The Exchange : Silver coin usage and significance: From the ancient times of the Bible to modern day

Silver coin usage and significance: From the ancient times of the Bible to modern day


We see that silver has been used even in the earliest times as exhibited in the Old Testament when, in Genesis 23:15 Ephron tells Abraham that he will sell the Cave of Machpelah, which is currently in the modern city of Hebron, Israel, to him for 400 silver shekels.

When Abraham paid that significant sum of silver to Ephron he noted to him that this silver was "Ovar La'Socher" which is the Hebrew for "universally negotiable currency."

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We see that even back then silver bullion was the worldwide currency.

We also see that in Exodus 30:11-16, G-d tells Moses to take a census of the Jewish nation by collecting a half a shekel from each person, 20 or older, the amount not differing whether the person was poor or rich.

This further backs up the point that silver was, at all times, the world's currency. Interestingly enough, many Jewish rabbis say that the reason why everyone gave a half of a shekel was because a nation must be united as "one" to be full and achieve greatness.

So this lesson was taught and reminded during the taking of the census, where each individual would contribute only a "half" shekel as opposed to a whole shekel, signifying his dependence on his fellowman and the need to be united with his fellowman.

Nowadays, the Jews give half coins of their host country's standard unit of currency, so Jewish Americans give U.S. half dollars to charity during a certain ceremony, as a remembrance of the collecting of the half shekel.

Various half dollars throughout U.S. history that would be typically used include the Walking Liberty half dollar, the Ben Franklin half dollar and the JFK half dollar.

Of course, coins that contain silver are preferred, but modern day half dollars that do not contain silver are also acceptable as a remembrance.

Further in the Bible, in several places in the Old Testament, there is reference to a "Pidyon Haben," which is a redemption of the first born male child or animal with five silver shekels from a "Kohen," a Priest Levite. It is referred to in Exodus 13:12-15; Exodus 22:29; Exodus 34:20; Numbers 3:45; Numbers 8:17; Numbers 18:16; Leviticus 12:2-4; and Numbers 3:9, 12-13.


Several kinds of coins or medals could be used and some are even minted in Israel specifically for this purpose. Most popular in the United States is the use of five U.S. Silver Eagles which are each one ounce of .999 silver. But really any five silver coins with at least 20 grams of silver

will do, including: the American silver Eagle, the Vienna Philharmonic Silver bullion coin, the Chinese Panda silver bullion coin, the Australian silver bullion coin, the Maple Leaf Canadian silver bullion coin, the Israel Mint Pidyon Haben coins that were minted by the Israeli Government in the 1970's and two "Special Edition" Israeli Silver Israeli Coins that are specifically used just for this ceremony.

Interestingly enough, at my Pidyon Haben 12 years ago, silver only cost $12.50 a troy ounce; currently, silver is priced at about $22 a troy ounce. My father used U.S. American Eagles in the ceremony.

Another subject that I found quite interesting relating to the minting and use of silver coinage in ancient times was The Great Revolt.

By the first century of the Common Era, Rome was the most dominant country in the world. They had conquered most of the "civilized" world, including Judaea. 

The Romans tried to impose themselves, not only militarily and politically, but culturally too. Sometimes, they succeeded in bringing Jews to their culture using different methods.

One of these methods to propagate the Roman culture was the minting and usage of Roman coinage in Judaea depicting the image of the Roman Emperor.


In the year 66 CE and again in 132, there were rebellions of the Judaeans against the power of Rome. During the Second Revolt, a Judaean leader Simon (Shimon) Bar Kochba was a brilliant military general.

Of great interest for numismatists about the rebellion was that Bar Kochba and his followers minted their
own "Rebellion Coins." 

They did this by rubbing or filing out the Roman Emperor faces and verbiage on the Roman minted silver coins on both the obverse and reverse of the coins and imprinted their own images and words.

They imprinted images such as the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and those of palm branches (lulav) and a citron (etrog), which are used by the Jews on the Festival of Sukkot.

Also, the rebels imprinted words on the coins that spiked along the success of the rebellion such as "Year One of the Redemption of Israel" or "For the Freedom of Jerusalem." Some of these coins have a value of around $2,000.

So we see that for both centuries past and in modern times, the large and important role that coins, particularly coins that are made of valuable metals such as silver, have significance not only as a monetary standard but also are used to form and propagate religious, political and socio-economic viewpoints. 

This article was published in the December 2013 edition of Schekel.

Written by Isaac Matitia at 00:00



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