by David Hendin
Among the most interesting motifs of the coins of the Jewish War against Rome, 66-70 C.E., are those which celebrate the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, also called the Feast of Booths or the Feast of Tabernacles. This holiday was the most significant of three pilgrimage festivals, during which the Jews would travel to Jerusalem. The three are Passover, Shavout (which is Pentecost), and Sukkot, an important holiday of harvest and thanksgiving.
Sukkot plays a significant role in the New Testament (John 7:2-3) since it is the background for one of Jesus’ appearances in Jerusalem:
“Now the Feast of Booths was at hand. His brothers therefore said to Him, ‘Depart from here, and go into Judaea, that Your disciples also may behold Your works which You are doing.’ ”
The series of coins that refer to the celebration of Sukkot was struck during the fourth year of the war, 69/70 C.E. and they compromise what is apparently the very first series of ‘siege coins’ ever minted. These bronze coins became necessary because of the severe shortage of silver, among other things, near the end of the war. There are three different denominations of bronze coins; one is inscribed with the denomination “half,” one “quarter,” and one without a denomination, but which is obviously half of the quarter, or an eighth.
Largest of these coins of the fourth year, the bronze half shekel has always been one of my favorite ancient Jewish coin designs. As a matter of fact, I like it so much that I used the coin from my personal collection to grace the cover of the latest (fourth) edition of my book, Guide to Biblical Coins.
Bronze half shekel of the fourth year of the Jewish War (Hendin-668) and a ‘Pilgrim’s Ring’ from about the same period, depicting the same motif of a date palm tree with two baskets used for carrying dates and other first fruits ceremonially to the Jerusalem Temple.
The coin depicts a palm tree flanked by baskets which were used for carrying the offering of the first fruits, which began on Shavout (Pentecost) and continued through Sukkot (Tabernacles).
From a design standpoint, the coin is especially pleasing. Two baskets are placed underneath the seven-branched date palm in such a way that the dates actually appear to be falling into the baskets, which are filled to the brim. Hebrew words around are translated as “For the Redemption of Zion.”
This design was significant to me back in the 1970s, during a visit to Israel when I was wandering through Jerusalem’s Old City and visiting some of the local shops that sold coins and antiquities. (They are almost all gone now … but that’s another story …) At one shop I stopped for the obligatory Turkish coffee and chat with an old friend. The proprietor had no coins of special interest on that day, but as we chatted one of the local Arabs from a nearby town came into the shop with three bronze rings for sale. I did not pay a lot of attention to them, I think he asked around $20, and I ended up paying half of that. I did not think they were especially interesting, but, after all I was in Jerusalem and the sport is to buy, buy, buy! So I bought them and dropped them into one of the many pockets of my original Banana Republic photographer’s vest (no longer available … shame on Banana Republic!).
It was some time later that I looked at the rings. One of them was of major significance, and it has been in my collection for all these years. I figured it was about time to share it. It is obviously a Jewish ring from the time of the Jewish War against Rome. And the design on the ring, while not manufactured as precisely as the dies for the coins, is the exact same motif discussed above … a palm tree flanked by two baskets.
This ring was clearly meant to copy the coin, and one could quite easily speculate that it was a pilgrim’s souvenir, purchased during a pilgrimage to Jerusalem, prior to the destruction of the Temple, and worn proudly. Both the coin and this unique ring underline the importance of the offering of the first fruits to the Jerusalem Temple. They were placed at the altar and were later distributed among the priests.
Paul Romanoff talks about such pilgrimages: “the bringing of fruits to the Temple had long been in practice, and it continued till the last days of the Temple. A vivid description of the procession bearing the first fruits is recorded in the Mishna.” I have excerpted that passage here (M. Bikk. 3.2-8):
“All the people of the towns and villages, with their fruits gather in the leading town of the district and camp in the open places … In the morning the deputy calls ‘Arise, let us go up to Zion, to the House of our Lord.’ … When they near Jerusalem, they send out messengers announcing their coming … The artisans of Jerusalem stand along the road greeting them: ‘Brethren, people of that and that place, we greet you.’ The flutists precede, playing until they reach the Temple ground. Then each in procession takes a basket on his shoulder and marches until he reaches the Inner Court … On top of the baskets were placed pigeons to be sacrificed, and the fruits were given to the priest. While the baskets are still on their shoulders, the people recite two verses from Deuteronomy 26:3-4, then they lower the baskets and hold onto the brims, while the priests put their hands under the baskets and lift them up a little, and recite from verse 5 to the end of the chapter. Then the pilgrims placed the baskets near the altar, and bowing, departed … Both the baskets and the fruits are given to the priests.”
Romanoff further notes that the palm tree design on the coin “represents the finest and most useful tree, one of the seven choicest plants of Palestine. The dates also signify honey, a biblical metaphor for bounty. Thus … this coin symbolizes abundance and plenty.”
by courtesy of David Hendin, Copyright 2002 by David Hendin, all rights reserved.
If you want to know more about David Hendin, specialist for Jewish coin, please visit his website and click here.