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Shekalim and the Poll Tax

03/04/2021 04:49:39 PM


This week’s Torah portion begins with the commandment of the half shekel.  Each Israelite is to donate precisely that amount of silver to the construction of the Tabernacle, no more, no less.  The commandment serves two purposes.  The first is to provide the funding for this holy project, the second is to ensure an accurate count of the people.  This mitzvah offers important insights for some of the challenges faced in our society today.

Our country, and our state are currently in the midst of a debate about how to count people fairly in the voting process. Unfortunately, Georgia and many other parts of our country are heirs to a legacy of systemic unfairness in that realm, of finding ways to encourage counting some while blocking others from being represented.   Some of these past efforts share an unfortunate linguistic connection with our portion, since the the Shekalim offering was at one time often translated as a  “the poll tax.” 

Of course, the key difference is that it the goal of local poll taxes in the US was to prevent people from being counted, while the goal of the Shekalim  offering was to ensure that every eligible person was included- if someone did not have the money, another could assist them.  Another person could give a whole shekel, and with the addition of another penny, it would be considered as if both had given the requisite amount.

I understand that, based their respective sources of information, some in our community harbor doubts about the security of our voting system, while others do not see the same reasons for concern. We all understand that a particular measure may have a double effect- it may reduce the chances of an illegitimate vote being cast, but it may also block legitimate voters from participation.  One can make many claims as to which effect is intended when limiting absentee or mail-in voting.  Each of us has probably already come to our own conclusions as to which result is intended.  As such, I will not weigh in on the majority of the proposed changes.

However, one of the proposed changes that I can speak to very directly is the proposal to restrict weekend and particularly Sunday early voting. I would prefer to take people (even politicians) at their word as to the nobility of their intentions.  However, I have yet to hear a reason for preventing people from voting in person on Sunday,  other than preventing certain types of people from voting.  A vote cast in person on Sunday with the same equipment and poll watchers is no more likely to be fraudulent than a vote cast on Monday.  It is no secret that those who benefit most from weekend availability are people who have lower incomes and work in the types of jobs which mean they trouble getting to the polls during the work day, and people who live in areas where polling lines are particularly long and more voting hours are needed- often members of particular ethnic groups. The fact that sabbath-observant Jews are also impacted is, I am sure, an unintended byproduct.

This is a complex time in our society.   There is work to be done to restore our communal faith in government, but that work cannot come at the expense of the rights of our neighbors.  The mitzvah of Shekalim teaches us that every eligible person must be counted.  Denying that right to some means we are all diminished.



Sat, May 25 2024 17 Iyyar 5784