COINAGE FOR REDEEMING THE FIRST BORN: AN ANCIENT AND MODERN JEWISH RITUAL

by Ronn Berrol

The Pidyon Ha-Ben is a religious ceremony that has been practiced by the Jewish people since biblical times.  Pidyon Ha-Ben in Hebrew means redemption of the son, in this case the first born son.  This ceremony allows the father of a first born son to buy back his child from service to the Priesthood of god.  “For every firstborn among the children of Israel is Mine…I consecrated them to myself on the day that I smote every first born in the land of Egypt”, Numbers 8:17.  The slain first born mentioned above refer to the final plague that God inflicted upon the Egyptians in Exodus.  In Exodus (13:2), God specifically commands to Moses this redemption, “Consecrate all of the firstborn to me, the firstborn from every womb among the Israelites”.  Later, in the desert the Jewish people lost faith in God and built a golden calf.  Only the tribe of Levi did not participate in this reversion to pagan rituals.  After this episode God commanded that the tribe of Levi would serve the Priesthood in place of the first born, and that the first born should be redeemed from the priest.  “All the human firstborn, however, among your sons, you will redeem.” Exodus (13:13).  After this switch of the Levites for the First born god outlines the basis of this “buying back” of the First born, “.you will have to redeem the firstborn of man…You will redeem it in the month in which it is born, valuing it at five shekels, at the sanctuary-shekel, which is twenty gerah”, Numbers (18:15-16).

Today the Pidyon Ha-Ben ceremony follows this commandment precisely.  On the 31st day following the birth, the father brings the firstborn male to the Kohen (someone of priestly descent) and informs the Kohen that the child is the firstborn of the mother.  The Kohen then asks if the father is giving the son to him, or does he wish to redeem him.  The father then indicates that he wishes to redeem him.  The father then gives the Kohen five silver coins (or its equivalent value) and recites a short prayer acknowledging the commandment of redemption of the firstborn male.  The Kohen then passes the money over the child’s head, releasing the child from his service to the priesthood, and says the priestly benediction. (2)

The Pidyon Ha-Ben was an important economic aid to the priestly caste.  Since the priests were prohibited form owning plots of land (Deuteronomy 18:2, Numbers 18:20), and Judaea was primarily an agrarian based society, the Kohenim had to rely on other sources of funds for sustenance.  The five pieces of silver paid for the redemption of the first born was one of the ways that the priests were able to provide for themselves (3)

In 1975 the Israeli government chose to commemorate this important ceremony with the Pidyon Haben coin (See Figure 1).  On this coin’s reverse we see 5 ancient Judaean shekels depicted as the payment for the Pidyon Ha-Ben.  It is interesting that these coins were used to represent the buying back of the firstborn.  Throughout antiquity, these Judaean shekels were the only silver shekels minted by an autonomous Jewish authority until 1948.  However, these shekels were only minted over a five-year period, from 66-70 B.C.E.  Yet we know that this ceremony has been performed for hundreds of years before and after the period mentioned above.  This begs the question, what was the traditional form of payment both before 66 B.C.E. and what has been the form of payment since 70 B.C.E.


Figure (1)

Originally a shekel was not a unit of coinage, but rather a measure of weight.  Shekel is actually the Hebrew word for weight.  As the minting of coins was not begun until the late seventh century B.C.E. (4), the original payment of the Pidyon would logically have been a measure of silver rather than actual coins.  Archaeological evidence indicates that a shekel worth of silver (from limestone weights) was around 11.4gms (5).  Thus the Pidyon Ha-Ben payment would have been 68 gms of silver.  Coinage begins to become a significant mode of economic exchange in the mid-sixth century B.C.E., but it is not until around 400 B.C.E that its use becomes prominent in ancient Israel.  From this time until 126 B.C.E., we can only speculate as to which coins would have been the dominant silver coinage approved of by the Priesthood for payment of the Pidyon.  From the advent of coinage until the time of Alexander the Great, Judaea was under the Persian yoke.  Thus the Persian siglos (weighing around 8.45gms) or Athenian tetradrahms (with weights approaching 17gm) would have been prominent in local trade (figure 2).  There was even a mint at Gaza that produced local imitations of Athenian tetradrahms.  According to David Hendin, Leo Mildenberg suggests that during this period locally minted silver coinage circulated in Judaea instead of Persian imperial money.  However with weights of the Persian-Yehud coinage ranging from 0.3-4.2gms it is difficult to imagine that the Priesthood would have accepted five of these coins as legitimate payment for the Pidyon.


Figure (2)

Around 334 B.C.E. Alexander the Great began his conquest of Persia and the Mediterranean region.  Immediately Alexander’s coinage dominated the region.  He produced high quality coinage of consistent purity and weight which was recognized throughout the known world (17gms).  Local mints in Ake and Byblus would have ensured that his tetradrahms were circulated in Judaea (figure 3).  Undoubtedly his coinage would have been available for ceremonial usage such as the Pidyon Ha-Ben.    Alexander’s reign was short lived however and within a few years the Diadochi had carved up his empire into their own smaller kingdoms.  By 312 B.C.E. Judaea was firmly under Ptolemaic control.


Figure (3)

The Judaean economy was subsequently closely linked with that of the Ptolemaic Empire.  The dominant silver trade coinage became the Ptolemaic tetradrahms (figure 4).  These coins were produced locally in Gaza, Ake and Joppa, and readily found there way into the local Judaean markets.  Under Ptolemy the First the weight of the tetradrahms were reduced to about 15.8gms and then progressively reduced further over the next 20 years to around 14.3gms (6).  This weight remained stable for the remainder of the time that Judaea was subject to Egypt.


Figure (4)

In 201 B.C.E., after five wars, Judaea was stripped from the Ptolemaic Dynasty and was nestled in the Seleukid realm of influence.  For about 100 years the territory of Coele-Syria and Judaea had been an area of dispute between the Ptolemy’s and the Seleukids.  Under Antiochus the Third Judaea became politically and fiscally linked with the Seleukids.  Syrian tetradrahms became the primary silver trade coinage as the use of Ptolemaic coins ceased (7).  Initially a good deal of the Jewish population welcomed the change in suzerainty.  However By the time of Antiochus the Fourth (175-164 B.C.E.) open revolt had begun under the Jewish leadership of the Hasmoneans.

The Hasmoneans (also known as the Maccabees) were slowly able to gain full autonomy and by the reign of John Hyrcanus (135-104 B.C.E.) they were minting Jewish coinage.  However the Hasmoneans only minted small bronze coins, never minting silver coins.  Even though the Jews had full independence, they continued to use Seleukid silver as their primary source of silver.  Interestingly the Jews would have used Seleukid tetradrahms (figure 5) for the Pidyon Ha-Ben ceremony during a time when they had full autonomy and were minting unique Jewish coins.


Figure (5)

In 126 B.C.E. the city of Tyre also gained their independence from the Seleukid Empire.  Tyre immediately began to mint high-grade coinage.  During this period the Seleukids were undergoing dynastic wars.  There was frequent infighting and the royal crown changed hands often.  Syrian tetradrahms had changing images and many rulers produced coins of differing standards, the Phoenician (14gms) and the Attic standards (17gms) (8).  While the consistency of silver tetradrahms produced by the Seleukid mints were continually changing, Tyre was minting their silver shekels of very consistent weight and purity.  From this point on we know longer need to speculate on the coinage used for the Pidyon Ha-Ben.

From 126 B.C.E. until the First Jewish Revolt in 66 C.E., the silver shekel of Tyre (figure 6) was undoubtedly the form of coinage used for the Pidyon HaBen.  The Mishnah tells us that this was the only coinage that was acceptable for the payment of the annual Temple Tax, and would similarly have been used for payment of the Pidyon HaBen.  The Mishnah, a book of Rabbinic interpretations of the oral law, says,”The Five Selas for redeeming the firstborn son are in Tyrian Shekels”, Bekhorot 8:7.   The advantage of this coinage was that it was of impeccable quality, with purity of fineness consistently over 96%, and was of a very reliable weight, usually around 14 gms (9).


Figure (6)

Tyrian shekels were minted from 126 B.C.E. through 65 C.E., up to the eve of the First Jewish Revolt (10).  When the Jewish Revolt began, the shekels of Tyre were no longer in production.  To fill the need for a high-grade silver coin, the Jewish rebels began to mint their own shekels.  The Jewish shekels of the First Revolt were of a similar weight and quality to those of Tyre (figure 7).  These then became the coinage for Jewish religious obligations, as indicated on the Israeli issued Pidyon Ha-Ben medal mentioned above.


Figure (7)

While the Tyrian and Jewish shekels were being used locally in Jerusalem the rest of the Eastern Roman world were using Roman Provincial tetradrahms as their primary trade coinage (figure 8). Under Nero, this provincial coinage dropped to around 80% pure silver (11).  Although the shekels of Tyre and the Jewish shekel of the first revolt were still prominent in this time, after 70 C.E., shekels of high quality ceased to be produced.  Only Roman provincial tetradrahms of lower grade silver became available for economic and trade usage.  The Sages reconciled the use of debased silver by defining in different eras acceptable currencies for payment of various religious obligations.  ”For when the Israelites returned from exile, they paid the half-shekel in darics; then they reverted to pay the half-shekel in selas, they then resumed to pay the half-shekel in tebain, and they sought to pay the half-shekel in denars”, (Mishna Shekalim 2,4).

Figure (8)

Throughout the immediate post First Revolt period the sela became the dominant silver coinage used for payment of civil penalties and religious ceremonial functions as outlined by Jewish written and oral law.  From documents of the Bar-Kokhba revolt found in the Judaean desert, we know that the sela is equivalent to the roman tetradrahm (12).  Although the tetradrahm was continually debased, it remained a valid form of payment throughout the Talmudic age.  Despite the debasement of the tetradrahm to 15% fine silver by 249 C.E. (13), the Rabbi’s had to be practical about what could be deemed valid forms of silver.  The Rabbis understood this and allowed for equivalent forms of payment for most transactions, including the Pidyon Ha-Ben, “…and everything which is to be redeemed <is redeemed> in silver or its equivalent, except for Shekel dues.”, Bekhorot 8:7.

Although Roman coinage was the dominant silver used in the Pidyon Ha-Ben ceremony, the Second Jewish Revolt (132-135 C.E.) did ignite one final period of autonomous Jewish coinage.  During this time the Jews minted sela’im with unique Jewish symbols and ideological phraseology (figure 9).  However, these new coins did not return to the purity of the old shekels of Tyre or the First Revolt.  The rebels were interested in producing coinage that could be rapidly produced for immediate economic needs.  Thus they took Roman Provincial tetradrahms from Nero to Hadrian and overstruck them with Jewish dies (14).  The Jewish sela’im were in fact Roman tetradrahms with a face-lift.  Quite simply with the Temple in Jerusalem destroyed there was no need for the high-grade shekels of former times.


Figure (9)

Clearly economic and practical considerations forced the change in silver coinage used for the Pidyon ceremony from shekels of Tyre, to Jewish shekels, through to Roman tetradrahms (this group also includes the Jewish sela’im of the Second Revolt).  Today there is still some debate as to what is appropriate coinage for the Pidyon Ha-Ben.  Much of this debate centers on how many grams of silver should be paid to the Kohen for the redemption.  The Bank of Israel sells silver coinage exclusively for the Pidyon ceremony weighing a total of 117gms.  However simple math tells us that in the second temple period the amount of silver paid was around 70gms (5 shekels, weighing around 14gms each).  In the United States many people use five U.S. old style silver dollars for the ceremony.  In many communities today it is up to the Rabbis to decide what should be the acceptable form of silver payment for the Pidyon.  There are some Rabbis who feel that the total silver content is the most important aspect of the Pidyon payment, while others feel that having five silver coins of any currency is the most important.  While the exact amount of silver and the form that should be paid remains obscure, the Pidyon Ha-Ben ceremony is a vibrant tradition that carries on to this day throughout the Jewish world.

An interesting addendum to this discussion concerns a Samarian coin described by Meshorer and Qedar (15).  The Samarians were a branch of Israelites that had been conquered by the Assyrians in 722 B.C.E.  Despite assimilation with other tribes, they continued to follow the Torah and considered themselves legitimate Jews.  The coin in question was minted sometime between 375-332 B.C.E. (figure 10, 11).  Meshorer and Qedar describe the reverse of this coin as follows, ”Five discs with owls, probably a representation of Athenian coins”.  These Athenian coins they mentioned logically would be Athenian tetradrahms, sometimes known as “Owls”, due to the owl images on their reverse.  We have already noted above that Athenian tetradrahms were prominent in Judaea during this period.  These “Owls” are strong candidates for coinage that would have been acceptable for payment of the Pidyon Ha-Ben.  Could it be that the five coins seen on the reverse of this Samarian coin are meant to represent the five-shekel payment of the Pidyon Ha-Ben?  Certainly the Samarians practiced many of the same customs as their brethren in Judaea, and probably observed the Pidyon Ha-Ben tradition.  At this time we lack the necessary knowledge of the Samarians to confirm this fanciful interpretation of the coin under discussion.  However, the similarities between our Samarian coin and the modern Pidyon Ha-Ben medal minted more than 2300 years later are fascinating.


Figure ( 10 and 11)



BIBLIOGRAPHY:
(1) The Encyclopedia of Jewish Religion, pg 146
(2) To Be a Jew: A Guide to Jewish Observance in Contemporary Life, pgs 276-279
(3) The Jews in the Greek Age, Elias J. Bickerman, pg 153
(4) Guide to Biblical Coins, 4th Edition, David Hendin, pg 21
(5) Guide to Biblical Coins, 4th Edition, David Hendin, pg 61
(6) Early Hellenistic Coinage: From the Accession of Alexander to the Peace of Apamea, Otto Morkholm, pg10
(7) Ancient Means of Exchange, Weights and Coins, Ya’akov Meshorer, pg 49
(8) Royal Greek Portrait Coins, Edward T. Newell, pgs 60-77
(9) Coinage in the Roman Economy: 300 B.C. to A.D. 700, Kenneth W. Harl, pg 103
(10) One Hundred Years of Tyrian Shekels, Ya’akov Meshorer, 1984
(11) Coinage in the Roman Economy: 300 B.C. to A.D. 700, Kenneth W. Harl, pg 105
(12) Bar-Kokhba, Yigal Yadin, pg 179-180
(13) Coinage in the Roman Economy: 300 B.C. to A.D. 700, Kenneth W. Harl, pg 137
(14) The Coinage of the Bar Kohkba War, Leo Mildenberg, pg 87
(15) Samarian Coinage, Ya’akov Meshorer and Shraga Qedar, pgs 65 &109



FIGURES:
Images of coins 1, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, & 9 are from the authors collection.  Thanks to John Jencek for providing digital photography.
Images of coins 2 & 3 are provided courtesy of John Jencek.
Images of coins 10 & 11 are photos from Samarian Coinage by Meshorer and Qedar.  Permission courtesy of Amphora Books.