Jewish Coins Mentioned in Works of Jewish Scholarship
Ancient Jewish coins bearing Hebrew inscriptions have been discussed by some of
the most illustrious figures in Judaism. Although most of these scholars claim
to have actually seen the ancient coins, it is evident from their descriptions
that they did not always understand the significance of the designs. The earliest
discussions of ancient Jewish coins are found in the Mishnah, reflecting the attempts
of sages of the first centuries of the Common Era to explain contemporary coins
and those of previous generations. In medieval times, Hai Ben Sherira (939-1038),
gaon of Pumbedita and supreme authority of the halakhah, was one
of the first to discuss the ancient Jewish shekel. Later scholars described such
coins in increasing detail, and as early as 1538, some even began to illustrate
them in their books.
Commentary and the "Fantasy Shekels"
supposedly imitating genuine ancient coins, were first issued in Europe at the
end of the 15th century. The earliest examples were apparently commissioned by
Georg Emerich, burgomaster of Görlitz in Silesia, who made a pilgrimage to
Jerusalem around 1465. When he returned to Görlitz, Emerich built a replica
of the Holy Sepulcher in his home town and, in conjunction, commissioned a souvenir
shekel to be produced according to a description found in the writings of Nahmanides.
Nahmanides' description was based on a shekel coin of the Jewish War against Rome
(66-70 CE), which he had seen during his visit to Akko in 1268:
Lord had blessed me so far, and I have been privileged to visit Akko, where the
city elders showed me a silver coin, richly worked, which depicts an almond branch
on one side and a flask on the other, with clear inscriptions on each side. The
coin was shown to some Samaritans, who knew how to read the inscription immediately,
because it was in the ancient script, which has remained their script. They read
on one side: "Shekel of Shekels" and on the other "Jerusalem the Holy." It is
said that the branch represents the rod of Aaron and the flask the pot of manna.
. . . I also saw a coin with similar motifs and writing - weighing half that of
the previous coin - this was the half shekel used toward the sacrifices.
R. Moshe ben Nahman (Nahmanides) (1194-1270)|
the Pentateuch, third edition, Venice, 1545
Courtesy of the Jewish National
and University Library, Jerusalem
"shekels" were distributed to visitors to Emerich's model sepulcher as souvenirs.
They became very popular, as can be learned from a sixteenth-century document,
which reports that no less than 52,412 pilgrimage medals were issued and sold
in the town of Regensburg between 1519 and 1522. Subsequent producers of fantasy
shekels, up to the twentieth century, had less noble motives: they tried to pass
off their coins as genuine.
|Fantasy shekel of King Solomon, to left gold to right white
metal alloy, 16th-17th century|
Obv.: Solomon's seal surrounded by legend "King Solomon - Land of Israel"|
Rev.: Star surrounded by legend "In the year 3000 - Kosher Shekel"
rare gold exemplar of the fantasy shekel of Solomon|
By courtesy of Joseph
Steinig, Moshav Netaim
from the time of the Jewish War against Rome, silver, 67 CE|
Omer cup surrounded by legend "Shekel of Israel", "Year two"|
Pomegranates surrounded by legend "Jerusalem the Holy"
|Fantasy shekels, white
metal alloy, 15th-19th century|
| Obv.: Aaron's rod surrounded by
legend "Holy Jerusalem"|
Rev.: Manna pot surrounded by legend "Shekel
lamp with censer (resembling the manna pot on the fantasy shekels) in center|
cast bronze, 16th century|
Stieglitz Collection, donated to the Israel Museum
with the contribution of Erica and Ludwig Jesselson, New York, through American
Friends of the Israel Museum
mold for the production of fantasy shekels, 1746|
of Jesus, white metal alloy, 16th-19th century|
Obv.: Bust of Jesus
with legend "L(ord) Jesus"
Rev.: "Messiah-King has come in peace and
Man-God, exalted, made Living"
|Fantasy coin of Moses, bronze,
Obv.: Bust of Moses with beard
and horn; on shoulder traces of legend "Moses"
Rev.: "You shall have
no other gods before me"
Bar Kokhba Coin Revealed
Moshe ben Yizhaq Alashqar (1466-1542), a talmudist and liturgical poet, was apparently
the first medieval Jewish scholar to have actually seen a tetradrachm of the Bar
Kokhba Revolt (132-135 CE). From the passage quoted below it is evident that he
also saw a silver shekel and half shekel of the Jewish War against Rome. Alashqar
further mentions that an Ashkenazi Jew had told him of Jewish coins bearing a
Greek legend on one side and a Hebrew legend on the other. These would have been
Hasmonean coins of either Alexander Jannaeus or Mattathias Antigonus.
And you should know that I have come across some of those coins of various
types, shekel and half shekel, and some are inscribed "such-and-such year of the
restoration of Zion" and "such-and-such year of king so-and-so." And I saw upon
one of them the shape of a palm branch bundle (lulav), bound the way ours
are, and alongside it a citron (etrog), next to its binding. And an Ashkenazi
Jew who was familiar with the type of writing inscribed on the shekel told me
that he had seen one inscribed in Greek on one side, with the Greek "coat-of-arms"
engraved upon it, and on the other side a Hebrew inscription. Apparently, this
dates from the period of Greek rule. And Jews here told me that they had seen
in the possession of [Samuel] Hanagid of blessed memory three or four pure gold
denarii in the form of the shekel itself, inscribed with the same writing and
weighing six ducats. And we still are in possession of copper coins inscribed
with the same writing. And people here say that the Torah and scriptures were
written in Assyrian [block] script, but mundane things and secular documents and
coins were inscribed in [ancient] Hebrew script.
From the Responsa
of Moshe ben Yizhaq Alashqar
Sabbioneta, Italy, 1554
Coin of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, silver, 134-135 CE|
Palm branch bundle and citron
Shekel of the Jewish War against Rome, silver, 68 CE|
Omer cup surrounded
by legend "Shekel of Israel"
Half shekel of the Jewish War against Rome, silver, 68 CE|
surrounded by legend "Half Shekel"
Coins of Alexander Jannaeus, bronze, 103-76 BCE|
Greek and Hebrew legends
Obv.: Star; Rev.: Anchor
Coins of Mattathias Antigonus, bronze, 40-37 BCE|
Greek and Hebrew legends
Obv.: Double cornucopiae; Rev.: Wreath
The First Illustrations of a Jewish Shekel
One of the first illustrations of a Jewish shekel is found in Azarya di Rossi's
commentary Meor Enayim (Enlightenment to the Eyes), published in 1574.
In this work, di Rossi (ca.1511-ca.1578) interpreted the Hebrew letters shin
dalet in the coin he illustrates as an abbreviation for shekel David
(shekel of David), instead of shnat arba, namely "Year Four" of the Jewish
War against Rome (= 69 CE). Based on this and other erroneous interpretations
of ancient Jewish coins, as well as passages from the Talmud and the Midrash which
attribute the invention of coins to renowned figures in Jewish history, such as
King David and his son Solomon, forgers in the sixteenth and seventeen centuries
produced fantasy shekels of David and Solomon.
|True W. Postel 1538||Arias Montanus
Rossi's book also includes the first known table of what he and others believed
to be Samaritan script, but what is actually ancient Hebrew script.|
Shekel of the Jewish War against Rome, silver, 69 CE|
cup with legends "Shekel of Israel," "Year Four"
with legend "Jerusalem the Holy"
Fantasy shekel of King David, white metal alloy, 16th-17th century|
Vessel with three branches, shofar (ram's horn), and High Priest's head-covering,
surrounded by legend "The Lord is the Keeper of Israel - The Mighty King in Jerusalem"
Rev.: Aaron's rod, jug, and crown surrounded by legend "Shekel of
David which Remains Hidden in the Treasury of Zion in the Temple"
Ancient Jewish Coins and Currencies Over the Ages
portrait of Maimonides from Ugolinus'|
Thesaurus Antiquitatum Sacrarum,
In Maimonides' writings
[R. Moshe ben Maimon (Maimonides) (1135-1204), Mishneh Torah, first complete
edition, Rome, c. 1480], as well as in works by other distinguished scholars,
we find frequent attempts to convert monetary measures (shi'urim) pertaining
to aspects of Jewish observance into contemporary coinage. An example of such
a conversion can be seen in the Italian Jewish marriage contract (ketubbah)
exhibited here. In such contracts, the "basic" sum of two hundred zuz (silver
denarii) was fixed in accordance with the local currency. In this marriage contract,
for example, the equivalent of the basic ketubbah plus the tosefet
(an additional amount determined by the husband) was calculated at 3125 scudi.
Groom: Menahem, son of Samuel Zadik
Bride: Zevia, daughter of Elijah
Parchment, tempera, gold powder, and ink
Israel Museum Collection
Gift of Dr. Charles and Suzanne Merzbach, Jerusalem
1 Gold Scudo, Urbano VIII|
1 Silver Scudo, Urbano VIII|
Shekels in the Fourteenth Century
Tributes to the Temple in
Jerusalem during the years 127 BCE - 70 CE had to be made in Tyrian shekels, which
were chosen for this purpose since they were made of pure silver. It is interesting
to note that in 1322, Eshtori ben Moshe Farhi (1280-1355) in his book Kaftor Vaferah,
also emphasizes the fact that the Tyrian coins were of pure silver.
Tyrian half shekel, silver, 1st century BCE|
Obv.: Head of Herakles