SALT - Wednesday, 15 Adar I - 20 February 2019

  • Rav David Silverberg
            Yesterday, we noted the question raised by the Ramban, commenting to Parashat Ki-Tisa (30:15), regarding the Torah’s command that the annual machatzit ha-shekel tax must be paid in the correct amount, and neither higher nor lower.  The Ramban observed that the Torah here appears to introduce a prohibition against paying more or less than the required half-shekel sum, and yet, this prohibition does not appear in the various lists of the Torah’s 613 commands.  (In truth, the Tashbatz, in his Zohar Ha-raki’a, lists among the 613 Biblical commands these two prohibitions, paying more or less than a half-shekel.  Other Rishonim, however, did not list these prohibitions among the 613 Biblical commands.)
            In tentatively suggesting a possible answer this question, the Ramban cites the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Ketubot (108a) regarding the treasurer’s intention when taking money from the Temple treasury with which to purchase the public sacrifices.  The Gemara comments that when the treasurer took money, he had in mind that the money should include even those who had yet to make their annual machatzit ha-shekel payment.  In order to ensure that the sacrifices would represent the nation in its entirety, without exception, the treasurer specifically intended that the money used to purchase the animals and other materials for the public offerings would include funds that would arrive in the future.  As such, the Ramban writes, the treasurer essentially fixed any and all deviations from the half-shekel payment.  Excess funds paid by the wealthy were not credited to the wealthy, and went instead to cover the insufficient sums paid by the poor.  It thus turned out that even those who paid incorrect amounts were in the end considered to have supplied the correct amounts.
            At first glance, the Ramban’s comments seem very difficult to understand.  Even though the kohanim who ran the treasury were able to fix the problem created by higher or lower machatzit ha-shekel payments, why would this affect the culpability of the violators?  Did they not violate the Torah’s command by paying more or less than the required sum – precisely what the Torah warned against?
            The Ramban’s comments are explained by Rav Yerucham Perlow, in his commentary to Saadia Gaon’s listing of the mitzvot (asei 20).  He writes that the Ramban understood the verse, “The wealthy one shall not add onto, and the impoverished one shall not diminish from, the half-shekel [amount]” as directed not to the wealthy and the poor, but rather to those in charge of the Temple treasury.  The Torah here does not prohibit donating more or less than a half-shekel for one’s annual machatzit ha-shekel obligation.  Rather, the Torah here is explaining how the public rituals in the Beit Ha-mikdash are to be considered equally representative of all the people.  It is telling the treasurer to have in mind when using the collected funds that they include a half-shekel from every individual – with excess funds covering payments which have yet to be made – such that the wealthy and the destitute as equally represented by the Temple sacrifices.  As such, Rav Perlow writes, the Torah does not introduce here a separate command, but rather clarifies how the obligatory public sacrifices become public sacrifices – by being purchased collectively by the entire nation, with each individual considered to have donated an equal share.