The Half Shekel, Nahmanides, and Ancient Coins

The Half Shekel, Nahmanides, and Ancient Coins

By Prof. Yosef Ofer*

Nahmanides (Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, 1194-1270) wrote his commentary on the Torah while living in Spain.  Towards the end of his life he immigrated to the land of Israel, arriving in Acco in 1267 and living there until his death in 1270.  When he came to Israel, Nahmanides brought with him a copy of his commentary on the Torah, and while living there he added over three hundred additional passages.  Most of these additional passages do not in themselves make it evident that they were later additions, however this is revealed by update notes that Nahmanides and others sent to Jews in the Diaspora, so that whoever had the first edition could update and complete it.  Other additions can be identified by comparing various manuscripts with one another.[1]

In two places Nahmanides tells of findings he discovered in the land of Israel, in the wake of which he changed his mind regarding his interpretations.  The first is where he discusses Rachel’s tomb.  While in Spain, Nahmanides dealt with the phrase “some distance [short of Ephrath]” (Gen. 35:16), and suggested several explanations.  However, when he arrived in the land of Israel he discovered that the explanations he had suggested did not match the reality of the area, for Rachel’s tomb was located near the city of Bethlehem.  Nahmanides added a passage to his commentary, writing:

This is what I wrote initially, and now that I have been so fortunate as to come to Jerusalem, praise be given to the beneficent Lord, I have seen with my own eyes that Rachel’s tomb is not even one mile away from Bethlehem, proving this commentary [of Radak] and the words of Menahem [ben Saruk] to be controverted.

Nahmanides did not conceal his joy at having been able to come to the land of Israel.  He took back his earlier interpretation and proceeded to offer an updated explanation of “some distance.”[2]

The second place where Nahmanides relates to something he discovered in the land of Israel has to do with the commandment of the half-shekel, appearing in this week’s reading.  At the beginning of the parashah (in his commentary on Ex. 30:13), Nahmanides discusses the weight of the sacred shekel mentioned in the Torah, and of which every Israelite was obliged to bring one half when a census was taken of the people.  Nahmanides mentions Rashi’s remarks that the shekel weighed the equivalent of four gold coins.  According to Rashi, the current gold coin at that time and place was equal in weight to the dinar mentioned in the writings of the Sages, for also the gold coin of Constantine was called a dinar.  He also cites the geonim and Halakhot Gedolot, and says that from what they write it follows that the dinar of the Talmud was approximately one third larger than the gold coins current in his own day.

Determining the weight of the shekel and examining the various opinions on the subject in different eras are challenging tasks, since every era had its own coins and units of weight, making comparison between them difficult.  It is no wonder that Nahmanides had difficulty with this and even changed his opinion, as is evident from the different editions of his commentary.[3]  Imagine his great glee when he came upon an ancient archaeological finding that enabled him to directly examine the weight of the ancient shekel coin mentioned in the Torah.  In Acco Nahmanides discovered coins of shekel weight and other coins of half-shekel weight.  What he had to say on this subject was put down in a special letter which he sent to the “rabbis of Catalonia” (the place where he formerly lived before leaving for the land of Israel).  This letter is mentioned by several of the rishonim,[4] and has been published several times in different forums.  Here I cite the beginning of what he wrote, omitting the discussion that branches off about the weight of the shekel coin:

After the great rabbi Moses b. Rabbi Nahman z”l went to Acco, from there he sent his additions to these commentaries of his, each remark in its proper place, and he also sent this epistle:

The Lord has blessed me so greatly, for I have been so fortunate as to come to Acco and there to find in the hands of the elders of the land a silver coin with engravings, on one side resembling the branch of an almond tree, one the other some sort of dish, and one both sides, around the edges, clearly engraved writing.  He showed the writing to the Cuthites [Samaritans] who read it forthwith, because it was in a Hebrew script that remained by the Cuthites, as is mentioned in Tractate Sanhedrin (21b).  On the one side, they read, “Shekel of Shekels,” and on the other, “Sacred Jerusalem.”  They say that the shapes are Aaron’s staff, with its almonds and blossoms, and the other shape, the container of manna.

Nahmanides begins with similar expressions to what he wrote regarding Rachel’s tomb, “I have been so fortunate as to come to Acco.”  He preceded this sentence with the words, “The Lord has blessed me so greatly,” based on Joshua 17:14 (“who the Lord has blessed so greatly”), changing the order of the Hebrew words in order to obtain a rhyme and play on words:  “ad ko” (= so greatly) and “Acco.”  Nahmanides gives a detailed description of the pictures on both sides of the coin, as well as the writing.  To read the coin’s inscriptions, written in ancient Hebrew script, Nahmanides used the help of the Samaritans, whose writing was close to, but not identical with, the ancient Hebrew script.

Further on, Nahmanides attests that he saw other ancient coins:  “I also saw a similar coin to that one, with the same pictures and writing, half the weight; and that is the half-shekel that was given for sacrifices.”  Coins of the sort seen by Nahmanides are known today from the archaeological findings of coins that were minted during the five years of the Great Revolt (66-70).[5]  The coins belonging to this group are among the most beautiful and best preserved found in Israel, and survived in relatively great quantity.  The Hasmoneans, even Herod, did not mint any silver coins, but only copper perutah coins, and these became patinated.  The silver coins, in contrast, remained as they were.  Their relatively great weight helped in their preservation, as did their being used in great number, on the one hand, but for a short period of five years only, on the other, after which their use was forbidden; hence they were not worn down and were stowed away in great numbers.

These coins bear three inscriptions in ancient Hebrew script:  on one side, Yerushalayim ha-kedoshah, as Nahmanides noted; on the other, Shekel Yisrael, and on the same side, a third inscription indicating the number of the year to the Great Revolt, in abbreviation, as shin-aleph, shin-bet, etc. (year 1, year 2…).  Nahmanides does not mention this number of the year, presumably because neither he nor the Samaritans who read the script for him could understand the significance of these letters of abbreviation.

Rabbi Azariah ben Moses dei Rossi (1513-1578) cites Nahmanides and notes that he himself saw a coin, similar to the one seen by Nahmanides, bearing the inscription Shekel Yisrael.  Rabbi Azaria saw the coin in his own city of Ferrara, Italy, and recounts that the coin had been brought there from Jerusalem.  He, too, did not understand the significance of the letters shin-daled on the coin which he had, and thought they might be an abbreviation for Shekel David.  However he noted an incongruity between the reading that Nahmanides presented and the inscription on coins of this type, and wrote:  “Something tells me that Rabbi Nahmani z”l had a slip of memory and wrote Shekel of Shekels instead of Shekel Yisrael.”[6]

What led to this mistake in reading the inscription, Shekel Yisrael?  Yaakov Meshorer[7] tried to solve this quandry and compared the reading presented by Nahmanides with the inscription on the coin, letter for letter:  the letter yod in ancient Hebrew script resembles the letter heh in Samaritan writing; the letter shin was properly identified by the Samaritans; but the letter resh in ancient Hebrew script is like the letter kof in Samaritan.  So, if we compare the readings of the first three letters, we have an interesting result:  the Samaritans read “h-sh-k” instead of “Y-s-r.”  From this point on, we have a problem.  How could the Samaritans have deciphered the next two letters, alef lamed, as the three letters lamed yod mem, when there is no similarity at all between these letters?

I suggest that the Samaritans read the last two letters quite correctly.  What they came up with was thus Shekel ha-sh-k-‘-l (instead of Shekel Yisrael).  The strange combination of letters, sh‑k‑‘‑l, they interpreted as a plural form of sh-k-l, shekel, quite a natural reading for someone whose language is Arabic, since this form (inserting an aleph after the second letter of the root) is a common way of forming the plural for a certain class of words in Arabic.  In the period under discussion, the Samaritans spoke Arabic.  It is generally assumed that they ceased speaking Aramaic towards the end of the eleventh century, and from that time on only used it as a written language.  Thus the Samaritans read the inscription on the coin as Shekel of ha-Shakal, and explained it to their audience as “the Shekel of Shekels.”  So, what we have here is not a direct reading of the inscription, but a sort of translation or interpretation of it.

Be that as it may, we learn from Nahmanides’ writings how important is the contribution of archaeological and geographical findings to our understanding of Scripture, both in terms of interpretation and halakhah.

Sketch of the Shekel coin, with modern Hebrew transcription of the inscriptions, from Rabbi Azaria dei Rossi’s book.

Translated by Rachel Rowen





* Prof. Yosef Ofer, Zalman Shamir Department of Bible, Bar Ilan University. Originally published in Hebrew in 2017. This translation has not been reviewed by the author.

[1] See:  Yosef Ofer and Jonathan Jacobs, Tosafot Ramban le-Perusho la-Torah she-Nikhtevu be-Eretz Yisrael, Jerusalem 2013, including a detailed introduction and exegetical discussion of some 300 added passages.  What we present below, about the coins that Nahmanides discovered, is based on my article, “Madu`a ta`a Ramban be-Kri’at ha-Ketovot she-`al Matbe`a ha-Shekel?” Tarbiz 80 (2012), pp. 261-264.

[2] Ofer and Jacobs, ibid., pp. 229-237.

[3] Ofer and Jacobs, ibid., pp. 336-340.  Nahmanides introduced into his commentary two changes regarding the weight of the dinar of the Arabs and the weight of the dinar current in his own time.

[4] Nahmanides’ letter about the coin he discovered is mentioned in the writings of Rabbi Joseph Albo (Spain 1380-1444; Sefer ha-`Ikarim, Warsaw 1877, Article 3, chapter 16, pp. 235-236) and in the writings of Don Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508; in his commentary on Exodus 30:13).

[5] See Yaakov Meshorer, Otzar Matbe`ot ha-Yehudim, Jerusalem, 1998, pp. 105-117, 313-315.

[6] Azaria dei Rossi, Imrei Binah (Part III of Me’or Einayim), chapter 56, Vilna ed., 1866, p. 451.

[7] Yaakov Meshorer, Ha-Tzad ha-Shelishi shel ha-Matbe`a, Jerusalem 2006, p. 110.

Last modified: 31/01/2018