What could be more mundane than money? It is merely a convenient method of accomplishing everyday tasks. Yet the Torah calls it holy, implying one of two dueling concepts of sanctity. The method with which Moshe conducted the desert census was having each person contribute half a shekel and then counting the resulting donations. The currency used is specifically called shekel ha-kodesh, a sacred coin (Ex. 30:13). What is sacred about this money? Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:8) explains that Hebrew is called lashon ha-kodesh, a sacred language, because it contains no specific words for uniquely male and female body parts nor for the acts that lead to conception of a child. Nor does it have precise terms for emissions and excretions. Rather, other terms are used euphemistically when the Hebrew user needs to refer to such concepts. The language itself lacks such crude terms and that–its purity–is why it is called the holy language. Similarly, presumably, the shekel coin was called holy because it was refined from all impurities. Lacking any flaw, the coin is pure and can be accurately called kodesh. Similarly,

Holy Money

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I. Holy Money

What could be more mundane than money? It is merely a convenient method of accomplishing everyday tasks. Yet the Torah calls it holy, implying one of two dueling concepts of sanctity.

The method with which Moshe conducted the desert census was having each person contribute half a shekel and then counting the resulting donations. The currency used is specifically called shekel ha-kodesh, a sacred coin (Ex. 30:13). What is sacred about this money?

Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 3:8) explains that Hebrew is called lashon ha-kodesh, a sacred language, because it contains no specific words for uniquely male and female body parts nor for the acts that lead to conception of a child. Nor does it have precise terms for emissions and excretions. Rather, other terms are used euphemistically when the Hebrew user needs to refer to such concepts. The language itself lacks such crude terms and that–its purity–is why it is called the holy language. Similarly, presumably, the shekel coin was called holy because it was refined from all impurities. Lacking any flaw, the coin is pure and can be accurately called kodesh.

Ramban strongly disagrees. Lack of impurity does not cause sanctity. He instead explains that these shekalim were considered sacred because they were used for holy purposes. The funds gathered by this census were donated towards the construction of the Mishkan, where God’s presence manifested itself and where sacrifices were brought. Any currency that is utilized in the performance of a mitzvah is money that is serving a holy usage and, therefore, can be justly called shekel ha-kodesh.

Similarly, Ramban continues, Hebrew is called lashon ha-kodesh–the holy language–because it was and continues to be used for holy purposes. It was in Hebrew that God said “Let there be light etc.” (Gen. 1:3) and created the world. The Torah itself was given to us in Hebrew, as well as all of the prophecies and other biblical books. Because Hebrew has been used for holy purposes it is considered to be a sacred language.

II. Two Understandings of Holiness

I once heard R. Shimon Romm explain this dispute between Rambam and Ramban as a fundamental disagreement over the nature of kedushah, holiness. According to Ramban, holiness is attained when something is used for a holy purpose. When currency is used for a mitzvah it becomes sacred and when a language is used to create the world and convey the Torah it acquires sanctity. Kedushah is defined by supplementary attainments and not by inherent status. Something must become holy by going beyond its natural state and being taken to a holy level.

According to Rambam, however, holiness is not due to a positive usage but to a lack of diminution of its purity. A language is inherently sacred and only loses that status when it contains less-than-holy words. Hebrew, Rambam claims, is the only language that has not lost its holiness but, theoretically, any language that retains its purity could be sacred. Similarly, coins are holy by maintaining their integrity. This purity of content, rather than its sanctity of use, is what earned for these coins the title of holy because they have not been defiled of their inherent sanctity.

III. Be Holy

R. Romm continued that this same disagreeement can be found in the famous dispute over our obligation to become holy. The Torah (Lev. 19:2) commands us to be holy (“kedoshim tihyu”) but remains unclear regarding exactly what that obligation entails. Rashi (ad loc.) explains the command to mean, “Separate yourselves from forbidden relationships and from transgression” while Ramban (ad loc.) explains the mandate to be an obligation to distance ourselves even from that which is permissible but excessive. According to Rashi we fulfill this obligation by adhering to the strict prohibitions of the Torah while according to the Ramban we must go beyond the laws and create our own stringencies.

In other words, Rashi understands that we are inherently holy and we can fulfill the mandate of kedoshim tihyu by refraining from defiling our natural sanctity through sin. As long as we do not violate a prohibition–no small task–we are, according to Rashi, holy. This, R. Romm explained, is similar to Rambam’s position we saw above that Hebrew is inherently holy because it has not been defiled by impure words. Indeed, I add, we see in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah that Sefer Kedushah (the book of holiness) contains the laws regarding prohibited relations and foods while Sefer Mada (the book of knowledge) contains the concepts of going beyond the requirements of the law. Kedushah is attained by conforming to the prohibitions of the Torah and not by striving above that to abstinence.

Ramban, however, is consistent with his earlier position and contends that holiness must be attained through additional behavior. Merely conforming to the Torah’s prohibitions does not raise someone to the status of holiness. Rather, he must go beyond that natural state and “sanctify himself in what is permissible to him” (Yevamos 20a).

(Adapted from my essay here-PDF).

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link of New Jersey, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Board of Jewish Action magazine and the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

31 comments

  1. a sacred coin (Ex. 30:13)

    Robert Alter’s note on the pasuk in his translation:

    13. half a shekel by the shekel of the sanctuary. “Shekel” means “weight” in Hebrew, and the stress on weights here is a clear indication that the reference is to a fixed weight of silver rather than to a coin. (Coins came into use fairly late in the biblical period.) It seems likely that the specified “shekel of the sanctuary” was a heavier weight than the “silver shekels at the merchants’ tried weight” (Genesis 23:16) that Abraham pays to Ephron the Hittite. The average weight of actual shekels that have been unearthed is something over eleven grams, which would make the gerah, its twentieth part, rather small change.

  2. Everett Fox makes much the same point:

    12 shekel: Lit. a “weight” of silver. Coins ss such are not documented in the land of Israel until centuries after the events documented in Exodus took place. For a full discussion of biblical currency, see Sellers.

  3. I actually gave a dvar torah about how one might have redeemed maaser sheni in the absence of coins last summer on the occasion of my mother’s yahretzeit.

    Almost all coins today are fiat currency, so I presume Rambam would not rule that they would qualify as a *kodesh* coin?

  4. IH: What do you think the implications of those comments?

  5. Gil — Without spending time looking at the sources, I have no sense as to whether the archeaology is material to your drash. Do you think the shekel being a coin, as commonly understood, is essential to Rambam’s view?

  6. Remove the word coin from the post and it still works because you are dealing with pure silver.

    That said, archeological arguments from lack of evidence leave me unconvinced.

  7. IH, I was going to make much the same point. But instead I will just add that Chazal certainly thought it was a coin in the traditional sense. They have a drasha of וצרת הכסף בידך, כסף שיש עליו צורה. Also in Chazal there is no mention of a special bigger shekel for kodesh, and from the discussions in the Talmud it seems that they didn’t think there was one.

    Just to make it clear, if kodesh is just to differentiate between the regular coin and a bigger one, then we can not derive any specific meaning from the words kodesh, like Rambam or Ramban.

  8. Gil, it is not just a lack of archaeological evidence. Shekel in the cognate languages of the time clearly means a weight.

  9. Gil – are we supposed to think they minted 600,000 half shekel coins in the midbar (and a whole bunch of gerahs). Plus it was probably much easier to weigh a pile of silver clippings and see how many shekel it is then it is to count 600,000 individual coins. Counting coins is not a good way to aggregate large numbers (almost the same as counting people) weighing a big pile of silver is better, and probably fits in with some nice drashos about not counting people individually.
    Additionally, the worry of “he’ashir lo yarbeh, v’hadal lo yam’it” makes more sense when you are dealing with a weight. Did the poor people think that they could put in some other coin without anyone noticing? Did the rich people think they could put in two?

  10. Part III is nice.

  11. Dani Schreiber

    From the beginning of the Ramban comment Gil quoted:
    קבע לו משה רבינו מטבע כסף בישראל, כי מלך גדול היה, וקרא למטבע ההוא “שקל” בעבור שכל המטבע במשקל שלם, אין בו פחות ולא כסף סיגים. ובעבור שמשקלי הערכין ופדיון הבכור במטבע ההוא שהם קדש, וכן כל שקלי המשכן וכן כל כסף קצוב האמור בתורה, יקרא לו הכתוב שקל הקדש.

    Ramban seems to think it was an actual minted coin. As to believing it happened, can’t we just chalk it up to “the Clouds of Glory did it” just like everything else? I’m not being facetious, I’m just not usually bothered with “how did that happen” when God/and/or Moshe Rabbeinu is involved.

    By the way, for what it’s worth, I second Shlomo’s comment: Part III was VERY nice.

  12. Do we have to chalk everything up to the Clouds of Glory? Please can someone offer up an alternate explanation. Coins are indeed a late invention and were quite a chiddush. The west got them first(China a bit later and different and India had some proto coins) but only on the Seder Olam Rabbahs dating would half shekels have been available for even part of the life of the first bais hMikdash. As to Rabbi Students dislike of archaeological conclusions the coin history is overwhelmingly strong. The world’s first coin was a Lydian Trite long after har Sinai. The fiery shekel shown by HYB – I seem to remember a Sfas Emes saying that the chiddush was the ‘fiery’ and interpreting around that. Shekel coins were Greek tetradrachms the halachic weight of which is a subject of some ‘discussion’.

  13. Shalom Rosenfeld

    As I’d said before — medrish about matbea shel aish — first it’s a medrish, second well that is what they would give hundreds of years in the future.

    Pidyon maaser sheni — Sefer HaMitzvos LaRambam says it must be currency and not goods because the latter requires bartering, which slows things down. By the times of Chazal “currency” meant stamped coins.

  14. For a long time I never would have thought about whether coinage existed (imho it’s part of the Torah/gemara exists outside of time approach to learning). Once you start thinking historically, it’s hard not to have the coinage question immediately pop into your head (as it did in mine).

    I think you can still learn medrashim etc. using a less literal approach and still having the lessons learned.
    KT

  15. I always assumed that there were competing systems of currency (or of weights and measures) and that the expression “shekel hakodesh” meant to specify which system was to be used (the Temple system), so that nobody could cheat.

    In other words, “shekel hakodesh” doesn’t mean “holy shekel”; it means “shekel of the Temple” (“kodesh” being a noun meaning “holy place” or “temple”).

    Admittedly, that is a dry peshat. Gil’s explanation is more uplifting.

  16. As others have stated, the literal meaning of “shekel hakodesh” has nothing to do with the derash. Regardless of some apparently incorrect understanding of the antiquity of coins used as currency, one can still debate the requirements for kedusha. The fact that “hakodesh” may in this case refer only to the use of a larger (‘temple’) weight of silver, i.e., possibly twice the ordinary shekel weight, doesn’t detract from the subsequent discussion about the implications of kedusha.

  17. Gil wrote: Indeed, I add, we see in Rambam’s Mishneh Torah that Sefer Kedushah (the book of holiness) contains the laws regarding prohibited relations and foods while Sefer Mada (the book of knowledge) contains the concepts of going beyond the requirements of the law. Kedushah is attained by conforming to the prohibitions of the Torah and not by striving above that to abstinence.

    My little nitpick is that those prohibitions are placed in Sefer Kedusha because they represent the appetitive nature of man-food (machalos asuros and shechita) and sexual relations (Isurei Biah). They don’t represent all of the Torah’s prohibitions. We attain a level of Kedusha by channeling the emotions associated with what the average person desires most (food and sex) into an experience infused with meaning. But I agree, Part III was very nice.

  18. I don’t know how you get around Chazal’s description of “matbeah shel aish” as shown to Moshe Rabbeinu and think that the traditional interpretation could be interpreted “non-literally”.

  19. Its a Medrash Tanchuma Parashas Ki Sisa, 9. If we are talking about a weight and not a coin, why would Moshe have to be shown it? Being shown a weight would not assist him in performing this mitzvoh?

  20. R gil-when the Torah uses the word “Zeh”, is it not understood that the same connotes that HaShem gave Moshe Rabbeinu an audio visual demonstration of the meaning of the Mitzvah in question?

  21. Steve: That’s a midrash Rashi quotes. Peshat is otherwise (see Ibn Ezra).

  22. “The currency used [for donation] is specifically called shekel ha-kodesh, a sacred coin (Ex. 30:13). What is sacred about this money?”

    R. Schwab says this money must be completely sacred; i.e., none of it may come from overcharging, delayed worker payments, interest, or Shabbos/Yomtov earning.

  23. The book Harreri Kedem, by R. Shurkin, a grandson and student of R. Y.B. solveitchik, has a nice discussion of a closely related question. (Of whether the coins had be to used davka for sacrifices, and were therefore called “holy”, or if they could be used for anything, and were inherently holy.)

  24. Hoffa, the nature of the machtzit hashekel required during the first desert census and used to cast the 100 adonim and silver trim of the mishkan is not a simple matter. It is true that the absence of evidence for coins during that period is no proof that coins were not cast in the desert and used only temporarily. It is striking that the torah refers everything back to the shekel and gives its weight in gerah (20 barley kernels?). If a 1/2 shekel coin were struck, it, seemingly, would be entitled to its own mass designation (10 gerah). On the other hand, each census participant bringing exactly 1/2 shekel of silver for the counting is also problematic. A more plausible scenario consistent with the torah verses is that initially people brought silver in the form of ornaments and pieces as donations to the mishkan. That silver was melted and beaten into sheets of appropriate thickness. Squares were then cut from those sheets and trimmed to exactly a 10 gerah weight. The squares were given out to the heads of clans according to their number of adult males. Each participant then returned the 1/2 shekel squares during the counting process. The returned silver squares were then remelted to form the adonim and silver trim of the mishkan. Alternatively, many wells of the right dimensions were formed and blank disks of silver were cast and trimmed to exactly a 10 gerah mass.

  25. Unless nature has changed, the melting point of silver is 1763 degrees Fahrenheit (961.8 degrees Celsius).

  26. R Gil-the view that I quoted may be indeed be a Medrash cited by Rashi, yet one can find many instances in the Torah where the Talmud understands that “Zeh” means an audio visual demonstration by HaShem Yisborach to Moshe Rabbeinu.

  27. Y. Aharon,

    You raise some valid points. My point was simply that it would very hard to treat that CHAZAL in M. Tanchuma as non-literal given the description and use of the langauge “matbeah”, as well as the fact that for something that should have been relatively simple (i.e piece of silver or block of silver) would require some kind of demonstration.

    “On the other hand, each census participant bringing exactly 1/2 shekel of silver for the counting is also problematic. A more plausible scenario consistent with the torah verses is that initially people brought silver in the form of ornaments and pieces as donations to the mishkan. That silver was melted and beaten into sheets of appropriate thickness. Squares were then cut from those sheets and trimmed to exactly a 10 gerah weight. The squares were given out to the heads of clans according to their number of adult males. Each participant then returned the 1/2 shekel squares during the counting process.”

    What you just wrote is something I just saw in a Meforash, who says the same thing as you but in answer to something totally different. I believe that it might be the Netziv and it answer the question of why the word “giving” is used twice.

  28. Hoffa, clearly the midrash envisages a silver coin. Such a coin could conceivably be consistent with my scenario if it was to be used only for census/mishkan purposes. Then the reference to a standard sanctuary shekel of 20 geira might be more fitting than a reference to this special machtzit hashekel coin of 10 geira. The coin could have been made as I suggested, followed by striking some kind of pattern or writing on it. I am also most interested in the reference to the commentator (the Netziv?) who also mentioned a two step giving of the machtzit hashekel.

  29. Sorry, I don’t recall where I saw it. If I remember, I will definately let you know.

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