This past Tuesday was the 14th of Adar Rishon, and therefore called Purim Katan. During most years, Parashat Ki Tisa is read during the week of Purim. This is significant because one of the chief mitzvot of Purim is alluded to in the parashah. There are a few important mitzvot connected to Purim: hearing the Megillah read; the feast; mishloach manot, food gifts that we give to our Jewish friends to add to their Purim feast; and matanot le’evyonim, monetary gifts to the local poor (regardless of whether or not they are Jewish). Another important mitzvah is the machatzit hashekel, the “half shekel” coin.

The original machatzit hashekel was meant to fund the Temple’s sacrifices, and it was collected every year on the first of Adar. Everyone, regardless of their level of wealth, was obligated to give the same amount. In the absence of a Temple and sacrifices, the machatzit hashekel that we give today is not a fulfillment of the mitzvah that the Torah describes, but a remembrance of it. Instead of giving it to the synagogue, the Jewish day school, the yeshiva, or any other local Jewish institution, we give it to the poor.

This may invite the question: Don’t we already have tzedakah that we are giving on Purim? We are giving matanot le’evyonim! How is this different? Why do we need to buy the use of these half-dollar coins? What is the point? How are these two mitzvot different?

Matanot le’evyonim is fulfilled by giving the amount of money needed to buy two meals for two different people. Machatzit hashekel is given by donating three half-dollar coins per household, or at least the value thereof. Matanot le’evyonim are self-explanatory. An amount of money with a readily obvious purpose and usefulness is given to those in need. Machatzit hashekel seems formalistic, and a dollar fifty won’t buy anything of value. One is done for the sake of tzedakah. The other is a remembrance of a commandment connected to the lost Temple.

The machatzit hashekel is given the day before Purim, on the Fast of Esther (although it can be collected during Purim proper). We perform our remembrance of the Temple when we fast in remembrance of the danger Haman posed to our people in those times. We give more substantial gifts to the poor when we are feasting, drinking, and celebrating. Machatzit hashekel sanctifies memory of what we have lost. Matanot le’evyonim celebrate the abundance we enjoy in the present day. Machatzit hashekel sanctifies memory of our past; the Temple that we did lose, and our ancestors’ lives that were almost lost. It is therefore ritualistic. Matanot le’evyonim focus on the present. We feed those who might not otherwise eat on a day of our own feasting. It is therefore pragmatic.
The fact that the funds raised from the machatzit hashekel go to the local poor transforms an act that could be purely ritualistic to one that has real benefit to others around us.

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