Half Shekels – For Census or Tabernacle?


PDF Version     PDF Hebrew Study Guide 


Context or Catalyst?

Near the end of the transmission of the blueprint for the construction of the Mishkan (Shemot 25-31), Hashem issues a command that the nation should give half-shekels of silver. These were to be collected during a census in order to prevent a plague from occurring ("וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם"), and they were also designated to be utilized for the purposes of the Tabernacle ("וְנָתַתָּ אֹתוֹ עַל עֲבֹדַת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד"). Both of these aspects are made explicit by the verses in Shemot 30, and their relationship will be the focus of our analysis:


(יא) וַיְדַבֵּר ה' אֶל מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹר. (יב) כִּי תִשָּׂא אֶת רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לִפְקֻדֵיהֶם וְנָתְנוּ אִישׁ כֹּפֶר נַפְשׁוֹ לַה' בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם וְלֹא יִהְיֶה בָהֶם נֶגֶף בִּפְקֹד אֹתָם. (יג) זֶה יִתְּנוּ כָּל הָעֹבֵר עַל הַפְּקֻדִים מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל בְּשֶׁקֶל הַקֹּדֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִים גֵּרָה הַשֶּׁקֶל מַחֲצִית הַשֶּׁקֶל תְּרוּמָה לַה'. (יד) כֹּל הָעֹבֵר עַל הַפְּקֻדִים מִבֶּן עֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וָמָעְלָה יִתֵּן תְּרוּמַת ה'. (טו) הֶעָשִׁיר לֹא יַרְבֶּה וְהַדַּל לֹא יַמְעִיט מִמַּחֲצִית הַשָּׁקֶל לָתֵת אֶת תְּרוּמַת ה' לְכַפֵּר עַל נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם. (טז) וְלָקַחְתָּ אֶת כֶּסֶף הַכִּפֻּרִים מֵאֵת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְנָתַתָּ אֹתוֹ עַל עֲבֹדַת אֹהֶל מוֹעֵד וְהָיָה לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל לְזִכָּרוֹן לִפְנֵי ה' לְכַפֵּר עַל נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם.

(11) And Hashem spoke to Moshe, saying: (12) When you take a census of the children of Israel according to their number, then each man shall give a ransom for his soul to Hashem when they are counted, and there shall be no plague among them when you count them. (13) They shall give this, everyone who passes over to those who are numbered, half a shekel by the shekel of the sanctuary, the shekel is twenty geras, half a shekel as an offering to Hashem. (14) Every one who passes over to those who are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the offering to Hashem. (15) The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than half a shekel, to give the offering to Hashem, to make atonement for your souls. (16) And you shall take the atonement money from the children of Israel, and devote it to the service of the Tent of Meeting, and it shall be a memorial to the children of Israel before Hashem, to make atonement for your souls.

What was the main motivation for these instructions to give the half-shekels, and why do they appear in the middle of the Mishkan unit? Was there a sudden need for a census, and the Mishkan merely happened to be the beneficiary of this event? Or was the primary objective to ensure full national participation in the Mishkan's capital campaign, and the census was only the means through which this was accomplished?

Future Generations?

The verses above do not explicitly state whether the collecting of the half-shekels was a one-time directive only for the first year in the wilderness,1 or if it applies also to all future generations. If the latter is true, one must further consider if the donation is required only in the event of a subsequent census or is a continuous (and perhaps even annual) obligation to provide for the ongoing maintenance of the Mishkan/Mikdash.2 Examining other Biblical cases of censuses as well as Mikdash contributions may help illuminate this issue.

Additional Censuses

In none of the cases in which the Children of Israel are counted elsewhere in Tanakh3 do we find a collecting of half-shekels. However, there are several countings which may nonetheless be relevant:

  • Following the battle against Midyan in Bemidbar 31, the army officers take a headcount and find that no casualties had been incurred. In response, they donate to the Mishkan all of the gold jewelry which they had despoiled from Midyan. This episode may be the closest parallel to our verses from Shemot 30.4
  • In Shemuel I 15:4, Shaul polls the people "בַּטְּלָאִים". If this word is rendered "using lambs", it may indicate that a straight headcount was prohibited.
  • The verses in Shemuel II 245 seem to state that a plague was visited upon the nation as a result of David's census. Yet, while this epidemic could possibly be attributed to a failure to count with half-shekels, the text nowhere makes this explicit.

Do any of these stories indicate that the laws of census taking in Shemot 30 remained relevant for all future generations?

Donations to the Mikdash

There is also one later Biblical story which may refer to an obligation of donating half-shekels to support the Mishkan/Mikdash. Divrei HaYamim II 246 describes how when Yoash decided to refurbish the Beit HaMikdash, he summoned the head priest to find out why "‏מַשְׂאַת מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד ה'‏" was not being collected from the nation:


(ד) וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי כֵן הָיָה עִם לֵב יוֹאָשׁ לְחַדֵּשׁ אֶת בֵּית ה'. (ה) וַיִּקְבֹּץ אֶת הַכֹּהֲנִים וְהַלְוִיִּם וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם צְאוּ לְעָרֵי יְהוּדָה וְקִבְצוּ מִכָּל יִשְׂרָאֵל כֶּסֶף לְחַזֵּק אֶת בֵּית אֱלֹהֵיכֶם מִדֵּי שָׁנָה בְּשָׁנָה וְאַתֶּם תְּמַהֲרוּ לַדָּבָר וְלֹא מִהֲרוּ הַלְוִיִּם. (ו) וַיִּקְרָא הַמֶּלֶךְ לִיהוֹיָדָע הָרֹאשׁ וַיֹּאמֶר לוֹ מַדּוּעַ לֹא דָרַשְׁתָּ עַל הַלְוִיִּם לְהָבִיא מִיהוּדָה וּמִירוּשָׁלִַם אֶת מַשְׂאַת מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד ה' וְהַקָּהָל לְיִשְׂרָאֵל לְאֹהֶל הָעֵדוּת.

(4) And after that it was with the heart of Yoash to renew the House of Hashem. (5) And he gathered the priests and the Levites, and he said to them, go to the cities of Yehuda, and gather from all Israel money to strengthen the house of your God from year to year, and you should hasten the matter, but the Levites did not hasten. (6) And the king called for Yehoyada the head, and said to him, why have you not required the Levites to bring from Yehuda and Yerushalayim the collection of Moshe the servant of Hashem and the congregation of Israel to the Tent of Testimony.

The subsequent verses then describe how a chest was constructed for donations and how the people then contributed "מַשְׂאַת מֹשֶׁה עֶבֶד הָאֱלֹהִים עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל בַּמִּדְבָּר". However, these verses specify neither that it was a half shekel that each person was required to donate, nor the exact circumstances which created this obligation. In contrast, in Nechemyah 10:33-34 we read of an apparently voluntary agreement among the people themselves to make annual donations to finance the sacrifices in the Mikdash. Here, though, the verses speak of a third of a shekel:


(לג) וְהֶעֱמַדְנוּ עָלֵינוּ מִצְוֹת לָתֵת עָלֵינוּ שְׁלִשִׁית הַשֶּׁקֶל בַּשָּׁנָה לַעֲבֹדַת בֵּית אֱלֹהֵינוּ. (לד) לְלֶחֶם הַמַּעֲרֶכֶת וּמִנְחַת הַתָּמִיד וּלְעוֹלַת הַתָּמִיד הַשַּׁבָּתוֹת הֶחֳדָשִׁים לַמּוֹעֲדִים וְלַקֳּדָשִׁים וְלַחַטָּאוֹת לְכַפֵּר עַל יִשְׂרָאֵל וְכֹל מְלֶאכֶת בֵּית אֱלֹהֵינוּ.

(33) And we made rules for ourselves, taxing ourselves a third of a shekel every year for the service of the house of our God. (34) For the showbread, and for the regular meal-offering, and for the regular burnt-offering, on the Sabbaths, and the new moons, and the set feasts, and for the holy things, and for the sin-offerings to make atonement for Israel, and for all the work of the house of our God.

What is the relationship between our verses in Shemot 30 and the stories of Divrei HaYamim II 24 and Nechemyah 10? Do they all speak of the same obligation, and if so, under what conditions did it apply?