How Much Is The Biblical Money Worth? – A Study Into Economics of Ancient Times

So many Mitzvot depend on money that it is almost impossible to understand the Torah fully without knowing the story of biblical money.

Here we will scratch the surface of this little-known facet of Torah wisdom that is left mostly untouched.

Money in biblical times was not just a medium of exchange or a measure of wealth; it was intricately woven into the social, legal, and spiritual fabric of the community. The Tanach and Talmud detail various forms of currency, from common coins used in daily transactions to large sums used in larger economic dealings and korbanot (sacrifices).

As we saw in the webinar about the Kabbalah of Money, a person’s possessions (including cash) is part of his soul. Money is then a way of expanding one’s soul.

As we delve deeper, we’ll also uncover how biblical economies operated, including the roles of trade, taxation, debts, and even charity.

Biblical money

The Power of New Coinage

In the days of the Tanach, the concept of money extended beyond mere coins to encompass weights and measures, reflecting a more intrinsic value system based on actual weights of precious metals. The word matbei’a, which denotes a minted coin, is conspicuously absent from the Tanach, highlighting the different economic practices of the time.

Instead, we encounter terms like gera and kesitah, which refer to specific weights of silver bars, and even the shekel, which is perhaps the most recognized form of biblical currency, originally served as a measure of weight. This system is illustrated vividly in the scriptures, such as the donations made by Nesi’in to the Mishkan, where items like silver vessels and gold spoons are weighed in shekels (Bamidbar 7:13-14).

The story of Avshalom, described in Shmuel I, further underscores the usage of weight as a form of currency. Avshalom, who took a Nazarite vow, annually weighed his cut hair, with the significant weight of two hundred shekels, indicating not just the physical but also the potential monetary value of his hair (II Shmuel 14:26). This connection between shekel as a weight and the modern English word “scales” suggests a history of measurement that influences even today’s language.

In Otzrot Chaim, we also find a section where Rabbi Chaim Vital explores the secrets of the Mishkal, Minyan and Middah (forms of weight).

The shekel’s role was integral to various mitzvos, including the redemption of a firstborn son (Pidyon HaBen), which cost five shekels, or the imposition of a thirty shekel fine for injuries caused by one’s bull. Every year, a half-shekel tax was also collected for communal sacrifices, highlighting the shekel’s pervasive role in daily and spiritual life.

Despite its longstanding value, the shekel underwent a significant change during or after the era of Yechezkel, when Chazal decided to increase its value by a fifth. This adjustment was made to align the shekel with the currency of Tzur, a prominent city known for its stable and widely respected monetary units. This decision might seem controversial, as it seemingly altered a monetary standard deeply embedded in Torah law and practice.

However, Chazal’s authority to amend the shekel’s value was rooted in the Torah itself. The sages had this prerogative, as we find in the Gemara (Bechoros 50a). Here, the sages discusse this with the citation of a verse from Vayikra (27:12), which uses future tense to suggest the possibility of future changes to the shekel’s value. Rashi, elucidates that the phrase “it will be” indicates a divine allowance for the modification of the shekel, should the need arise.

This flexibility in the value of the shekel not only demonstrates the dynamic nature of biblical law but also shows the adaptive strategies of ancient leaders to maintain economic stability and relevance in changing times. It’s fascinating to see that the economic system of old was not the wild capitalism of nowadays, and neither a communist dictatorship, but established free trade with some significant interference from the government.

Either way, such measures ensured that the biblical economic system remained functional and meaningful across different epochs, reflecting a profound understanding of economics that transcends mere historical curiosity.

DALL·E 2024 04 03 11.35.55 In a cozy book lined office the ancient rabbi adorned with his small dignified turban is seated at a wooden table deeply engaged in counting coin

The Biblical Money – Rock of Stability

To understand why the shekel was adjusted to mirror the currency of Tzur, it is useful to explore the numismatic history of this ancient city. Tzur, or Tyre, began minting its own coins around 400 BCE, and the city’s leaders made a crucial decision to maintain a stable weight and silver content in their coins.

This stability proved beneficial, as the Tzuri shekel retained its value for approximately five hundred years. The consistent value of the Tzuri shekel made it a favored choice in international trade, evidenced by discoveries of these coins in ancient hoards scattered from Eretz Yisrael to Syria, and even as distant as Tehran.

The Tzuri shekel’s widespread acceptance and enduring stability made it an influential currency in Eretz Yisrael, even when the coins began featuring the image of Malkarat, the city’s patron deity. This practice continued until a significant change occurred about nine years before the Second Temple’s destruction, when Emperor Nero seized control of Tyre’s minting operations. Under his rule, coins were still produced at the same weight, but the silver content was reduced, undermining their previous consistency.

The adaptation of the shekel to match the Tzuri standard is a reflection of broader economic principles acknowledged by Jewish authorities over time. The Rogachover Gaon, in his analysis (Shekalim 1:3), draws a parallel between measurements of volume and monetary value, suggesting that just as measures like the kezayis (olive’s bulk) are adjusted based on the size of olives in subsequent generations, so too should the value of coins evolve in line with the predominant currency of the time.

This principle sanctioned the replacement of the ancient Torah shekel with the more contemporary and influential Tzuri shekel.

This adaptive approach to currency valuation has been embraced by various Poskim (Jewish legal scholars) for other contexts as well. For instance, the Chochmat Adam (103:1) discusses how, in his era, the value of five Reichsthalers was used for pidyon HaBen (redemption of the firstborn son), even though this amount exceeded the value of five Tzuri shekels, reflecting the contemporary economic conditions and the prevailing currencies.

Likewise, the Aruch Hashulchan Ha’atid anticipates that the half-shekel contribution required for temple sacrifices in messianic times will be based on the most substantial coin in circulation at that time.

Through these discussions and adaptations, we see how Jewish law dynamically interacts with changing economic realities, ensuring that religious obligations and the values underpinning them remain relevant and practicable regardless of temporal or geographical shifts. This approach not only highlights the practical wisdom of ancient legal systems but also underscores the adaptability of religious laws to meet the evolving needs of the community they serve.

DALL·E 2024 04 02 10.50.54 An ancient Jewish man is inside his home focused on the delicate task of braiding Tzitzit the traditional fringes worn on the corners of a garment a

The Shekel in Modern Times

What is the actual value of the Talmudic shekel?

This question has intrigued scholars for centuries, and the answer varies depending on historical and regional contexts. The Geonim, along with renowned Jewish scholars like the Rif and the Rambam, provide a fascinating glimpse into the measurement of the shekel.

According to these authoritative sources, one quarter of a shekel is equivalent to the “golden dinar of the Arabs,” a prominent coin that was minted across the Arab world starting in 696 CE and continued for about six hundred years. This coin had a consistent weight of approximately 4.25 grams, thus placing a complete shekel at about 17 grams.

Further elaborating on this, both the Rif, in his commentary on Kiddushin 12, and the Rambam, in his commentary on Mishnah Bechorot 8:7, refer to a traditional method of measuring the shekel using barley seeds. The Rambam specifies that a perutah, which is one 768th of a shekel, equates to half a barley seed. This method of using barley seeds to estimate monetary values offers a tangible, albeit agricultural, approach to understanding ancient weights and measures.

However, the application of this barley seed method was not uniform across all regions. In the Eastern lands, where the golden dinar was well-known and widely circulated, the barley measure was rarely used. Conversely, in Europe, where the golden dinar was not as common, poskim like Rav Menachem of Mirasberg relied on barley seeds to determine the weight of the shekel.

(So we see that there was not so much consensus even regarding biblical money, lending credence to the dictum “2 Jews, 3 opinions”)

Rav Menachem’s meticulous approach involved weighing the equivalent shekel value using barley seeds at different times and with different types of barley, resulting in a weight of about 15.3 to 15.9 grams for the shekel. This figure is slightly less than the 17 grams noted by the Rambam, suggesting a variation in the size of barley seeds between Europe and the regions familiar to the Geonim and the Rambam.

The difference in these measurements shows a little about the challenges of maintaining a consistent standard across diverse geographical and cultural landscapes (and halacha in general).

This flexibility in the measurement of the shekel according to local norms, whether through barley seeds or the well-recognized golden dinar, underscores a broader principle in Jewish law: the integration of tradition with practical applicability, ensuring that religious observances remain relevant and meaningful to every generation.

DALL·E 2024 04 02 13.18.29 Expanding on the magical fantasy style of the colorful giant tree on a floating sky island we now introduce vibrant energy channels that weave and f

Rashi’s Opinion

According to Rashi the weight of the shekel is less than the 17 grams stated by the Rambam. Rashi, in his commentary on Shemos 21:32, explains that the shekel weighs four zehuvim, equivalent to half an ounce according to the precise weight standards of Cologne. In this system, given that the ukniah (an old weight unit) is approximately 29.2 grams, the shekel’s weight comes out to around 14.6 grams—a noticeable discrepancy from the Rambam’s assessment.

In a notable correspondence often appended to his Chumash commentary, the Ramban recounts discovering an old silver coin during his time in Eretz Yisrael. This coin, which bore the inscription “shekel” in ancient Hebrew script, was found among the possessions of the elders of Akko. Upon weighing it at local moneychangers, the Ramban confirmed that its weight was equivalent to ten Austrian silver coins, aligning it with the half-ounce measure previously described by Rashi.

Despite this compelling historical evidence supporting a lighter shekel, the Shulchan Aruch, the comprehensive code of Jewish law, opts to follow the views of the Rif and the Rambam, advocating for a shekel of around 17 grams.

This decision has puzzled scholars and posed various interpretive challenges.

Several explanations have been proposed for why the Shulchan Aruch might favor the heavier shekel despite the evidence for a lighter one. One theory suggests that the Shulchan Aruch considered the heavier shekel to provide a more conservative estimate, ensuring that all monetary obligations prescribed by the Torah are met without the risk of underpayment. Another possibility is that the sources supporting a heavier shekel were deemed more reliable or widespread among the communities for whom the Shulchan Aruch was primarily written.

Furthermore, the heavier shekel might reflect a tendency towards standardization in Jewish law, aiming for uniformity in religious practice and observance. By aligning with the more substantial weight, the Shulchan Aruch could ensure greater consistency around diverse Jewish communities.

In sum, the debate over the weight of the shekel exemplifies the dynamic interplay between historical evidence, textual interpretation, and legal standardization in Jewish thought. It showcases how Jewish law is not static but responds thoughtfully to new information and changing contexts, striving to uphold the integrity and accuracy of religious practice.

DALL·E 2024 04 03 10.55.17 An ancient setting reimagines the heartfelt moment between a young Rabbi and a young man seeking guidance as an acrylic painting. The Rabbis office i

Buying Power

A prutah, the smallest coin of Talmudic times, illustrates the vast differences between ancient and modern economies. With its value equating to just a fortieth of a gram of silver, the prutah’s worth in today’s market, where silver is priced at about 90 cents per gram, would be approximately 2.25 USD.

Yet, despite this seemingly trivial amount, a prutah held significant purchasing power in Chazal’s time. For example, it could buy an etrog or a pomegranate, or about 12.5 dried figs, demonstrating the different scales of economic value across times.

The economic context of the prutah becomes even more fascinating when considering the daily and annual living costs of the era. The Talmud mentions that the annual expense for food and clothing was around 200 zuz, which translates to 4,800 prutot or about 30 cents per day—barely over $100 a year.

This starkly contrasts with contemporary living standards and expenses. Hillel the Elder’s situation teaches us more about the value of money then; earning 96 prutot a day, he would spend half to enter the study hall and live off the remainder with his family. Even more strikingly, a sacrificial sheep or goat cost just 32 prutot.

This disparity prompted a query to the Rivash about the monetary sum specified in a ketuba (marriage contract), which promises 200 maneh or 6,400 prutot—seemingly a modest amount by today’s standards. The Rivash responded by emphasizing the socioeconomic conditions of Chazal’s time, describing a population whose day-to-day existence was marked by severe austerity.

Most people, he noted, lived in extreme poverty, their lifestyle far removed from the relative affluence of some Jewish communities like those in Majorca. The sages, therefore, set the ketuba’s amount to reflect the circumstances of the poorest individuals, ensuring that no one would feel marginalized or embarrassed due to their financial status.

In modern times, the ketuba still holds significance, though its financial implications have evolved. Today, it typically includes not only the traditional sum from Talmudic times but also additional amounts that can equate to thousands of dollars, reflecting both the continuity and adaptation of this ancient custom to contemporary values and inflation.

Furthermore, the playful narrative of “Chad Gadya,” an Aramaic song sung at the end of the Pessach Seder, which involves a small goat bought for two zuzim (eight prutot), humorously illustrates the nominal value of biblical money in Talmudic terms. By today’s standards, the goat’s price would amount to merely 18 cents, a sum that whimsically underscores the dramatic shifts in economic value systems from Talmudic times to the present.

Therefore, while the prutah and other biblical money might now seem inconsequential in monetary value, they offer invaluable insights into the economic life, societal structure of ancient Jewish communities and also the minds of the Tzaddikim.

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Chaim Apsan

Chaim is a teacher and Kabbalah enthusiast. He loves helping Jews connect with true Torah teaching and enhancing their spiritual growth. With a focus on meditation, he guides individuals on transformative journeys of prayer, contemplation, and connection with Hashem. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and kids, and is committed to sharing the wisdom and power of Kabbalah in a genuine way.

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