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Parashat Vayakhel-Shekalim

March 3, 2016

What Is Our Present Day Poll Tax?
A Dvar Torah for Shekalim

by Rabbi Len Levin

“When you take a census of the Israelite people, each shall pay the Lord a ransom for himself on being enrolled — a half shekel by the sanctuary weight…” (Ex. 30:12-13)

“A human being stamps a series of coins with the same stamp and they all turn out identical. Not so the Supreme Sovereign, who stamps out all human beings with the stamp of the first human being, yet every one is unique.” (Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5)

“Whoever performs a single mitzvah will receive benefit and long life and will inherit the land.”

(Mishnah Kiddushin 1:10)


We read the special portion of Shekalim at the start of the month of Adar. This is in commemoration of an ancient practice, when the shekel-tax was collected at the approach of the new fiscal year for the ritual needs and upkeep of the Temple.

The shekel-tax has its origins in biblical times. At appropriate times, the leaders of the Israelite people would take a census to estimate how many adult men were available for military service to defend the nation. Today, sociologists conduct polls of Jews in various lands to collect information to assess the spiritual strength of the Jewish people and judge whether Jewry is flourishing in the world and what needs to be done for its future.

The tradition recognized that there was something problematic about such a quantitative approach to human beings, created in the divine image, possessing a spark of sanctity, each one unique and incommensurable. It is related in the book of Chronicles that King David conducted a census and was punished by a plague for doing so. (I Chronicles 21:1-18) The law in Exodus seems to anticipate this when it says, “each shall pay a ransom…that no plague may come upon them” (Ex. 30:12).

Counting human beings and reducing them to a number carries the implication that they are all identical, which violates the truth that each is unique. This problem was resolved in the law of Exodus by having each person contribute an identical amount, a half-shekel. When the half-shekels were counted, their sum would reveal indirectly the numbers of the people who had contributed them. In this way, the practical objective would be achieved while respecting the sanctity of each individual.

The modern polls of the Jewish population (such as the 2013 Pew Study of American Jewry) do not merely count numbers of Jews, but also yield significant information about the individuals studied — their family characteristics, their political behavior, their mode of affiliation to Jewish organizations, and some specifics of their religious observance. It turns out, not surprisingly, that the more positive ways in which they manifest their Jewishness, the stronger is their identification as Jews and the greater likelihood that they will pass their Jewish identity on to the next generation. At the same time, there is no one cookie-cutter paradigm of what constitutes a Jew. Jews come in many varieties, and they vary considerably as to which of the many ways of expressing their Jewishness they choose.

Is Jewish observance an all-or-nothing affair? Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out that this question was debated among the third-century rabbis Resh Lakish and Rabbi Johanan. According to one view, omitting even a single mitzvah dooms one to failure; according to the more generous view, performing a single mitzvah makes one a Jew in good standing, worthy of eternal reward (Heschel, Heavenly Torah p. 172, citing Talmud Sanhedrin 111a). The more lenient view is recorded in our Mishnah (Kiddushin 1:10), making it in effect the official preferred view of the tradition.

As tzedakah ranks among the foremost mitzvot, I will certainly endorse it and encourage every Jew to regularly support any of the various Jewish communal appeals and benevolent funds as a primary way of affirming one’s Jewish identification.

At the same time, I think it is important to stress the fundamental truth that it is by doing a mitzvah — any mitzvah, the mitzvah dearest to one’s heart, as an expression of one’s unique individuality — that one affirms one’s identification as a Jew. It may be by attending weekday or Shabbat prayer services, by engaging in Jewish study, by serving those in need, by creating artistic, musical, dramatic, or literary works of Jewish content, by visiting or supporting (or living in) Israel, by making Shabbat a part of one’s weekly cycle, by cooking Jewish meals, by building Jewish communities — whichever of these is closest to one’s heart and most expressive of one’s talents.

If each of us focuses on the one mitzvah whereby one can make one’s distinctive contribution, we shall have together a thriving Jewish community.

Let the mitzvah be the poll tax of today’s Jewish community.


Rabbi Len Levin teaches Jewish philosophy at AJR.