It is customary to donate money before Purim as “a commemoration of the Half-Shekel” which was donated by the entire Jewish nation when the Bet Hamikdash stood. This money is customarily collected on the eve of Purim before reading the Megillah, 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, any time following Rosh Chodesh Adar.
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 be consecrated 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 weight of nine grams of pure silver. However, if one’s financial situation does not allow one 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 one’s small children as well. Some have the custom to donate this amount for their unborn babies 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, Subsection 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 raise the glory of the Torah and those who study it 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’ (donating charity).’”
The appropriate sum that one should donate in commemoration of the Half-Shekel this year (5779) is approximately $5 (USD) per person. (For those residing in Israel, based on the recent USD to NIS conversion rate, the sum this year is approximately 20 NIS per 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 $16 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 sales tax. 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 acts stringently and donates a larger sum for charity, one shall surely be blessed from above.
The minimum amount of the donation for the commemoration of the Half-Shekel for small children is the value of a coin which is a half of the local currency. Example: In the United States this would be a half-dollar coin, hence, the donation would equal fifty cents. (In Israel, this would be the Half-Shekel [NIS] coin.)
The Rama (Chapter 694) writes that it is proper to donate the sum in commemoration of the Half-Shekel in the form of three coins in commemoration of the fact that the verse states “the donation of Hashem” three times in the portion of the Torah corresponding to the Half-Shekel. This custom is quoted by Hagaon Harav Chaim Palagi as well as by Maran zt”l in his Chazon Ovadia-Purim (page 103).
Thus, in Israel, it is preferable to donate this sum in the form of two Five-Shekel coins and one Ten-Shekel coin. (In the United States, one cannot reach the sum of five dollars using three coins of the local currency and thus, bills are perfectly acceptable.)