The half shekel donation was not only a means of filling Temple coffers, but was also used as a census during the Second Temple.
After an 8-year-old girl picked up her little sister from kindergarten, she picked up a little something else from the ground on her way back home — an extremely rare 2,000-year-old “half-shekel” coin.
When she returned to her home in the settlement of Halamish that day last May, Hallel Halevy did a Google search for “ancient coins” and came up with something that looked like a match. So, she of course put it in her special little box where she kept her prized little mirror and her favourite necklace. “Childhood treasures,” laughed Hallel, a rising fourth grader, in conversation with The Times of Israel on Thursday.
And there the coin stayed until about a week ago, when her 11-year-old sister glimpsed it and advised her to show their father.
“I recognised that it may be a genuine ancient coin,” said father Shimon, a lawyer. But lacking the proper education to confirm it, he took a picture on his cell phone and sent it to the wife of a local scholar, Bar-Ilan University Prof. Zohar Amar.
Amar, a historian of ancient Land of Israel flora and fauna, had actually written an essay on the wine presses in the nearby archaeological site, Chubalta, near which the coin was found. Amar was intrigued by what he saw and asked Shimon to bring the coin to his house so he and his wife, Tamar, who is also knowlegable on such subjects, could study it.
At first glance, the Amar couple thought it was a rare full shekel coin, minted by Jews during the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans prior to the destruction of the Second Temple. They were partly right.
The couple compared it to several examples of shekels, but decided to test its authenticity by weighing it. Disappointed, they found that it wasn’t the expected 14 grams, rather exactly half of it. Then they realized that meant it was instead a half-shekel coin, which was used for Temple purposes.
Amar believes the coin was minted during the Great Jewish Revolt sometime during the years 66-70 CE. More precisely dating it may be tricky, however, because only one side is clearly legible. The other could have been un-minted, or was rubbed off with age. On the visible side is is an image of a three-pronged pomegranate, around which is written “Holy Jerusalem” in First Temple Hebrew lettering.
A comparison with examples of half-shekel coins found in the book, “A Treasury of Jewish Coins” by renowned expert Yaakov Meshorer, indicates that the coin is not from the first year of the Revolt because the words “Holy Jerusalem” are written in “full form” — with the letters “yud” and “vav.”
Interestingly, the use of such First Temple period lettering, known during the Second Temple period, but was not typical of it, is thought to have been intentional to raise nostalgic feelings for the earlier Jewish monarchy. (A modern comparison could be the use of old Gutenberg Bible fonts on antique shops.) During the surge of Jewish nationalism at the end of the Second Temple period, in addition to these shekel coins, a small portion of the biblical Dead Sea Scrolls from Qumran were written in this font, and recently a non-biblical scroll was discovered in this type as well.
According to Temple Mount Sifting Project archaeologist Zachi Dvira, “These half-shekel coins were used to pay the Temple tax during the Great Revolt, replacing the Tyrian shekel used previously. It appears that these half-shekel coins were minted by the Temple authorities on the Temple Mount itself.
“This half-shekel tax for the sanctuary, mentioned in the Book of Exodus (30:13–15), required every male to pay half a shekel to the Holy Temple once a year,” said Dvira. The half shekel donation was not only a means of filling Temple coffers, but was also used as a census as during the Second Temple; every Jewish male paid his tax once a year on the first of the Hebrew month of Adar. (In the New Testament’s Book of Matthew, Jesus, who lived circa 4 BCE-33 CE, is reported to pay the Temple tax through the miraculous discovery of coinage in the mouth of a recently caught fish.)
Amar told Israel National News that “the Jews minted such coins against the coins minted in Tyre in order to stress the symbolism and nationalism, and in the Temple they used only these coins because they are a very high quality of silver.” It was the first time that Jews used silver for coinage.
Later, after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, even in the Diaspora the custom of donating the half shekel lingered and is today customarily given before Purim.
Amar said that while these coins are found elsewhere in Israel, “the discovery at [Halamish] raises interest because the area was a very large center and according to Josephus, Jews participated during the revolt and there is evidence that supports this report.”
Founded 40 years ago, modern Halamish (also known as Neve Tsuf) is located in southwestern Samaria at what was once a crossroads of the Roman empire in the Holy Land, a highway of sorts for those traveling between Caesarea and Jerusalem. The archaeological site, located a few hundred meters from where Hallel found the coin, has evidence of settlement during the Roman era — which includes the Jewish Revolt period — up through the early Islamic period.
“This is an area where the pilgrims passed through on their way to Jerusalem. The Romans understood that if they wanted to conquer Jerusalem they should first oppress the Jews here on the way to Jerusalem,” Amar told Israel National News.
The location where Hallel found the coin is also only about 200 meters from where Yosef Salomon (70), daughter Chaya Salomon, 46, and son, Elad Salomon, 36, were murdered on July 21.
“After all that we went through recently, the discovery is very interesting because the Romans wanted to kill us, but we came back here, and this year we will be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the settlement of Neve Tsuf,” said Amar.
On Wednesday, the coin was handed over to the archaeological unit of the Civil Administration, or COGAT, which overseas Israeli government activities in the West Bank. According to Israeli law, all archaeological finds must be turned over to the government. Hallel received a certificate of appreciation for her find.
Hallel said she was a little sad at first to turn over the coin, but got over it. And as for the feeling of holding something so historic in her hand, she said, “I felt that wow! It was written on it ‘Jerusalem the Holy City.’ That’s really exciting.”