Coin of Fire
זֶ֣ה ׀ יִתְּנ֗וּ כָּל־הָעֹבֵר֙ עַל־הַפְּקֻדִ֔ים מַחֲצִ֥ית הַשֶּׁ֖קֶל בְּשֶׁ֣קֶל הַקֹּ֑דֶשׁ עֶשְׂרִ֤ים גֵּרָה֙ הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל מַחֲצִ֣ית הַשֶּׁ֔קֶל תְּרוּמָ֖ה לַֽה’׃
This is what everyone who is entered in the records shall pay: a half-sheqel by the sanctuary weight — twenty gerahs to the sheqel — a half-sheqel as an offering to Hashem.
– Shemos 30:13
The word “זה – this” generally refers to pointing to or otherwise showing something. So Chazal explore what is it Hashem is showing Moshe here. The Medrash Tanchuma (Ki-Sisa 9) answers this implied question:
זֶ֣ה ׀ יִתְּנ֗וּ. אָמַר רַבִּי מֵאִיר: כְּמִין מַטְבֵּעַ שֶׁל אֵשׁ הוֹצִיא הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא מִתַּחַת כִּסֵּא הַכָּבוֹד וְהֶרְאָהוּ לְמֹשֶׁה וְאָמַר לוֹ: זֶה יִתְּנוּ, כָּזֶה יִתְּנוּ. כֹּל הָעֹבֵר עַל הַפְּקֵדִים, כֹּל הָעוֹבֵר עַל סְכוּמַיָּא.
“This you shall give”: Rabbi Meir said: HaQadosh Barukh Hu took out from other the Throne of Glory something like a coin of fire and showed it to Moshe. And He told him, “‘Give this’ — like this should you give. ‘Whomever is entered in the records’ — whomever is included in the census.”
But the question is, why did Moshe need to be shown what a half-sheqel coin looks like? There is a similar midrashic comment about the Menorah, but okay, without a picture, and knowing it needed to be hammered from one piece, how to put together something with all those flowers, cups and buttons in the right places could be hard to imagine. But half a coin???
When Avraham bought the Me’aras haMachpeilah from Efron, the Torah says (Bereishis 23:16) that Avraham paid him, ” אַרְבַּ֤ע מֵאוֹת֙ שֶׁ֣קֶל כֶּ֔סֶף עֹבֵ֖ר לַסֹּחֵֽר — four hundred sheqel of silver, as merchants would accept.” What does “עֹבֵ֖ר לַסֹּחֵֽר — at merchants would accept” add?
According to Herdotous (I, 94), coins were first minted by the Lydians. According to Aristotle, by Demodike of Kyrme, the wife of King Midas of Phrygia. Another popular theory was that coinage began on the Greek island of Aegina, either by the local rulers or by king Pheidon of Argos. In any case, we are talking about the 6th or 5th century BCE. Late Bayis Rishon period, long after Avraham or Moshe.
When Avraham gave 400 sheqel kesef he didn’t give 400 silver sheqel coins. By all indication, using standardized coins to pay wasn’t invented yet. So there was no prepackaged sheqel to hand Efron, already weighed and stamped out with designes to show as much. He weighed out 400 sheqel weight of silver himself. Thus, it tells us that Avraham’s weighing was generous, it was an amount of silver any merchant would accept without question. There would have been nothing surprising had we been talking about merchants accepting coins.
(Yes, there is a beraisa (Bava Metzi’ah 97b) about an Avraham coin that had “זקן וזקינה מצד אחד ובחור ובתולה מצד — old man and old woman on one side, and young man and young woman on the other.” (Whether in pictures or as words.) And similarly, a Jerusalem coin, “דוד ושלמה מצד אחד וירושלים עיר הקודש מצד אחר — David and Shelomo on one side, and Yerushalayim on the other.” These are examples of Jewish coins that would be accepted when Israel is ascendent. So there is no indication these coins existed in Avraham’s, David, or Shelomo’s day.)
The medrash with which we opened is saying that Hashem did show Moshe a half-sheqel coin. The whole idea of coinage would have been alien to him. So to get the idea that people should give a coin, formal and standardized currency, required pictures, not only words.
And if all this conjecture is correct, it has the following pleasant implication:
Currency was not invented to expedite business. It was invented to ease giving tzedaqah!