Less than three months after the outbreak of the Civil War, Congress began trying to figure out how to pay for it. Abraham Lincoln eventually signed into law the Revenue Act of 1862, which included the first income tax on citizens of the United States. This, of course, wasn’t well received: Americans back then, much like Americans today, were not thrilled with the idea of having their income taxed. In fact, there may be nothing more American than hating taxes: The very founding of our nation, if I am to believe my sixth-grade social studies teacher, was a rebuke against Britain’s unjust tax policies on the colonies, leading Benjamin Franklin to quip, just two years after our nation’s Constitutional Convention, that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes.” Few elements of government are in more desperate need for a PR strategy, which is why the Talmud’s Tractate Shekalim is so refreshing. It is—hear me out here—a love song to taxes and why they matter.
The premise of the tractate is simple: At the beginning of the Hebrew month of Adar, a reminder was sent to all Jews—both in Israel and the diaspora—to contribute a half shekel to the Temple in Jerusalem. What were these funds used for? Pork barrel spending? The rabbi’s discretionary fund? All of the money collected from the half shekel contributions went to purchase communal sacrifices, known as korban tzibur. The Shekalim tax, if you will, functioned as a poll tax, a fixed sum for every Jewish male over the age of 20. Even those impoverished were expected to contribute and even the wealthiest were not allowed to give more. Gentiles, normally permitted to bring sacrifices to the Temple, were not allowed to contribute to the Shekel fund. Women and children, while not obligated, were allowed to contribute.
The Talmud being the Talmud, this obligation, naturally, led to conundrum: Should kohanim be obligated to contribute as well? You see, normally if a kohen contributes to an offering, that offering must be completely burned (see Leviticus 6:16). So, the kohen lobby—and the Mishnah seems clear that there was some sort of kohen lobby—reasoned that they should be exempt from contributing the half shekel since their participation would in effect prevent any communal sacrifices from being eaten and instead require them to be completely burned. And there are certainly many communal sacrifices that are meant to be eaten rather than burned. The great Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai still objected, calling any kohen who did not contribute a half shekel a sinner. But the kohanim seemed to have raised a fair point—wouldn’t their participation in the half shekel prevent certain communal offerings from being eaten? This kohanic concern, couched in Scripture no less, while self-serving, goes unanswered by Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai. So, why in fact, were kohanim obligated to contribute the half shekel?
The question may seem like a needlessly intricate one, but it gets at something profound: There is a difference between a partnership and a nation. A kohen’s contribution of a half shekel will not prevent anyone from eating communal sacrifices because that is a law only regarding sacrifices brought in partnership with a kohen. But the half shekel contributions do not form a partnership, they form a tzibur, a community. There is an important difference between a partnership and a community—each individual has their stake in a partnership, but a community transcends the disparate pieces that constitute its whole.
In 1976, before a conference of Jewish communal service professional, Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik addressed this very question. What, he mused, was the nature of the Jewish community? Is it a framework through which people cede their individual rights in order to secure collective rights, much like a labor union? Or is the Jewish notion of community a preexisting framework into which we are born with rights and obligations already in place? Rabbi Soloveitchik was emphatic: The answer, he wrote, was neither:
The community in Judaism is not a functional-utilitarian but an ontological one. The community is not just an assembly of people who work together for their mutual benefit, but a whole metaphysical entity, an individuality; I might say, a living whole. In particular, Judaism has stressed the wholeness and the unity of Knesset Israel, the Jewish community. The latter is not a conglomerate. It is an autonomous entity, endowed with a life of its own. We, for instance, lay claim to Eretz Israel. God granted the land to us as a gift. To whom did He pledge the land? Neither to an individual, nor to a partnership consisting of million of people. He gave it to the Knesset Israel, to the community as an independent unity, as a distinct juridic metaphysical person. He did not promise the land to me, to you, to them; nor did He promise the land to all of us together. Abraham did not receive the land as an individual, but as the father of a future nation. The owner of the Promised Land is the Knesset Israel, which is a community persona. However strange such a concept may appear to the empirical sociologist, it is not at all a strange experience for the Halachist and the mystic, to whom Knesset Israel is a living, loving, and suffering mother.
This was the mistake of the kohanim and the message of the half shekel. The half shekel contribution did not form a partnership through which we purchased communal sacrifices. The half shekel was a symbol of our individual belonging to Knesset Israel, the transcendent Jewish community, through which we, Knesset Israel, purchased communal sacrifices.
The United States of America has much to learn from Tractate Shekalim. A friend of mine recently asked, “Tell me about the thing the United States, as a collective whole or as a government initiative, did really well?” After learning Tractate Shekalim, I’ve been wondering when, if ever, did we do anything together? Has our nation ever had an initiative, program, or project, that asked for a fixed amount from every individual—time or money—to build something collectively? Perhaps voting comes the closest. But imagine there was a national monument or initiative funded from every citizen’s 50-cent donation. Like a couple who proudly displays a completed 500-piece puzzle on their wall, Shekalim was a reminder that every Jew is part of a transcendent nation perpetuating the transcendent project of a relationship with God in this world.
Not everyone shared in this rabbinic vision of Jewish community. Sadducees allowed individuals to contribute directly to the costs of communal sacrifices. They allowed a world with top-tier donors, buildings erected with a family name proudly displayed on the exterior. Tractate Shekalim insists on a different vision—one half dollar, no more, no less, from each adult Jew from every single tribe. Shekalim, in this reading is not simply a tax—it is a privilege. As scholar Sebastian Selvén notes, “not only do the rabbis include all Jews, they also take pains to include all Jews as one singular entity.”
And perhaps that is why the standard donation was always a half shekel rather than a whole shekel. As the Rebbe of Kotzk famously said, “There is nothing more whole than a broken heart.” And so it is with our half shekel. To remind ourselves of the whole to which we belong, we each contribute a half. There is a subtle irony that American income taxes first emerged during the Civil War. The Jewish taxation system also addressed the dangers of a civil war—though not its financial costs but its metaphysical ones. Yet however frayed the Jewish nation becomes, however disparate our individual members may be, however irreconcilable those parts become toward that greater whole, Tractate Shekalim is the adhesive that reminds each of us that alone we only hold half the story. Only together can our broken halves form a lasting whole.
Dovid Bashevkin is the Director of Education at NCSY and author of Sin·a·gogue: Sin and Failure in Jewish Thought. He is the founder of 18Forty, a media site exploring big Jewish questions. His Twitter feed is @DBashIdeas.