So many mitzvos depend on money that is almost impossible to understand the Torah fully without knowing the story of money in ancient times. We will scratch the surface of this little known facet of Torah wisdom.
The Power of New Coinage
In olden times, money was not always in the form of coins. Indeed, the word matbei’a that intimates a minted and stamped (mutba) coin does not appear in the Tanach at all. Rather, the Tanach often speaks of currencies that served as weights. The Biblical gera and the kesitoh, for example, were silver bars of specific weight, and even the shekel served as a measure of weight. This is obvious in many verses.
The weight of the vessels donated by the princes to the Mishkon are denoted in shekels: His offering was one silver sprinkling vessel, its weight a hundred and thirty shekels, one silver bowl of seventy shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary… One spoon of ten shekels of gold, full of incense (Bamidbar 7:13-14).
We find the same in the verses (Shmuel I 14:26 ) describing how Avshalom, who had sworn to be a nazir his whole life, cut his hair once a year: When he cut his hair… the weight (shekel) of the hair of his head was two hundred shekels according to the king’s weight (II Shmuel 14:26). Indeed, this verse indicates that the verb shekel is indicative of weighing something. This may well be the source of the word “scales” in the English language.
The shekel is the most commonly mentioned coin in the Torah. It is involved in many mitzvos such as giving five shekels to a kohein to redeem our firstborn sons, paying a thirty shekel fine if a bull of ours gores a slave, and donating half a shekel for annual sacrifices.
The value of the shekel remained unchanged for hundreds of years until the time of Yechezkel or later, when Chazal took the unprecedented step of adding a fifth to its value, making it equal to the famous shekel minted by the city of Tzur (Tyre) on the Lebanese coast.
This raises two obvious questions – what authority did Chazal have to alter the value of the shekel upon which so many Torah laws and mitzvos depend, and why did they adjust the shekel specifically to the currency of Tzur?
The answer to the first question is that the Torah itself granted Chazal authority to alter the shekel’s value with a special verse. As the Gemara (Bechoros 50a) says: “We have learnt that a shekel is twenty gerah.
From where do we know that if one wants to add to this one may do so? Because the verse says, [Twenty gerah] it will be (Vayikra 27:12).” Rashi explains that the future tense of it will be implies that some time in the future, the coin may be altered from what it was in the past.
Rock of Stability
To understand why the shekel was altered to conform to Tzuri currency, it may help to survey the city’s numismatic history. When Tzur began producing coins in about 400 BCE, the city fathers decided to keep the weight and silver content of their coins stable, and generally speaking, their shekel retained a stable value for about five hundred years.
Thanks to their coin’s stability, it became a popular currency in many countries as is evident from the unearthing of ancient hoards of these coins in Eretz Yisroel and Syria, and as far away as Teheran. Due to the coin’s persistent value, the Tzuri shekels and half shekels continued to serve as a major currency in Eretz Yisroel even after the city began stamping them with images of its patron idol, Malkarat.
The Tzuri shekels preserved their integrity until about nine years before the second churban when Emperor Nero took over the city’s minting works and began producing coins of the same weight but with a smaller proportion of silver.
Based on the Tzuri shekel’s importance and prevalence, the Rogachover Gaon (Shekol’im 1:3) explains that just as measures of volume like the kezayis are measured not according to the olives of Moshe’s time, but according to the olive size of succeeding generations, so too, the value of coins alters according to the principal coins of succeeding generations. Because of this rule, the important Tzuri shekel supercededthe ancient shekel of Torah times – with the Torah’s sanction.
Some Poskim learn that this rule applies not only to the Tzuri shekel, but also to important coins of later times. The Chochmas Adam (103:1) uses this rationale to explain why people were giving the value of five Reichsthalers for pidyon haben in his time, even though this sum was worth more than five Tzuri shekels. Similarly, the Aruch Hashulchan Ha’Osid rules that the half shekel donated for sacrifices in messianic times will be according to the largest coin prevalent at that time.
The Shekel in Modern Times
What is the actual value of the Talmudic shekel?
According to the Geonim, the Rif, and the Rambam, one quarter of a shekel is equal to the “golden dinar of the Arabs,” a coin widely minted in the Arab world from 696 CE for about six hundred years that weighed about 4.25 grams. A complete shekel therefore weighs about 17 grams.
In addition, based on a tradition of the Geonim, the Rif (Kiddushin 12) and Rambam (Mishnah commentary Bechoros 8:7) tell us how to measure the shekel according to barley seeds. The Rambam writes, “A perutah [one 768th of a shekel] is equal to half a barley seed.”
In eastern lands, the barley measure was rarely used to estimate coins as everyone was more familiar with the “golden dinar of the Arabs.” But in Europe where this coin was unknown, poskim determined the shekel according to barley seeds. The first to do this was Rav Menachem of Mirasberg who writes: “I weighed [this amount] twice at different times with two types of barley, and always had five lot and one konti.” He and other poskim calculated that a shekel weighs between 15.3 to 15.9 grams, actually slightly less than the 17 grams the Rambam requires. Perhaps barley seeds in Europe were slightly smaller than those of the Geonim and the Rambam.
According to Rashi (Shemos 21:32) and other Rishonim, the shekel is smaller than the 17 grams required by the Rambam. Rashi writes that the “the shekel weighs four zehuvim, which are half an ounce, according to the accurate weight of Cologne.” Since the ukniah weighs about 29.2 grams, a shekel weighs 14.6 grams, significantly less than the Rambam’s 17 grams.
In a famous letter sometimes printed at the end of his Chumash commentary, the Ramban wrote that he found tangible proof for Rashi’s opinion after his arrival in Eretz Yisroel where he discovered that the elders of Akko possessed an old silver coin imprinted with the word shekel in ancient Hebrew script.
“We weighed it at the moneychangers,” the Ramban writes, “and its weight was ten Austrian silver coins, which is half the ounce that Rabbeinu Shlomo (Rashi) mentioned.”
Yet surprisingly, even though the Ramban and other authorities write that they actually saw ancient shekels that concord with Rashi’s opinion, the Shulchan Aruch rules that we must use the larger shekel required by the Rif and Rambam. There are various answers to this question.
A prutah, the tiniest coin of Talmudic times, had the volume of half a barley seed and was worth one 40th of a gram of silver. How much is that according to today’s silver market? At silver’s present rate of about 90 cents a gram, a prutah (a 40th of a gram) equals about 2.25 cents.
Despite its low value, in Chazal’s time a prutah was enough to buy one esrog or one pomegranate (Me’ilah 6:3), or about 12.5 dried figs (Sifri, Ki Seitzei 25:15). The Yerushalmi (Ma’asros 3) speaks of Rabban Gamliel buying three of the Arba’ah Minim for only one prutah.
Chazal also mention that the annual living expense for food and clothing was 200 zuz, equal to 4,800 prutos or 13.1 prutos (about 30 cents) a day. This is equivalent to slightly more than $100 a year for living expenses. When Hillel was studying Torah and earning 96 prutos a day, he paid half to the guard of the beis medrash to let him in and supported his family on the other each day (Yuma 35a). A sacrificial sheep or goat cost only 32 prutos (Shevuos 37a). Of course, wages in those times were much lower. The Gemara (Bava Metzia 76a-76b) speaks of hiring workers for three or four zuz (nine or twelve prutos) a day.
Based on the relatively low value of the prutah and other Talmudic coins, someone asked the Rivash about the amount a husband promises in the kesuba (200 maneh or 6,400 perutos [according to the Rema], which seems small.
To this, the Rivash answered: “You are speaking of the people of Majorca whose wealthy Jews had houses filled with all good things… Rather, you should estimate according to the people of this land who have insufficient [money] for scanty bread and water in a measure, and who sleep on the earth or on a leather mat, who cover themselves with their street clothes by night, and whose clothes are patches on patches, most of walking barefoot. So it was in the days of Chazal… and the sages enacted the kesuba for a woman equally to all in order to not shame those who do not have, estimating according to a poor person.”
Indeed, the principal benefit of the kesuba nowadays is not so much the 200 maneh promised according to the laws of kesuba, but rather the hundred zekukim (a medieval coin) the husband promises in lieu of his wife’s dowry and the hundred zekukim he adds to it. This sum adds up to thousands of dollars.
It is also worth noting that according to our calculations, the chad gadya devoured by a cat on Seder night is not much of a fiscal loss. At the rate of 2.25 cents a prutah, with four prutos to a zuz, the grand total of the gadya’s worth is 18 cents!
(Source: Chaim P. Benish, Midos veShiurei Torah. Bnei Berak: 5747.)