The ancient machatzis hashekel mitzvah teaches us the proper way to view money
Childhood memories of Chanukah bathe us in nostalgia. Nothing compares to the pungent aroma of frying latkes wafting from the kitchen, receiving Chanukah gelt from Zeidy and Bubby.
My chavrusa, Rav Dovid Kamenetsky, recalls with delight how on the fifth night of Chanukah, every grandchild received five dollars from his zeidy, Rav Yaakov. And that was during the 1960s, when five dollars was a fortune for a child! Why the fifth night? It’s the only night that can never fall on Shabbos (Orchos Rabbeinu 3, Chanukah 3).
The minhag is old and universal. Which raises the question, what’s the reason behind the minhag? Why davka money, and not gifts in colorful wrapping paper, as practiced by our non-Jewish neighbors? And why only Chanukah? I’m sure our kids won’t complain if they got some Pesach gelt while we distribute kimcha d’Pischa.
The Ponevezher Rav, quoted by Rav Chaim Friedlander, suggests that the minhag has its roots in the Greek decree forbidding the study of Torah. After the victory of the Maccabim, money was distributed to Jewish youth as an incentive to get them back into learning (Sifsei Chaim, Moadim 2:134). Rav Chaim Palagi brings a similar idea with further material based on Kabbalah (Moed L’Kol Chai 27:77).
If so, somehow, we’ve lost the plan. We distribute coins to boys and girls alike, often at an age when they barely understand what money is all about. (Let’s be honest, the money often ends up in a candy shop, not a seforim store.)
A CRYPTIC RAMBAM
A simpler approach suggests that the minhag of Chanukah gelt is based on the opening words of the Rambam in Hilchos Chanukah (3:1). The Rambam lists eight crimes the Greeks perpetrated against us. (I assume the number “eight” is no coincidence.)
The eighth on the list is the familiar v’timu hataharos — they spiritually contaminated that which was pure, a reference to the shemanim, the oils in the Beis Hamikdash. Fourth and fifth on the list is “u'pashtu yadam b’mamonam u’vnoseihem,” the Greeks “spread their hands” on our money and our daughters. Voila! We have our source. Chanukah gelt reminds us that Hashem saved us from the Yevanim who “spread their hands” on our money (Shaarei Orah, Shaar HaChanukah).
The questions on the Rambam drip like a gooey jelly doughnut. What’s the source that the Greeks “spread their hands” on our money? My rebbi, Rav Avrohom Gurewitz (Ohr Avrohom on Chanukah, 105-108), picks apart the many opinions that explain the Rambam by showing sources that Greeks made decrees that caused us monetary loss. He asks two questions:
Rambam writes, “The Greeks spread their hands on our money and our daughters,” combining in one phrase the monetary crime with the crime against our daughters, referring to the infamous decree that women should be defiled by the local Greek commander on her wedding night. What is the connection between the two atrocities?
The basic difference between Chanukah and Purim is that on Chanukah we suffered from ruchniyus decrees while on Purim they were gashmiyus decrees. (see Taz, Orach Chayim 670:3). Monetary loss belongs to the Purim story. We celebrate our deliverance from Haman’s plans to plunder our wealth in the Purim version of al hanissim. The Chanukah version only mentions deliverance from ruchniyus oppression.
To solve this riddle, we need to go back to basics and ask ourselves a simple question. What is money?
THE WORLD WITHOUT MONEY
Theoretically an economy is sustainable without money. Barter is all we need. I can come to the market with my flock of sheep and use them to buy groceries, bookshelves, or a week’s rent. A baker and a tailor can exchange bread for clothing.
Currency is just a convenience; it’s easier to schlep silver coins than sheep. It also makes it easier for governments to tax their citizens. Money, like cars and washing machines, adds to the quality of our lives, but it’s not essential to the world Hashem created. It’s possible that within a few years, modern countries will go cashless, replacing coins with electronic payment methods.
The Torah, the blueprint of creation, reflects this reality. Whenever the Torah requires money, the equivalent in goods is acceptable. Kiddushin, the legal transaction of marriage, requires a prutah, a small bronze coin. (Although good luck to the yeshivah bochur who offers his wife-to-be a prutah instead of a gold ring!) Even the monetary redemption of maaser sheini, the tithe of produce that is eaten in Yerushalayim, is offered as a convenience to avoiding hauling truckloads of fruits from the Galilee to the Holy City.
But there’s an exception to this entire approach. There’s one mitzvah which can only be performed by contributing an actual coin. The equivalent in goods is unacceptable. That mitzvah is the machatzis hashekel, the half-shekel donated by every eligible Jew as a contribution to the korbanos tzibbur, the communal sacrifices in the Beis Hamikdash (Shemos 30:13-16; Bechoros 8:7).
Apparently, money isn’t just a convenient alternative to trading goods — it’s an essential part of Hashem’s creation. It’s part of Torah and therefore, by definition, contains a profound eternal message.
A SYSTEM OF VALUE
Coins and currency measure erech, value. An economy operating through barter wouldn’t have a universal yardstick of value. Without money, the concept of overall prices that dictates which products are valuable and which are worthless wouldn’t exist. “Expensive” and “cheap” can only exist in a world with money.
The corollary of value is kavod, honor. We honor that which is expensive and dishonor that which is cheap. Interestingly, the word yakar, expensive, is a synonym for kavod (see, for example, Esther 1:20 where Achashveirosh decrees that women must give yakar, honor, to their husbands). Similarly, zol, cheap, also means something lowly and degraded.
Royalty is built on kavod. A monarch shows that he’s elevated beyond dictatorship by projecting his wealth. Indeed, the brachah we make on a non-Jewish king is shenasan michvodo l’basar v’dom, who gave from His honor to flesh and blood. A king’s lifeblood is his honor.
We bestow the ultimate kavod to the King of kings. He’s the source of all true value. It’s is a recurrent theme in our tefillos. On Rosh Hashanah we say, “Meloch al kol ha’olam kulo b’chovodecha, v’hinasei al kol ha’aretz bikarecha — reign over the entire universe in Your glory (kavod); be exalted over all the world in Your splendor (yakar).”
When Hashem created money, He was teaching us that the structure of the world depends on something much more profound than survival and necessity. It’s founded on how we measure the value of things, ultimately expressed in how we honor people, with the highest honor bestowed to royalty. Our challenge is to identify and promote the true source of malchus and kavod, HaKadosh Baruch Hu (Midrash Rabbah, Shir Hashirim 3:10).
Which brings us back to the machatzis hashekel.
THE FIERY COIN
Chazal tell us that Moshe Rabbeinu was puzzled by the commandment of machatzis hashekel (Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 14:3). The Torah explains us that the donation was l’chaper al nafshoseichem, to atone for your souls. Money can buy atonement? Doesn’t sound very Jewish to me.
Hashem explains things by showing Moshe a coin of fire, taken from under the Kisei Hakavod, the Throne of Glory. What message was Hashem conveying with this perplexing imagery?
In Shir Hashirim (8:6), Klal Yisrael beseech Hashem to relate to us as the centerpiece of His thoughts and deeds. The pasuk continues by expressing the depth of our eternal love for Him with the powerful words: “Ki azah k’maves ahavah, reshafeha rishpei eish — for strong till death is my love… its flashes are flashes of fire.”
Shir Hashirim continues by describing how all the waters of the world cannot extinguish that fire. If someone were to offer all the treasures of the world to entice us away from our beloved, they would be scorned to the extreme. In other words, the power of love makes offering money useless. Imagine someone offering you a fortune of money for your child! You would be deeply offended and would angrily throw him out of your house. Shlomo Hamelech compares that love to flashes of fire. Fire is beyond the realm of the value system of money.
A coin of fire expresses that there is a single value that nullifies all other concepts of value, making them worthless. It’s not by chance that Hashem took it from beneath His throne of kavod. Hashem is teaching Moshe Rabbeinu that the essential kavod in this world is His throne; every other measurement of kavod and value in this world is insignificant.
When we give our machatzis hashekel, we make the ultimate statement about value. Our half shekel is intimately connected to another half shekel, made out of fire and kept under the Throne of Kavod. Our half shekel thus becomes the paradigm of currency, finding completion in the only currency that has true worth.
Moshe Rabbeinu now understood how a half shekel can atone for our souls. The atonement comes by finding completion in a half shekel of fire. The two halves find natural completion in the Beis Hamikdash, the place where Heaven and Earth meet.
That’s why our half shekels are specifically designated for korbanos tzibbur. It’s only when we let go of our individual identities and become Klal Yisrael that we connect to out “second half,” Hashem’s coin of fire. In the laws of tzibbur, there is no halachic difference between ten men and millions of men. We become one unit called Klal Yisrael, the natural partners to Hashem. And only as Klal Yisrael can our half shekels combine with the fiery half shekel of infinite worth.
A MATTER OF INTEREST
In a 21st century economy, the ancient machatzis hashekel mitzvah teaches us the proper way to view money. When we carry money in our pockets, we’re carrying something valuable. What gives it value? For a Jew, value exists as much as it is connected to the proverbial coin of fire. How is this done in practice?
The word shekel implies lishkol, to give. A Jewish coin is a giving coin. The moment after our earnings have covered our needs, we must ask ourselves, what are we supposed to do with the surplus money? The answer is simple: Use it to make the world a little closer to Hashem.
This principle comes out in full force with the laws of ribbis (the prohibition against charging interest on a loan, nothing to do with Ashkenazi frogs). Lending our surplus money to help a fellow Jew is a basic mitzvah. Charging interest on that loan flips Hashem’s plan for what a Torah economy should look like. “Giving coins” become “taking coins.” Love of our fellow Jew becomes love of ourselves.
Chazal use very strong language to describe the evil of taking interest. For example, Hashem declares that He took us out of Egypt on condition that we don’t charge interest. Anyone who charges interest is kofer b’ikkar, he has rejected the central tenet of Judaism (Sifrah, Behar 5). In Lashon Kodesh, the gematria of ribbis is 612, implying it’s equal in importance to all the other 613 mitzvos. Ribbis has the same four letters as bris, implying that lending without interest is to the economy what bris milah is to our bodies. It defines us.
When we see money as a gift from Hashem to be used as “giving money,” it becomes a tool for perfecting Hashem’s world. When we use it to support Torah, as in a Yissachar-Zevulun partnership, money actually endows Zevulun with the infinite merit of Yissachar’s Torah. When we use money this way, we call it kadosh, holy. It’s not kadosh in the classic way, like a sefer Torah, rather its kedushah comes from our mindset to use money to elevate the world. Ultimately, all Jewish money is anchored in the ultimate value, the fiery half shekel found under the Throne of Kavod.
It was against the kedushah of money that the Greeks waged war.
GREEK VALUE SYSTEM
The Rambam lists eight atrocities that the Greeks committed against the Jews. The common thread is summarized in number eight. V’timu hataharos, they took that which is pure and made it impure.
Greece wasn’t an empire of thieves and adulterers. It was an empire of tumah.
When a chassan turns to his kallah and publicly declares “Harei at mekudeshes li,” he affirms that he and his wife are about to build something unique and infinite, a Jewish home. It will be anchored in kedushah, a microcosm of the Beis Hamikdash itself. The centerpiece of that kedushah is his wife, her holiness rooted in the Imahos.
The local Greek commander could take any woman he wanted. But that wasn’t his agenda. He was waging war against the Jews. His war was against kedushah, and for that, he needed to defile the sanctity of kiddushin, the wedding night.
Similarly, as the occupying army, the Greeks could take from us as much money as they wanted. That wasn’t their agenda, either. They wanted to battle a monetary system that was kadosh, anchored in the Kisei Hakavod. The Rambam combines the two atrocities of pashtu yadam to convey that the Greeks expanded their war against kedushah on two new fronts. In the Jewish home, they fought against the kedushah of the Jewish woman, and in the marketplace, against the kedushah of money.
In classical times, an ox symbolized economic prowess (Mishlei 14:4). Perhaps this is echoed in the “Bull of Wall Street” bronze statue adorning America’s financial district. The Greeks decreed, “kisvu lachem al keren hashor she’ein lachem chelek b’Elokei Yisrael — write on the ox’s horn that you have no portion in the G-d of Israel.” The goal was to disconnect money from ruchniyus. The Greek vision was of a G-dless economy.
In practice, the Greeks wanted to replace giving coins with taking coins. The Greek’s success was noted as early as the times of Hillel Hazakein. At the end of this shemittah year, we’ll have the theoretical opportunity to perform the beautiful mitzvah of shmittas kesafim. We can cancel all debts owed to us, allowing our poorer brethren a chance to breathe.
The idea behind the mitzvah is to remind us that surplus money is an opportunity to help our fellow Jew. Hillel, who lived within 200 years after the Greeks’ decrees, noted that as shemittah approached, Jews just stopped lending. He thus instituted the pruzbul, a legal bypass of shemittas kesafim. The necessity for a pruzbul reflected the extent to which the Greeks had infected our mindset.
THE MESSAGE OF CHANUKAH GELT
Fast-forward 2,000 years, and the Greeks have succeeded beyond all belief. Step into the outside world, and you’ll see a world economy defined by interest rates. Ask anyone “What do you do?” and they’ll answer how they earn money. Their net worth defines their status in society.
From a young age, humanity is taught to be slaves to making money until it destroys their bodies. They then spend it on health care to restore their bodies. The advertising industry creates an endless anxiety promoting physical needs that are essential to happiness. The result? A world drowning in the relentless pursuit of materialistic pleasure. A world with no time for G-dliness, where happiness is a hopeless dream.
Step into the Jewish home on Chanukah. There you will see candles burning from a pure oil liberated from Greek contamination. The fire rises beyond the physical world and connects to a hidden light that is anchored in the fire under the Kisei Hakavod.
In that island of purity, parents give their young children Chanukah gelt. They instill in them the values of Jewish money, the kedushah of the giving coins. Later in life, this will translate into noble pursuits, such as caring for our fellow Jew and supporting our Torah institutions, inspired by the warm memories of receiving Chanukah gelt.
Rabbi Menachem Nissel is a mechanech in Jerusalem and is the author of Rigshei Lev: Women & Tefillah. He is a talmid of Rav Moshe Shapira ztz”l, bli ayin hara.
Chanukah Gelt Challenge
This year, while giving out Chanukah gelt, let’s wage war against Yavan by upgrading our own Giving Coins.
[Note: It may be prudent to have a discussion with your spouse or rav before committing to a financial obligation]
TZEDAKAH BEFORE A MITZVAH. Don’t wait until Erev Shabbos before candle lighting to put a coin in your pushke. Every time you daven, give a coin to tzedakah (Rigshei Lev 2:23).
TAKE RESPONSIBILITY Your building needs a rep for the local Tomchei Shabbos? Your neighborhood needs someone to collect for the annual bikur cholim or Hatzalah campaign? Be that person!
FIX IT Annoyed that the air conditioning doesn’t work properly in your shul or kid’s classroom? The bathrooms are dilapidated? Don’t complain. When you see a problem, raise the money, and fix it.
EMPOWER A FELLOW JEW Rambam (see Matnos Aniyim 10: 7-14) writes that the highest form of tzedakah is to give employment, allowing others to express their tzelem Elokim so they too can give to others. Help that lost kid find a job or pay for their schooling. Extra brownie points in Shamayim if they don’t know that you’re their sponsor.
PRACTICE YOUR SMILE Rambam writes that sever panim yafos, showing a fundraiser a pleasant face, is the most important part of the mitzvah of tzedakah. Offer them drinks. Make them feel that they’re giving you much more than you’re giving them, which, of course, is the case.
JUMP THE GUN Rambam writes that the mitzvah of tzedakah is performed better if you give before they ask. It saves the collector the humiliation of putting his hand out. If a fundraiser comes to you annually, preempt them by sending your donation. If you see a poor person, give before they ask.
SIMCHAH Mazel Tov! You’re making a chasunah! Find a poor kallah and pay for her wedding as well. Their simchah becomes a zechus for your simchah.
SHALOM FUND Set aside money on a regular basis to be used to diffuse tension between you and your spouse, family, or neighbors. If a disagreement can be solved by throwing money at the problem, go to your Shalom Fund, and then your Giving Coins become Shalom Coins.
INSPIRE YOUR CHILDREN Beyond teaching by example, teach your children at a young age the art of giving. Give them money for the express purpose of giving tzedakah. Teach them to maaser pocket-money or money earned from babysitting or summer jobs.
CHOMESH If Hashem has blessed you financially, it’s time to upgrade from giving maaser (one tenth) to chomesh (one fifth) of your income. Expect to be blessed even more.
(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 770)
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