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Fantasia

You may have heard of fantasy baseball or fantasy fiction but have you ever heard of fantasy coins? Bava Kamma’s question about using money that is no longer in circulation leads us into this unusual topic:

鈥淚f one had coins of Kozeviyyot, coins of Jerusalem, or coins of earlier kings, [all of which are no longer in use,] one cannot desacralize [second-tithe produce by transferring its sanctity onto them].鈥 (Bava Kamma 97b)

Can one use outdated money in exchanging for maaser sheni/tithe money, so that the tithe money can be spent? The Gemara says no. The coins referred to are coins of the Bar Kokhba Revolt (Kozeviyot) and of the Great Revolt (Jerusalem). These coins were made for the express purpose of proclaiming Jewish sovereignty and as such, when the Jews were defeated, the Romans forbade their use. Since they are no longer legal tender, they cannot be used to settle debts or pay off maaser sheni.

The Gemara continues and explains what these 鈥淛erusalem鈥 coins looked like:

鈥淭he Sages taught: What is the coin of Jerusalem? The names David and Solomon were inscribed on one side, and Jerusalem the Holy City was on the other side. And what is the coin of Abraham our forefather? An old man and an old woman, on one side, and a young man and a young woman on the other side鈥 (Bava Kamma 97b)

The coins described here never existed in ancient times, as far as we know. But in a fascinating twist, they were created as replicas of ancient coins that never were. The art scholar and collector Mordechai Narkiss, in an article he wrote in 1928, came up with the name “fantasy shekels” to distinguish them from forgeries. Such coins were created by Christians as souvenirs and devotional objects and by Jews to use for pidyon haben ceremonies, to pay the symbolic half shekel on Purim, and for educational purposes. A wonderful recent exhibit in the Israel Museum is devoted to them (https://www.imj.org.il/en/exhibitions/shekels-true-or-false).

To understand what these fantasy coins were, we need to take a closer look at real Jerusalem coins. Today we have literally hundreds of Great Revolt coins that have been found by chance or in archaeological excavations. They were minted between the years 66-71 CE, as part of the Jewish bid for independence that ended in the destruction of the Second Temple. The important ones were made of silver and tended to follow a specific pattern. One side of the coin shows a container, often called a chalice. The other side shows a branch with three pomegranates growing from it:

A coin from year three of the Great Revolt

Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

Both sides have writing, using the archaic ancient Hebrew script (Ktav Ivri) that was no longer in use at the time. The chalice side says 鈥渟hekel Yisrael鈥 and the year of the Revolt (we have coins from years 1-5). The pomegranate side says 鈥淵erushalayim haKedosha,鈥 holy Jerusalem. The numismatist Dr. Yaakov Meshorer explains the significance of each of these elements. The ancient writing is an attempt to hark back to the 鈥済ood old days鈥 of David and Solomon. Shekel Yisrael, an Israelite shekel, is meant to be the contrasted with Shekel Tzori, a Tyrian shekel, which was the best currency of the time. Holy Jerusalem is also a jab at this competing currency 鈥 Tyrian shekels said on them the holy city of Tyre.

The two images evoke the Temple, the ultimate symbol for Jews of the time. Whether it is a chalice used for water and wine libations on the altar, or as Meshorer thought, the holder for the omer barley offering, it is connected to the Temple. The pomegranates were on the hem of the High Priests robe as well as in other decorative elements of the Temple. Finally, the year to the revolt, signified by a letter shin for shana/year and a letter aleph, bet etc for the year, shows us how many years of independence the Jews were celebrating.

When the Romans defeated the Jews these coins were forced out of circulation. Most were probably melted down for their silver but some were hidden away, their owners killed or sold into slavery. These are the ones we find in archaeological digs today. But even centuries ago, some of these coins were still extant. And here is where our story takes an amazing twist.

In 1267 Rabbi Moses ben Nahman (Nahmanides) arrived in the Land of Israel. Exiled from Spain, he chose to make his home in the holy land, first in Jerusalem and then in Akko. He rewrote some of his Torah commentary when he came here, based on new things that he learned. And in his (revised) commentary on the half shekel tax (Shemot 30) he adds an interesting note:

鈥淚 was blessed by God and merited to come to Akko. I found that the elders there had a coin with one side having an almond branch and the other a dish, and both sides with clear writing. We showed the coin to the Samaritans who could read it since they use the ancient Hebrew writing. . . they read one side as 鈥淪hekel HaShekalim,鈥 and the other 鈥淵erushalayim HaKedosha,鈥 and they say that the shapes are Aaron鈥檚 staff that blossomed with almond flowers, and the container of the manna.鈥

Nahmanides more or less figured out the coin and its iconography, although he got part of the wording wrong. His interpretation of the images: Aaron鈥檚 staff and pot of manna – reverberated through the generations until the early modern period. Christian craftsmen in the German town of Gorlitz, produced imitation shekels as souvenirs or examples of the coins for which Jesus was betrayed. Like Nahmanides, they got it mostly right but not completely. Sometimes the chalices have smoke coming out of them (a misrepresentation of the ancient Hebrew letters). The writing 鈥淪hekel Yisrael鈥 is in the square modern letters. They also show a flowering tree, a more elaborate version of what they thought was 鈥淎aron鈥檚 staff鈥 on the original coin.

Jews made coins like this too but they also knew the description of 鈥淛erusalem coins鈥 in our Gemara and here is where their coins truly become fantasy. Coins with the names David and Solomon, images of kings, and even shields and Temples, are clearly influenced by the description in Bava Kamma. There is聽 even a coin, probably from the sixteenth century, that says 鈥渮aken vezekanah鈥 on one side, 鈥渂achur vebetulah鈥 on the other, the 鈥淎vraham Avinu鈥 coin described by the Gemara! Sadly, none of the images are in the public domain so I cannot bring them here, but you can find them online.

In making these coins, were Jews trying to regain some form of the sovereignty that the original coins were proclaiming? That really was a fantasy, until 1948 when we were once again able to have coins of our own, some modeled on those very same ancient coins:

A modern Israeli shekel from 1983, based on the ancient one

Bank of Israel, via Wikimedia Commons

A modern Israeli shekel from 1967, based on the ancient one

Almog, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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