“A reminder of the half shekel” is also paid today as a donation to the poor,
before reading the Scroll of Esther at Purim
This coming Thursday, before reading the Scroll of Esther, all devout Jews will contribute a sum of money – “a reminder of the half shekel” – which is a tradition that took root in the wake of the ancient virtuous deed of paying a tax of one half shekel to the Temple. This sum, which was used in the past for the establishment and maintenance of the temple, is translated into a contemporary amount and donated to the needy.
In an archaeological excavation that is being conducted in the main drainage channel of Jerusalem from the time of the Second Temple, in the City of David, in the Walls around Jerusalem National Park, an ancient rare silver coin was recently discovered. This coin is a shekel denomination that was customarily used to pay a half shekel head-tax in the Second Temple period.
The excavations, directed by Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Professor Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa, are being conducted on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Nature and Parks Authority and the ‘Ir David Foundation.
Archaeologist Eli Shukron estimates that, “Just like today when coins sometimes fall from our pockets and roll into drainage openings at the side of the street, that’s how it was some two thousand years ago – a man was on his way to the Temple and the shekel which he intended to use for paying the half shekel head-tax found its way into the drainage channel”.
The origin of the commandment to pay the half shekel head-tax to the Temple is in the weekly Biblical reading “Ki Tisa”, in the Book of Exodus: “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for himself to the Lord when you number them…half a shekel…the rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less…and you shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting; that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord, so as to make atonement for yourselves”.
At the time of the temple’s construction, every Jew was commanded to make an obligatory donation of a half shekel to the edifice. This modest sum allowed all Jews, of all economic levels, to participate in the building the Temple. After the construction was completed, they continued to collect the tax from every Jew for the purpose of purchasing the public sacrifices and renewing the furnishings of the Temple. The collection occurred every year on the first day of the month of Adar when the “heralding of the shekalim” took place, that is to say the beginning of the collection of the money and it ended on the first day of the month of Nissan, when ‘there is a new budget’ in the Temple and the purchase of public sacrifices was renewed.
It was most likely a shekel of Tyre that Jesus and Peter used to pay the Temple head tax (a half shekel each): "Go thou to the sea, and cast an hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money. That take, and give unto them for me and thee" (Matthew 17:27). Moreover, Tyrian silver coins probably comprised the infamous payment to Judas Iscariot, when "they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver" (Matthew 26:15).
The annual half shekel head-tax was donated in shekels and half shekels from the Tyre mint where they were struck from the year 125 BCE until the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 66 CE. At the time of the uprising, the tax was paid using Jerusalem shekalim, which were specifically struck for this purpose. In the rabbinic sources, the Tosefta (Ketubot 13:20) states “Silver mentioned in the Pentateuch is always Tyrian silver: What is Tyrian silver? It is Jerusalemite.” Many have interpreted this to mean that only Tyrian shekalim could be used to pay the half shekel head-tax at the Jerusalem temple.
The shekel that was found in the excavation weighs 13 grams, bears the head of Melqart, the chief deity of the city of Tyre on the obverse (equivalent to the Semitic god Baal) and an eagle upon a ship’s prow on the reverse. The coin was struck in the year 22 CE.
Despite the importance of the half-shekel head-tax for the economy of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period, only seven other Tyrian shekalim and half shekalim were heretofore found in the excavations in Jerusalem.