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Torah Sparks

March 13, 2004 – 20 Adar 5764

Annual: Ex. 30:11 – 34:35 (Etz Hayim, p. 523; Hertz p. 350)
Triennial Cycle 3: Ex. 33:12 – 34:35 (Etz Hayim p. 538; Hertz p. 362)
Maftir: (2d Scroll) Numbers 19:1-22 (Etz Hayim, p. 880; Hertz p. 652)
Haftarah: Ezekiel 36:16-38 (Etz Hayim, p. 1286; Hertz p. 999)

Prepared by Kenneth S. Goldrich, Esq.
Author of the USCJ/RA Luah and Yad LaTorah

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Martin J. Pasternak, Director


30:11-16 - The requirement to give a half-shekel as a means of taking a census of men fit for military service.

30:17-38 - Directions for the fabrication of the brass basin used by the kohanim to wash before entering the Sanctuary; the manufacture of the anointing oil and the holy incense.

31:1-11 - Bezalel and Oholiav are designated by God as the craftsmen responsible for constructing the Tabernacle.

31:12-17 - A special warning regarding the sanctity of Shabbat.

31:18-32:6 - God gives Moses the two tablets of the Covenant. Meanwhile, down in the Israelite camp, the people despair of Moses' return and demand of Aaron that he make a "god" for them. The result is the Golden Calf.

32:7-35 - God tells Moses what the people are doing and threatens to destroy them. Moses descends the mountain, sees the people dancing around the calf, and in a fit of anger breaks the tablets. The actual worshipers of the calf, 3000 in number, are put to death. Moses intercedes for his people and ascends Mt. Sinai once again. He pleads with God, who relents from destroying the entire people, though he sends a plague as punishment.

33:1-11 - God tells Moses to lead the people toward the Promised Land and says that He will no longer dwell in their midst. The people must stripoff their finery as an act of contrition. God continues to speak to Moses directly.

33:12-23 - Moses pleads to be able to see God as a confirmation both of his authority and his relationship with God, but that request is denied, "for a human may not see Me and live." God does promise that Moses will be able to see His "back," i.e., have an indirect manifestation of His presence.

34:1-9 - Moses returns to Mt. Sinai for the third time and receives the revelation concerning God's Thirteen Attributes.

34:10-26 - The renewal of the covenant between God and Israel, with further instruction concerning the keeping of the mitzvot.

34:27-35 - After forty days, Moses receives the second set of tablets. He comes down from Sinai, his face shining with rays of light.

Selected Text

The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: When you take a census of B’nei Yisrael according to their count, they shall each give to the Lord an atonement for his soul when they are counted, so there will not be a plague when they are counted. This is what everyone who is entered in the census shall pay: mahatzit ha’shekel (a half-shekel) by the shekel ha’kodesh (official Temple weight), twenty gerah to the shekel, a half-shekel as an offering to the Lord. Everyone who passes into the census, from the age of twenty years and up, shall give the Lord's offering. The rich shall not pay more and the poor shall not pay less than the half-shekel when giving the Lord's offering to atone for your souls. You shall take the atonement money from B’nei Yisrael and give it to the service of the Tent of Meeting; it shall serve as a reminder for B’nei Yisrael before the Lord, to atone for your souls. (Exodus 30:11-16)

Discussion – Half a Shekel is Better than None

The Census.

The Selected Text is difficult. What is the atonement being offered? What plague is being avoided? What could possibly be the difficulty with a census, a direct count of the military age men? If you have ever been to a weekday minyan where there were not obviously ten people, you may have witnessed a small remnant of one aspect of the unusual procedure described in our Selected Text. Rather than count those present, someone may recite “Hoshia et amekha, u’varekh et nahalatekha, ur’em v’nas’em ad ha’olam” [Save Your nation and bless Your inheritance, tend to them and raise them up, forever – Psalm 28:9].

This verse has ten words, one word corresponding to each person needed to constitute a minyan. Why not just count, 1, 2, 3, 4 … 8, 9, 10? Let us ask Rashi.

“When you take a ‘census,’ the word (census) is translated (in the Aramaic translation, Onkelos) as ‘taking’ – when you want to take the total of their numbers, to know how many they are, do not take a head count (i.e., do not count the people); rather let each give a half-shekel, then count the shekalim (pl. of shekel) and you will know how many there are. [Then] there will not be a plague among them for the evil eye can affect that which is counted and a plague may come upon them as we found in the days of David.” (Rashi on Ex. 30:11)

Does Rashi answer our question or raise more questions? What occurred during David’s time? In II Samuel 24, David conducted a census by counting the people. “David’s heart struck him after he counted the nation, and David said to the Lord, I have sinned greatly by what I have done….” (II Sam. 24:10) Seventy thousand people died. (24:15).

The Talmud asks and answers our question: “Why are people not counted directly? … Rabbi Isaac says ‘It is forbidden to count Israel, even for the performance of a mitzvah.’ … “The Talmudic discussion focuses on the verse: “The number of B’nei Yisrael will be like the sands of the sea which cannot be measured or counted …” (Hoshea 2:1). The only debate is the extent to which counting Jews is a transgression. Rabbi Elazar claims that the act of counting Jews violates one negative commandment while Rabbi Nahman bar Isaac claims that the act violates two prohibitions, not to “count” or “measure.” Counting Israel contradicts the very concept that Israel will be as numerous as the “sands of the sea,” i.e., uncountable. (Yoma 22b)

Mahatzit ha’Shekel Before Purim.

The mitzvah to give a half-shekel is only in force and effect when the Bet haMikdash (Temple) is in existence in Jerusalem. Today (and until the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding ofthe Temple) we substitute two practices to keep alive (zekher - to remember) the giving of the half-shekel. First, since the half-shekel was given in Adar, we read, on a specially designated Shabbat (Shabbat Shekalim), our Selected Text as a maftir reading, from a second Torah scroll. Second, at the minhah (afternoon) service on ta’anit esther (the fast day preceding Purim) it is customary to give three half dollar coins (being reminiscent of the half shekel) to tzedakah, charity. We give three of these to reflect the three times the word terumah (offering gift) is used in Parashat Ki Tissa (Ex. 30:13-15). Many synagogues will have three coins available and the practice is for each individual to contribute and, essentially, buy the right (through the contribution to charity) to use the coins.

Sparks for Further Discussion

  1. There are rabbinic authorities in Israel who objected to (and advised their adherents not to cooperate with) a modern census. There are other modern democracies which will not, as a matter of principle, ask census participants for their religious affiliation. What are the implications of the various positions?
  2. It has been suggested that by counting people we risk reducing them to numbers and, in a sense, de-humanizing them. Today we have many numbers that we use, that identify us, for a variety of purposes. Is it your experience that the proliferation of numbers (passwords, ID’s etc.) have in any way limited our individual identities, or are these merely matters of convenience?
  3. What symbolic value may be found in the use of a half-shekel rather than a full shekel? The half-shekel of our Selected Text was continued during the period of both the First and Second Temples and was used (beginning with the new fiscal year in Nissan) for the regular daily and seasonal offerings. What importance can be found in having these Temple offerings being supported equally by every Jew?

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