I. As far back as the history of Israel can be traced, gold and silver were used as standards of value and mediums of exchange, and, as the Egyptian tribute-lists show, they were thus employed in Canaan even before the Israelites inhabited it. The general use of the word “kesef,” meaning “silver,” to designate money shows that silver was the prevailing medium of exchange. Up to the time of the Exile, and even later, the metals were not coined, but were weighed (Exodus 22:16; 2 Samuel 18:12; 1 Kings 20:39; see Numismatics). The scales and weights were carried about with the precious metal in a bag attached to the girdle (Deuteronomy 25:13 et seq.; Isaiah 46:6; Proverbs 16:11). An adulteration or debasement of the value of the precious metals by means of certain alloys seems not to have occurred; at least the practise was not given any thought, and warnings are uttered only against false measures (Deut. l.c.; Leviticus 19:36).To disprove the opinion that during the whole period before the Exile coined money was unknown—that is, money under state control in regard to weight, purity, etc.—the passage in 1 Samuel 9:8 is cited. Here it is related that Saul’s slave gave him the fourth part of a shekel of silver, which he had with him. The conclusion, however, that this is a reference to coined money is too hasty. The only inference to be drawn is that at the time when the author of 1 Samuel 9 lived silver pieces of a certain weight may have existed and that they were cast into certain shapes known to every one, in order to obviate the necessity of weighing them at eachtransaction. Perhaps the name for “talent” (“kikkar” = “ring”) is derived from such forms, since Egyptian documents show that it was quite usual to cast the metals into such rings or into bars. These forms were not found among the Assyrians, who, however, used wedge-shaped pieces of gold, which are mentioned in Joshua 7:21.

For money, as for weight, the shekel was the standard unit, the pieces of metal being either fractions or multiples of the shekel. The struggle between the Egyptian decimal system and the sexagesimal method of the Babylonians first made itself felt in regard to weights of gold and silver. The Phenicians were probably the mediators; and a mina of 50 shekels was established as a standard. According to certain indications, the relative value of gold to silver was as 10 to 1. Later, in consequence of the great increase in the supply of silver, the relative value was as 40 to 3. This may, perhaps, have affected the possibility of introducing the sexagesimal system.

The gold shekel originally weighed 1/60 of a mina. The silver shekel, to have had an equal value, must have weighed 40/3 x 1/60 = 2/9 of a mina. As this would have been impracticable for use, it was decided to make a smaller piece, one more suitable for circulation. Two methods presented themselves: (1) either the silver equivalent of the gold shekel could be divided into ten parts in which case a silver shekel of 2/90 = 1/45 of a shekel of weight would result; or (2) the silver equivalent could be divided into fifteen parts, in which case a silver shekel would weigh 2/135 of a mina.

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Author: Jewish Encyclopedia

Keywords: Money

Source: Isidore Singer (editor), The Jewish Encyclopedia (12 Volumes), (1906).

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