For the Month of Adar: What Was the Shekel?

Posted a bit after Parashat Shekalim reading, but in time to remember that Adar was when those shekels were brought to the Temple and to recall the custom of giving the equivalent of half a shekel to charity on Purim.

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Shuli Mishkin,

Shulie Mishkin
Shulie Mishkin
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Mishnah: Shekalim 1:1: "On the first of Adar they would announce about the shekalim . . .”

We are now entering the beginning of “aliya laregel,” pilgrimage season, and in the time of the Temple that meant it was also when your half shekel Temple tax came due. What was the coin used to pay the half shekel (mahatzit hashekel) and have we found any today?

A little background on ancient coins. We all know Abba bought the Had Gadya for 2 zuzim, as the Passover Haggada tell us:

  

but what is a zuz and how much is it worth?

The smallest coin of value was a פרוטה peruta. Its weight was equal to one barley seed. If something is not even worth a peruta, you cannot make a transaction with it. Perutot are the most common coins found in archaeology, presumably because people did not bother to pick them up. Here is one version of a peruta:

There are eight perutot in an  איסר issar and twenty four issarin in a zuz, also called a dinar. If you are still with me, let’s keep on with the math. A shekel is equivalent to two zuzim, the price of Abba’s goat.

So half a shekel should be one zuz, right? Wrong. The rabbis created the concept of שקל הקודש, a holy shekel, worth twice as much. So a shekel hakodesh is four zuzim and half of that is two zuzim or 384 perutot.

But, in order to make sure that everyone brought coins of equal value to the Temple, there was only one coin worthy of being used for the half-shekel tax: a Tyrian shekel, a shekel minted in the city of Tyre in what is today Lebanon. The Tyrian mint was considered particularly reliable so that the coins were known to be pure. They looked like this, with a figure of a local god on the front:

  

  And a vulture on the back:

Odd to bring a pagan coin like this into the Temple but that was the “gold standard” of the time.

So have we found any? Probably the most spectacular discovery of a stash of shekels was made in the Druse town, formerly a Jewish town, of Usafiya in the Carmel. There, in 1960, over four thousand Tyrian shekels and half shekels were found. They were dated from 40 BCE to 53 CE. One suggestion is that this was the local collection of the tax in the north, a collection that never made it to Jerusalem, perhaps because of unrest or even the outbreak of the Great Revolt against Rome.

More recently, in 2008, a half shekel coin was discovered in the ancient sewer system below the main Herodian street of Jerusalem. Imagine the distress of the oleh regel who had saved up to bring his half shekel to the Temple and had got it all the way to Jerusalem, only to lose it down the drain!

May we merit seeing the Temple rebuilt quickly and be able to give the real half shekel to the Temple treasury.

Shulie Mishkin is a licensed tour guide with a masters' degree in Jewish history. She is a graduate of Matan's Beit Midrash Program. She coordinates the Matan summer program and does the tours for the Matan "Learning and Touring" courses during the year.

Matan's Edythe Benjamin חיה בת שלמה, beloved mother of Barbara Hanus, Rosh Hodesh Adar Torah Essay

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