Masechet Shekalim discusses the yearly mitzvah of giving half a shekel as a donation to the Beit Ha’Mikdash. The source of this mitzvah is when Moshe commanded the nation in the desert to give half a shekel as a means of counting the people. One is forbidden from counting a group of Jews. The way that the Torah effectively allows a census is by gathering this money from the nation and counting the money allowing one to indirectly know the number of people. When the Jews were in the desert this money was used to build the outer walls of the Mishkan. This mitzvah continued and during the time of Beit Ha’Mikdash the money was used to buy the korbanot ha’tamid - the daily korbanot that were brought in the Mikdash.
The main question that we shall address is the question of the placement of this masechet in the volumes of Mishnayot. As we mentioned this masechet deals with a yearly donation that must be given to the Mikdash. It follows that the place of such a masechet should be in Seder Kodshim. That seder, the fifth out of the six sidrei mishnah deals with all the issues that have to do with the Beit Ha’Mikdash and the korbanot. The question becomes even greater when we see the Rambam. In his book, Hayad Hachazaka, Rambam places these halachot in the volume of Zmanim. Once again, it is placed in a volume that deals with all the halachot that have to do with our chagim such as Shabbat, Pesach, Sukkah, etc. Once more it has been decided that the right place to put these halachot is not with all the halachot that deal with the Mikdash and the korbanot.
This question can be answered if we understand this mitzvah a bit differently. The reason that one has to give the half shekel is not primarily as a donation to the Mikdash but rather as a means of counting Am Israel. It is only after this money is collected and there remains a question of what to do with the funds that this money being given to the Beit Ha’Mikdash. If so what is the purpose of this mitzvah? What is the value in just giving the coins?
The Midrash explains that Am Israel was counted after the plague that followed the sin of the golden calf. Counting Am Israel at this tragic time was vital. Without this counting Am Israel may have felt that the betrayal was so strong that Hashem no longer cares about them. They could have stopped thinking that they could each contribute to the way Hashem is represented in the world. Giving money in order to be individually counted and using that money to build the Mikdash is a lesson that Am Israel must be reminded of each year. Remembering such a lesson is a cause for a holiday of its own. It is an important enough holiday to have its own masechet in Seder Moed – the seder of the chagim.
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