Tractate Shekalim deals primarily with the finances and organization of the Temple. Based solely on content, this tractate rightly belongs in the order of Kodashim, the fifth order of the Talmud, which deals with matters pertaining to offerings and the Temple service. Nevertheless, Shekalim was placed in Seder Mo’ed, the order dealing with the Festivals. This presumably had to do with the fact that the shekels were collected at a fixed time of the year, and the collection of the shekels would precede, and sometimes even determine, the dates for various aspects of the Temple service and related events.
The central axis of the tractate is the method by which the various Temple activities were funded. Communal offerings, consisting of animal offerings, meal-offerings, libations, and wood for the altar fire, were the basic daily obligation of the Temple. These were funded from the collection of the Temple treasury chamber, terumat halishka, which consisted of money set aside in a special ceremony from the half-shekels collected yearly from each adult male Jew. Besides the various offerings, funds were needed to maintain the upkeep of the Temple in all its aspects. The Temple building had to be maintained in good repair, including the stone building itself, as well as the various parts of the Temple liable to deteriorate with wear and tear and the passage of time, such as the altar, the curtain, the sacred vessels used on the altar, and the priestly vestments. In general, the funds for these needs were taken from the remains of the chamber, the money left in the Temple treasury after the collection had been withdrawn.
The Temple officials were responsible not only for the area of the Temple mount, but to a certain extent for the entire holy city of Jerusalem. Their responsibilities included the maintenance of various public buildings as well as addressing the needs of the individuals who came to the Temple to sacrifice their offerings and pray. From an organizational perspective, the Temple staff was comprised of various departments in charge of the different requirements of the Temple, its priests, and the Jewish people as a whole. The senior official was the High Priest, followed by several levels of general functionaries who were responsible for the smooth running of the Temple finances. Some of the departments dealt with the order of the service, for instance, the lotteries and Temple crier; others took care of the priests, providing their garments and medical needs; while yet others attended to the Temple choir and musical instruments. Certain officials operated outside the Temple walls, for example, those who were responsible for providing water to Festival pilgrims.
A great deal of money was required to cover the expenses of the Temple. These large sums of money, which arrived from both inside Eretz Yisrael and elsewhere, were used for the acquisition of the requirements of the Temple. Some monies came from freely offered private donations. The tractate includes a description of the Temple collection baskets, each of which was designated for a particular purpose. In addition, donation of money and vessels were handed directly to the Temple treasurers, along with special gifts for the adornment of the Temple.
The mitzva to donate a half-shekel appears in the Torah in the context of the construction of the Tabernacle (see Shemot 30:11-16). At the start of the Second Temple period the people reaffirmed their commitment to this obligation as a part of a special covenant (Nehemiah 10:33-34). The sums collected usually sufficed for the expenses of the Temple, leaving a large pool of reserves for times of need. A significant proportion of Shekalim deals with the collection of the half-shekel, discussing halakhot such as who is obligated to give the coin, who is permitted to donate despite the fact that they are exempt from the mitzva, and from whom is this money never accepted. It also describes the manner of the collection of funds from different places, as well as their transport to the Temple. Once collected, the funds needed to be allocated for diverse tasks, and this topic is also addressed.
Shekalim is the only tractate in the order of Mo’ed which is not included in the Babylonian Talmud. Apparently, the Sages of Babylonia did study these halakhot in depth, but the tractate was already lost in ancient times. To fill this void, scholars have availed themselves of Massekhet Shekalim from the Jerusalem Talmud. This is unsurprising, as the Talmud Yerushalmi is written in the Aramaic dialect of Eretz Yisrael, which includes different uses of familiar terms and some singular terminology not found in the Babylmian Talmud, and most of the Sages mentioned in the Gemara were amoraim from Eretz Yisrael. Due to this language difference, the style and framework of this discussion is much terser. As with much of the Jerusalem Talmud, it is often difficult to conclusively establish the correct text of Massekhet Shekalim. As a result of the fact that Shekalim was studied as part of the regular order of the Talmud Bavli, its text diverges somewhat from the manuscripts of the Jerusalem Talmud, with its language drawing closer to that of the Babylonian Talmud.