In the beginning of Parashat Ki-Tisa, which we read again not long ago for Parashat Shekalim, the Torah commands the Jewish nation to donate a Half-Shekel during the times when the Bet Hamikdash stood.
This Mitzvah was auspicious in that it protected the Jewish nation from all plague; indeed, the secrets of these Mitzvah are quite deep. When the Bet Hamikdash stood, the Bet Din would publicly announce the start of the Half-Shekel collection and they would call on the entire nation to donate immediately, beginning from Rosh Chodesh Adar, which is the time appropriate for this Mitzvah.
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.
Women should also participate in this commemorative donation, and it is preferable to donate on behalf of one’s children as well. Some even donate for their unborn babies as well.
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.
The appropriate sum that one should donate in commemoration of the Half-Shekel this year (5782) is approximately $8 (USD) per person. (For those residing in Israel, based on the recent USD to NIS conversion rate, the sum this year is approximately 25 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 $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 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.)
Whom to Donate to
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 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 Ten-Shekel coins and one Five-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.)
The Seventh of Adar
Regarding the customs surrounding the Seventh of Adar, the Gemara (Kiddushin 38a) states that Moshe Rabbeinu passed away on the Seventh of Adar, which will fall out tomorrow. Many pious and righteous individuals (who are in good physical health) customarily fast on this day, as is mentioned by Maran Ha’Shulchan Aruch (Chapter 180). Some hold a special order of learning on the night of the Seventh of Adar; this is indeed a fine custom. Even if there are ten people fasting in the synagogue on this day, the Sefer Torah should not be taken out, for this is not an actual public fast day. (Nevertheless, the Chazzan may recite the “Anenu” blessing in his repetition, not as a separate blessing, rather, as part of the “Shema Kolenu” blessing.) The Kohanim should likewise not recite Birkat Kohanim during Mincha of this fast day.