Jewish money began with the first Jew. As the Medrash (Bereishis Rabbah 39:11) informs us:

“There were four whose coins circulated throughout the world. Avrohom: ‘And I will make you a great nation,’ [a verse which indicates] that his coins were circulated. And what were his coins? An old man and an old woman on one side, and a youth and maiden on the other. “Yehoshua: ‘And Hashem was with Yehoshua and his fame was in the land’ [indicating] that his coins went out. What [were his coins]? An ox on this side and a re’em on the other side, hinted in the verse, ‘The fi rstborn of his bull is a glory for him and his horns are the horns of a re’em.’ “Dovid: ‘And the fame of Dovid went out in all the lands’ [indicates] that his coins went out in the world. And what were his coins? A [shepherd’s] staff and bag on one side, and a tower on the other, alluded to in the verse, ‘Your neck is like the tower of Dovid.’ “Mordechai: ‘For Mordechai was great in the house of the king and his fame went out in all the countries’ [implying] that his coins went out in the world. And what were his coins? Sackcloth and ashes on one side, and a golden crown on the other.”

Commenting on the Gemara (Bava Kamma 97b) that Yerushalayim issued a coin with Dovid and Shlomo on one side and Yerushalayim on the other, Rashi is careful to point out that this does not mean, chas veshalom, that Jews stamped human images on their coins, but that they wrote the words “Dovid and Shlomo” on one side of the coins, and “Yerushalayim the Holy City” on the other.

The Gemara (Shabbos 33b) relates that when Yaakov returned to Sh’chem after meeting Eisav, he established coinage. However, none of these ancient coins described by the Gemara and Medrash have yet been unearthed by any archeologist’s spade; the earliest Jewish coins discovered so far date from the Persian Empire when Jewish coins in Eretz Yisroel were stamped with the word Yehud, i.e., the autonomous Persian province of Yehudah. This was the beginning of the golden age of Jewish coins that lasted until Bar Kochba minted coins during his short-lived rebellion. After that, autonomous national rule of Jews ceased although individual towns in Eretz Yisroel continued to mint their own coins until the disintegration of the Roman Empire.

Of course, this was by no means the end of Jewish coinage. Throughout the galus, Jews continuously bought the privilege of minting coins from their non-Jewish overlords and often incorporated Hebrew lettering into their design. Coins minted in twelfth century Wettarau, Germany, are inscribed with the name of a Jewish minter, Dovid HaKohein, and a Polish coin produced during the twelfth century reign of King Kasimir bears the legend, bracha kashmi – blessings for Kasimir. One of the few cases of a Jew issuing private coinage in the Diaspora is the instance of the Romanian Jew, Julius Popper, who unearthed huge gold reserves in Patagonia during 5649/1889 and established a short-lived private empire replete with its own coins and stamps.

Although Jews rarely issued their own coinage in the galus, Jewish communities in need of their own internal currency often issued tokens that were exchanged for money or used in lieu of money. Surviving Jewish tokens generally date from the eighteenth century onwards. One important token of Russian and Polish communities was the shechitah token, known as a koropka (community tax token). One such token is stamped with the letters taf taf, standing for talmud Torah, since the koropka tax was often used to support Torah education and talmidei chachomim. Tokens were issued with varying values. One Italian token in the shape of a metal disk was minted in two versions: a large one bearing the Hebrew inscription l’shechitas off gadol (for the slaughter of a large chicken) and its Italian translation, pollo grande (large chicken), while a smaller version bears the inscription taf taf (talmud Torah) on one side and l’shechitas off katan, pollo piccolo (small chicken) on the other.

These tokens enabled people to pay the koropka tax directly into the kehillah coffers instead of having to entrust them to the shochet.

Another common use of the token was to enable people to give tzedakah at times when the needy were many but money was scarce. In Eastern Europe, it was not always feasible to hand over even the smallest available coin (the kopek, worth about two cents) to every poor person who stretched out his hand, since in Russia of the 5590s/1830s, for example, a person could buy a whole turkey for fifteen kopeks. Not everyone could afford such largesse.

To solve the impasse, the Russian government sanctioned rabbonim and communities to produce tokens worth a fraction of the kopek, which everyone could afford to hand out plentifully. These tokens were named prutos after the Gemara’s prutah, the smallest coin considered to have monetary status. At the lower range, prutos could range in value from 1/32nd or 1/5th of a kopek, while more valuable prutos might be worth a half, one, or even two kopeks.

In her memoir dating back to those times, Pauline Wengeroff describes how her mother distributed tokens to the poor every Rosh Chodesh: “My mother used to distribute on Rosh Chodesh a considerable amount of money,” she writes. “Elderly men and women received a coin in the value of three Polish grosh, i.e., one and a half Russian kopeka. The younger the poor people were, the less they received, down to one grosh. Children received one prutah only. This was one third of a Polish grosh, therefore one-sixth of a kopeka.

“These coins were made by the Jewish elders (Gemeinderate) with the permission of the government. I remember that this prutah was given to the poor people exclusively, but was not valid in business life. It was fi rst cast in lead with the inscription prutah achas, which means one prutah.

“When they were misused, they were abolished and prutos were made from parchment with the same inscription. The parchment money was also soon abolished. Its place was taken by a prutah in the form of a medium-sized round button of wood with a little groove fi lled with red sealing wax on which the word prutah was impressed with the seal of the Community Council.”

Tokens were used until early into the twentieth century. In Pressburg, at the turn of the last century, poor people received round tokens, worth about three kreutzer, to redeem for bread while yeshivah bochurim were given square tokens stamped with the letters “ches beis” standing for chevras bochurim, and redeemed them for four kreutzers of bread.

The author of Fun Volozhin bis Yerushalayim describes how Volozhiner talmidim were handed tzetlach (tickets) of a certain value in lieu of money, which became so common in the Volozhin area that both Jews and non-Jews used them readily as real cash.

In Eretz Yisroel, tokens were sometimes used instead of ready cash due to the gross inefficiency of the Turkish government. For example, an official of the Mikvah Yisroel Agricultural School writes the following letter to explain why his institution used to issue tokens bearing its initials:

“In the nineteenth century, the Mikvah Yisroel Agricultural School, as well as some Jewish colonies and institutions in Palestine, issued coins for internal use, as shortages of Turkish Government small change occurred often. The coin you mentioned was issued by our school…” Similar tokens were issued by the Jewish communities in Dora, Zichron Yaakov and Yaffo.

Of course, the most recent tokens issued in Eretz Yisroel were the bagel-shaped telephone tokens that became obsolete after the invention of the magnetic phone card. A fatal flaw in their design was the hole pierced through their center to which unscrupulous characters could attach a thread to stop it from falling down the chute at the expiration of its time limit.

Sinister Jewish money was that which was fabricated by the Nazis for use in ghettos throughout conquered Europe. Jews of the Theresienstadt Camp in southwest Czechoslovakia were forced to hand over their real money in exchange for ghetto notes, distributed by the “Jewish Self-Government Bank,” established in the former town hall.

The cynical idea behind this money was that Theresienstadt, the fake “model camp” especially set up to fool the Western world, would seem to even have its own Jewish currency! Peter Keen, a Jewish artist imprisoned in the camp, was ordered to design banknotes illustrated with Moshe holding the tablets of the Law.

However, when the camp commandant handed over Keen’s preliminary design to Reinhard Heydrich, the German dictator of Bohemia and Moravia, Heydrich complained that Keen’s depiction of Moshe was too Aryan and ordered the implementation of curly hair and a hooked nose. Also, whether by Heydrich’s orders or by chance, the sixth commandment on the tablets, “You shall not kill,” is totally covered by Moshe’s left hand. Peter Keen, together with his wife and parents, was later deported to Auschwitz in October 5704/1944, where he and his family were murdered.

When Keen’s money arrived in Theresienstadt in May 5702/1942, the Jews discovered that it was useless because everything sold in the camp shops, including their own confiscated property, was ridiculously overpriced. Almost the only way the Nazis could get the camp inmates to use the money was through taxes. For the privilege of being allowed to relax, a Jew had to pay 50 Theresienstadt kronen “free time tax” a month, and smaller sums were demanded for the privilege of entering a coffee shop or listening to musical entertainment.

Many inmates used the money as chips (fake money) in card games. Perhaps the best-known Holocaust money was that produced in the Lodz ghetto by its Judenrat head, Chaim Rumkowski, sarcastically known as “King Chaim.” At the Nazis’ behest, Rumkowski began printing banknotes, known as “Rumkies,” during 5700/1940. His coins were often made of magnesium salvaged from shot-down German warplanes; since magnesium is highly inflammable, Jews used them as fuel during freezing winter months.

Some time after the war, the Lodz ghetto became suspiciously plentiful after people became interested in collecting Holocaust money, and it is widely suspected that the original printing plates had survived and were being used by the government to run off new bank-notes for those customers interested in the currency in governmentrun tourist shops – a small example of the trade in Jewish suffering.

(Sources: 1) Kisch, Bruno of Yeshiva University, “Jewish Community Tokens,” Historia Judaica volume XV, New York: 1953, ed. Kisch Guido. 2) York, Dr. Alan. “The Paper Money Used in the Theresienstadt Ghetto: The Inside Story,” The Shekel, volume XVI no. 2, American Israel Numismatic Association Inc., March-April 1983.)

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