Money – Coins of the Chashmonaim kings

With a small dose of literary license, this article sets out to prove two Chanukah firsts. The first Chanukah in history and the first Chanukah gelt ever minted, both date back far earlier than you’d ever imagine.

Seven Chanukahs

How many Chanukahs are there? Ask a child this question. A four year old might insist there is only one, the one that supplies him with Chanukah gelt. A five year old may add the Chanukas Hamishkon read about during Chanukah, while a smart child who knows his Tanach might add Shlomo’s dedication of the Bais Hamikdosh.

But the Pesikta Rabosi (parsha 2) goes further than them all, tallying a total of seven Chanukahs. After briefly discussing the laws of Chanukah, the Pesikta asks, “How many Chanukahs are there?” To this, it emphatically answers, seven! The Pesikta cites pesukim to prove that each of its cases was a bona fide Chanukah.

It first lists the dedication of the world’s creation. And if you object, where were the Chanukah lights? The Medrash has a ready answer. The lights were none other than the sun and moon Hashem suspended to illuminate the earth (Bereshis 2:1). The second Chanukah was Moshe’s dedication of the Mishkan (Bamidbar 6:1). Third was the dedication of the first Bais Hamikdosh (I Melochim 8), fourth, the dedication of Yerushalayim’s city wall (Nechemiah 12:27), fifth the dedication of the second Bais Hamikdosh (Ezra 6:17) and sixth the Chanukah of the Chashmonaim. Seventh is the dedication of olam haboh which, like the Chanukah of Bereishis will be illuminated with the sun and moon in magnified form. As Scripture states, The light of the moon will be like the light of the sun, and the light of the sun seven times, etc. (Yeshayahu 30:26).

Now, almost all these dedications share one common denominator. All, with one exception, deal with the Mishkon, Yerushalayim, or the Bais Hamikdosh. The odd man out is the first item, the world’s creation, for you might well ask: What has the creation in common with the other items on the list? Further- more, Hashem completed the world on the sixth day of creation. Why did He dedicate it two days early on the fourth?

One Equals a Thousand

To answer the above questions, it is worth perusing the Ramban’s Toras Hashem Temimah, the transcript of a drosha he delivered in the shul of Barcelona, Spain. This essay discusses the Torah’s immense wisdom and knowledge, and its revelation of world events hundreds of years in advance. It also discusses the Torah’s master outline of the whole of future history, based on the concept that each day of creation represents a thousand years. For the Torah does not write, For in six days Hashem made the heaven and the earth (Shemos 20:11), but rather, Six days, etc. This enables us to read the verse as saying, For Hashem made six days together with the heaven and with the earth.

During creation, the verse tells us, Hashem created the six thousand years of world history, one day representing each millennium for a thousand days are, in Your eyes, as yesterday (Tehillim 90:3). After explaining this concept, the Ramban runs through the future history of the world day by day.

The first day represents the millennium of Adam who was the light of the world, for he acknowledged Hashem; idolatry only began after his passing. The second day, when Hashem separated light from dark, represents the millennium of Noach when the flood separated the righteous from the wicked. The fruits created on the third day symbolize the millennium of Torah, the ultimate fruit of creation.

The fourth day, says the Ramban, represents the two botei mikdosh:

“On the fourth, the luminaries were suspended, for this is when the Bais Hamikdosh was built and the Kingdom of Dovid of which it says, His throne is as the sun before Me (Tehillim 89:37). The small luminary hints at the second temple and the kingdom of the Chashmonaim. On that day the temples were destroyed as it says, And to separate between the light and the dark (Bereishis 1:18).”

The Ramban concludes the list of days by saying that the fish and birds of the fifth day represent the nations that will rule the whole world, and the crea- tion of Adam on the sixth day symbolizes the arrival of the Moshiach (Toras Hashem Temimah, Kisvei HaRamban vol. 1 page 169).

The First Chanuka Gelt

Now, we can easily understand why Hashem dedicated the world on the fourth day, for on this day He created all the potentiality for the two future botei mikdosh. It was time to celebrate the first Chanukah on a cosmic scale.

“There were four whose coins went out in the world. [The first was] Avrohom for it says, And I will make you a great nation, indicating that his coins went out. What were his coins? An old man and woman on one side, and a youth and maiden on the other.”In an earlier article, “Jewish Money,” we cited a medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 39:11) that discusses the early history of Jewish coinage:

“[The second was] Yehoshua for it says, And Hashem was with Yehoshua and his fame was in the land, indicating that that his coins went out. What [were his coins]? An ox on one side and a re’eim on the other side hinting at the verse, The firstborn of his bull is a glory for him and his horns are the horns of a re’eim.

“[The third was] Dovid as it says, And the fame of Dovid went out in all the lands. This indicates that his coins went out in the world. What were his coins?

A [shepherd’s] staff and bag on one side, and a tower on the other hinting at the verse, Your neck is like the tower of Dovid.

“[The fourth was] Mordechai as it says, For Mordechai was great in the house of the king and his fame went out in all the countries, indicating that his coins went out in the world. What were his coins? Sack and ashes on one side, and a golden crown on the other.”

In all four cases, the medrash derives the minting of coins from verses describing people’s fame. This was most likely due to the lack of newspapers and mass media in olden times, and the speediest, most effective way for a king to spread his name and fame was by minting thousands of distinctive coins bearing his title.

As of this moment, every one of these ancient coins is lost. Find just one of them and you’ll be an instant candidate for the millionaire club. The earliest Jewish coins sitting on museum shelves date from the return of Jews from galus Bavel when Eretz Yisroel became an autonomous province of the Persian Empire. Small silver coins struck during this period are stamped with the name Yehud, the province of Yehuda, and some coins even bear the name “Yechez- kiya the Governor,” who served as last governor of the Persian Judean state.

And the oldest extant coins of an independent Jewish state are those of the Chashmonaim.

The First Book of Maccabees (15:6) writes that in 142 BCE, twenty-two years after the Temple was recaptured, King Antiochus VII of Syria declared to the kohein gadol, Shimon ben Matisyohu: “I turn over to you the right to make your own stamp for coinage for your country.” Despite this concrete permission, none of Shimon’s coins have ever been found. Historians suspect this may be due to Antiochus VII’s withdrawing the privilege a few months later after hearing that the Jews had made an alliance with Rome. When Shimon came to Antiochus VII with 2,000 men to help him in a war, together with silver, gold, and weaponry, “He would not receive them, but broke all the covenants that he had made with him before, and alienated himself from him” (15:27). In consequence, historians believe that the first coins of the time were minted by Shimon’s son and successor, Hyrcanus I. The first coins were transitionary and not obviously Jewish. One side was stamped with a lily (symbolizing Yerushalayim) and the other with a Greek style anchor. Although bearing Antiochus

VII’s name, these coins, in the spirit of strict halachah, had no image of his face.

Later coins of Hyrcanus I became the prototype for most Chashmonai coins of the next ninety years. On one side, these copper coins, usually worth a peruta or half peruta, bear an inscription surrounded by a laurel or olive wreath that symbolizes rule. The inscription states: Yehochanan [Hyrcanus’s Jewish name] the Kohein Gadol and the Council of the Jews.” On the other side of the coin is a depiction of two Greek style cornucopias, hollow horns overflowing with produce.

The last Chashmonai coins were minted in the years following 40 BCE by Matisyohu Antignus who had invaded Yerushalayim and ousted his uncle, Hyrcanus II. Rome sent Herod to oust the ouster. During the subsequent war, Antignus stamped the last Chashmonai coins, which, ironically, were the first Chashmonai coins to bear an image of the menorah. The very last of his coins depicted the lechem haponim on one side and the menorah on the other. Historians theorize that he stamped these religious images in a desperate attempt to persuade the people that he was a defender of Jewish values against the Rome-appointed Herod.

The menorahs on these coins, the oldest depiction of the menorah ever discovered, depict the menorah with curved branches. Considering that the other side of the coins bears the inscription, “Matisyohu Kohein Gadol and the Council of the Jews,” it seems safe to assume he well knew the shape of the temple’s menorah and would have objected if an artist got it wrong. The Rambam, on the other hand, illustrates the menorah as having straight branches.

To get back to Antignus’s coins, his efforts to rouse patriotic fervor were to no avail. After a battle of over two years, Herod seized Yerushalayim and captured Antignus who was later executed at Antioch. With him and his coins, five generations of Chasmonaim rule came to an end.

In a spirit of continuity, the motif the Bank of Israel used when it began minting special Chanukah Gelt coins in 1958 was the same menorah that had appeared on Antignos Matisyohu’s coins 1,998 years before.

(Sources include: David Hendin, “Numismatic Expressions of Hasmonean Sovereignty,” Israel Numismatic Journal 16 [2007-8] pp. 76-91.)

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