Hebrew In Israel | The Half Shekel Temple Tax – Learn Torah

exodus 30, half shekel, temple tax,

Hebrew In Israel | The Half Shekel Temple Tax – Learn Torah

Yoel Halevi No Comments

During the second temple period a custom developed to give a half shekel to the temple.  The act is known as “The half shekel temple tax”.  Little do people know that this tax was not agreed upon by all.We first must note that an objection to the Half Shekel tax can be found in the comments of the Sadducees found in Talmudic sources. The Sadducees rejected this teaching and claimed that no such tax appears in the Torah.  However it is important to know that the Sadducees claimed that all temple functions must come from the priests (Regev, 2005, 132-139) Hence their rejection is not necessarily based on the interpretation of the section in discussion.

The text used for the half shekel is from Exodus 30:

“And YHWH spoke to Moses:  “When you take a census of the Israelites according to their number, then each man is to pay a ransom for his life to YHWH when you number them, so that there will be no plague among them when you number them.  Everyone who crosses over to those who are numbered is to pay this:  a half shekel according to the shekel of the sanctuary, a shekel weighs twenty gerahs.  The half shekel is to be an offering to YHWH.  Everyone who crosses over to those numbered, from twenty years old and up is to pay an offering to YHWH.  The rich are not to increase it, and the poor are not to pay less than the half shekel when giving the offering of YHWH, to make atonement for your lives.  You are to receive the atonement money from the Israelites and give it for the service of the tent of meeting.  It will be a memorial for the Israelites before YHWH, to make atonement for your lives.” Exodus 30:11-16

When reading this text in full, one can see the following words:  “When you take a census”!  This means that only when you take a census you are to take half a shekel, not every year.  Moreover, the half shekel was created to atone for the people when they are counted, as verse 15 says “to make atonement for your lives”.  An example for the need of the half shekel can be found in 2 Samuel chapter 24 where we have the story about King David wanting to count the people and as a result of that action a plague is sent by God.

“…then each man is to pay a ransom for his life to YHWH when you number them, so that there will be no plague among them when you number them”. 

The Torah treats the counting of the people as a dangerous act that can bring death and destruction on the people.

This understanding begs the question:  “where did the custom come from?”

It is possible that it was a government tax that in time was confused with a Torah law, and the original function was forgotten.  Another possibility, and a more likely one, is that it was a freewill offering that was instated in the beginning of the second temple.

The book of Nehemiah has the following word:

“And we accept upon ourselves commandments to give one third of a shekel each year for the work of the temple of our God”  Nehemiah 10:33 (32).

If you look in your English bible you will see differences between what I have written here and the translation one might have.  What the Hebrew says is that they created commandments (Manmade Mitsvot) to give a third of a shekel to the temple.  When the rabbinic sources talk about the half shekel and what it is used for, there is an astonishing resemblance in function between the two.

It is important to point out that the Mishna, in its statements about the half shekel, does not say that the half shekel was the same weight as the third of a shekel but it does give us the following:

“When Israel came from the Diaspora they used Darkonot and then Selaim and then Tevain and they wanted to use Dinarim” (Shekalim 2:4). 

If we read between the lines we can see that the half shekel and the third of the shekel are the same thing.  Both started at the same time, both were used to uphold the temple, and we do not find a third of a shekel in the later stages of the second temple, only the half shekel.  No one can argue that in time they stopped using the third of the shekel because the economy got better; but if the Torah commanded to give half a shekel what is the need for the third of a shekel?  Why impose another tax if the Torah anyhow has one, and especially when the economy is so bad?  Wasn’t the point of giving the third of the shekel because the economy was bad?  Why have two taxes?  If funds are needed, use the half shekel, don’t create a new tax.  This goes to show that they needed the third of a shekel because there was no half shekel tax.

And here is another important point:  There is also the opinion of some rabbinic sources that the third of the shekel was the exact half of the main coin used in the Persian period, and every time the coin changed they kept it as half of that coin, regardless of the Torah weight (Rambam). 

The Mishnah in Shekalim 2:4 openly admits that the weight of the Shekel changed during the beginning of the the 2nd temple:

אמר רבי שמעון מה בין שקלים לחטאת, אלא של שקלים יש להן קצבה ולחטאת אין לה קצבה, רבי יהודה אומר אף לשקלים אין להן קצבה, שכשעלו ישראל מן הגולה היו שוקלין דרכונות, חזרו לשקול סלעים חזרו לשקול טבעין, בקשו לשקול דינרין, ולא קבלו מהן

Rabbi Shimon said, what is the difference between shekalim and the chattat offering?  Shekalim have a fixed amount, while a chattat does not have a fixed amount.  Rabbi Yehuda said, even shekalim don’t have a fixed amount because when the Jews ascended [to Israel] from the [Babylonian] exile they would pay the shekel in darkonot [equivalent to 4 shekels]; then they paid in selaim [equivalent to 2 shekels]; then they paid in selaim [equivlant to 1 Mishnaic shekel or half a Toraitic shekel] and they sought to pay in dinarim [equivalent to 1/2 of a Mishnaic shekel] (Sefaria.org translation with comments)

This comment by Rabbi Yehuda explains why it was called “half shekel”.  When it was started it was a third of a Torah shekel, but in time the main point was to give half of the common coin of the time.  This might also explain the differences in weights found between shekel weights and coins.  Each time it was half of what was used by the main government.

And one last point.  We also need to remember that the people who returned to Zion were interested in atoning for the sins of the people, and by adding a gift to the temple in the form of a half shekel, which resembled a form of atoning in the Torah, they were actually atoning for their sins (not to mention the need to atone for the census).

With all the above I conclude that the half shekel temple tax and the third of a shekel are one and the same, and that there is no Torah commandment to give a half shekel to the temple.  There is only a commandment to give a half shekel when taking a census, but any money given to the temple comes from the sacrifices and Torah fines or from freewill offerings.


Originally Published: 1 March 2015



רגב איל, הצדוקים והלכתם על דת ןחברה בימי בית שני, ירושלים, 2005

משנה שקלים

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