What's in a Word?

For the week ending 26 February 2022 / 25 Adar Alef 5782

Vayakhel (Shabbat Shekalim)

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

A Shekel for a Sela

In the Torah portion of Shekalim we read that the Torah commands every Jewish man above the age of twenty years old to donate half a shekel to the Tabernacle/Temple (Ex. 30:11-16). Now, the word shekel clearly derives from the triliteral root SHIN-KUF-LAMMED (“to weigh/measure”), and refers to the fact that this currency was a metal coin that weighed a specific amount. However, there is another term for this exact sort of coinage. Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan consistently translate the word shekel in the aforementioned passage as sila, which is an Aramaicized form of the Hebrew word sela. Why are there two different words for the same coin? And what other terms refer to the half-shekel?

The word sela appears many times in the Mishna, but bears two fairly distinct meanings. Sometimes the word sela refers to a specific coin used as legal tender (Peah 8:7, Terumot 10:8, Maaser Sheini 2:6-10, 4:3, 4:6, 5:4, Eruvin 8:2, Shekalim 1:6, 2:4, Ketuvot 4:3, 5:9, 6:3-4, Nedarim 3:1, Bava Kama 4:5, 8:6, Bava Metzia 2:9, 4:3, 4:5, 5:1-2, Bava Batra 10:2, Shavuot 6:7, 7:5, Eduyot 1:9-10, 7:1, Menachot 13:8, Chullin 11:2, Bechorot 1:6, 8:2-8, Erachin 2:1, 3:1, 3:2-5, 7:1, 8:2, Kritot 5:2-3, 6:6, Keilim 12:7, 14:1, 17:11-12, Negaim 5:1, 5:4-5, 9:3). Yet, at other times the word sela retains its meaning from Biblical Hebrew as a “rock/bedrock” (Kilayim 2:8, 2:10, 7:1, Sheviit 3:3, 3:7, 3:10, Terumot 8:11, Orlah 1:3, Shabbat 6:6, 11:2, Eruvin 8:3, Yoma 6:6, Nedarim 4:8, Bava Kama 3:11, Bava Metzia 10:4, Bava Batra 2:1, 6:8, 7:1, Zevachim 13:3, Keilim 6:2, Ohalot 3:7, 8:2, Negaim 12:2, Parah 3:2, 5:7, Mikvaot 4:5, Niddah 9:5, Machshirin 3:4).

The Mishna itself already implies that the sela coin is the same thing that the Bible calls a shekel, because the Mishna uses the word sela in the same contexts that the Bible uses the word shekel. For example, the Torah stipulates that a Jewish firstborn son must be redeemed from a Kohen for five shekel (Num. 18:16); yet when the Mishna in Bechorot codifies this law and cites it, it always refers to five selaim. Similarly, the Torah stipulates that an animal brought as a guilt-offering must be valued at least two shekel (Lev. 5:15); yet when the Mishna in Kritot codifies this law and cites it, it refers to two selaim. The connection is a bit more explicit in Rava’s definition of the sela d’orayta (“the Biblical sela”), wherein he cites Exodus 30:13, which specifies that a shekel ought to weigh twenty geira (Bechorot 50a). Thus, Rava clearly understood that whatever the Torah calls a shekel is coterminous with what the Rabbis called a sela. This is even more explicit in the Jerusalem Talmud (Kiddushin 1:3), where Rabbi Chanina comments: “All shekalim written in the Torah are selaim.” (See also Babylonian Talmud in Bechorot 50a which cites Rabbi Chanina as saying, “All kesef — “silver” — that is said in the Torah unspecified is a sela.”)

Indeed, later authorities, like Rashi (to Bechorot 5a), Maimonides (Laws of Erachin 4:3, Shekalim 1:2), and Sefer HaChinch (Commandment #355) explicitly write that a shekel in Biblical Hebrew refers to what the Rabbis in the Mishna call a sela.

How did these two terms come to be related to each other? And why did the Rabbis stop using the Biblical Hebrew word shekel and instead use the word sela for what the Bible calls a shekel?

These questions are compounded by the fact that the Rabbis also used the word shekel, just not in the way we would expect. The most illustrative example of this is the Mishna Shavuot (6:7), in which two litigants argue over the value of a lost collateral vis-à-vis the total debt. The creditor claims, “I lent you a sela and it [the lost collateral] was worth a shekel [so the collateral that I lost does not cover your entire debt, ergo you still owe me money].” To this, the debtor responds, “No, you lent me a sela and it [the lost collateral] was worth a sela [so the collateral that you lost covers the entire debt, ergo I owe you nothing].” Their exchange of words presumes that the term shekel implies coinage that is worth less than a sela, for if sela and shekel were truly synonymous, there would be no conflict between the creditor and the debtor. Now it gets complicated: If the Mishnaic Hebrew word sela refers to what the Bible calls a shekel, why would the Mishnaic Hebrew word shekel refer to less than what the Bible calls a shekel?

Nachmanides (to Ex. 30:13) partially addresses these questions by admitting that while the term sela in Mishnaic Hebrew equals the shekel of Biblical Hebrew, the term shekel in Mishnaic Hebrew does not equal the shekel of Biblical Hebrew. He explains that because of the Torah’s commandment of an annual half-shekel donation, people began to use the term shekel for the half-shekel coin that they were supposed to donate. In time, the word shekel became so totally identified with this commandment that it lost its original meaning of a full shekel and was used to refer to a half-shekel. Because of this, in Rabbinic parlance (reflected by Mishnaic Hebrew) the word shekel actually means what the Bible calls a “half-shekel,” and a new term — sela — was applied to what the Bible calls a shekel. The same idea is found in the writings of Rabbi Menachem Azariah of Fano (1548-1620).

With this understanding in hand, the Mishna in Shavuot makes perfect sense: The creditor claimed that he lent the borrower one sela, and since the collateral that he lost was worth only one shekel (i.e., half of a sela), the borrower still owes him money. The borrower, on the other hand, agreed that the original loan consisted of one sela, but he claimed that since the collateral was also worth one sela (i.e. two shekels) —he owes the lender nothing.

Nonetheless, although Nachmanides and Rabbi Menachem Azariah have accounted for how the term shekel in Biblical Hebrew came to mean half-shekel in Mishnaic Hebrew, they have failed to explain how the term sela came to be associated in Mishnaic Hebrew with what Biblical Hebrew calls a shekel. I have not found any sources explicitly address this question. But Rabbi Asher Gvirer of Beitar Illit suggests that the Rabbis renamed the shekel assela because the latter means “strong rock,” which shows that this term refers to a stronger (i.e. more valuable) coin than did the term shekel they commonly used. In an earlier essay (“Like a Rock,” Nov. 2018) I discussed how the term sela differs from other Hebrew words for “rock/stone.”

It would be interesting to consider whether the name Ashkelon for the Philistine coastal city is somehow related to the Hebrew word shekel or the triliteral root from whence it derives.

A piyyut ascribed to Rabbi Elazar HaKallir, which is customarily recited on Shabbat Shekalim, reads: "A shekel I will bear in the prepared and exalted house." Said house clearly refers to the Holy Temple and refers to the yearly shekel donation. However, prima facia, this wording is somewhat inaccurate because the commandment entails donating a half-shekel, not a whole shekel. Barring the possibility of poetic license, we must account for why the payytan referred to donating “a shekel,” which implies a complete shekel, instead of a half-shekel.

Based on the sources cited above, Rabbi David Schlussel of Munkatch (1864-1940) answers that this piyyut used the term shekel in the Rabbinic sense, by which it actually refers to what the Bible calls a half-shekel. Similarly, Rabbi David Cohen of Gvul Yaavetz in Brooklyn uses this idea to explain why the tractate devoted to the rules of the half-shekel donation is called Shekalim, even though a full shekel was not required. Since in Rabbinic parlance the term shekel refers to what the Torah calls a half-shekel, it is appropriate to call the tractate devoted to discussion of the laws of giving a half-shekel Tractate Shekalim.

Rabbi Elazar Rokach of Amsterdam (1665–1742) offers a more esoteric understanding of the name of Tractate Shekalim and the enigmatic piyyut cited above, He explains that while originally the Torah commands a yearly donation of a half-shekel, in the Messianic Era that commandment will morph into a requirement to donate a full shekel. He explains that in the at-bash cipher, the Hebrew word shekel assumes a gematria of twenty-six, which equals the gematria value of the Tetragrammaton. Accordingly, he explains that because G-d’s name remains incomplete until the eradication of Amalek (see Rashi to Ex. 17:16), the shekel given in His honor should likewise be halved, but in the Messianic Era when G-d’s name will contain all four letters, then the shekel given should likewise be complete.

When the Torah later mentions the capital tax in question again, it says “a beka per skull, half a shekel in holy shekel s” (Ex. 38:26). The word beka appears again when the Torah relates that the golden nose-ring that Eliezer brought Rebecca weighed a beka (Gen. 24:22). These are the only two times that beka appears in the Bible. Rashi (to Ex. 38:26), Rashbam (to Gen. 24:22), Ibn Ezra (to Ex. 38:26, Gen. 24:22), and Radak (Sefer HaShorashim) explain that the word beka refers to “half a shekel,” in line with the core meaning of the Hebrew root BET-KUF-AYIN, which means “to break” or “to split”). The phrase capital tax refers to what we would otherwise call a “head tax,” as the English word capital is actually cognate with the words cap, hat, and head. All these words are said to be ultimately derived from the Proto-Indo-European word kaput.

However, Targum Onkelos in both places (to Ex. 38:26, Gen. 24:22) translates the word beka as tikla. The word tikla is an Aramaicization of the Hebrew word shekel, with the Hebrew SHIN morphing into an Aramaic TAV, as often happens. This word notably appears in the Book of Daniel in the “handwriting on the wall,” which read mene mene tekel u'farsin — “count, count, weigh, and split” (Dan. 5:25). Similarly, the Mishna (Shekalim 6:5) uses the phrase taklin chaditin (“new shekels”) to refer to shekels that were donated for that year’s tax. It seems to me that the term “New Israeli Shekel” for the currency currently used in Israel may have been coined as a play on words on this Mishnaic expression.

Rabbi Yaakov Zev Lev (1946-2018) in Me’at Tzari (to Gen. 24:22) clarifies that this does not mean that Onkelos disagreed with the commentaries above who understood that beka refers to half a shekel (as is explicit in Ex. 38:26). Rather, they were simply speaking a different language: When Onkelos wrote that a beka means a shekel, he used the word shekel in the Rabbinic Hebrew sense, which actually equaled half a shekel of Biblical Hebrew. But when Rashi, Rashbam, and Ibn Ezra wrote that beka refers to half a shekel, they used the word shekel in the Biblical Hebrew sense, which was double the shekel of Rabbinic Hebrew.

The Targum known as Targum Jonathan, in both locations renders the word beka as darkemon. It seems that this Targum used the word darkemon in a general sense of “coin,” even though the word darkemon elsewhere has a more specific meaning that does not actually line up with a beka. The word darkemon appears in the Bible four times (Ezra 2:69, Nech. 7:69-71) and is clearly the name of some sort of coin or currency. The similar word adarchon appears twice in the Bible (I Chron. 29:7, Ezra 8:27) and another similar word, darkon, appears once in the Mishna (Shekalim 2:1). The Modern Hebrew word darkon,“passport,” is derived from the classical Hebrew derech (“derech”), as it is documentation used to facilitate one’s travel on the “road.” It seems to be unrelated to the Mishnaic word darkon.

Scholars are unsure about which specific coins these words refer to, but they typically associate these terms with the Persian daric and/or Greek drachma. The name of this latter coin was adopted into Arabic as the dirham, which continues to exist today (and may somehow be related to the surname of Rabbi David Abudraham). Either way, Maimonides (in his commentary to Shekalim 2:1) states that one darkon was worth two selas, so it does not make much sense to identify a beka as actually referring to the darkemon coin, which is four times more valuable than a half-shekel. That is why I presumed that the Targum known as Jonathan used the word dakremon only in a general sense.

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