In Our Days
‘We Do Not Seize A Surety From Minor Children’
The Mishnah states that children are not compelled to pay the machatzis hashekel tax. The Gemara, according to the Roke’ach’s version (Roke’ach 133, cited by the Vilna Gaon), notes that after a child attains halachic maturity (i.e., he exhibits specific signs of maturity after the age of 13), he is asked to donate the machatzis hashekel but is not coerced to do so until he turns 20. (The Rambam [Hilchos Shekalim 1:7] has a variant text which does not distinguish between 13-year-olds and 20-year-olds. According to the Rambam, one is obligated to give the machatzis hashekel as soon as one attains halachic majority.)
Rivevan in his commentary to the Mishnah (ad loc.) explains that the Temple treasurers would enter homes to seize items of value as surety to guarantee that the yearly half-shekel was paid to the Temple treasury.
One Mitzvah, Two Reasons
Har Ephraim (by Rabbi Ephraim Garboz, published with the commentary of Rabbi Shlomo Sirlio, Jerusalem, 1958) asks why, according to the Roke’ach, a 13-year-old boy is asked to donate the machatzis hashekel if he is not obligated to pay this tax until he turns 20.
In answer, Har Ephraim explains that there are two reasons for the mitzvah of machatzis hashekel: a) the verse states, “This they shall give, all who pass among the counted ones” (Shemos 30:13); and b) everyone must have a share in the sacrifices and therefore all must contribute toward the purchase of the sacrificial animals. By giving the machatzis hashekel one discharges both requirements. (Kehilas Yaakov to Tractate Zevachim derives these two requirements in a somewhat similar manner.)
According to the first reason, a lad under 20 is exempt from the mitzvah because the verse links this mitzvah to the census (i.e., “This they shall give, all who pass among the counted ones”) – and anyone under 20 was not counted, as stated explicitly in that passage (Shemos 30:14; Rashi, Menachos 46b). Nevertheless, 13-year-old boys are asked to contribute the machatzis hashekel because they are required to participate in the purchase of the communal sacrifices (the second reason).
In The Torah’s Own Words
Vayikra 23:11 uses the word “li’retzonchem.” Rashi and Targum Onkelos understand this word to mean “to find favor for you.” Toras Kohanim, however, explains “li’retzonchem” to mean “of your own volition,” indicating that beit din does not compel the Jewish people to offer communal sacrifices. Consequently, explains Har Ephraim, a lad under 20 is not coerced to contribute the machatzis hashekel even though there is a mitzvah for him to do so.
Half A Dollar… Pound… Shekel…
The Rema (Orach Chayim 694:s.k. 1) cites the custom of giving half a coin of the local currency to tzedakah before (or on) Purim in commemoration of the mitzvah of machatzis hashekel. He notes that anyone under 20 is exempt from this obligation because, as our Gemara says, those under age 20 are not required to give the machatzis hashekel.
Diaspora Support For Eretz Yisrael
The Kaf HaChayim (Orach Chayim 694:22) states that in some places the custom is to send the collected machatzis hashekel funds to charities in Eretz Yisrael. This is in commemoration of the times when the beit hamikdash was standing and people living outside the boundaries of the Land of Israel would send their shekalim to the beit hamikdash for the purchase of sacrifices and other Temple needs.