The Ideal Way to Perform Machatzis HaShekel – Use the 1964 Half Dollar

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By Rabbi Yair Hoffman for the Five Towns Jewish Times

Well, actually, it is not really Machtzis HaShekel, it should rather be referred to as, “Zecher Machtzis HaShekel.” The reason is that there is a concern that if someone says that it is real Machtzis HaShekel it could be considered as a donation to the Bais HaMikdash which would be problematic, as it would sanctify the funds and forbid its use. Indeed, the responsa of the Geonim (#40) states that when the coins are given one should say the words, “Zecher l’Machtzis haShekel.”

THE CUSTOM

The Ramah (OC 694:11) mentions the custom of Zecher L’Machtzis HaShekel. The custom is on the day before Purim to give three coins to Tzedakah in order to commemorate the giving of the half shekel that was given during the times of the Bais HaMikdash in the month of Adar. The half shekel was donated to the treasury of the Bais HaMikdash once each year. The original half shekel weighed 9.6 grams (some say 8.5 grams). At the current rate as of February 16, 2021, the price of silver is $.87 per gram. The value thus would have been $8.35 per person.

In the times of the Bais HaMikdash, only one coin was given. Now we give three coins. We do so because the word “Trumah” appears three times in the Torah section where the original obligation is discussed (Shmos 30:11-16).

THE DENOMINATION OF THE COUNTRY

The minhag is to give 3 half coins of the denomination of that country. Here in America we would give three half dollars. In England it would be three half pound coins, and in Europe it would be three fifty cent Euro coins. Ideally, one should try to avoid giving a whole coin and a fifty cent coin. In other words, ideally, no Susan B. and Kennedy half dollar together.

It should be noted that the custom of the Vilna Gaon, as cited in the Maaseh Rav (233), was to only give one half coin and not three.

IDEAL METHOD

The Kaf HaChaim (694:2) writes that the ideal method is to use a coin with the word, “half” on it. The American half-dollar has this. The half Euro in Europe does not nor does the 50 shilling coin in England.

The Minchas Elazar (Vol. I #30), however, disagrees with this position and states that there is no requirement of the word “half” to be printed on it.

The Piskei Teshuvah (page 574) writes, citing the Sefer Midos v’Shiurei Torah (35:1), that ideally we should have the same amount of silver as the original coins that were used in the times of the Beis HaMikdash. To fulfill this, let’s get a bit of a background.

The original Kennedy Half Dollar was created as a memorial to the President John F. Kennedy who was assassinated by Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas. It is still being minted to this day with some differences.

The original 1964 version was minted in 90% silver. The next version minted between 1965-1969 were only 40% silver. The 1970 set can only be found in silver proof sets that were never released into actual circulation. The coins from 1971 and up are not silver at all.

The current silver melt value for the 1964 coin (90% Silver) is $10.22 and fits the ideal criterion it is 11.75 grams well above our 9.6 gram criterion. The current silver melt value for the 1965-1970 coins (40% Silver) is $4.34 or 5 grams – not quite enough.

The second best way would be to use the 1965-1970 coins and make up the difference with other money to bring one up to the correct amount. These coins, at least, are silver.
The third best way would be to use the 1971 coins and make up the difference.

Of course, don’t go crazy over this, but, in this author’s opinion, if someone wants to really do it in the absolute best best way, go with the 1964 half dollars. Rav Shmuel Fuerst, however, remarked to this author that since this is a minhag b’alma, there is no inyan to try to obtain any silver portion.

An older Posek remarked to the author that in 1976, there was also a 40 percent version created. When I pressed him he responded that he uses a silver coin himself but does not tell others to do so because of Hefsed Merubah – a large loss. He explained that he is from the older generation that viewed even fifteen dollars as a Hefsed Merubah.

If one uses the silver coins, a note should be left in the shul that the shul is happy to have people use the coins even though their value by far exceeds the $1.50 face value.

WHY THEY DO IT IN THE BEST WAY

The reason many people try to perform this Mitzvah in the best way possible is because in regard to the original Shkalim the words, “lechaper al nafshosaihem – to atone for their souls” are used in the Pasuk.

Indeed, The Kaf HaChaim (694:27) uses this thought to explain why it is now the custom to do it for women and girls as well.

SCOTCH TAPING THE THREE

The prevalent custom is to scotch tape together 3 half dollar coins and leave them in the Pushkah so that each person can purchase those coins and fulfill the minhag.

If the shul does not have such a scotch taped three-pack, then a possible workaround is that he should give three whole coins and have in mind that half of each should be for commemorating Machtzis haShekel and the extra half of each should be regular Tzedakah.

Like Matanos L’Evyonim, Maaser funds should not be used to fulfill this Minhag.

WHO DOES IT

Some Poskim are of the opinion that the Minhag is only for men from age 20 and upward. Others hold that anyone above bar mitzvah are obligated. Many have the custom for the father to give on behalf of all his sons below twenty (See MB 694:5) . If one’s wife is expecting, one gives as well – in case it is a boy (MB). Once one has started giving on behalf of a son below the age of twenty or on behalf of a child – then the custom should be maintained until the grown son begins giving the zecher Machtzis Hashekel on his own. Hataras Nedarim is only effective if the father had erroneously thought that it was an obligation. Otherwise, hataras Nedarim does not work.

WHO TO GIVE IT TO

Ideally, the money should be given to the poor (Shaar HaTziyun 9). It should not be used for the shul or Yeshiva upkeep. If a poor person is unavailable, then one should hold onto the funds until it can be given to one. The Minchas Elazar writes, however, that it can be given to the shul, disagreeing with the Mishna Brurah’s conclusion.

WHEN

Ideally it should be given after Mincha on Taanis Esther (Luach of Rav Tokachinsky). Some have the custom to give it before Mincha. When Purim falls on Sunday, the coins are given on the previous Thursday (Kaf HaChaim 25). If he forgot to give the Zecher l’Machtzis HaShekel he should do so on Purim morning before the reading of the Megillah. If he forgot again he may give it the entire month of Adar since that was the original time to give it.

The Mogain Avrohom writes that Machtzis HaShekel should be given on the morning of Purim in order to connect the Mitzvah to the reading of the Megillah. Anshei Maaseh fulfill the custom at both times.

The author can be reached at [email protected]

8 COMMENTS

  1. So if you are using silver half dollars (minted prior to 1965), at the current price of silver, the melt value is over $30. You need to check online for the current price, since has recently doubled its price. Rounding it up to $36 should be safe.

    Note that in most countries, the “half …” coin no longer includes silver or any other precious metal. If the halacha is expressed in terms of silver content, wouldn’t that be more explicit (saying the mitzvah is to give the value of the silver of the ancient half-shekels).

  2. One comment – the half-pound coin in the UK is now fifty PENCE, not fifty SHILLINGS – the UK shilling (of which there were twenty to a pound) was abolished fifty years ago, on 15 February 1971, when the UK cut over to a decimal system.

    an Israeli Yid

  3. The shul has three silver half dollars bound together in one wbich, after donating the amount for the number of people, are lifted that many times.

  4. Fifty-shilling coin?! There has never been such a thing! Back when shillings existed, fifty of them would not be half a pound, they’d be two pounds ten. Back then people gave machtzis hashekel with a half-crown coin, which did indeed have the name “half a crown”, and was worth two and a half shillings. Half a crown was a tip you might give if you were feeling generous, or something a child might hope to get from his grandfather or uncle. Half a pound, ten shillings, was out of the question.

    Tzedokah was traditionally given in guineas, which were worth twenty-one shillings. I heard of a gabbai who used to say for each misheberach “baavur shenodar asoroh guineas”, and when the oleh would protest that he couldn’t possibly afford such a large sum he’d say “Ir hut nisht gezugt, ich hub gezugt; ir git vos ir vilt.” Real estate was also priced in guineas, and a very long time ago a doctor’s traditional fee was one guinea.

  5. Clarification: Pre-1964 half dollars are also fine since they also have the 90% silver content and weight the 1964 Kennedy halves do. Franklin halves are pretty common. (Just make sure that you’re not accidentally using a rare, old, valuable coin that’s worth more than its silver content.)

    “If one uses the silver coins, a note should be left in the shul that the shul is happy to have people use the coins even though their value by far exceeds the $1.50 face value.”
    I’m assuming that the person is koneh the three halves in exchange for his $1.50, then donates them back to the shul. If so, this is using an “honor system” that he won’t simply walk off with the three coins that are worth more than $30.00 that he got for the bargain price of $1.50. Is this correct, or can the shul prevent this by only selling the halves on the condition that they be donated back to the shul (or some other halachic condition)? And yes, it would take a real nerve to try this, but the question is only about the halacha.

  6. Have I missed something? The idea way THIS year is to avoid every person touching the same coins and potentially passing on Corona. Rav Schachter Shlita addressed this last year in his Psokim.

  7. No discussion of the fulfillment of this mitzva in the United States is complete without mentioning the half dime.

    One of the oldest continuously, Torah-true shuls still active today is the Shearith Israel Congregation in Baltimore. Before my membership application was accepted in 1970, I, a student at Ner Israel, had to prove that I was a Shomer Shabbos. This is because Shearith Israel’s constitution asserts that only Shomrei Shabbos can be members with voting rights. Non-Shomer Shabbos persons are permitted to join as non-voting seat holders. In fact, one of Rabbi Shimon Schwab’s first official acts as Rov was to write to one of the wealthiest traditional Jews in Baltimore to explain that his membership application could not be approved because he was not a Shomer Shabbos.

    One of the machzis hashekel options provided by Shearith Israel in 1970 was three half dimes, held in a small jewelry bag.

    The half dime was a silver coin minted in the United States from 1794-1873. This coin satisfied the din because it was a so-called “half coin.” Today’s nickel coin does not satisfy the din because the words on the coin read, “five cents,” (i.e., five hundredths of a dollar) not half dime.

    Besides the half dollar and half dime coins, the United States has minted a half cent (copper) and a half eagle ($5 gold coin).

    Happy Purim,
    Baruch Mordechai Miller

  8. since it is a minhag of “ZACHER” of the giving of the half shekel to the beis haMikdash, so it is just a remembrance. so on a minhag of remembrance, why be so machmer?