By Eliezer Segal
(AJNews) – There is only a slight exaggeration in the observation that you can hardly poke a toe into Israeli soil – especially in Jerusalem or another locality with a long history – without displacing an ancient archeological relic. The visceral excitement of touching tangible artifacts from bygone eras has been shared by pilgrims, visitors and immigrants to the holy land over the generations.
One of the most distinguished of the Jewish immigrants to the land of Israel was Rabbi Moses ben Naman – Ramban or Nahmanides – the Catalonian sage who was arguably the foremost Jewish religious scholar of the thirteenth century. The centrality of the homeland occupied a pivotal place in his outlook, and he took issue with Maimonides for not counting the obligation to settle the land as one of the commandments in the Torah that continues to be obligatory through all generations.
In 1267 Ramban himself took the step of forsaking his respected position in Spain and enduring the hardships of immigration to the holy land. His decision was likely facilitated by the difficulties that were being placed in his way by powerful figures in the Catholic church as a result of his impressive performance in the 1263 disputation of Barcelona against the apostate Friar Pablo Christiani. Although he spent a brief time in Jerusalem, where he was instrumental in bringing new vitality to the moribund Jewish community and its institutions, he made his home until his death in 1270 in Acre, the Crusader capital of Palestine.
The briefness of Nahmanides’ sojourn in the land of Israel underscores the intense pace of his scholarly activity during that time. In addition to the various new discourses and treatises that he composed there, he continued to revise earlier works and mailed out hundreds of additions and revisions to his readers in Spain.
Of particular interest were the emendations that he introduced as a result of his encounters with physical realities that he had hitherto known only from reading texts. For example, his original discussion about the circumstances surrounding the matriarch Rachel’s burial site was founded on the premise (inferred from linguistic usages elsewhere in scripture) that her tomb was a considerable distance from Bethlehem; however, his tangible experience of their close proximity required him to rethink his previous interpretation.
In connection with the passage in Exodus in which all Israelites were commanded to donate a half-shekel as a way of conducting a census, Ramban digressed into an extensive discussion about the value of the shekel coin. He cited several commentators and codifiers who calculated its value based on information provided in the sources about its equivalence to other silver or gold denominations. He found fault with several interpreters who based their calculations on the coins that were current in their own generations without taking into account that the currencies had undergone continual devaluing of their precious metal content, a phenomenon that was attested in talmudic sources and continued into the medieval era.
Nahmanides’ research into these questions was given an exciting new stimulus by his experience in the land of Israel: “The Lord has blessed me with the privilege of arriving in Acre where I found that the local elders were in possession of an engraved silver coin.” He provided a description of the images on the two sides, which he identified as a rod from an almond tree and a sort of bowl. As for the inscriptions, although they were very clear he was unable to decipher them. They were in fact written in the proto-Hebrew script that had largely been abandoned by Jews in favour of the familiar square letters of the “Assyrian” Aramaic alphabet. However, a similar script is still in use among the Samaritans (who are referred to in rabbinic literature as “Cutheans”); so the coins were shown to some obliging Samaritans who were able to decipher them. The Samaritans were also able to identify the images as Aaron’s almond-wood rod (that blossomed miraculously in the dispute with Korach) and the vial containing the manna.
As it happens, the medieval Samaritan script was not completely identical to the ancient Hebrew one, resulting in some inaccuracies in their translation. They read one inscription as the awkward “shekel of shekels,” whereas we now know it should actually be “shekel of Israel.”
True to the spirit of Renaissance humanism, Don Isaac Abravanel, who had held high financial posts in the governments of Portugal and Castile, made thorough use of ancient coins in order to enrich his investigations into biblical archeology. Affirming Nahmanides’ story about the shekel coin, he reported that he himself was in possession of an ancient shekel which he carefully weighed and compared with the currencies that were circulating in Europe. He made use of these for calculating the values of the Torah’s shekel and of the gold plating in Solomon’s Temple.
The sixteenth-century historian Azariah de Rossi also had an opportunity to study and describe one of those shekel coins that was in the possession of a widow in Ferrara whose husband had died near Jerusalem. De Rossi gives an accurate reading of the inscriptions and images, but admits to being stumped by a cryptic acronym that we now recognize as the date declaring “Year 4” of Israelite independence during the Great Revolt against Rome.
The fifteenth-century Spanish philosopher Rabbi Joseph Albo had previously invoked Nahmanides’ testimony about the revised alphabet to support his contention that Jewish tradition was generally receptive to changes that occurred over the generations. He pointed out how, in order to commemorate their redemption from the Babylonian exile, the Jews switched to the “Assyrian” alphabet, as well as adopting a new calendar structure with named months.
Indeed, like so much of the archeological evidence that attests to the Jewish presence in the land of Israel, these ancient Hebrew shekel coins provide us with a powerful illustration of how the tradition maintains its vitality – by adapting to changing circumstances while still keeping its solid foundations in ancestral soil.
Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter for Alberta Jewish News.