Ki Tisa: The Moment When All Were Equal

Every Jew was required to give a half-shekel, no more, no less. Why?

Table for Five: Ki Tisa


Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist


The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than half a shekel when giving the LORD’s offering as expiation for your persons. Ex. 30:15


Nili Isenberg, Pressman Academy Judaic Studies Faculty

In his book “Created Equal: How the Bible Broke with Ancient Political Thought,” Rabbi Joshua Berman writes, “Many civilizations… were based on [the paradigm that] people are not created equal; rather, that the human community is like a pyramid, with the privileged few perched at the top, and the feeble masses below them.”

How radical, then, must have been the concept of our verse in its time! Could there have been any other culture where rich and poor were counted equally? Of course, there were many individuals who were not counted. But the verse held out a higher principle that we have come closer to over the generations. Today, more and more of us feel seen and valued within our tradition. At the same time, our verse also suggests another principle: That we are each only a half-shekel.

For each of us, like for the rich and the poor, there is another half-shekel waiting to make us whole. If you want to see this principle in action, there is no better place to visit than the Friendship Circle, where my son and others like him with special needs are paired with friends who serve as half-shekels to each other. I was not surprised to learn that the collection of this money was put toward the sockets of the beams and pillars that literally held up the structure of the Temple.

Indeed, watching the children together at the Friendship Circle we come ever closer to seeing the Temple being rebuilt in our own days.


Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Scholar In-Residence JMI/Aish

The thread that unites everyone walking the planet is the yearning to live a deeply fulfilling life. It’s a desire that both drives us and frustrates us at the same time. Many years ago, I heard a creative wordplay that brilliantly addressed this dynamic. It observed that in the middle of the word “life” is the word “if”. The derived lesson being, that many people only feel fully alive “if”. If they have the house, if they have the job, if they have the portfolio etc. If, if, if. That’s not life; that’s conditional life.

On the other hand, the word for life in Hebrew is chayim and in the middle of that word are two letters that represent God, yud, yud. The subliminal implication being, that as long as you are living a Godly life, as long as you are a striving and giving soul, that your life is full and dynamic. At the root of so much emotional distress is a feeling of insignificance, a feeling that one’s life is not meaningful. A delusion that deceives us into believing, that those who have more, are more. The half a shekel donation to the Temple powerfully debunks this notion. Both rich and poor were obligated to offer the same amount. No more, no less.

Through it, God was conveying the empowering truth that each and every one of us is an indispensable contributor to the fabric and fate of the Jewish people. What holy currency!


Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org

It sounds a lot like the manna, the Heavenly bread that fell for the Jewish people in the desert. The amount of manna also had to be equal for every person, regardless of appetite or means. Seemingly, that is where the comparison ends.

Everyone only gave a half-shekel, regardless of their financial position, to make the point that every Jew is a “half” of a whole. We were only allowed to take an omer of manna per person to teach that God gives us what we need to survive, even though it make seem we don’t receive enough. How could the two reasons possibly be connected to one other?

Well, if you consider why a person tends to be selfish, it is usually because they are worried someone will take their portion or some of it. We usually have no trouble sharing something that we have enough of. Life just makes it seem as if you have to look out for yourself, or you’ll end up with the short end of the stick. On the other hand, the manna says that God gives a person exactly what they need, not a bit more or less, even if it is more or less than what someone else has.

But if a person knows that everything they have—or don’t have—comes from God, then they will also know that no one can be a threat to their well-being or success. It is this perspective that allows us to see others as equals.


Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple

Rashi explains that the giving of the half-shekel was quite possibly, an atonement for the individual’s sins. In offering this amount, one’s soul would be cleansed through the process. While rationally, it is difficult to equate offering with the erasure of one’s misdeeds, it feels quite apparent that giving alters one’s soul.

There’s a story told about Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. He was raising money to free Jewish prisoners. Going door to door, he encountered a well-known miser in the community. When he explained the cause to the miser, the miser gave Rabbi Zalman a meager amount. The rabbi thanked the miser with a genuine smile. The rabbi motioned to leave, and the miser stopped him in his tracks. “Wait, I have more.” The rabbi thanked him for his second donation and turned away. “Wait, wait, let me give you all that you need!” The rabbi thanked him again, with the same sincere feeling as he did from the start. When the rabbi returned with the full amount, his disciples were astounded! The rabbi merely replied, “How could the miser desire to give when he never understood the joy in giving?”

Meaning, we all have the opportunity to experience the joy in offering. Our souls grow in ways we least expect. It isn’t the amount of money that changes our being. It is the act in knowing that we have contributed to this world in which we have the privilege of living.

Give. Your soul will thank you.


Rabbi Michael Berenbaum, Professor of Jewish Studies, American Jewish University

“The rich shall give no more and the poor no less” – The Torah is demanding an equality of participation. Rich and poor should give alike in the counting of the census.

And yet the cost of equal participation is borne unequally for the half shekel is of minimal significance to the rich and could be burdensome to the poor. Let us turn to context.

The half-shekel, a weight not a coin, is used for the counting of a census and in a census, there is the clear possibility that the individuals will be considered mere numbers. In Judaism we make considerable efforts not to reduce a person to a number. Example, knowledgeable and pious Jews counting heads for a 10-person minyan recite a 10-word Scriptural prayer for deliverance less the individual be reduced to a number.

So the Torah may be admonishing us that while we must count the number of people, we may not reducing the people to a number, a lessen desperately needed in our time. Still the Torah is fascinated by numbers. Seventy were the number of Jacob and his descendants who went down to Egypt while Joseph was already there. The census count throughout Torah as the measure of forces ready to wage war is but another example.

And here the Torah is insistent on an equality of participation in the Temple, where for but a moment none can brag, “I gave more and he gave less.” And both rich and poor equally require expiation.


With thanks to Nili Isenberg, Rabbi Shlomo Seidenfeld, Pinchas Winston, Rabbi Nicole Guzik, and Dr. Michael Berenbaum

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