Every year a half-shekel gift was collected from the Jewish people during the Hebrew month of Adar to pay for the communal offerings in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, as mandated by the Torah in Exodus Chapter 30:11-16. And even though we longer have a Temple, this chapter – known as Parshas Shekalim – is read publicly in synagogues on the Shabbos before Rosh Chodesh Adar, the beginning of the month of Adar, in commemoration of the Torah’s commandment to participate in the offerings. [This year we read Parshas Shekalim on Saturday March 5th.]
Once we’re reading about shekels, I thought it would be appropriate to write something about money, or more specifically, the many names of money.
You see, money has many different Hebrew names. It is called kesef in many places in the Torah (see, for example, Genesis 17:12 and 23:13). A commonly used name for a money coin is shekel (shekalim, in plural), as we find in Exodus 30:13 and elsewhere. In the Talmud money is alternately referred to as mamon or damim, and a common coin is called a zuz.
In Judaism we believe that nothing is arbitrary or random. Money was given these different names because each of these names contains within it a powerful lesson that we need to learn about the nature or function of money, as we shall illustrate presently:
~ Kesef: The Mahara”l of Prague (1512 -1609) writes that money, unlike other acquired things such as wisdom and good character traits, never truly becomes part of a person. After all, it's sitting in a bank vault or in real estate or in the stock market or wherever. Sure, he might be accumulating the "green stuff" - lots of it - but that's not going to make it become his, a part of him, like the wisdom and insight that he has acquired in life.
It is for this reason that money never truly gratifies the person who accumulates it. As the wise (and, I might add, fabulously wealthy) King Solomon wrote, "Oheiv kesef lo yisba kesef … One who loves money will never be satisfied from it” (Ecclesiastes 5:9).
Even the Hebrew word for money, kesef, expresses this idea. Kesef is etymologically related to the word nichsaf, which means "yearning". A person who has lots of kesef will always be yearning for more – as he will never be fully satisfied with what he already has.
~ Shekel: Rabbeinu Bachya (1255-1340), in his commentary to Parshas Ki Sisa, offers a fascinating explanation as to why the name shekel was given to the currency that was used in Biblical times (and beyond), and why only machatzis hashekel, a half-shekel, was collected from the Jewish people to help fund the offerings in the Temple. Rabbeinu Bachya writes that the word shekel is etymologically related to the word mishkal, which means “weight”. He explains that the reason why the Torah stipulated a half-shekel for the Temple offerings when it could just as easily have demanded a full shekel, was to hint to every intelligent person that he must “weigh” and balance his actions - and spending - in life so as to give due weight and funds to his spiritual needs (e.g. the Temple offerings) as well as to his physical needs (e.g. his health and welfare). He should therefore give a “half-shekel” towards each, making sure not to neglect either one.
~ Mamon: One of the holiest prayers in the High Holiday service on Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur is the U’nesaneh Tokef prayer, which describes the judgment that’s going on in the Heavenly Court and how our very lives are hanging in the balance. At the end of this climactic prayer, the congregation recites out loud and in unison the following words: “U’teshuvah, u’tefillah, u’tzedakah, ma’avirin es ro’ah ha’gezeirah… But repentance, prayer, and charity remove the evil of the decree.”
In almost all editions of the Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur machzor (High Holiday prayer book), the words teshuvah, tefillah, tzedakah, (repentance, prayer, and charity), are crowned in smaller type with the words tzom, kol, mamon (which mean “fast”, “voice”, and “money”, respectively). These represent the means whereby one can practice the three virtues of repentance, prayer, and charity. For the ordeal of fasting leads to repentance; the voice is the medium of soul-stirring prayer; and the contribution of money to a worthy cause represents an act of tzedakah. [The commentators point out that the gematria (numerical equivalent) of each of the three words tzom, kol, mamon is 136. This indicates that all three of these means to remove the evil decree are interrelated and equally important.]
Taken this way, the name mamon reminds us of the power of money donated to tzedakah to revert evil decrees, Heaven forbid, as it says, “…but charity rescues from death” (Proverbs 10:2).
~ Damim: This Hebrew term for money also means “blood” (lit. “bloods”). Money is called damin – explains Rabbi Chaim of Friedberg (a brother of the Mahara”l of Prague) in his classic work Iggeres HaTiyul – because just as blood sustains a person’s life, so is money essential for life, and one who has no money is like one who is thought of as being dead. In the words of the Midrash in Koheles Rabbah: “Three things injure the body: heartache, stomach trouble, and an empty purse, which is the worst of the three”.
~ Zuz: The word zuz means to “move”. (Have you ever been yelled at on a crowded bus in Israel? Zuz!!). The fact that the Rabbis in the Talmud called a common coin a zuz reveals to us an important life lesson - that money doesn’t stay with a person or family for too long, but “moves” away eventually. As we are taught in the Talmud in Shabbos 151b, wealth is a galgal hachozer ba’olam (lit. “a wheel that rolls around in the world”), i.e. wealth is cyclical. He who is wealthy today may not be tomorrow. And if he remains so throughout his life, it is almost certain that in a few short generations, his descendants will not be so fortunate… so he should act accordingly.
These are just a few of the powerful Torah lessons contained within the various Hebrew names given to money. I hope you enjoyed them!