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Parshat Vayakel – Shabbat Shekalim

Haftarah Parshat Vayakel – Shabbat Shekalim (2 Kings 12:1-17)
March 5, 2016 / 25 Adar A, 5776

This week we again begin the cycle of four special Shabbatot which lead up to the celebration of Pesah. The first of these Shabbatot is Shabbat Shekalim which was enacted to remind the members of the Jewish community that the Temple was beginning its new fiscal year in the month of Nisan and that it was time to pay the half shekel tax which was used to purchase the communal sacrificial offerings.

The Torah refers to this tax as a “kofer nefesh – a ransom”. (see Exodus 30:12) N. Sarna notes that the purpose of this ransom may have been to provide expiation for the participants in the census since a census was thought to put its participants in some sort of jeopardy. (Sarna, Exodus, p. 196) The special haftarah for this Shabbat also concerns itself with a later collection of these funds. This tax is described there as “kesef nifashot – the monetary equivalent of a person”. (2 Kings 12:5)

These two verses play a fascinating role in a rabbinic discussion over capital liability where one’s property causes a death. The Torah states regarding a goring ox: “If, however, that ox has been in the habit of goring, and its owner, though warned, has failed to guard it, and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be killed and its owner shall be put to death. If ransom is laid upon him, he must pay whatever is laid upon him to redeem his life (pidyon nafsho).” (Exodus 21:29-30) The sages concluded from this verse that the ox’s owner’s punishment was to be by God and not by human courts since the death of the victim was not directly carried out by the owner of the bull. Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael argued, however, over whether this divine penalty could be expiated monetarily. Rabbi Akiva asserted from this verse that it was possible to monetarily redeem someone condemned to death by the divine court while Rabbi Yishmael disputed this claim and held that this money related to the victim and not the accused.

This position, however, left Rabbi Yishmael with an exegetical problem since the verse from the special Torah and haftarah readings talk of monetary expiation for a person’s life. This forced him to set out a different picture of what this might look like. He concluded from this discrepancy that there are no exclusive rules regarding monetary expiation. There are times when monetary expiation applied and others where it did not and times when it is not. Different situations called for different outcomes. Every case has its own story. (See Mechilta d’Rabbi Yishmael Nezikin 10)

We sometimes like “one size fits all” solutions to problems. Rabbi Yishmael’s conclusions offer up an important life lesson and an important Jewish lesson. No one answer fits all situations, not in law, not in halacha, nor in life.

About This Commentary

This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in  Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva.  He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.

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