Yeshua and the Temple Tax

Yeshua and the Temple Tax
James Scott Trimm

This coming week’s Torah Parsha is Ki Tisa, which includes the section of Torah which discusses the Temple Tax.

We read in the Goodnews according to Matthew:

24 And when they had come into K’far Nachum, they that received the drachma came near to Kefa, and said to him, Does your rabbi pay the drachma?
25 And he said, Certainly. And as he came to the house, Yeshua prevented him, saying: How seems it to you, Shim’on? The kings of the earth: of whom do they receive tribute and custom? Of their own children, or of strangers?
26 And he said, Of strangers. Then Yeshua said to him: If so, the children are free.
27 But in order that we may not provoke them, go you to the sea, and cast the baited net, and take the fish that first comes up. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a litra: that take, and give to them for Me and you.
(Matthew 17:24-27 HRV)

This passage deals with the collection of the Temple Tax as prescribed in the Torah:

11 And YHWH spoke unto Moshe, saying:
12 When you take the sum of the children of Yisra’el, according to their number, then shall they give every man, a ransom for his soul unto YHWH, when you number them: that there be no plague among them when you number them.
13 This they shall give, every one that passes among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary: the shekel is twenty gerahs; half a shekel for an offering to YHWH.
14 Every one that passes among them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, shall give the offering of YHWH.
15 The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than the half shekel, when they give the offering of YHWH–to make atonement for your souls.
16 And you shall take the atonement money from the children of Yisra’el, and shall appoint it for the service of the tent of meeting, that it may be a memorial for the children of Yisra’el before YHWH, to make atonement for your souls.
(Ex. 30:11-16 HRV)

The Pharisees and the Essenes had a dispute over the meaning of these verses.  The Pharisees understood these verses as prescribing an annual Temple Tax which was collected from everyone of twenty years of age or more, during the month of Adar:

On the first day of Adar they make public announcement concerning [payment of] sheqel dues… On the twenty-fifth [of Adar] they set up money changers’ tables in the provinces.  On the twenty-fifth [of Adar] they set them up in the Temple.  Once they were set up in the Temple, they began to exact pledges [from those who had not paid the tax in specie]….
(m.Shek. 1:1, 3)

Rashi writes:

When you take: Heb. כִּי תִשָׂא. [This is] an expression of taking, as the Targum [Onkelos] renders. [I.e.,] when you wish to take the sum [total] of their numbers to know how many they are, do not count them by the head, but each one shall give a half-shekel, and you shall count the shekels. [Thereby] you will know their number.

who goes through the counting: Heb. הָעֹבֵר עַל-הַפְקֻדִים. It is customary for those who count to pass the ones who have been counted one following another, and so [too the word יַעִבֹר in] “each one that passes under the rod” (lev. 27:32), and so [the word תַּעִבֹרְנָה in] “flocks will again pass under the hands of one who counts them” (Jer. 33:13).

However the Qumran community had a different Halachah. They taught:

…concerning the Ransom: the money of the valuation
which a man gives as ransom for his life shall be half
a shekel in accordance with the shekel of the sanctuary.
He shall give it only once in his life.
(4Q159 Frag 1; Col. 2; lines 6-7)

The key phrases here are “ransom for his soul unto YHWH” and “to make atonement for your souls”.  The word for “soul” in Hebrew is NEFESH meaning “soul, life or self”.  The Essenes taught that once a man ransomed his NEFESH (life), his entire life was ransomed.

When Kefa (who had come from an Essne background) was asked “Does your rabbi pay the drachma?”? He was being asked about this particular halachic issue.  Kefa responds “yes” but Yeshua later instructs him saying that neither himself, nor Kefa nor apparently any of his followers owe the Temple tax because they are all “children of the King” already having redeemed their NEFESH.

Now if Yeshua held to this Essene Halachah then He would not believe that he or his followers owed the tax, if they had already paid it at least once in their lifetime. This would explain why Kefa said that Yeshua pays the tax, while Yeshua claims that he and his followers don’t owe the tax.

Yeshua then says:

But in order that we may not provoke them, go you to the sea, and cast the baited net, and take the fish that first comes up. And when you have opened its mouth, you will find a litra: that take, and give to them for Me and you.
(Matt. 17:27 HRV)

This is very similar to a narrative found in the Talmud:

Joseph-who-honours-the-Sabbaths had in his victory a certain  gentile who owned much property. Soothsayers told him,  ‘Joseph-who-honours-the-Sabbaths will consume all your property. [So] he went, sold all his property, and bought a precious stone with the proceeds, which he set in his turban. As he was crossing a bridge the wind blew it off and cast it into the water, [and] a fish swallowed it. [Subsequently] it [the fish] was hauled up and brought [to market] on the Sabbath eve towards sunset. ‘Who will buy now?’ cried they. ‘Go and take them to Joseph-who-honours-the-Sabbaths,’ they were told, ‘as he is accustomed to buy.’ So they took it to him. He bought it, opened it, found the jewel therein, and sold it for thirteen  roomfuls of gold denarii. A certain old man met him [and] said,  ‘He who lends to the Sabbath, the Sabbath repays him.’
(b.Shabbat 119a)

It would appear that the fish had swallowed a litra which Kefa then found inside.  Yeshua foreknew that YHWH had provided the Temple Tax for them in this manner.

So we learn two lessons from this account.  We learn that the Temple Tax is due only once in a person’s lifetime, and we also learn that it is permissible to keep a stricter halacha in order to maintain unity with the larger Jewish community.

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