July 23, 2024
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Machatzis Hashekel: The Great Equalizer

Avos d’Rav Nason teaches that when one person gives anything to another, whether it is a gift, assistance, or other act of kindness, the manner in which the act is performed is more important than the value of what is given. Without a smile, even giving a million dollars is worthless. With a smile, even a modest gift is worth more than a million dollars. We learn from the mitzvah of machatzis hashekel that a similar principle applies to one’s giving to Hashem. It is the feelings and motivation that one has for their contribution that matters most to Hashem, not the actual value of what is being given. We can also learn from this mitzvah how to view ourselves and others in a way that can promote greater achdus between man and community and man to his family.

The mitzvah of machatzis hashekel has two main halachos (laws). The first is that only a half shekel—not a full shekel—is given to the Beis Hamikdash. The Alshich Hakadosh explains that the half shekel teaches the importance of being b’achdus, united, with other Jews. Just as a half shekel can only become a whole shekel when joined with someone else’s half shekel, so too, a Jew can only realize their full potential by uniting themselves with other Jews.

The second halacha is that no matter how rich or poor you are, you must give only a half shekel. The rich cannot give more and the poor can’t give less. The Maharam Shik explains that this teaches that the amount a person gives is not as important as the way a person does the mitzvah. Hashem is primarily looking for mitzvos to be performed with the passion and simcha that one has when they merit the opportunity to honor Hashem. The way a person gives tzedakah is far more important than how much tzedakah he gives because a person’s mindset, motivation and happiness when giving tzedakah is something that must be developed by the person’s own efforts. Wealth, on the other hand, comes not from a person’s own efforts, but directly from Hashem. As the Mishnah in Pirkei Avos (3:7) teaches, “Give to Him of that which is His, for you and that which is yours is His.”

Since both the rich and poor person give the exact same amount when doing the mitzvah of machatzis hashekel, they appear before Hashem as equals. Their disparate financial standing and social status have no bearing in Hashem’s view of them. All that matters is whether they are using their inherent capacities to love and honor Hashem by elevating their monetary contribution to be, as the Torah describes, a nidvas lev, giving of one’s heart.

This same idea is expressed beautifully by our rabbis in the context of the Torah teaching that the rich bring expensive animal offerings and the poor bring very modest flour offerings. “Echad hamarbeh v’echad hamamit u’vilvad sheyechaven es libo l’Shamayim—One who gives much (expensive offering) is the same as one who gives less (modest offering), as long as one’s heart is directed towards Heaven.”

If we follow Hashem’s example by focusing on the attitudes and feelings of other people and not their material success, we would see many positive changes within the community. Everyone would appreciate their commonality with others, and conversely, feelings of superiority and inferiority would diminish as the superficial differences between people become less significant. This would create greater levels of acceptance and mutual respect, which would ultimately lead to true unity among individuals and in communities.

This lesson is equally vital within the family unit. Marriage brings together a man and woman (or two halves), and in a successful marriage, they will unite and become one whole entity. The goal is for them to be securely attached to each other. Yet, often this ideal eludes many. The couple may be providing the physical and material needs to one another, but because positive feelings as well are not being transmitted, the secure attachment is not made. I often hear a spouse or parent complaining about not being shown enough appreciation for all that they do on behalf of their spouse and children. Often this lack of appreciation suggests a frustration from a deeper unmet need. Despite all that has been given and all that has been done for a spouse or child, they are still being deprived of what they yearn for the most: feelings of love and devotion from the person who means the most to them. This loss is called by Dr. Sue Johnson, developer of Emotionally Focused Couples Therapy, attachment injury. In broad terms, this refers to the pain caused by the unmet expectations from the people you trust the most. The pain in this case comes from not being shown affection. This pain overshadows all the good that is received, which makes appreciation for the physical and material support difficult to feel and express.

The halachos of machatzis hashekel have profound lessons for how we need to connect to Hashem and others. They teach us the essential qualities needed for secure, happy, and meaningful relationships, and true unity of families and Am Yisrael.


Rabbi Avrohom Herman is the rabbi of the JEC Elmora Ave Shul in Elizabeth, NJ. He is also an LCSW in private practice specializing in marital and premarital couples therapy, anxiety and OCD disorders. He can be reached by email at [email protected] or at 908-220-7317.

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