From the Days of Abraham to Today- the Shekel and the Jews
While the half shekel is the most well-known unit of currency in Jewish history, it was part of a larger system of payment which included the shekel as well as the quarter shekel, which appeared and disappeared over the course of Jewish history.
We first hear about the shekel in the Book of Genesis, when Abraham buys the Cave of the Patriarchs from Ephron the Hittite. The shekel itself was not used in the transaction as the use of coins only began in the late 7th century BCE. Here we hear about a unit of measurement for silver, as it says, “ Abraham weighed out to Ephron the price which he had mentioned before the ears of the children of Heth, four hundred silver shekels in negotiable currency” (Genesis 23:16). From here we learn that the metal silver is weighed in a measurement called “shekel”, stemming from the word “sh’kila”, meaning weight. Later, in the Book of Exodus, we hear about the shekel through work in the Tabernacle. It is the first time that we encounter the half shekel, a donation to the Tabernacle which was used to count the nation and purchase sacrifices for atonement. Here too, it is referring to a unit of measurement of silver.
Money was paid using silver pieces that originated from silver tablets. The tablets had partially carved slits, similar to a chocolate bar from which one can cut off a piece. Each piece was called “betza kesef”, a phrase later used to describe one who chases money. In excavations in Ein Gedi a cache of such pieces was found inside a small pot.
The half shekel payment was made by weighing it on a scale. On one side a “beka” weight, and on the other, “betza kesef”. If the scale was tilted, more silver pieces or even old unused jewelry was used.
Beyond the Coins
There were no coins until the end of the First Temple period, and silver was used as the main form of payment. The Hebrew word “kesef”, meaning “silver”, became a synonym for a way of payment. Today, the word “kesef” also means money. It was only in the 6th century BCE, at the end of the First Temple period, that coins began to be widely used. During the Second Temple period, the money system became highly development and various coins were commonly used as a method of payment.
The Tyrian shekel was used for the half shekel payment during the Second Temple period. It seems that it was chosen for its high reliability. During the revolt against the Romans, the residents of Judea and Jerusalem needed a local coin that they could use in the Temple. They began producing coins with the year of the rebellion written on it, from the first year until the fifth year of the revolt- the year of the destruction.
The first coin to surface was the coin that the Ramban bought in the 13th century, after traveling from Spain to the city of Acre. The coin was from year three of the Great Revolt, and had ancient Hebrew writing on it. Later, an important treasure trove of coins from the Great Revolt was discovered at Masada. Over the years many coins have been found, among them the half shekel coin, a full shekel, and a quarter shekel.
In the 16th century CE, there was an attempt to revive the use of the shekel among Jews living outside of Israel. The most famous was the Gerlitz Shekel which originated in Gerlitz, Germany. This coin was a sort of reminder of the half shekel and an attempt to revive interest in the ancient shekel.
With the birth of the Zionist movement at the end of the 19th century, the shekel came into use once again. At the time, a decision was made to institute a yearly donation of one shekel to be given to the Zionist movement. With time, that custom was forgotten.
The State of Israel renewed the use of the shekel during the 1980’s, which replaced the Israeli lira. Later, the State of Israel introduced the new Israeli shekel, which is still in use today.