Ode to the West Wind: On Learning Shekalim in a Season of Change

It seems appropriate that we begin learning Masekhet Shekalim on the eve of the Jerusalem municipal elections. Indeed Shekalim, the only tractate of the Jerusalem Talmud included in the daf yomi cycle, seems surprisingly relevant to the Jerusalem of today. The tractate, which takes its name from the half-shekel coin that is the Biblically mandated annual donation amount, focuses on the financial organization of the Temple and the administration of Temple affairs. But the contributions collected for the Temple were also used for the general upkeep of the city. Moreover, the Temple officials were responsible not just for the Temple mount, but also for its environs. And so to some extent, the affairs of the Temple and the welfare of Jerusalem were bound up in one another.

The opening Mishnah states that the half shekel tax was collected during the month of Adar. During this daf yomi cycle, we are learning Shekalim not in Adar, but in another season of transition. If Adar marks the end of the wet season and the start of the dry, then Cheshvan marks just the opposite: We began saying the blessing “He Who Causes the Wind to Blow and the Rain to Fall” two weeks ago, and we await—either eagerly or anxiously—the Yoreh, the first rains of the season. The forecast was for rain last Shabbat, and so on Friday afternoon, we dug out our stroller covers and raincoats and told ourselves that we’d take the kids to shul only if it wasn’t pouring. In the end, it was dry run, but now we are prepared. In this season of transition, I always find myself quoting Rilke’s Autumn (“Lord it is time / The summer was immense”) and Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 (“That time of year though mayest in my behold / When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang”) though perhaps the poem that is most relevant to the current political climate is Shelley’s “Ode to the West Wind,” in which the poet salutes the “wild West Wind, thou breath of Autumn’s being” and calls for change in more than just the weather: “Be through my lips to unawakened Earth / The trumpet of a prophecy.”

I harbor no illusions that Jerusalem will once again be a city led by prophets, but I hope that the candidates who win tomorrow’s elections care as deeply for the welfare of our city as their prophetic predecessors. There is so much that is in need of their—and our—attention. The first Mishnah in Shekalim teaches that Adar was also the month designated for various public works, including the uprooting of Kilayim (the cross-bred saplings prohibited by the Bible), the repair of roads, the fixing of Mikvaot (ritual baths), and the marking of graves so that individuals would not inadvertently step over a buried body and contract impurity. Granted, the Mishnah is describing a time before pavement and concrete, when the winter rains really did destroy the dirt roads and erode the public buildings, but the call for the repair of our public works seems no less urgent. Every day, as I walk through the streets of Jerusalem with my double stroller, I lament the many streets that do not have sidewalks, or that have sidewalks too narrow for two to walk abreast, let alone for a double stroller. Those sidewalks that are wider often have parking meters or poles stuck right in the middle, so that I have no choice but to wheel my stroller into the street and offer my silent prayer to God that the oncoming traffic in this holy city veers to let me pass. My neighborhood mikvah, too, is in dire need of repair, starting with the moldy peeling walls that look like they are afflicted with tzara’at habayit and more impure than any of the women who come to dunk.<

As I was buttonholed this morning with leaflets promoting the various mayoral and city council candidates, I could only hope, like Shelley, that the season of Tikun is upon us.

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