Shekel or sheqel (Akkadian: 𒅆𒅗𒇻 šiqlu or siqlu, Hebrew: שקל, plural Hebrew: שקלים sheqalim or shekels, Phoenician: 𐤔𐤒𐤋) is an ancient Mesopotamian coin, usually of silver. A shekel was first a unit of weight—very roughly 11 grams (0.39 oz)—and became currency in ancient Tyre and ancient Carthage and then in ancient Israel under the Maccabees.
The word shekel is based on the Semitic verbal root for "weighing" (Š-Q-L), cognate to the Akkadian šiqlu or siqlu, a unit of weight equivalent to the Sumerian gin2. Use of the word was first attested in c. 2150 BC during the Akkadian Empire under the reign of Naram-Sin, and later in c. 1700 BC in the Code of Hammurabi. The Š-Q-L root is found in the Hebrew words for "to weigh" (shaqal), "weight" (mishqal) and "consideration" (shiqqul). It is cognate to the Aramaic root T-Q-L and the Arabic root Θ-Q-L ثقل, in words such as thiqal (the weight), thaqil (heavy) or Mithqal (unit of weight). The famous writing on the wall in the Biblical Book of Daniel includes a cryptic use of the word in Aramaic: "Mene, mene, teqel, u-farsin". The word shekel came into the English language via the Hebrew Bible, where it is first used in the Book of Genesis.
The term "shekel" has been used for a unit of weight, around 9.6 or 9.8 grams (0.34 or 0.35 oz), used in Bronze Age Europe for balance weights and fragments of bronze that may have served as money.
The earliest shekels were a unit of weight, used as other units such as grams and troy ounces for trading before the advent of coins. The shekel was common among western Semitic peoples. Moabites, Edomites, and Phoenicians used the shekel, although proper coinage developed very late. Carthaginian coinage was based on the shekel and may have preceded its home town of Tyre in issuing proper coins.
Coins were used and may have been invented by the early Anatolian traders who stamped their marks to avoid weighing each time used. Herodotus states that the first coinage was issued by Croesus, King of Lydia, spreading to the golden Daric (worth 20 sigloi or shekel), issued by the Persian Empire and the silver Athenian obol and drachma. Early coins were money stamped with an official seal to certify their weight. Silver ingots, some with markings were issued. Later authorities decided who designed coins.
As with many ancient units, the shekel had a variety of values depending on the era, government and region; weights between 7 and 17 grams and values of 11, 14, and 17 grams are common. A two-shekel weight recently recovered near the temple area in Jerusalem and dated to the period of the First Temple weighs 23 grams, giving a weight of 11.5 grams per shekel in Israel during the monarchy. When used to pay labourers, recorded wages in the ancient world range widely. The Code of Hammurabi (circa 1800 BC) sets the value of unskilled labour at approximately ten shekels per year of work, confirmed in Israelite law by comparing Deut 15:18 with Exod 21:32. Later, records within the Persian Empire (539–333 BC) give ranges from a minimum of two shekels per month for unskilled labour, to as high as seven to ten shekels per month in some records. A survival wage for an urban household during the Persian period would require at least 22 shekels of income per year.
Exodus 30:24 notes that the measures of the ingredients for the holy anointing oil were to be calculated using the Shekel of the Sanctuary (see also Exodus 38:24–26, and similarly at Numbers 3:47 for payment for the redemption of 273 first-born males and at Numbers 7:12–88 for the offerings of the leaders of the tribes of Israel), suggesting that there were other common measures of a shekel in use, or at least that the Temple authorities defined a standard for the shekel to be used for Temple purposes.
According to Jewish law, whenever a census of the Jewish people was to be conducted, every person that was counted was required to pay the half-Shekel for his atonement (Exodus 30:11–16).
The Aramaic tekel, similar to the Hebrew shekel, used in the writing on the wall during the feast of Belshazzar according to the Book of Daniel and defined as weighed, shares a common root with the word shekel and may even additionally attest to its original usage as a weight.
During the Second Temple period, it was customary among Jews to annually offer the half-Shekel into the Temple treasury, for the upkeep and maintenance of the Temple precincts, as also used in purchasing public animal offerings. This practice not only applied to Jews living in the Land of Israel, but also to Jews living outside the Land of Israel. Archaeological excavations conducted at Horvat 'Ethry in Israel from 1999 to 2001 by Boaz Zissu and Amir Ganor of the Israeli Antiquities Authority (IAA) have yielded important finds, the most-prized of which being a half-Shekel coin minted in the 2nd century CE, upon which are embossed the words "Half-Shekel" in paleo-Hebrew (Hebrew: חצי השקל). The same coin possesses a silver content of 6.87 grams. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the annual monetary tribute of the half-Shekel to the Temple at Jerusalem was equivalent to two Athenian drachmæ, each Athenian or Attic drachma weighing a little over 4.3 grams.
The Jerusalem shekel was issued from AD 66 to 70 amid the First Jewish Revolt as a means of emphasizing the independence of Judaea from Roman rule.
The Bar Kochba shekel was issued from AD 132 to 135 amid the Bar Kokhba Revolt for similar reasons.
Main article: Carthaginian shekel
The Carthaginian or Punic shekel was typically around 7.2 grams in silver and 7.5 grams in gold (suggesting an exchange rate of 12:1). They were apparently first developed on Sicily during the mid-4th century BC. They were particularly associated with the payment of Carthage's mercenary armies and were repeatedly debased over the course of each of the Punic Wars, although the Carthaginian Empire's expansion into Spain under the Barcids before the Second and recovery under Hannibal before the Third permitted improving the amount and quality of the currency. Throughout, it was more common for Carthage's holdings in North Africa to employ bronze or no coinage except when paying mercenary armies and for most of the specie to circulate in Spain, Sardinia, and Sicily.
Main article: Tyrian shekel
The Tyrian shekel began to be issued c. 300 BC. Owing to the relative purity of their silver, they were the preferred medium of payment for the Temple tax in Jerusalem despite their royal and pagan imagery. The money changers assaulted by Jesus in the New Testament are those who exchanged worshippers' baser common currency for such shekels and they have been suggested as a possible coin used as the "30 pieces of silver" in the New Testament.
The Israeli shekel (sheqel in direct transcription) replaced the Israeli pound (Hebrew: לִירָה, lira) in 1980. Its currency sign was ⟨
The new shekel replaced it in 1985. Its currency sign is ⟨ ₪ ⟩, although it is often notated as ש״ח or NIS. It is subdivided into 100 agoras or agorot. Both Israeli shekels are solely units of fiat currency and not weight of precious metals. With the 2014 series of notes, the Bank of Israel abandoned the transcriptions Sheqel and Sheqalim in favor of the standard English forms Shekel and Shekels.
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