The word Shekel literally means something that is weighed and its use pre-dates the Torah. Early coins were simply weights and measures and used initially in barter. But as we know from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice the word shekel became one of abuse. As if only Jews used coins and money. The first bankers were the Assyrians and Babylonians over four thousand years ago. Then came the Greeks who were the main rivals of Jewish merchants around the Mediterranean two thousand years ago and their fierce rivalry often led to violence. The Italians dominated Medieval European finance until the Germans, the French and the Spaniards overtook them. The Dutch and the British dominated the financial world in the West until the Americans became the richest power. “Wall Street” became the code for “Rich Bankers.” Soon no doubt it will be the Chinese.
The Shekel however symbolized something very different to us Jews. It symbolized charity and community. The Torah commanded each Israelite to donate half a Shekel each year to ensure that the Tabernacle and later the Temple, were financed and supported by the whole people. Throughout the periods of the Temples all Jews wherever they lived accepted this obligation, a tax in effect, to support the central sanctuary of the people. The shekel therefore became the symbol the test of identification with the nation. After the destruction it turned into an annual donation to sustaining the Jews who continuously returned to live in the Land of Israel often under terribly harsh and debilitating circumstances.
The Mishna tells us that at the start of the month of Adar they used to announce the obligation to donate and started collecting. So the Shabbat when we announce the month of Adar, is also called Shabbat Shekalim. Nowadays it has become the time to remember our obligations to help the poor prepare for Pesach and to ensure that our communal coffers were replenished. The Shekel doesn’t just mean Israeli currency. It stands for charity and community.