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.

Nahmanides' Commentary and the "Fantasy Shekels"

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:

The 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)
Commentary on the Pentateuch, third edition, Venice, 1545
Courtesy of the Jewish National and University Library, Jerusalem

These "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"

Extremely rare gold exemplar of the fantasy shekel of Solomon
By courtesy of Joseph Steinig, Moshav Netaim

Shekel from the time of the Jewish War against Rome, silver, 67 CE

Obv.: Omer cup surrounded by legend "Shekel of Israel", "Year two"
Rev.: 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 [of] Israel"

Hanukkah lamp with censer (resembling the manna pot on the fantasy shekels) in center
Italy, 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

Bronze mold for the production of fantasy shekels, 1746

Fantasy coin 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, 16th century
Joachimsthal, Bohemia
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
Omer cup 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 1538Arias Montanus 1572

Di 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
Obv.: Omer cup with legends "Shekel of Israel," "Year Four"
Rev.: Pomegranates with legend "Jerusalem the Holy"

Fantasy shekel of King David, white metal alloy, 16th-17th century
Obv.: 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

Traditional portrait of Maimonides from Ugolinus'
Thesaurus Antiquitatum Sacrarum, Venezia 1744

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.

Ketubbah, Rome, 1627
Groom: Menahem, son of Samuel Zadik
Bride: Zevia, daughter of Elijah Toscano
Parchment, tempera, gold powder, and ink
Israel Museum Collection
Gift of Dr. Charles and Suzanne Merzbach, Jerusalem

1 Gold Scudo, Urbano VIII
Rome 1641

1 Silver Scudo, Urbano VIII
Rome 1643

Tyrian 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
Rev.: Eagle