With the power of creation ex nihilo from G‑d, the ancient half-shekels became fiery medals, imbued with the enthusiasm of the Jewish people. Our observance of tzedakah and mitzvos today can have the same fire and fervor and make a dwelling place for the Shechinah.

“A Coin of Fire” is adapted and translated from an address given by the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shlita, on Shabbos ShekalimParshas Mishpatim, 5745. On Shabbos Shekalim the Torah portion read for the Maftir is Shmos 30:11-16, which deals with the half-shekels donated for the Mishkan. This section is called Parshas Shekalim.

G‑d shows Moshe a coin of fire

In Parshas Shekalim, G‑d commands Moshe about the mitzvah of the half-shekel. In describing this mitzvah, the Torah says: “This shall they give...” (Shmos 30:13). The Midrash discusses the dialogue between G‑d and Moshe and tells us that Moshe wondered what one could possibly give as a ransom for his soul. To answer Moshe, the Midrash states:

The Holy One, Blessed be He, took what resembled a coin of fire from beneath the Throne of Glory and showed Moshe, and said to him, “This shall they give,” namely, they shall give a coin that resembles this one. (Midrash Rabbah, Bamidbar 12:3)

The Tosafos commentary on tractate Chullin, 42a, paraphrases the query of Moshe: “Moshe pondered on this matter, ‘What can a person possibly give that would be a ransom for his soul [life]?”‘

Why was Moshe perplexed?

When the average person hears of Moshe’s quandary he is perplexed. Why was it so strange to Moshe that one can achieve salvation for his soul with the half-shekel? After all, even the local town preacher, a person of no exceptional intellectual capacities, and certainly no comparison to Moshe, often explains in very simple terms, that when a Jew does a mitzvah he deserves, and receives, a great reward. The Torah clearly states: “If you follow My laws [statutes] ... I will provide you with rain at the right time ...” (Vayikra 43:3), which includes also all the additional blessings listed in that chapter. Certainly Moshe who had reached the apex of human intellect could understand that the reward for the mitzvah of half-shekel could be “ransom for his soul”!

This question is based on very solid reasoning and it is justifiably disturbing in the eyes of the simple Jew. Perhaps if someone of a loftier mind might think that we should perform mitzvos altruistically — not for the sake of reward — good for him; but the basic and fundamental understanding of Torah is that when a person observes a mitzvah, there is a reward due to him from G‑d. So why the mystery? The reward for the half-shekel is soul-ransom.

Additionally, when we are speaking of the mitzvah of tzedakah, of which the Midrash says: “You have given life to the pauper”; G‑d always pays measure for measure, should He not now give you your life as reward!

Moshe’s pondering stands in serious question.

Now what about the “coin of fire”? On the one hand if all spiritual apparitions are in the form of fire, as we find in many cases, then why emphasize “of fire.” If on the other hand Moshe could have been shown a coin of silver, as he was shown actual models of the Mishkan, then why was the coin shown to Moshe, of fire?

Enthusiasm brings ransom

The two questions on the coin of fire may be answered in tandem.

G‑d showed Moshe the coin of fire and said to him, when a Jew does a mitzvah with a physical coin and adds the element of fire, i.e. his enthusiasm, warmth and energy, this forms a spiritual “fire” and then this can be a ransom, even for his soul.

This explanation however compounds our incomprehension of Moshe’s original query. Every expositor of Torah knows this “derush” (homiletical exegesis), that when one adds warmth and enthusiasm into his observance of any mitzvah, he connects a spiritual “fire” to the mitzvah. Moshe surely knew this; why his quandary, and why did he ask this question only in regard to the half-shekel? Another difficult point now emerges. If this was G‑d’s answer to Moshe, why was it necessary for G‑d to actually draw a coin of fire from beneath the Throne of Glory, He could have simply indicated to Moshe that He wanted fervor, commitment and warmth.

Clearly, if G‑d was inclined to answer Moshe here by showing him a coin of fire and saying, “This is what they must give,” there must be some special theme and lesson in the half-shekel which does not apply in the case of other mitzvos.

Reward for Mitzvos

In general, reward for mitzvos, and specifically the reward of soul-ransom, may take two forms: A) The central theme of the mitzvah is such that it engenders a reward in kind, quid pro quo. B) There is no apparent connection between the mitzvah and the reward, except that this was the will of G‑d.

These two forms of reward correspond to the different themes of mitzvos. There are those mitzvos which have no apparent rationale, they are statutes and decrees of the will of G‑d, while others are Mishpatim — logical laws.

Applying these rules to the mitzvah of half-shekel, it would seem reasonable to say that the reward for the mitzvah of half-shekel fits into the category of rewards that are given not in relation to the act of the mitzvah, but rather as the decree of G‑d, who prescribed an incomparably great reward for a seemingly small mitzvah — a decree of the will of the L‑rd! After all, the half-shekel was only a coin and although it was imbued with warmth, enthusiasm, and fervor, which created a spiritual “soul-fire,” this ancillary effect was not as a direct result of the coin. Thus it is not really relative to the reward of soul-ransom.

In light of this, we might understand Moshe’s ponderings: Was the Divine reward of soul-ransom for the half-shekel in the form of a Divine decree, or gift, completely beyond logical relativism and given only because the Holy One, Blessed be He, so desired and decreed? If this interpretation is correct it leaves us with intellectual chagrin; not being able to fathom the relationship, we must accept it on faith. Or, was the reward quid pro quo for the mitzvah of the half-shekel? This was Moshe’s mystery.

G‑d replied by showing Moshe a coin of fire and declaring, “This is what they must give.” When a Jew gives the half-shekel the coin itself becomes a flaming medal — not just on account of the accompanying fervor — but it actually becomes a coin of fire. Now try to understand by reason the relationship of the mitzvah with its recompense.

This approach bears further discussion and elaboration.

Money vs. soul-ransom

Moshe’s question revolved around the concept that logically there is no relationship between the half-shekel and the soul-ransom, because money is the lowest of materialistic objects and soul ransom is the highest spiritual concept — they are diametrically opposed! How can the one come as a result of the other?

True, that at the time of the giving of the Torah, a connection was made between the physical and spiritual, so that one can influence the other.

[According to the Midrash, “... when G‑d created the world He decreed, ‘The heavens are the heavens of the L‑rd; but the earth He has given to the children of men’! Yet when He was about to give the Torah He rescinded the first decree and said: ‘Those who are below shall ascend to those on high, while those who are on high shall descend to those that are below and I will begin’ as it is said: ‘And the L‑rd came down on Mount Sinai.”‘ (Shmos Rabbah 12:3)]

But it still seems illogical that such antithetical objects — money and soul — the consummate spiritual and ultimate physical — can really be related.

Why are they opposites? Silver and gold represent the basest of all physical, materialistic existence. As we see the abundance of silver and gold brought the golden calf. Greed for money is the basest and lowest of human weaknesses, which is why the Talmud declares: “And all the substance that was at their feet (Devarim 11:6) ... This refers to man’s wealth ...,” as low as his feet!

This symbolic baseness is also expressed in the form and place, where and how, gold and silver exist in nature. Not only are they mineral and inanimate, but they are also mined not on mountains, nor on the plains, but deep in the bowels of the earth — truly the nethermost of all inanimate, mundane, materialistic existence.

Money makes one blind

Furthermore, money has the power of completely blinding a person and confusing him — so much so, that some people risk their lives because of wealth — which is why the Talmud declares that the words, “with all your might” means your “wealth.” There are people who would give up their lives to save their wealth — [as preposterous as this sounds, it is true!].

Now, by force of reason, can you really say that the lowly physical silver, that half-shekel, can actually effect a ransom for the lofty soul? Ransom for the soul is the loftiest of concepts. Even the average person knows that the soul is on the loftiest of all levels, and especially the Jewish soul, which is “... truly a part of G‑d above” (Tanya, chapter 2). This is what troubled Moshe!

Moshe’s mystery was solved when G‑d showed him the coin of fire and said: “This they shall give ... they shall give a coin that resembles this one.” In effect, by showing Moshe the coin of fire, G‑d imparted to us the ability to actually give a coin of fire. Not just symbolically, but actually; similar to the heavenly coin. This means that not only could they attach the “fire” of fervor and warmth to this mitzvah, but that the half-shekel itself would also be of actual fire. Not only in its spiritual source but also in its physical manifestation.

We must stop for a moment to realize and appreciate the unique innovation wrought by G‑d, in the mitzvah of the half-shekel, relative to all other commandments. When “... the Holy One, Blessed be He, took what resembled a coin of fire from beneath the Throne of Glory ... and said to him, ‘This shall they give,”‘ He was creating the potential for a new phenomenon, that two opposites should meld.

Four elements — four worlds

The coin is made of base metal, a mineral that is mined in the depth of the earth and the lowest of the four elements. Conversely, fire is the highest of the elements. The spiritual theme of the four elements corresponds to the four worlds: fire, air, water, earth, to Atzilus (Emanation), Beriah (Creation), Yetzirah (Formation) and Asiyah (Action).

In this system, the coin (element of earth) would correspond to the world of “action” — the lowest, and the element of fire would correspond to the world of “emanation,” the highest. One is the antithesis of the other.

In every aspect fire and coin are opposites and diametrically opposed. Yet G‑d caused a merger, symbiosis, combination and union, so that the half-shekel, given to the Mishkan, became a coin of fire! To carry this point further, such a symbiosis is illogical and against the system and order of the spiritual development of the worlds which follows the axiom that the lower evolves from the higher and does not combine with the higher!

In Torah the exoteric comes from the esoteric

Even in Torah study, when we introduce the esoteric meaning into the simple meaning, or when the simple meaning evolves from the esoteric, the combination of the highest and lowest aspect of Torah interpretation does not create a true fusion, rather, the exoteric meaning remains on a lower level than the esoteric.

This absolute fusion of coin and fire is attained only by the superimposition of the supernal powers of G‑d — not an angel, not even Torah, can accomplish it.

Union of opposites

Because G‑d is omnipotent and “unlimited by any limitations,” He can therefore unite the two opposites of physical and spiritual — to make the silver coin, a coin of fire.

Now in all other mitzvos, the action of the good deed draws down the spiritual life — “fire” — which elevates the physical act, but the mundane physical object remains on a lower level than the spiritual. In the case of the half-shekel — the coin becomes fire.

This bears further elucidation. We have established that it is certainly within G‑d’s power to unify two opposites. Surely, Moshe was also aware of this power and he should have assumed that the reward of soul-ransom would be based on the fused relationship, superimposed by G‑d, on the coin and the soul; which brings us back to the question, why did Moshe wonder, “What can a man give to ransom his soul?”

The following two explanations may be proposed:

Logic of statute

1) Moshe knew that G‑d could combine the physical and spiritual. His question was: From the vantage point of wisdom and intellect — Moshe’s own level — this fusion is problematic. It cannot be referred to as a Mishpat — if so Moshe was intellectually troubled and expressed his reservations.

2) Since the half-shekel is not called a “statute,” [as we see, that the Torah continues by saying: “they will not be stricken by a plague”]. If so, there should be some logical explanation for his quandary. Apparently the mitzvah of half-shekel should somehow fit into the system of Torah development — not as a “statute.” Hence his question to G‑d.

Now we can better understand the details of the explanation given by the Midrash. Let us go back for a moment and take another look at the words of the Midrash:

The Holy One, Blessed be He, took what resembled a coin of fire from beneath the Throne of Glory and showed Moshe and said to him, “This shall they give,” namely they shall give a coin that resembles this one.

The explosive moment of fusion!

When G‑d showed Moshe the coin of fire, that was the explosive moment of fusion! Before, it was only a theory, there could be a coin and it could unite with fire — a good idea. Then when G‑d brought out the coin of fire from beneath the Throne of Glory, that transmitted the power in actuality, and then the half-shekel coins, given by the Jewish people became coins of “fire.” A careful analysis of the words of the Midrash will emphasize several salient points:

1) The term “Holy One, Blessed be He” (Creator) is specifically used! 2) G‑d showed it to Moshe and Moshe had to see it! 3) G‑d said: “This shall be given.”

The explanation just given will help us to understand some of these emphases.

Creation ex nihilo

The Midrash had these ideas in mind. 1) Only G‑d Himself, not an angel, nor Torah could effect the fusion of coin and fire. Being opposites the new compound which emerges is like creation ex nihilo. Therefore, only the Creator Himself could cause it to be. As we find in Tanya, part four, chapter 20:

.. the nature and essence of the blessed Emanator, whose Being is of His essence, and He is not, Heaven forbid, caused by some other cause preceding Himself. He alone, therefore, has it in His power and ability to create something out of an absolute naught and nothingness....

2) Why was it necessary for G‑d to speak to Moshe? Having explained that this fusing of coin and fire is in the realm of creation ex nihilo, it is proper that just as the creation of the world was brought about by the word of G‑d, so too, should this it be done by G‑d’s word.

When G‑d said: “This they must give,” He imbued in the coin, which the Jews gave as a half-shekel, the quality of fire in a manner of creation from nothing just as at the time of the creation of the world.

3) G‑d had to show the coin to Moshe to indicate that the power of bringing the spiritual fire into the physical coin would be so manifest that everyone will see it, and every single Jew would have that power — to give a coin of fire.

The concept of a coin of fire still needs some clarification: Why fire?

You might say, that since the coin must bear with it the supernal characteristics of the Throne of Glory it must be fiery. But is there not also the supernal element of water? The archangel Michael is called the “minister of water,” and Gavriel the “minister of fire” (Midrash Tanchuma). Water also represents the attribute of mercy and kindness, which is above fire, which represents severity. So why the choice of fire?

The answer.

When comparing the four elements: fire, air, water and earth, the difference of fire from the others is that the nature of fire is to rise, and we must hold it down by means of the wick and oil.

This idea is expounded in Tanya, chapter 19:

.. It is necessary to clarify the meaning of the verse, “The candle of G‑d is the soul of man” (Mishlei 20:27).... By way of illustration, like the flame of the candle, whose nature it is always to scintillate upwards, for the flame of the fire intrinsically seeks to be parted from the wick in order to unite with its source above, ... and although it would thereby be extinguished and emit no light at all below, and even above, in its source, its light would be nullified, nevertheless this is what it seeks in its nature.

The nature of fire — to rise

By choosing a coin of fire, G‑d indicated to Moshe that the act of giving the half-shekel will have the nature of fire, to rise higher and higher in the realm of holiness.

The average Jew also senses an inner longing to strive higher and he realizes that this must be expressed by increasing his spiritual activities and rising above the materialistic aspect of his life. This underscores the idea of ransom for the soul.

As, “practice is the essential thing” (Avos 1:17}, there is a profound practical lesson to be learned from this whole exposition.

Although the mitzvah of the half-shekel applied only when the Beis HaMikdash stood and the shekalim were used to purchase the daily sacrifices for the entire year, nevertheless in contemporary times there is still a Jewish custom to give half-shekels. As the Shulchan Aruch says:

It is customary before Purim (before Minchah on the eve of Purim) to give half of the fixed currency denomination (monetary unit, e.g. dollar, shekel, pound) of that place and time. As a token remembrance of the half-shekel, which was given in the month of Adar. Because the word terumah (offering) is mentioned three times in the chapter of Shekalim one should give three half-shekels.

Tzedakah — coins of fire

This teaches us, that when a Jew gives a coin to tzedakah he is not just giving a plain physical coin, but rather a coin of fire, like the one G‑d showed Moshe; it is a spiritual and holy act which strives to rise, and raise him, higher. By extension we also learn, that in all mitzvos, every physical observance and act, tzitzis, tefillin, etc., it is not only a physical act, but by example of the coin of fire, it can be spiritual and holy and can rise even higher.

When there is enthusiasm and warmth in the observance of mitzvos there will be the fire of the Throne of Glory in all his actions.

What about the other half?

Another point comes to mind from the fact that the fiery coin was half a shekel. After giving the half-shekel the other half remains in his possession, but is still related to the half given to tzedakah, so that together they make a “holy shekel.

The Jew does not give away all he has to charity, rather he gives ten percent or twenty percent. Whatever remains within his possession is also uplifted by the one-tenth or one-fifth given away. And the part given and uplifted, together with his remaining part are included in the one whole; his half is also a coin of fire!

So that not only the Sanctuary becomes a dwelling place for G‑dliness but the dwelling place of the Jew and all his ways and deeds become holy, providing a dwelling place for the Shechinah; two halves of the fiery coin, which make a “holy shekel.”

May it be the will of Heaven that all who hear these words will be moved to action to fulfill the true intention of the half-shekel now, and to merit, that in the future they will give the actual half-shekel in the Third Beis HaMikdash, in the Holy City Yerushalayim, in our Holy Land, through the true and complete redemption of our righteous Mashiach.