The Mishnah (Shekalim) Says:
1) On the first of Adar they make a public announcement about the shekels and concerning kilayim.
2) On the fifteenth:
a) they read the Megillah [Esther] in walled cities,
b) and they fix the roads and the streets and the ritual water baths,
c) and they perform all public duties,
d) and they mark the graves,
e) and [messengers] go forth also concerning kilayim.
Section one: On the first of Adar, the month before Nisan (the month in which Pesah falls) they begin to make announcements reminding people to bring their shekels, or more specifically half-shekels. They also announce that people should go out to their fields and vineyards to uproot any kilayim that may have sprung up. Kilayim are diverse seeds which have sprung up in the same area.
Section two: The mishnah now begins to teach things that occur, or begin to occur on the fifteenth of the month. The first thing is that on the fifteenth of the month, people in walled cities read the book of Esther, the Megillah. We will learn much more about this when we learn Tractate Megillah. The reason that the mishnah mentions the date upon which it was read in walled cities is that this date coincides with the other things done in the continuation of the mishnah.
The second thing is that they begin to fix the public roads and ritual baths because Pesah is coming in one month. People would need to travel to Jerusalem and purify themselves in order to take part in the pesah sacrifice. Also, Adar is the beginning of the dry season (actually, it can still rain in Adar). It would have been difficult to fix the roads when the rains were still coming down.
In addition they performed all sorts of other public duties that could not be done during the rainy season.
They would mark graves with lime so that priests could see where the graves were and avoid them. During the winter the lime would wash away. Therefore, during Adar, once the rains had stopped they would reapply the plaster.
Above we learned that on the first of Adar they would announce to people that they should go out and check to make sure that there were no kilayim in their fields. On the fifteenth, they would send out messengers to make sure that this had been done. We can see that this was an issue of great importance to them. The rabbis seem to have been especially concerned about kilayim because one cannot tell from looking at picked grain or grapes whether they grew in a field that had kilayim in it. This is true of other food-related problems as well.
Introduction to Tractate Shekalim
Introduction to Tractate Shekalim
In Exodus 30:11-16 God tells Moses that when he counts the children of Israel, he shouldnt do a simple head count but rather each person should donate half a shekel. The simple meaning of these verses is that the half-shekel is a one time donation, or at most a donation that is given only when a census is taken.
However, the rabbis understood the half-shekel to be an annual donation given to the Temple for the Temples upkeep, and for the purchase of the daily tamid and other offerings. These offerings had to be paid for with public money. Individuals could not buy them in order to donate them to the Temple. It is possible that the custom of collecting an annual tax from every Israelite already existed in the First Temple period (see II Kings 12:5 and II Chronicles 6:9; see also Nehemiah 10:33, where they give a third of a shekel). We should note that the Sadducees vehemently disagreed with this halakhah. They held that an individual could donate the tamid offering and they denied that there was a yearly half-shekel tax.
The value of a half-shekel might vary from time to time, because the half-shekel which they are referring to is a Torah half-shekel. In the Mishnah they assume that a shekel is worth a sela, which is four dinars (a Roman currency). Therefore, half a shekel is assumed to be two dinars. This two dinars is usually called a shekel. Hence, throughout the tractate when the mishnah says shekel it is referring to the half-shekel (I realize that this is confusing).
According to the Mishnah, they began to remind people to donate the half-shekel in the beginning of the month of Adar. This is where the custom, observed to this day, developed to read Parshat Shekalim, the above mentioned passage in Exodus, on the first Shabbat of Adar of every year.
Our tractate deals with many of the details of these laws, how the half-shekel was collected, what was done with it and who handles Temple funds. There is a lot of information in this tractate about the financing of the Temple, so perhaps it will be interesting to any accountants out there! The Babylonian Talmud does not contain a commentary on this tractate, as it does for all of the other tractates in Seder Moed. This is assumedly because none of the tractate was practically applicable after the destruction of the Temple. However, there is commentary in the Palestinian Talmud (the Yerushalmi).
Good luck learning Shekalim!