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The Coin Flip (Purim)

Ever wonder: Is the “half shekel,” which we donate on the fast-day of Esther, related to the “half kingdom” which Achashverosh offered to give Esther following her fast? It sure is! To learn more, please click here for a source sheet exploring the fascinating connection between them; below is a short d’var Torah based on some of these sources.

Throughout the Purim megillah, Achashverosh repeatedly promises to grant Esther up to “half” of his kingdom. Ever wonder: why “half,” specifically? Well, there is one other place in Tanach where the ratio of one “half” carries extra special significance: in the law of the “half-shekel,” which b’nei Yisrael are commanded to collect before the construction of the mishkan. Could there be a connection here?

There most certainly is. 

Image result for coin flipAfter all, Jewish law bids us to read the portion of the “half-shekel” each year before Purim. We even have the custom to donate the value of a half-shekel during the fast observed right before Purim–namely, ta’anis Esther. And the reason is quite remarkable: according to the gemara in maseches megillah, it was actually in the merit of their half-shekel donations that b’nei Yisrael were spared from Haman’s plot on Purim. In the gemara’s words: “It was publicly known before [Hashem] that, in the future, Haman would weigh out shekels over Israel [to pay those who would execute them]; so Hashem caused them to pre-empt these shekels with their own.”

A fascinating medrash! But what’s it’s deeper meaning? 

In a nutshell, perhaps it is this:

The Purim megillah opens with Achashverosh hosting a banquet at which he proudly displays the conquered vessels of the beis ha-mikdash. The Jews of Shushan freely participated in this banquet, and it is for this reason, Chazal tell us, that they were targeted by Haman at the time of Purim. After all, nothing threatens the integrity of a nation more than when its own members fail to preserve their collective identity.

Yet the Jews of Shushan had not forsaken the beis ha-mikdash. They may have attended Achashverosh’s feast–a grave mistake, to be sure. But do you know what else they did? They continued the tradition of collecting the half-shekel: a collection which was instituted to fund communal worship in the beis ha-mikdash. By doing so, they demonstrated where their true commitments lay. Publicly, perhaps, it was difficult to proclaim confidently that the beis ha-mikdash would eventually be rebuilt; privately, though, they maintained whichever of its rituals they could, in the hopes that, one day, they’d be able to once again serve Hashem from within its walls. And it was in this merit, the Gemara claims, that they ultimately made it through to better days.

Thus, the half-shekel stands as an enduring symbol of faith and hope. Even when faced with great tribulation, one must do whatever one can to build towards a more promising future. This does not require heroic efforts. Indeed, all it takes is a half a shekel. A half-shekel today; a half-shekel tomorrow; and, before one knows it, redemption will have arrived.

A freilechen Purim!


4 Comments

  1. Funnily enough I heard another shiur this year, for the first time, on the connection between the half-shekel and the half-kingdom, from Naama Menussi. She took it in a direction of “halfness” in relationship: namely, we are half and Gd is our other half.
    Achashverosh was in a moment of relationship and love – he was offering his half to Esther’s other half. Also, the ark is the only one of the Temple items to have measurements that end in halves – and upon the ark are the kruvim, the ultimate symbol of relationship.

    I took a look at your sourcesheet and those similarities are interesting – ranging from amazing through bizarre (Gera?? Haha, that’s close to Purim Torah, if you don’t mind my saying so… though I am the first one to go for a good wordplay.)

    But anyway your point connecting the Purim story with the Beit Hamikdash and faith is well taken. You just have to explain why it is specifically Achashverosh who is offering the half… that part is odd.

    • Alex says:

      Thanks for sharing! These are interesting points.
      I think the simplest explanation for the shekel/kingdom connection is that implied by the Mishnah/Gemara, i.e. it’s emphasizing the way Hashem rewarded b’nei Yisrael for contributing the half-shekel, middah k’negged middah (literally – we dealing with “measurements!”) To your question, then: Achashverosh is the most fitting one to offer the half kingdom simply because he was the the one who had once orchestrated mass celebration of the BHMK’s destruction, whose service is funded in large part through the half-shekel. There’s no better agent through whom Hashem might have sent the message.
      To the question of “Why half?” — the “halfness in relationship” idea as a theme connecting these texts is certainly attractive. On the other hand, of course, it’s possible that the question of “why half” only applies to “half” the story. That is: Hashem commands b’nei Yisrael to contribute half a shekel, which is obviously a deliberate measure, and presumably there’s some meaning to unpack *there.* But not necessarily does that meaning carry over to Achashverosh’s gesture; the meaning of the “half” kingdom may be contained simply in its connection to the half-shekel. I would prefer to “say better,” of course; not convinced, though, that the megillah points in the direction of a real loving relationship between Achashverosh and Esther. (As for the “half” measurements by the Aron — I wonder whether the “amah and a half” is meant to evoke the “outstretched amah” of Pharaoh’s daughter. Fits into larger connections between Moshe’s ark [i.e. the one he was placed in as a baby] and the Ark of the Covenant. More on this in the comments to the Terumah article from two weeks ago).
      Re: “gerah” – fair enough 🙂 I had put the point in brackets for that reason. (At the same time, it is worth noting that the term גרא/גרה is extremely rare in Tanach. It appears only by shekalim and Shimei ben Gera… and in one other context: ma’aleh gerah is one of the distinguishing signs of a kosher behemeah–another of which, by the way, is being half-hooved. Hmm… [Talk about Purim Torah!]).
      A freilechen Purim!
      Alex

  2. Eliza says:

    🙂 I liked this. Thank you!

  3. Ephrayim Naiman says:

    “a *grave* mistake” – nice! 🙂

    OK – so they’re both “half” – but what’s the connection? Why should Achashveirosh offer half the kingdom?

    Maybe according to the Midrash that Achashveirosh only offered “up to half the kingdom” – because half the kingdom was up to the location of Yerushalayim – so the Half-Shekel counteracted Achashveirosh’s plan to *not* give Yerushalayim.

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