Symbols on the Coins
Photo Courtesy of Dr. Bruce Zuckerman
Researchers have long debated the significance of the chalice that appears on the obverse of the shekels. Numismatists believed it to depict one of the Temple vessels but were unable to accurately identify it because they lacked information on the form of these vessels. Although the shape of the chalice is evident from its depiction on the coin, its size is not. One theory, popular in the nineteenth century, presented the chalice as a drinking vessel. In 1958 E.W. Klimowski went as far as proposing that it was God’s “cup of fury” or “cup of trembling” from Isaiah 51:17, used on the coin as a symbol of Jerusalem’s suffering. 7 (pp. 104-131)
Rise up, O Jerusalem,
You who have drunk from the hand of the Lord
The cup of his wrath,
You who have drained to its dregs
The goblet that makes men stagger.”
Another specialist, M. Narkiss thought the vessel was “a holy symbol apparently signifying the libation in the Temple. Some wish to regard it as an allusion to the pot of manna.”7 (pp. 104-131)
However, based its shape and its wide rim, P. Romanoff believed the vessel unsuitable for holding liquids because its outward folding rim would have made it difficult to either drink or pour from. Instead, he hypothesized that it could be the vessel for the 'omer, the first grain harvest. Interestingly enough, the same vessel appears on the Shrewbread Table, carried out of the Temple by the victorious Romans and depicted on the Arch of Titus.7 (pp. 104-131) The Shrewbread Table, made of acacia wood and overlaid with gold, was intended to hold twelve loaves of unleavened bread, called "shewbread," which literally means, "bread of the face." Each loaf represented one of the twelve tribes of Israel. The table also held four vessels: dishes (breadplates), pans or spoons (to sprinkle frankincense), pitchers (for liquid offerings), and bowls (vessels containing the frankincense). This table was originally commissioned by God for the Temple in Exodus.13
"You shall also make a table of acacia wood; two cubits shall be its length, a cubit its width, and a cubit and a half its height. And you shall overlay it with pure gold, and make a molding of gold all around. You shall make for it a frame of a handbreadth all around, and you shall make a gold molding for the frame all around. And you shall make for it four rings of gold, and put the rings on the four corners that are at its four legs. The rings shall be close to the frame, as holders for the poles to bear the table. And you shall make the poles of acacia wood, and overlay them with gold, that the table may be carried with them. You shall make its dishes, its pans, its pitchers, and its bowls for pouring. You shall make them of pure gold. And you shall set the showbread on the table before Me always."
-Exodus 25: 23-30
The chalice appears above the chunk missing from the tabletop.
An artist's rendition of the portion of the arch containing the chalice and the Shrewbread Table
Its appearance on the Arch indicates that it must have been of some importance, providing additional support for Romanoff’s theory. According to the Mishna, the 'omer vessel was a golden receptacle, not designed to contain liquids. On the 15th of the month of Nissan, also the second day of Passover, the people of small towns gathered to offer an 'omer of barley, which represented the first fruits.6 (pp. 123) It is estimated that the offering was to be roughly equivalent to 1000 cubic centimeters. By comparing the size of the vessel’s proportions to that of the cup depicted on the Arch of Titus, researchers have been able to confirm that the goblets from the arch and from descriptions of the 'omer vessel are of comparable size, about fifteen centimeters high. 7 (pp. 104-131)
Barley before harvest
As a representation of harvest and abundance that celebrated the Israelites’ Exodus from Egypt and the Festival of Freedom, the chalice as a receptacle for the 'omer would be a powerful symbol of Jewish independence. 7
Photo Courtesy of Dr. Bruce Zuckerman
Controversy has also raged about the symbolic fruit on the reverse of the shekels. Though it has been identified both as “an almond stave” and a “lilly with three flowers,” the consensus of most numismatists is that the design depicts a pomegranate branch with three fruits.7 (pp. 104-131)
The pomegranate, rimmon in Hebrew, is a round fruit with a rind that is usually yellow inside with either a deep pink- or red-skinned peel, and with an overall dimension varying from about 2-1/2 to 5 inches wide. A small calyx, the word used for the collective sepals one finds on a flower, crowns the spherical fruit on one end. This rind contains many tiny red seed sacs, reminiscent of corn kernels, each filled with sweet and juicy pink, red, or whitish pulp and a seed.
Pomegranates growing on a tree
Inside the pomegranate
Because pomegranates contain so many succulent seeds and because their roots take easily to the soil and tend to grow rapidly, many ancient cultures viewed them as a symbol of fertility.
|The pomegranate plays a historically prominent role in Jewish art and décor, appearing on pottery lamps, the sides of buildings, and burial fixtures, such as sarcophagi and ossuaries. In the Bible, the pomegranate frequently adorns important religious items, such as the garment of the high priest and the pillars in Solomon’s Temple.||
An Ivory Pomegranate from Solomon's Temple, 8th century B.C.E.
“Make pomegranates of blue, purple, and scarlet yarn around the hem of the robe, with gold bells between them. The gold bells and the pomegranates are to alternate around the hem of the robe.”
“ . . .
the four hundred pomegranates for the two sets of network, two rows of pomegranates
for each network, decorating the bowl-shaped capitals on top of the pillars.”
-1 Kings 7:42
Pomegranates are also mentioned as one of the Seven Species that blessed the Land of Israel:
“ . . . a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig trees and pomegranates; a land of olive trees and honey.”
And even in Jeremiah:
“The bronze capital on top of one pillar was five cubits high and was decorated with a network of pomegranates of bronze all around. The other pillar, with its pomegranates, was similar. There were ninety-six pomegranates on the sides; the total number of pomegranates above the surrounding network was a hundred.”
-Jeremiah 52: 22-23
They have also appeared on scrolls, as well as on the Shewbred Table and the Temple Menorah.
branches with three pomegranates, similar to the ones on the shekels, adorn
the marble screen in the synagogue at Hamat Tiberias and decorate a ring found
in Jerusalem. The Mishna also mentions three pomegranates referring to the
uncleanness of utensils.
“All utensils [of wood] belonging to private persons [and which are broken by reason of having contracted uncleanness, recover the status of cleanness if their breaches are of] such a size that pomegranates [can pass through them]. The pomegranates of which [the sages] have spoken are three clinging to one another.”
Therefore, the branches were used as a measure the amount of space needed to determine ceremonial cleanness.
three also has Biblical significance, as it “indicates a substantial
quantity, and signifies a change of status or definition,10”
as well as completion and perfection.
Furthermore Judaic tradition asserts that every pomegranate holds 613 seeds, representative of the 613 commandments of the Torah.11
Ancient Minting • Weights and Purity • Historical Background: The First Jewish Revolt • The Role of Coins in the Revolt • Differentiating the Shekels • Symbolism • Inscriptions • Paleography •A Unique Artifact • Photographic Analysis • Obverse Comparison Analysis • Reverse Comparison Analysis • Conclusion