(Communicated by Israel Antiquities Authority)
This coming Thursday, before reading the Scroll of Esther, all devout Jews will contribute a sum of money, “a reminder of the half shekel” which was paid by every household in ancient times for the purpose of maintaining the Temple. Today, this sum is translated into local currency and donated to the needy.
A rare ancient silver coin, of the type used to pay the half-shekel tax in ancient times, was recently discovered in an archaeological excavation that is being conducted in the Walls Around Jerusalem National Park near the City of David, in what was the main drainage channel of Jerusalem during the Second Temple period.
The excavations, directed by Eli Shukron of the Israel Antiquities Authority and Professor Ronny Reich of the University of Haifa, are being conducted on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, the Nature and Parks Authority and the Ir David Foundation.
Archaeologist Eli Shukron surmises, “Just like today, when coins sometimes fall from our pockets and roll into drainage openings at the side of the street, that’s how it was some two thousand years ago – a man was on his way to the Temple, and the coin which he intended to use for paying the half-shekel head tax found its way into the drainage channel.”
The origin of the commandment to pay the half-shekel head tax to the Temple is in the weekly Biblical reading “Ki Tisa”, in the Book of Exodus: “When you take the census of the people of Israel, then each shall give a ransom for his soul to the Lord when you number them … half a shekel … the rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less… you shall take the atonement money from the people of Israel and shall appoint it for the service of the Tent of Meeting; that it may bring the people of Israel to remembrance before the Lord, so as to make atonement for your souls.”
At the time of the Temple’s construction, every Jew was commanded to make an obligatory donation of a half shekel to the edifice. This modest sum allowed all Jews, of all economic levels, to participate in the building of the Temple. After the construction was completed, they continued to collect the tax from every Jew for the purpose of purchasing the public sacrifices and other needs of the Temple. The collection began every year on the first day of the month of Adar when the “heralding of the shekelim” took place, and it ended on the first day of the month of Nissan, the beginning of the new fiscal year for the Temple, when the purchase of public sacrifices was renewed.
It was most likely a shekel of Tyre that Jesus and Peter used to pay the Temple head tax (a half shekel each): "Go thou to the sea, and cast a hook, and take up the fish that first cometh up; and when thou hast opened his mouth, thou shalt find a piece of money. That take, and give unto them for me and thee" (Matthew 17:27). Moreover, Tyrian silver coins probably comprised the infamous payment to Judas Iscariot, when "they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver" (Matthew 26:15).
The annual half-shekel head tax was given in shekel and half shekel coins from the Tyre mint, where they were struck from the year 125 BCE until the outbreak of the Great Revolt in 66 CE. At the time of the uprising, the tax was paid using Jerusalem shekelim, which were specifically minted for this purpose. In the rabbinic sources, the Tosefta (Ketubot 13:20) states “Silver mentioned in the Pentateuch is always Tyrian silver: What is Tyrian silver? It is Jerusalemite.” Many have interpreted this to mean that only Tyrian shekels could be used to pay the half-shekel head tax at the Temple.
The shekel that was found in the excavation weighs 13 grams, bears the head of Melqart, the chief deity of the city of Tyre on the obverse (equivalent to the Semitic god Baal) and an eagle upon a ship’s prow on the reverse. The coin was minted in the year 22 CE.
Despite the importance of the half-shekel head tax for the economy of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period, only seven other Tyrian shekels and half shekels have previously been found in excavations in Jerusalem.