silver, as determined by the market value of silver at the time one makes the donation. If paying this amount will result in significant financial strain, it suffices to give half a coin of the currency used in one’s locale, such as a half-dollar or half-shekel. Many Ashkenazim, following the ruling of the Rama (694:1), donate three such coins (three half-dollars or half-shekels); Hacham Ovadia Yosef (Yalkut Yosef) recommends following this practice. One may use a credit card, check, or any object of the required value to observe this custom.

6            Why do we read a special maftirrelating to the
mitzvah of mahatzit hashekel  specifically
on the Shabbat before Rosh Hodesh Adar?

Starting on Rosh Hodesh Nissan, the sacrifices in the Bet Hamikdashhad to be funded from the new year’s mahatzit hashekeldonations. As such, during the month of Adar announcements were made urging people to send their donations to the Bet Hamikdash.In commemoration, before Rosh Hodesh Adar we read in the synagogue the section of the Torah in which the command of mahatzit hashekelis introduced (Shemot 30:11-15).

7            What should the money donated nowadays
in commemoration of the mahatzit hashekel
be used for?

The money collected in our times should be used specifically to support Torah institutions, for anyone who works toward elevating Torah, as well as those who study Torah, will be granted the privilege of seeing the elevation of the Jewish nation (Hazon Ovadia, Purim, p. 105). Furthermore, the Midrash Tanhuma(Parashat Tzav) states that Torah study atones for the sins of Jewish people, and thus it serves as a substitute for the atonement achieved through the sacrifices. As such, it is appropriate that we commemorate the mahatzit hashekel, which funded the sacrifices, by funding Torah study, which will achieve the atonement accomplished by the sacrifices purchased by the mahatzit hashekel monies. The Kaf Hahayim Sofer(694:22) records the custom observed by several Diaspora communities to send the money to support Torah scholars in Eretz Yisrael, just as in the times of the Bet Hamikdash the mahatzit hashekelmoney was sent from the Diaspora to the Bet Hamikdash.


               When is the most preferred timeto give
mahatzit hashekel?

The best time to give mahatzit hashekelis before Minhahon Ta’anit Ester, because the combination of charity and fasting is especially effective in achieving atonement (Mishnah Berurah, Rashash).This is, indeed, the prevalent custom among most communities today. Others however, maintain that the mahatzit hashekelshould be given on Purim night, before the reading of the Megillah(Yalkut Yosef). There was also a custom to make the donation several days before Purim, and another custom to give the money on Purim day (Magen Avraham, Berit Kehunah).

9            May one count the zecher lamahatzit
donation toward his ma’aser
(tithing) obligation?

Money spent to fulfill the essential requirement of zecher lamahatzit hashekelmay not count toward ma’aser, though any money one donates beyond the basic obligation may indeed be counted. This includes money donated on behalf of one’s wife, and the two extra coins that are customarily given (as mentioned above, answer 5). Since this money is not strictly required for the custom of zecher lamahatzit hashekel, it may be counted as part of one’s ma’aser(Or Letziyon, vol. 4, 52:3).

10          What is the deep meaning and significance
underlying this mitzvah?

Our sages teach that when Gd told Moshe about the mitzvah of mahatzit hashekel, He showed him a coin made of fire to demonstrate the kind of coin which should be used for this purpose. When fire is utilized properly, it has the ability to provide warmth and facilitate cooking to produce scrumptious and nourishing food. However, if fire is not contained and is misused, it can cause catastrophes. Hashem was demonstrating to Moshe that when money is utilized properly, for the purpose of serving Hashem, it can accomplish great things and help build the world. However, if one uses money irresponsibly, it can cause great harm to both himself and the people around him. The obligation of mahatzit hashekelthus shows how money can be transformed into something sacred, but only when it is used properly and for the right purposes.