You shalt not make unto you a graven image, nor any manner of likeness, of any thing that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth.
(Exodus 20:4)

The Jews of antiquity minted their own coins during a 269-year period, from the reign of Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus in 134 B.C.E. to the end of the Second Revolt in 135 C.E. The empires that ruled over the tiny Judean nation during this period — Persians, Syrians, Egyptians, Romans — decorated their coins with busts of their emperors. The Jews, who had their own kings but were forbidden to do the same, instead minted their coins with a rich variety of symbols and ceremonial objects. To understand these images, scholars carefully examine the visual features of the embossed emblems, study biblical books and the Midrash and Talmudic literature, and take into account the Greco-Roman culture that surrounded the Jews throughout this period. Here is what they have come up with:

Palms and Sukkot

Appears on the back of
5 agorot
(issued Sept. 4, 1985)

The palm tree and the palm branch figured frequently on Jewish coins. Palms symbolized water, around which they grew. From biblical times, palms had symbolized fertility, and height, as well. Palms were a symbol of Judea because they grew plentifully there. This meaning expanded, with the palm becoming a symbol for all of Palestine, and later, Israel. The Romans were apparently familiar with the meaning this symbol had for the Jews. After the First Revolt of the Jews was suppressed in 70 CE, the Roman emperor Vespasian minted a coin celebrating the nation's subjugation with the image of a palm tree flanked by a bound Jew and mourning Jewish woman. The coin's inscription read "Judea Capta."

The palm tree was an important symbol in the Sukkot festival of the ingathering, or autumn harvest, and palm branches were carried during Sukkot processions. Palm fronds, together with myrtle and willow, formed the lulav, which was waved in four directions to gather the clouds during the water libation. This joyous ceremony of pouring water onto the altar ritualized the Jews' prayers for rain during the coming winter months and was symbolized by the narrow-necked, one-handled ampula portrayed with a palm branch on silver denarii of the Second Revolt.

Back of 50 shekalim coin (issued March 8, 1984; ceased to be legal tender: Sept. 4, 1986)

The bronze shekel of Simon the Maccabee encompasses several aspects of the Sukkot festival, with an image of two lulavs and an etrog on one side, and on the other, a palm tree with dates falling from its fronds into two baskets. The baskets symbolized the bikkurim, the practice of bringing the first fruits of the harvest to the Temple. The dates were symbols of honey, a biblical metaphor for abundance.

Back of 1 New Shekel (issued January 214, 1981; ceased to be legal tender: September 4, 1985)

The Omer, or the tenth of an ephah of barley that was offered on the second day of Passover as the first harvest of the grain crop, is symbolized by a chalice-like vessel. Although this vessel looks like a cup, the shape of its rim has lead scholars to conclude that it is meant instead for measurement rather than drinking.

Fruit and Flowers

On back of 25 Mils
(issued April 6, 1949;
ceased to be legal tender: September 6, 1950)

Clusters of grapes appeared on the coins of the Second Revolt, and grape leaves adorned the coins of both the First and Second Revolts. Grapes symbolized wine, an important product of Judea and Palestine. In the books of the prophets, the grape vine served as a symbol of Israel. It was also a symbol of blessing and fertility — "Israel will grow as the vine" (Hosea 14:8); "Thy wife shall be as a fruitful vine" (Psalm 128:3). Later, in the Talmud, the symbol grew grander: the vine was the world, Jerusalem, and the Torah, while the grapes symbolized the Patriarchs, the Sanhedrin and the scholars. Grapes were said to decorate the Temple's ritual vessels, and golden vines guarded the entrance to the sanctuary.

Back of 10 new agorot (issued February 24, 1980; ceased to be legal tender: February 28, 1985)

Depicted on coins from Hasmonean times through the First Revolt, pomegranates, which grew plentifully in Judea, were included in the Bikkurim and symbolized Israel. 200 pomegranates decorated the columns that stood at the entrance of the Temple sanctuary, and pomegranates adorned ritual objects as well as the Levites' vestments. On the coins, they appeared in a budding stage with a flower, as well as in full ripeness. The pomegranate was a symbol of natural phenomena (wind, clouds, lightning), and it might have been associated with the thunder god Rimmon mentioned in the Bible. As for human qualities, the fruit symbolized piety, good deeds, and knowledge.

On back of One New Shekel (issued September 4, 1985)

The Hasmoneans also minted coins stamped with the lily, the shoshanah. Lillies graced the pillars of the Temple and its ceremonial objects, among these the shushan harp which took its shape, as well as its name, from the flower. Jewish poetry from the Song of Songs to the Psalms to the piyyutim that furnish the lyrical hymns of the Jewish prayerbook featured the flower, which symbolized righteousness, purity and chastity.

Temple and Instruments

On back of Half New Shekel (issued September 4, 1985)

Many of the Temple instruments depicted on Jewish coins appeared during the Bar Kokhba War (also known as the Second Jewish Revolt). The Temple's destruction now lay 62 years in the past with the First Revolt, and Bar Kokhba's campaign revolved around the goal of rebuilding it and reinstating its rituals. The Temple images were intended to galvanize Jewish pride courage and resolution.

In addition to the chalice and the one-handled ampula, several different two-handled amphorae are depicted on these coins. They are thought to symbolize the cruse that contained the oil for the Temple lamps, and the container used for wine libation rituals. The ampula symbol of the water libation, discussed above, also appeared on Bar Kokhba coins.

Trumpets as well as lyres and other stringed instruments were played by the Levites to accompany occasions for jubilation and praise, such as the Hallel prayer. Coins depicting these instruments on one side would, on the reverse, be stamped with wreaths of olive, laurel or palm branches, or grapes. All of the symbols on these coins related to the festive celebrations of Sukkot, in which the Temple was central.

Perhaps the most poignant of the Bar Kokhba coin emblems was that of the Temple itself, a four-pillared façade revealing a veiled ark within.


Encyclopedia Judaica. "Money."

Hendin, David. Guide to Biblical Coins. Dix Hills, NY: Amphora Books, 1987.

Meshorer, Ya'akov. Ancient Jewish Coinage, Vol. II. Dix Hills, NY: Amphora Books, 1982.

Muehsam, Alice. Coin and Temple. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1966.

Romanoff, Paul. Jewish Symbols on Ancient Jewish Coins. New York: American Israel Numismatic Association, Inc., 1971.

Ancient symbols on modern Israeli coins

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