“For the first time in 2000 years, we have archaeological finds from the Temple Mount.” So began my discussion with Gabriel Barkay, a veteran archaeologist with extensive experience, who has made numerous important discoveries. Dr. Barkay won the Jerusalem Prize for Archaeology in 1996 and is one of the most important experts on archaeology in Jerusalem.
Rubble from the Temple Mount
“For over 150 years there have been archaeological excavations in Jerusalem, but without even one find from the Temple Mount”, says Dr. Barkay. Finding archaeological remnants from the Temple Mount only began after November 1999 when the Muslim Waqf decided to dig a massive hole in the Temple Mount, in order to build an entrance to a new prayer hall. The hole was built extremely fast, over a period of four days, and without any archaeological supervision. During the work, 400 truckloads of dirt, saturated with archaeological finds from Temple Mount, were dumped at various sites. Most of the rubble was dumped in the adjacent Kidron Valley. Zachi Dvira (Zwieg), an archaeological student at the time, made the discovery. He turned to his professor, Dr. Barkay, and together they initiated the Temple Mount Sifting Project.
A technique called “wet sifting” is used, where the dirt is sprayed with running water, revealing thousands of tiny artifacts. Almost six thousand ancient coins, many of Jewish origin, have been discovered over the course of nine and a half years of sifting.
The first coin that was discovered is from the First Revolt of the Jews against the Romans. Another significant find was coins with the words “Yahad” on them, the earliest coins to be minted in Jerusalem. They date to the 4th century BCE, the period known as “The Return to Zion”. Numerous coins from the Hasmonean dynasty and Herod’s rule were also uncovered.
To understand the importance of the half shekel coin from the Great Revolt, we should go back a few hundred years, to the commandment of the half shekel mentioned in the Bible. In the section titled “Ki Tisa”, God commands Moses to count the People of Israel by collecting a half shekel, which would be donated to the Tabernacle. “This they shall give- everyone who passes through the census- a half shekel of the sacred shekel: the shekel is twenty geras, half a shekel as a portion to Hashem” (Exodus 30:13). Payment was made through the collection of silver metal that weighed a measurement called “half a shekel”.
Artistic Rendition of the Half Shekel Coin (Drawing: Dorit Klein)
During the Second Temple, every Jewish male paid a half shekel tax to the Temple treasury once a year on the first of the Hebrew month of Adar. This is the reason that the Sabbath before the first of the month of Adar is known as “Shabbat Shekalim”. The amount is based upon the half shekel from the“Ki Tisa” portion of the book of Exodus. During the First Temple period, the shekel weighed 11.35 grams. From here we extrapolate that the half shekel weighed 5.67 grams. This weight is also referred to as “Beka Le’golgolet”, “Beka” meaning to “split off” half from the full shekel. Weights from the First Temple period have been found with the words “Beka” on them, together with other weights with different names on them. Coins were not yet in use during the First Temple period and payment was made through measurements of silver metal. Coins first appear at the end of the First Temple period.
The use of coins became much more common during the Second Temple period where it was decided that the highly reliable Tyrian shekel would be used to determine the half shekel payment.
Dr. Barkay shares that Sifting Project didn’t have an easy beginning. After the archaeologists finally received the proper approvals to sift through the rubble from the Temple Mount, the project encountered financial difficulties. In 2005 the Ir David Foundation stepped in and took the project under its wing, turning it into an educational project where thousands of visitors take part in the sifting each year.
An important discovery was actually made by an eight year old boy who participated in the project. It was he who found the half shekel coin, made of pure silver. Dated to the first year of the Revolt, 66/67 CE, the coin has a branch with three pomegranates, along with the words “Holy Jerusalem” on one side. The other side is inscribed with the words “Half Shekel”, along with a vessel with the number “1” to signify the first year of the revolt. The impressive coin, though well-preserved, showed signs of fire damage, presumably from the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, about three years after the coin was minted.
Minting coins was a sign of self-government. Therefore, the Romans didn’t permit their subjects to mint their own coins. The minting of the half shekel coins during the revolt against the Romans represented the first time in history that the Jews minted their own silver currency.
Such coins are not unfamiliar to us. Similar ones were discovered in the City of David, in the Jewish Quarter and on the Mount of Olives. However, this marks the first time that a coin of this type was found on the Temple Mount. Half shekel coins were minted throughout the revolt against the Romans, up until 70 CE. The need for coins stemmed from a desire to continue the normal running of the Temple during the war and the siege on Jerusalem.
Minting on the Temple Mount?
Dr. Barkay shares how the Temple Mount was very important to members of the Great Revolt. The main use of silver coins during this period was for the Temple. The Temple Mount was a large complex that spanned 145 dunam. Numerous buildings were on the Temple Mount, including those that were connected to administrative aspects of community life, like the Sanhedrin. According to Dr. Barkay, many researchers assume that since the minting of silver coins during the revolt was in the interests of the leaders of the revolt, the minting was done on the Temple Mount. This assumption is reasonable when one considers the situation at that time: The Romans were slowly closing in on Jerusalem, all the while the daily running of the Temple had to continue uninterrupted.
Professor Ya'akov Meshorer (z”l), a prominent researcher of coins, suggests in his book “A Treasury of Jewish Coins”, that years earlier, during Herod’s rule, Tyrian coins were being minted in Jerusalem for use in the Temple.
The Dilemma in Jewish Law
A mishna in tractate Shekalim deals with the following topic. If a coin is found on the Temple Mount, who does it belong to? The person who found it, the kohanim, or to the Temple? For thousands of years this was merely a theoretical discussion. That is, until now. According to the law in the State of Israel, all archaeological finds belong to the State. The Antiquities Authority processes the artifact and after scientific analyzation, it is sent to the storehouse of the state antiquities.