Jewish Coinage in the time of the Talmud

    July 2010            
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Coinage in Talmudic Literature

By Norman A. Rubin

(Reference to coins mentioned in the Talmud, which attest to their denominations and valuations.)

After the 'Bar Kokhba' rebellion against Rome (132-135 AD), and the subsequent victory by the Roman legions, the Land of Israel was called "Palestine" by the Romans in order to erase all Jewish association; Jerusalem was rebuilt as a soldiers colony and renamed Aelia Capitolina, forbidden to the Jews.

With Jerusalem gone a new center of Jewish study was built in Yavneh, southern Israel, and a scholarly governing body, the Sanhedrin, was created. The center at Yavneh was later moved to the town of Tiberias, where the 'Mishnah', a systematic code of law, was completed in the 3rd century AD.

"Talmud" the collection of Jewish law and tradition consisting of the 'Mishnah' and the 'Gemara' (instruction). The word "Talmud" means "learning" or "study". In the broadest sense, the "Talmud" is not one book, but a set of books. The primary section is the "Mishnah" meaning "repeated study" of the code of religious and civil law."

The final writing and compilation of the Mishnah was under the authority of Rabbi Judah Ha-nasi, head of the Jewish community in Palestine. Judah and his astute scholarly team spent about fifty years sifting through the whole oral law, which was then compiled in six sections, or orders, dealing with all the facets of life - civil law, ritual purity, festivals, marriage, the temple service and agriculture. By the time of the compilation, the laws in the Mishnah had come to be recognized as absolute.

From rabbinic and Ancient Greek and Roman historical texts written during the Talmudic period of Israel sources (3rd cent. BC - 4th cent. AD), scholars had the knowledge of the value of money of this period. From the Talmudic literature and historical records we can understand and define the Roman coin denominations and their value.

The currency system most commonly found of the times was written in the Tannaitic Talmudic era (1st and 2nd cent. AD - the period of active Jewish scholars whose writings are found in the Mishnah). The currency system in the literature is a syncretic one. It is based on the Greek drach-obol, 6 obols = 1 drachm. It follows the Roman monetary system both in terminology and metrological structure. Its standard was linked to that of the Tyrian tetadrachm. The monetary system AP pears as follows (above the Talmudic terms are the Roman ones from which they derive):

*Within the system were two (silver) 'tarapiks' (quinarii) to the dinar, 25 dinars to the gold dinar (aureus), and the maneh - which meant 100 denarii.) (Halakhah (Jewish law)

There is also some discources in Talmudic literature as to when coins cease to be legal tender. - (Talmud Keter BM 4:5, Talmud Keter BK 97a-b.) According to Talmudic interpretations of Jewish law, 'coin' cannot effect transfer of property; only 'produce' (pere) can. All 'coins' can do is cause an obligation to complete a contract. Hence there is much discussion (pilpul) by Talmudic scholars on what [coins] constitute 'coin' and what [produce] constitute 'produce’. The Talmud (Kid. 12a) also records what is apparently an earliest monetary system, of uncertain origin.

Nero Agrippina aureus


The dinar was probably the most common monetory term in the rabbinic literature of the Talmud. During the Tannaitic times, the dinar refers to the silver denarius, whereas the aureus is called a gold dinar. During the second half of the third century there is a change in the usuage of the word. The unqualified dinar comes to refer to the aureus (later, the solidus), the gold dinar, while the silver denarius is specifically called.

An exemplary example is written in the section, Talmud Yerusahalmi Ketuba, where it written of a Ketubah (Jewish marriage contract) being worth twenty dinars and a house with the value of ten dinars. At that period the value of a Ketubah was two hundred 'zuzim' (denarii) for a virgin and a hundred 'zuzim' for a widow. Therefore, dinars in this section refer to gold dinarii, not silver.

In the Talmudic chapter Yerushalmi Baba Batra 8.4, we learn that 100 small "garbin", pint bottles of wine cost ten dinars, thus a small bottle of wine cost 1/10th of a dinar. The larger ones, probably amphora (or gallon) size for twenty dinars for the same amount. Yet according to the 'Edict of Diocletian' of 301 AD, ordinary wine costs as much as ten dinarii per Italian pint. Clearly then, the dinar referred to in this chapter means a gold dinar, an aureus.

From the writings in the Talmud we can infer that the term 'dinar' came to refer to a gold coin, the 'aureus', and later in the fourth century it was also applied to the 'solidus', the heir of the aureus.

Talmudic literature gives the denomination of a siver dinar. The text Bavli Bava Mezia 44b quotes that a 'siver dinar' is one twenty-fifth of a gold dinar. But in the Kiddushim 1.1 the ratio is only one twenty-fourth. It is also confirmed in the chapter Me'ila 4.7, written in the early second century, "that a dinar of silver is one twenty-fourth of a dinar of gold - twenty-four denarii to the aureus."

NUMMUS (silver)

The third century was one of inflation throughout the Roman Empire, so much so that by the year 270, the denarius lost in value - from 1/25 aureas to 1\a1000. It is known from the time of Aurelian's monetary reform (about 274) until the time of Diocletian the inflation had increased, that there must have been less than 800 denarii in an aureus.

Also during the reign of of Emperor Aurelian (1) the silver coinage reached its highest point of debasement, which was seen in the silver-gold ratio (estimated) in the antoninanus (a denominination introduced by Emperor Caracalla in 215).

Then came the great collapse. From this time (about 266 onwards) there was longer any attempt to keep a constant relationship between the denomination - the silver-gold ratio fluctuated thus reducing the monetary values of the coinage. From the period of Aurelian's reform to that of Diocletian reform, the currency valuations dropped considerably, but the details of this phase remains highly uncertain. It was period of inflation accompanied by high prices for goods.

The monetory reforms of Diocletian (post 295) (2) with its edict of prices ushered in a system was based on the gold standard, unlike the earlier silver-based one. Part of the Diocletian's consisted of restoring the silver-gold ratio to a more reasonable balance. The silver-gold ratio at that time was 14.7:1.

According to the Edict of Declaration (Diocletian) one libra aurei equals 50,000 denarii, hence one aureus equals 833 2/3 denarii. The minted aureus, however, was itself worth 4% less. (One aureus equals 800 dinarii). From the third century onwards, a number of new terms in Rabinnic literature appeared based on the new monetory system.

The coin that appeared at this time was the nummus (leukon, meaning white) was a silver coin worth approximately 25 denarii. After the year 301 AD, during the monetory reforms, the nummus was halved in value so that it was worth 12 1/2 denarii. Thus in actual fact, there were now fifty denarii in the new 'nummus’ The economic stability which continued throughout the fourth century saw the constant depreciation and revaluation in monetory system. Even the gold 'solidi', which had superseded the aurei, was, at times, looked upon with mistrust. There existed a strange situation at this period whereas unminted gold was was worth more than minted gold.

During this period a new monetory term appeared in Talmudic text - "lumma-nummus" – a copper coin (=sestrius) was 1/100 aureus in the monetory reform system. Thus, according to calculations, the lumma-nummus was worth two denarii. "Till now," (Talmud - Avoda Zara 34b), said Rabbi Rava "What cause for suspicion? As to mixing the brine with wine, a xestes of muries cost a lumma, while a xestes of wine costs four lumma."

Note: in Babylonia during the Sassanid period (from the third century onwards), the standard silver unit was the Sassanid drachm, called in the Talmud "zuz" (to cut, Akadian), while the small copper coins of varying sizes were called "peshite".


Another monetary term written during the Tannaitic and the early Amoraic periods (1st to the 3rd centuries) was the 'maneh' a term, which meant 100 denarii. However, from the third century onwards, it use was referred to a single denarius. The Greek historian Eusebis (in the Historica Ecclesiastica 9,8.4) relates that during the famine of 312-13 AD the cost of a modius of wheat cost 2500 Attic drachmae (=denari). Thus 'maneh' equals denarius (Attic drachmae).

In Tanhuma Balak (Talmuldic text dated about c. 303-304 AD) we read of a pound of kosher beef was priced at eight maneh. While the same amount of pork cost ten maneh according to Edict of Diocletian - one Italian pound of beef eight denarii and of pork twelve denarii. Hence maneh equal denarius.

The value of the maneh is again given in the text written between 290 to 320 AD, whereas the price of a cucumber is given as one to two maneh. According to the Edict of Diocletian a cucumber's cost is be tween 1/5 to 2/5 denarius. Here the 'maneh' value is again translated as one denarius.


During the last quarter of the third century a new monetary term appeared - the 'follis'. The term 'follis' was in the early stages translated as "a bag or purse of bronze or copper coins with a fixed weight used as money of account in the late Roman era." It was derived from the Latin word meaning "a pair of bellows". Eventually it acquired a second derivative meaning, "a leather money bag" (probably the bag was crafted in the form of bellows).

According to Talmudic evidence the 'follis' referred to a bag full of blank coins, with a fixed unit of value to a specific weight - one of one half pound of gold. The 'follis' was introduced as a bag of blanks as part of the Emperor Aurilian currency reforms. Its value was by weight or tally as half an aureus or one libra aurei.

Around the year 301 AD the "follis was valued around 25,000 denarii or 1000 nummi. When the Roman government reduced the value of the nummus to 12-1/2 denarrii, so that the 'follis' was worth 12,500 denarii.

During the period of Aurelian's currency reformed system there were 800 denarii in a libra aurei, and the silver-gold ratio stood 7,2:1; that is to say silver was worth twice as much in Aurelian's time that is was in Diocletian's time: the reforms of Aurelian caused the de-basement of the silver and gold in coinage, mainly due to speculation in precious metals. The subject of the gold and silver standards have been the subject of Talmudic scholars:

"Silver acquires gold but gold does acquire silver; copper acquires silver; cancelled coins acquire current ones, but current ones do not do not acquire cancelled coins; uncoined metal acquires coined metal, but coined metal does not acquire coins, but coins do not acquire movables...” (Mishnah - Yerusahlimi Bava Mezia 4.1)

Scholars assumed that the 'follis' served as a requirement for a kind of 'stable currency' during the Aurelian's currency reforms. During the Diocletian's post-reform period there were 25,000 denarii in a follis. According to system of valuation of this period it is assumed that there were 500 denarrii in an aureus and 25,000 in a libra aureus. Thus it is assumed that a 'follis' was equal to half an aureus.

But, with the fall of the value of the denarius, the 'follis' denoted an actual gold or silver coin. It was identified later (early fourth century) with a coin, a five-denarius piece. The derivative term 'follar' was applied to a silver coin in the fourth century, and maybe a copper one, too.


These monetary changes and crises had affects upon the fabric of society throughout the Roman era. They brought down the wealthy, and impoverished the poor. The patterns of taxation changed from one of money taxation to one of taxation in kind. "... the government says (to the taxpayer) measure out and bring (your taxes), measure out and bring..." (Rav. Aba Bar Kahana - late 3rd cent.)

The reforms of Diocletian eventually did bring about a reestablish ment of relatively stable gold-based currency system. Confidence in money was re-established. Trading was beginning to pick up again, after its decline in the preceding century.

"This is the principal of the matter: all which is lower in value acquires it counterpart (which is higher in value)...” (Gemara 9c)


1) Aurelian (Lucius Domitius Aurelianus) 215-275AD, one of the greatest Roman soldier emperors (270-275) "Restorer of the Empire", instituted reforms, including monetory, and sponsored public improvements. Assassinated by his own officials.

2) Diocletian (245-313 AD), Roman emperor (284-205 AD), able soldier and energetic ruler. Issued the "Edict of Deocletian", monetory reform based on the gold standard. (Under his rule a memorable persecution of Christians took place.)


1) Catalogue - exhibition "More than Money" - Dr. Haim Gittler, chief curator, coin department - Israel Museum, Jerusalem.

2) Roman Palestine 200-400 Money and Prices, Daniel Sperber, Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan Israel.

3) Encyclopedia Judaica, Ketter Publishing Ltd., Jerusalem

4) The Coinage of Aelia Capitolina, Ya'akov Meshorer, Ketter Press Enterprises, Jerusalem, Israel

5) Catalogue, Kadman Numismatic Pavilion, Eretz Israel Museum, Ramat Aviv, Israel.

6) The New English Bible - Oxford University Press, Cambridge Univer-sity, England.


from the July 2010 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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