Did you get gelt?
No, not the chocolate kind but honest-to-goodness gelt. Maybe you were lucky to receive a genuine Judaean coin for Chanukah. Or a medallion from the early years from the State of Israel. Or perhaps you just want to know more about those ancient Jewish coins tucked away in the back of your drawer. Here’s where you should invest some time to learn about them – and our history.
For a good introduction to minting in the Land of Israel, check out Ancient Coins of the Jewish People. Coins were first minted in Gaza about 400 BCE and later in Jerusalem about 500 years later. The earliest coin known to be minted in Jerusalem bears a picture of a lily and the word “Yehud.” In what was an incredible symmetry with the past, the Bank of Israel reproduced this same design when it issued the One New Shelel coin in 1985.
Judaea, Half Gerah, Circa 375-332 BCE
Israel, 1 Shekel coin, 1985
From there, click over to the Handbook of Biblical Numismatics and the informative but dated entry at JewishEncyclopedia.com. You are now ready to appreciate the Menorah Coin Project which calls itself the World’s #1 databank on Biblical – Judaean coins. There are thousands of images of coins to pore over.
But hold on, there’s a problem here. In Exodus 20:4, we are warned against making “a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.”
That restriction posed a challenge to Jews who began minting coins starting in the reign of Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus in 134 BCE to the end of the Second Revolt in 135 CE. Unlike the Persians, Syrians, Egyptians and Romans who decorated their coins with busts of their emperors, the Jews could not do the same.
So they turned elsewhere for inspiration including Lulavs, Lilies, and Lyres. The fascinating article in Jewish Heritage Online Magazine explains why certain symbols like the palm tree had special significance on its coins. “Palms were a symbol of Judea because they grew plentifully there. This meaning expanded, with the palm becoming a symbol for all of Palestine, and later, Israel. The Romans were apparently familiar with the meaning this symbol had for the Jews. After the First Revolt of the Jews was suppressed in 70 CE, the Roman emperor Vespasian minted a coin celebrating the nation’s subjugation with the image of a palm tree flanked by a bound Jew and mourning Jewish woman. The coin’s inscription read ‘Judaea Capta.’”
Are you sitting on a cache of coins from the time of the Maccabees – or a hoard from the age of Herod? Do you want to find out what they’re worth? Then join in at the “FORVM ANCIENT COINS” Biblical and Judaean Coins numismatics discussion board. Not only do most people pose questions but they also scan their coins. The answers they receive are always helpful. One person wanted to know whether his coin really was an antique. The answer: “this is (a) modern coin, the easy way to tell is the Hebrew on the coin, it is new Hebrew, not ancient.”
You don’t have to break the bank to pick up a handful of old coins. The eBay section, Ancient Jewish Coins, has hundreds to choose from “Prutahs, widows mites, privincials (sic)” for 6.99 US to a “Judaea Bar Kochba Revolt 132 AD Ancient Jewish Ex Mildenberg Plate Coin” for $29,950.00 US (Don’t forget to set aside $5 for shipping.)
But before you buy, be careful! In Ancient Coins & Modern Fakes, Dennis Kroh writes about notorious and common coin scams. “There have been forgeries of Ancient Coins for as long as there has been coinage.” Novices to coin collecting are amazed that coins of the Ancient World are obtainable at all for any price (They are all in museums, aren’t they!) Kroh says it’s no wonder that, when a tourist purchases an “ancient” coin or two, they are usually paying much more for a counterfeit than what the authentic item would cost. For the Jewish side of the (bad) coin, check out Marvin Tameanko’s “False Shekels”, The Medals that Influenced Modern History.
When you take time to examine a coin, it usually looks perfect. But that’s not always the case. The Israel Error Coins site has some interesting blunders including double strikes, brockages (where one side of the coin has the normal design and the other side has a mirror image of the same design impressed upon it) and and clipped planchets (the round blank from the coin is made from has a bite taken out of it before the coin is stamped.)
But my favourite error can’t be blamed on a mechanical breakdown – just a lazy proofreader: an Israeli medallion embossed with the English inscription, “SEASONS GREATINGS”.
Season’s Greatings from the Bank of Israel