The Sabbath coming this week is Shabbat Shekalim. That means “Sabbath of the Shekels,” or, loosely translated, it might be rendered as “The Money Sabbath.”
Don’t worry. It’s not a fundraiser, and synagogues don’t pass offering plates. Strict Sabbath-keepers don’t handle money at all on the Sabbath. So why is this Sabbath called “Shabbat Shekalim”?
The name refers to a custom that goes all the way back to the days of the apostles. When the Temple still stood, at the beginning of the month of Adar, the Sanhedrin sent messengers out to every town in the land of Israel, reminding every male twenty years of age or older to pay the half-shekel poll tax. The half-shekel was due by the end of Adar.
At the beginning of Nisan (the next month), the priesthood used the collected money to purchase flocks for the coming year’s sacrifices. This system allowed everyone to have a share in the daily sacrifices. Everyone was represented before God, and everyone had a share in the mitzvah because, when the priests offered a lamb for the burnt offering, that lamb belonged to everyone in Israel.
By collecting the half-shekel one month in advance, the Sanhedrin ensured that the new flock of animals sacrificed from the beginning of the month of Nisan would be paid for with the new shekels. If there was any extra money left over after the sacrifices were purchased, the priests applied the surplus funds to the maintenance of the Temple.
Matthew 17:24-27 records a story about the Master and the half-shekel. The collectors came to Capernaum and asked Peter, “Does your Master pay the half-shekel or not?” In Messianic synagogues, we read this story on Shabbat Shekalim.
We have two other special readings for Shabbat Shekalim. In the days when the half-shekel was still collected, synagogues conducted special Scripture readings on the Sabbath before or on the new moon of Adar in order to remind the people that the time to pay the annual half-shekel tax had come. A special Torah reading (maftir) from Exodus 30:11-16 contained the law of the half shekel. The haftarah reading from 2 Kings 12 told the story of a similar public collection made for Temple repairs. These special synagogue readings served as a sort of public notification, reminding people to set aside the money they needed to pay for the half-shekel collection.
Since the destruction of the Temple, the half-shekel tax is no longer collected, but the synagogue reading cycle still retains these special readings.
How can we honor Shabbat Shekalim today? As mentioned above, we can use it as an opportunity to remember the miracle of Matthew 17:24-27. But there’s also a practical way to observe Shabbat Shekalim. Jewish tradition encourages us to remember the half-shekel tax by increasing gifts to charitable causes during the month of Adar, that is, during the time when the half-shekel used to be collected. By giving a little bit more than normal to the poor, the needy, and to kingdom ministries during the month of Adar, we remember the days when God’s house stood in Jerusalem and we hasten the day when he will dwell in it again.