It is customary to donate money before Purim as “a commemoration of the Half-Shekel” which was given by the entire Jewish nation when the Bet Hamikdash stood. This money is customarily collected on the eve of Purim before reading the Megilla, as our Sages tell us (Megilla 13b) that “it is revealed and known before the creator of the world that Haman would, in the future, weigh Shekalim against the Jews, therefore, He preceded their Shekalim to his.” Nevertheless, one may donate this sum before this time.
Not Calling this Sum the “Half-Shekel”
The Poskim write that nowadays one should be careful not to call this sum of money “the Half-Shekel” rather, “a commemoration of the Half-Shekel,” for if one would call it the former, there is concern that this money may have a status of consecration to the Bet Hamikdash and thus be prohibited to benefit from, thereby prohibiting its distribution to the poor.
This is mentioned openly in the Responsa of the Geonim that “calling Tzedakah money ‘the Half-Shekel’ is improper and this money becomes prohibited to benefit from.” Thus, it is proper to call this money just a “commemoration of the Half-Shekel” in order to avoid any doubt.
The Amount One Should Donate for the Commemoration of the Half-Shekel
What is the amount one should donate in commemoration of the Half-Shekel? The actual Half-Shekel coin amounted to the sum of nine grams of pure silver. However, if one’s financial situation does not allow him to donate this amount, donating any coin in commemoration of the Half-Shekel is sufficient.
Women must also donate money in commemoration of the Half-Shekel and it is proper for one to donate this amount for his small children as well. Some have the custom to donate this amount for their unborn children (during pregnancy) as well. (Torat Ha’Mo’adim)
This money must be given as charity to the poor. Hagaon Harav Chaim Palagi writes in his Sefer Ruach Chaim (Chapter 694, Subchapter 2) that this money should be given to needy Torah scholars who toil tirelessly in Torah. This is the most important charity of all. Whoever works to raises the glory of the Torah and its learners shall merit seeing the raised glory of Israel. As our Sages tell us (Baba Batra 10b): “Through what merit will the glory of Israel be raised? Through ‘Ki Tisa’ (Charity).’”
The appropriate sum that one should donate in commemoration of the Half-Shekel this year (5774) is approximately
$6 (USD) per person. (For those residing in Israel, based on the fluctuating price of silver and dollar-to-shekel conversion rate, the sum this year is approximately 25 NISper person.)
The way to calculate this sum is as follows: A troy ounce of silver consists of 31.1 grams. Thus, the price of one troy ounce of silver [recently approximately $21.25 USD] must be divided by 31.1 and then multiplied by nine in order to find the updated price of nine grams of silver, which is the value of actual Half-Shekel coin, as we have mentioned in past years. There is a disagreement among the Poskim whether or not the price per ounce of silver should be calculated including applicable taxes. Halachically speaking, Maran Rabbeinu Ovadia Yosef zt”l has instructed us that one may be lenient and calculate this sum excluding tax. However, if one is stringent to donate a larger sum for charity, he shall surely be blessed from above.
The amount of the donation for the commemoration of the Half-Shekel for small children is a coin which is a half of the local currency. Example: In the United States this would be a half-dollar coin. (In Israel, this would be the Half-Shekel [NIS] coin.)
By popular request: Regarding the special customs for the 7th of Adar (which is actually today), the Gemara in Kiddushin (38a) says that the 7th of Adar is the day Moshe Rabbeinu passed away. It is customary for pious and righteous individuals (who are healthy) to fast on this day, as Maran writes in his Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 580). Some conduct a special learning session on the eve of the 7th of Adar, which is also a fine custom. If there are ten people fasting in the synagogue, they should take out a Sefer Torah during Mincha and read the portion designated for public fast days. The Chazzan will likewise insert “Anenu” into the repetition of the Amida as its own blessing, between the blessings of “Go’el Yisrael” and “Refa’enu”. Similarly, if there are ten people fasting, fasting Kohanim may recite Birkat Kohanim during Mincha of this fast day. (See Chazon Ovadia-Arba Ta’aniyot, page 99)