A coin from the Second Temple, used in the half-shekel census, was found in excavations in the City of David, just below and east of Jerusalem’s Old City. The upcoming Purim festival features the half-shekel prominently in its observance.
The ancient silver coin was discovered in an archaeological excavation that is being conducted in the main Second Temple-era drainage channel of Jerusalem. The foreign coin is of the denomination used during the turbulent Second Temple period to pay the Biblical half-shekel head-tax.
This coming Thursday night (Saturday night for Jerusalemites), before reading the Megillah (Scroll) of Esther, Jews worldwide will contribute a sum of money to charity in remembrance of that half-shekel command.
“Just like today when coins sometimes fall from our pockets and roll into drainage openings at the side of the street, that’s how it was some two thousand years ago – a man was on his way to the Temple and the shekel which he intended to use for paying the half shekel head-tax found its way into the drainage channel,” theorized archaeologist Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority.
The excavations are directed by Shukron and Professor Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa. They are being conducted on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Nature and Parks Authority and the Ir David Foundation.
The commandment to pay the half shekel to the Temple is in the weekly Torah portion of Ki Tisa (Exodus 30:11-16):
And the L-rd spoke to Moshe, saying:
When you take the sum of the children of Yisrael after their number, then shall they give every man a ransom for his soul to the L-rd, when you count them; that there be no plague among them, when you put a number to them.
This they shall give, every one that passes among them that are to be counted, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary, (a shekel is twenty gera), a half shekel shall be the offering for the L-rd.
Every one that passes among them that are counted, from twenty years old and above, shall give the offering of the L-rd.
The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than half a shekel, when they give the offering of the Lord, to make atonement for your souls.
And you shall take the atonement money of the children of Yisrael, and shall designate it for the service of the Tent of Meeting; that it may be a memorial to the children of Yisrael before the L-rd, to make atonement for your souls.
At the time of the temple’s construction, every Jew was commanded to make an obligatory donation of a half shekel to the edifice. This modest sum allowed all Jews, of all economic levels, to participate in the building the Temple. After the construction was completed, they continued to collect the tax from every Jew for the purpose of purchasing the public sacrifices and renewing the furnishings of the Temple. The collection occurred every year on the first day of the month of Adar when the “heralding of the shekelim” took place, that is to say the beginning of the collection of the money and it ended on the first day of the month of Nissan, when ‘there is a new budget’ in the temple and the purchase of public sacrifices was renewed.
The annual half shekel head-tax was later donated in shekels and half shekels from the Tyre mint where they were struck from the year 125 BCE until the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 66 CE. At the time of the uprising, the tax was paid using Jerusalem shekalim, which were specifically struck for this purpose. In the rabbinic sources, the Tosefta (Ketubot 13:20) states: “Silver mentioned in the Five Books of Moses is always Tyrian silver: What is Tyrian silver? It is Jerusalemite.” Many have interpreted this to mean that only Tyrian shekels could be used to pay the half shekel head-tax at the Jerusalem temple.
The shekel that was found in the excavation weighs 13 grams and bears the head of Melqart, the chief deity of the city of Tyre (equivalent to the Semitic god Baal) on the obverse and an eagle upon a ship’s prow on the reverse. The coin was struck in the year 22 CE.
Despite the importance of the half-shekel head-tax for the economy of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period, only seven other Tyrian shekels and half shekels were heretofore found in the excavations in Jerusalem.