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SHEKEL ():

Table of Contents

Name of (1) a weight and of (2) a silver coin in use among the Hebrews.

1. Weight:

It has long been admitted that the Israelites derived their system of weights and coins from the Babylonians, and both peoples divided the talent () into 60 minas (), each mina consisting of 60 shekels, so that the talent contained 3,600 shekels. This division into 3,600 shekels isgenerally supposed to be implied in Ezek. xlv. 12 (comp. Riehm, "Handwörterbuch," p. 509), but the inference is incorrect, for the passage is almost certainly corrupt (comp. Smend, Cornill, and Krätzschmar, ad loc.). In fact, it actually states that the mina contained 50 shekels, which would make the talent equal to 3,000 shekels, so that a mina equals 818.6 grams, and a talent equals 49.11 kilograms. A similar talent is found among other peoples, for the Greeks and Persians likewise divided the mina into 50 shekels, while the division of the talent into 60 minas was universal. This division into 50 is evidently a consequence of the conflict of the decimal and the sexagesimal system, the Egyptian influence making itself felt side by side with the Babylonian.

It may possibly be inferred from Ezek. xlv. 12 that in the exilic period and the time which immediately preceded it the division of the mina into 50 shekels became customary among the Jews, and that this was simultaneous with the division of the shekel into 20 gerahs , since this coin is mentioned only in Ezekiel and in the Pentateuch (Ex. xxx. 13; Lev. xxvii. 25; Num. iii. 47). In the pre-exilic period half-shekels () and quarter-shekels are mentioned, while in the Pentateuch the Temple tax was determined according to the "shekel of the sanctuary," which was equal to 20 gerahs. The meaning of the phrase "shekel of the sanctuary" is uncertain, but at all events there is no justification for the rabbinical assumption that in addition to it there was also a common shekel of one-half its value, for there are no references whatever to the latter. It is possible, however, that the "shekel of the sanctuary" may be contrasted with the smaller silver shekel, and that it may have received its name from the fact that the standard weight was kept in the Temple.

2. Coin:

The shekel was the unit of coinage as well as of weight, and the pieces of metal which served for currency were either fractions or multiples of the standard shekel. As already noted, the struggle of the Egyptian decimal and the Babylonian sexagesimal system for supremacy was especially evident in the gold and silver weights, and the fact that the mina of 50 shekels became the standard was probably due to Phenician influence. The gold shekel was originally 1/60 of the weight of the mina, and the silver shekel, which was intended to correspond in value to the gold one, should consequently have been 40/3 x 1/60 = 2/9 of the weight of the mina, since the ratio between gold and silver had gradually become as 40 to 3. Since this shekel could not have been commonly used as currency, however, a demand arose for a smaller coin of practical size, which might be made either by dividing the silver equivalent of the gold shekel into ten parts, thus giving a silver shekel of 2/90 = 1/45 of the weight of the mina, or by dividing the silver equivalent into fifteen parts, giving a silver shekel of 2/9 x 15 = 2/135 of the weight of the mina. When the decimal system had become established the gold and the silver mina each were reckoned at 50 of these shekels. Hence there were (1) the Babylonian silver mina, equal to 50 x 1/45 = 10/9 of the weight of the mina, and (2) the Phenician silver mina, equal to 50 x 2/135 = 100/135 = 20/27 of the weight of the mina.

In the original Babylonian silver currency the silver shekel was divided into thirds, sixths, and twelfths, while in the Phenician currency it was divided into halves, fourths, and eighths. These Phenician silver shekels were current among the Jews also, as is shown by the fact that the same division is found among them, a quarter of a shekel being mentioned in I Sam. ix. 8, while a half-shekel is mentioned as the Temple tax in the Pentateuch. The extant shekels of the Maccabean period vary between 14.50 and 14.65 grams, and are thus equivalent to 2/135 of the great "common" Babylonian mina—14.55 grams. The mina was equivalent, therefore, to 725.5 grams, and the talent to 43.659 kilograms. The Babylonian shekel, which was equal to 10/9 of the weight of the mina, was introduced in the Persian time, for Nehemiah fixed the Temple tax at a third of a shekel. This Persian monetary system was based on the small mina, its unit being the siglos, which was equal to one-half of the Babylonian shekel, its ratio to the Jewish shekel being 3 to 8. It was considered the hundredth instead of the fiftieth part of the mina, and weighed between 5.61 and 5.73 grams, while the mina weighed between 565 and 573 grams, and the talent between 33,660 and 34,380 kilograms.

In the Maccabean period the Phenician silver shekel was again current, the Temple tax once more being a half-shekel (Matt. xvii. 24-27, R. V.). See Numismatics.

Bibliography:
  • C. F. Lehmann, Zeitschrift für Ethnologie, 1889, pp. 372 et seq.;
  • Sitzungsberichte der Archäologischen Gesellschaft, 1888, pp. 23 et. seq.; 1893, pp. 6 et seq.;
  • L. Herzfeld, Metrologische Voruntersuchungen zu einer Gesch. des Ibräischen, Respektive, Alljüdischen Handels, Leipsic, 1863;
  • F. de Sauley, Numismatique de la Terre Sainte, Paris, 1875;
  • F. W. Madden, Coins of the Jews, London, 1881;
  • Th. Reinach, Les Monnaies Juives, in R. E. J. xv. (published separately, Paris, 1888);
  • Ad. Erdmann, Kurze Uebersicht über die Münzgeschichte Palästinas, in Z. D. P. V. ii. 75 et seq.
E. G. H. W. N.
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