This Shabbat is called Shabbat Shekalim, which is the first of the four exceptional Shabbats before Pesach. The name comes from the maftir Aliyah reading which calls upon every Israelite male above age 20 to pay a half-shekel tax for the communal offerings made in the tabernacle (and later toward the Temple in Jerusalem). This tax was paid, even in diaspora communities far from Jerusalem, for as long as the Temple stood. After its destruction in the year 70 CE the emperor Vespasian ordered that the tax still be collected, but now it became the fiscus Judaicus (“Jewish tax”) and the revenue was redirected to the Temple of Jupiter in Rome. The Jews could not allow themselves to pay solely this humiliating tax. They were determined to find a way to continue to also pay a tax which supported a Jewish cause in which they might take pride. They found one: The House of the Nasi; the official leader of the Jewish community of the land of Israel.
A great-great-grandson of Hillel the Elder, a man named Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh led the rabbinic community after the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed by the Romans. His title was “Nasi,” (the “Prince”). Rabban Gamaliel’s leadership dynasty of father to son rule ultimately created the highest political and religious Jewish office in the Roman Empire. This dynasty spanned over 400 years, making it the longest reigning in all of Jewish history, besting even the House of King David by a few decades. There is textual and archeological evidence that Jews all over the Roman Empire contributed an annual tax to the House of the Nasi until the death of the last Gamaliel (c. 429 CE), whereupon Emperor Theodosius II took advantage of the lack of an heir, closed the office of the Nasi, and diverted the taxes to the imperial treasury.
This long-ago 400 year tradition is really an anomaly, for despite half-hearted attempts ever since at establishing “Chief Rabbinates,” the Jewish people have generally eschewed centralized governance. Even the powerful Rabban Gamaliel of Yavneh suffered rebellion and dissent from within the ranks. His most relentless opponent, Rabbi Yehoshua, famously declared the law is “lo b’shamyim he” (“not in Heaven”), meaning that since the Torah has been given to the people no one, not even God, may henceforth decide matters autocratically. Therefore the only authentic way to decide issues of religious practice is according to personal conscience and democratic consensus. It is no mean feat to attempt to govern Jewish people singlehandedly, but the half-shekel tax is a remnant of an era when such things still seemed possible.
Rabbi Mitch Levine