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Pocket history: the secrets of ancient coins

The lulav and etrog often appeared on Jewish coins in classical times - but why?

    Coin with grape motif from the Israel Museum, minted by Herod Archelaus, ruler of Judea in Roman times (Getty)
    Coin with grape motif from the Israel Museum, minted by Herod Archelaus, ruler of Judea in Roman times (Getty)

    The root for “coin” in Hebrew, tevah, is the same as that of the “nature” of a human being. Just as God stamped an individuality on a person, so an ancient moneyer hammered a die on to a circle of silver. 

    Coinage was also a form of propaganda for those in authority and conveyed often subtle messages to the population. Bar Kochba’s coins during his rebellion against the Romans contain the inscription, “Shimon, prince of Israel” — but only during the first year of his rebellion, 132-133 CE. 

    During the following year, it is mysteriously shortened to simply “Shimon”. Was this a result of rabbinical protests against Bar Kochba’s pretensions to being the messiah? After all, some rabbis referred to him as Bar Koziba (“the liar”) rather than Bar Kochba (“the star”). 

    There were no coins during the first Temple period. It is only during the period of Persian control, following the return of the Jews from Babylon, that the exchange of cattle and a barter system evolved into the first Yehud coins around 450 BCE. They often featured an owl or an olive branch. The first Jewish motifs were the lily, associated with Jerusalem and the Temple, the shofar, and a human ear, believed to be God’s most important attribute so as to hear the words of the supplicant.  

    The first Hasmonean coins were issued by Yehohanan (John Hyrcanus I), the son of Simon Maccabeus and grandson of Mattityahu — the instigators of revolt against Hellenism at Chanukah — around 132 BCE. The inscription read “Yehohanan, the High Priest and the Council of the Jews”, which was probably the forerunner of the Sanhedrin. 

    No “graven images” ever appeared on coins — not even Herod the Great, who displaced the last of the Hasmoneans, stepped over that red line. Instead, the seven plants species (Deuteronomy 8:8) of ancient Israel became increasingly prominent on coins. They were wheat, barley, figs, pomegranates, olives, date, honey and grape vines. 
    Representations of Succot on coins were elevated to a more prominent position, in contrast to the other foot festivals when Jews made the pilgrimage to Jerusalem.

    Farmers were less busy as it was a period of agricultural transition during the year. Succot was therefore a real holiday, and not solely a religious obligation. 

    The late Ya’akov Meshorer, a noted Israeli numismatics expert, suggested that Succot was also a time when Jews remembered how they were oppressed before the Hasmonean revolt. Meshorer quotes the second Book of Maccabees: “The Jews celebrated joyfully for eight days as on the feast of Tabernacles (Succot), remembering how a little while before, they had spent the feast like wild animals in caves on the mountains.” 

    During the first Jewish revolt against the Romans (66-70 CE), which ended in the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple, the four kinds (etrog, lulav, myrtle, willow) make their appearance on coins only during the fourth year, 69 CE. At that time, Jerusalem was surrounded by the Roman legions and expected the worst. Significantly, after initial military successes, the inscription on the coins of the Jewish rebels originally read “for the redemption of Jerusalem”. By 69 CE, the deteriorating situation forced a change to “the freedom of Jerusalem”. 

    On these coins, the lulav is unfurled and spread out, the etrog is lemon-shaped and the hadass (myrtle) has berries. More than 60 years later, Bar Kochba also used these symbols on his coins during the rebellion against the Emperor Hadrian. However, the lulav now has closed leaves, the etrog has a waist and the berries are absent on the hadass. It seems that by Bar Kochba’s time, the custom was to use young plants rather than mature ones, as used previously. Today, Jews tend to broadly follow Bar Kochba’s tradition. 

    Unlike the rebels of 69, Bar Kochba did not mint new coins, but simply stamped over older Roman ones, obliterating the image of the emperor and the symbolism of foreign tyranny. The silver denarius was overstruck and became known as a zuz— well-known from the Pesach Haggadah. 

    David Hendin, in his excellent Guide to Biblical Coins, shows how other biblical denominations such as the pym, beqa, and nezef related to the shekel. A talent of silver, probably originally the weight that a man could carry, was equal to 3,000 shekels. Meshorer has compared the value of a denarius in relation to other denominations, according to Roman reckoning and to those of the Jewish sages — and they are different. 

    Bar Kochba used other symbols on his coins such as the Temple façade, the amphora, the lyre and harp, to recall the glory of the independent past. A one-handed flagon with a spout is also depicted, probably relating to the libation ceremony during Succot when water was poured on the altar to accompany the morning sacrifice. It is also the time of year when the switch is made from praying for dew to praying for rain. 

    Examining, collecting and interpreting ancient Jewish coins is an ongoing science that reclaims Jewish history. It is a fascinating and absorbing hobby for anyone who wishes to add another layer of understanding of the complex society of our ancestors. 

    Colin Shindler’s new book, ‘The Hebrew Republic: Israel’s Return to History’, is published by Rowman and Littlefield 

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