The Custom of donating Machatzis Hashekel before Purim
In the Beis Hamikdosh, certain korbanos (offerings) represented and atoned for all of Bnei Yisroel. These korbanos came from a public fund. During the month of Adar each person contributed half a shekel to this fund. When Haman wanted to destroy the Jewish people during the month of Adar, he offered Achashveirosh ten thousand kikar of silver as compensation. It was the merit of these Shekalim that Bnei Yisroel contributed during the same month of Adar, which overpowered Haman’s money, thus sparing the Jewish people from annihilation. This is the origin of the custom to donate money in commemoration of the Machatzis Hashekel (half a Shekel) during the month of Adar.

Who is obligated to donate Machatzis Hashekel?
Males from the age of twenty and up. According to some opinions, from the age of Bar Mitzvah. The custom however is that a father also donates for all his children. If a woman is expecting, the husband donates for the unborn child as well.

Women are not obligated to donate Machatzis Hashekel. However some places had the custom that women also gave Machatzis Hashekel. Rav Ovadia Yosef Shlit"a rules that women should also donate.

If a father donated for his children even once, he is obligated to continue this practice every year.

How much is given?
A single coin which is half of the local currency (e.g. a half dollar, or half Shekel coin). Nowadays the custom is to donate three such coins, since the words "Machatzis Hashekel" are mentioned in the Torah three times. Three "half" coins should be given, not one whole and one half. Nor should one give two "whole" coins and take back a "half" coin as change.

The coin should be of a legal currency in that specific location. For this reason one cannot fulfill the obligation by donating a half dollar coin, in Eretz Yisroel, since American coins are not accepted as legal currency in Eretz Yisroel.

If a certain country does not have a "half" coin, the custom is to use a "half" coin from another country, such as a half dollar coin.

The Gabai in charge of the Tzdakah places the three "half" coins in the Tzdakah plate. Each person "buys" the rights to these coins, by placing their equivalent (or more) in the plate, and lifting up the three "half" coins. The person then donates the three "half" coins in commemoration of the "Machatzis Hashekel".

When is the proper time to give "Machatzis Hashekel"?
The "Machatzis Hashekel" is donated at the Mincha preceding Purim (the thirteenth of Adar). If Purim is on Sunday, the Machatzis Hashekel is donated at the Mincha of Ta’anis Ester on Thursday. In walled cities where Purim is celebrated on the fifteenth of Adar, the Machatzis Hashekel is donated at Mincha of the fourteenth of Adar.

One may donate the "Machatzis Hashekel" a few days earlier, if will be unable to do so at the proper time. If one did not donate "Machatzis Hashekel" on time, he should do so on Purim. If this was not done, is should be done throughout the remainder of the month of Adar.

Where does the money go to?
The money should be given to poor people, preferably Torah scholars. Rav Ovadia Yosef permits using the money to support Yeshivos.
The money may also be used for Hachnosas Kallah.

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