Perashat Shekalim recalls the annual half-shekel gift given by each Jew to the Temple. We read this portion every year before the month of Adar, as the gift was due at the beginning of the following month of Nissan. Whilst not applicable after the Temple was destroyed (though there is a custom to give a ‘half-shekel’ gift before Purim as a remembrance to the mitzvah), the ‘half-shekel’ continues to inform Jewish gift giving.
From the 17th to 19th centuries Sephardic Jews throughout the diaspora gave an annual gift to ‘the four holy cities of Israel’ through a network of giving coordinated by Jewish officials in Istanbul. These ‘pekidim’ directed Israel-based emissaries to communities in the east and in the west to inspire the charity giving. Not only did the visitors inform local Jews about the state of affairs in Israel, and encourage communities and individuals to give, but they also helped to unite the sephardic world. The rabbinic visitors also attempted to use the occasion of their visits to inspire greater local religious commitment through sermons and writings.
To an extent, this Sephardic giving was inspired by the Biblical ‘half-shekel’ gift. The Torah says that every person gave the half-shekel (Exodus 30:15): ‘The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less, than the half shekel, when they give the offering of the LORD, to make atonement for your souls.’ The half-shekel of ancient times would go toward the sacrifices given upon the altar to atone for the sins of Israel. As the Torah says the giving was ‘to make atonement for your souls.’ One of the most famous rabbinic emissaries was Haim Yosef David Azulai, known by his acronym HIDA. During his travels (he visited London in the 1750s) he worked to remind his hosts of the importance of Jewish life in the Land of Israel. The Hida said that when there are no Temple sacrifices it is the Jews who live in Israel who help atone for the sins of World Jewry. He insisted that their struggles in Israel act as a merit for the entire Jewish people. Therefore, it followed, since we can no longer give the half-shekel to the Temple, Jews should give their ‘half-shekel’ toward supporting Jewish life in the Holy Land.
It is no secret that there are attempts throughout the world today to undermine the State of Israel’s very existence through various boycott measure. However, when those of us in the diaspora support Israel, whether through visits to Israel, by donating, or by purchasing Israeli products, we continue the role of our predecessors. In so doing, not only are we helping Jews in Israel, but like the Hida said, we are also helping ourselves.
Read more about these early modern rabbinic emissaries in Matthias B. Lehman’s fabulous book “Emissaries from the Holy Land: The Sephardic Diaspora and the Practice of Pan-Judaism in the Eighteenth Century“