In-depth laws for the mitzvah of commemorating Machatzit HaShekel.
1. What is the meaning of the Machatzit HaShekel (half-shekel)?
On erev Purim, there is a custom to give three coins to charity, to recall the half-shekel that was donated annually to the Temple treasury in the month of Adar. Each coin should be the denomination of half the standard currency in that country (e.g. half a shekel, half a dollar, half a pound).
2. Why are three coins given?
In the portion of the Torah dealing with the half-shekel (Exodus 30:11-16) the word "terumah" -- donation -- appears three times.
3. Must one give precisely these three half-coins?
Yes. One should not give one whole coin and one half-coin, nor give more than the correct amount and take change. If a person does not have the correct coins he should obtain them from another person or from the charity box.
4. What if one cannot obtain the exact coins anywhere (or if there is no half-coin in the local currency)?
He should give three whole coins and have in mind that half of each coin is to fulfill the mitzvah, and the other halves are a gift to charity. Alternatively, two people could jointly give three whole coins.
5. Must the half coins have a minimum value?
Strictly speaking, there is no minimum requirement and one may even use half coins of low value. However, in this situation it is praiseworthy to give a sum of money equal to the value of the original half-shekel, in addition to the three coins. This is approximately two dollars (9.6 grams of silver). If a person gives several sets of half-coins for family members and the total value reaches this figure, he is not required to give more.
6. May one use coins of another country?
It is questionable whether a person may use coins that are not legal tender in his country, and he should rather use one of the suggestions mentioned above. In extenuating circumstances, one can fulfill this mitzvah by giving any sum of money to charity.
7. Who is obligated to perform this mitzvah?
According to one opinion, only men from age 20 are obligated. According to other opinions, all men above bar mitzvah are obligated. However, the custom is that a father gives on behalf of all his sons, whatever their ages. The custom is also to give if one's wife is pregnant, in case the baby is a boy.
8. Must this custom be maintained every year?
If a father began to give on behalf of a child, he must do so every year. However, when the child becomes bar mitzvah and accepts to perform the mitzvah himself, the father need not give for him any longer. A father is not obligated to give on behalf of the children for whom he never previously gave.
9. May one discontinue the practice by performing the annulment of vows?
Since this is a universal custom, annulment of vows may not be performed. However, if a father began to give on behalf of his children with the mistaken assumption that this is an obligation, he may discontinue the practice without annulment of vows.
10. Should the money be given to a specific cause?
The money should be given to the poor. It should not be used for synagogue upkeep, communal needs, or a similar cause.
11. What if one cannot find a poor person?
The money should be set aside for the poor and kept until it can be given to the correct cause.
12. On which day is the mitzvah performed?
On the fast of Esther. In Jerusalem, some have the custom to perform it on the 14th of Adar.
13. At what time should the mitzvah be performed?
At Mincha. Some perform the mitzvah before Mincha and some perform it afterwards.
14. What if one forgot to perform the mitzvah on the correct day?
He should give the money on Purim morning, before the Megillah is read. If he forgot then also, he may give it until the end of Adar.
15. Should anything be said when giving the money?
Nothing needs to be said, but if one wishes one may say that this is to commemorate the giving of the half-shekel (zecher l’mach'tzit hashekel). One must be careful not to say, "this is the half-shekel," since according to some opinions, this would sanctify the money and prohibit its use.
16. May one use ma'aser (10% tzedakah) money?
No. Ma'aser money may not be used to fulfill an obligation or an accepted custom, but is reserved for voluntary donations to charity.