Haftarah Parshat Mishpatim – Shabbat Shekalim (2 Kings 12:1-17)
February 14, 2015 / 25 Shevat 5775
Shabbat Shekalim is the first of four special Shabbatot which precede Pesah. In the Maftir Torah reading, we read a reminder of the half-shekel tax incumbent on every Jew as a means of support for the Temple, the sacred center of Jewish worship. In the haftarah, we read of an episode involving this tax during the rule of King Jehoash. Jehoash is described as a good king, but with a single flaw: “All his days Jehoash did what was pleasing to the Lord, as the priest Jehoiada instructed him. The shrines, however, were not removed; the people continued to sacrifice and offer at the shrines (bamot).” (12:3-4)
After King Solomon’s construction of the Temple in Jerusalem, the book of Kings consistently railed against the kings of House of David for their failure to curtail the construction of private shrines. What was the source of this antagonism towards “bamot”? A “bamah” was a sacrificial altar, synonymous with a “mini” temple. While in the Torah, the word “bamah” indicated an idolatrous shrine, there is no indication that this is the criticism in our case. Instead, these “bamot” seem to have been dedicated to God and to have served as local houses of worship and assembly.
The initial fear of the “bamah”, as recorded in the Torah, was that they would degenerate into idolatrous practices (s’irim – Lev. 17:7), but later, after crossing the Jordan River, the people were enjoined to making local offerings when they wanted to eat non-sacrificial meat, as well certain as other sacrifices. When, however, central sacrificial centers, like Shiloh and Jerusalem, were established, local “bamot” were considered an act of betrayal and even “sacrificial theft – “ma’al”. Over time, these two major concerns remained, since, at times, even kings of the Davidic house fell to idolatrous worship.
Barring the issue of disloyalty inherent in both of these critiques, it seems to me that there is actually another issue integral to this conflict, namely, the debate over local versus central authority and who will control the “message”. The tension in this debate is not lost in our day. Who will control what it means to be a Jew? Should this be a local issue or should it be determined by a central authority? The normative message of the author of the book of Kings is that these questions are better answered centrally, but the pull of local forces was too strong for even the king to control. For Jews, this dialectic, on so many levels, is part and parcel of the struggle over what Jewish identity means today.