July 18, 2024
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Artifacts From the Hashmona’im

The Hasmonean dynasty that ruled Eretz Yisrael with ups and downs from about 167 to 37 BCE left few marks on the land. There are some fortified caves in the north, and they enlarged the Mikdash outer wall on the southern end of Har Habayit. Also, a particular style of simple oil lamp is associated with them. But—they made and left us a lot of coins. These are little bits of bronze that can fit on your fingernail, yet they fascinate us.

The names appearing on them are Matityahu, Yehudah, Yehonatan and Yehochanan—all familiar to us from the first family of Hashmona’im. But then, as now, children of later generations were given those same names so it is not simple to know who is meant on the coins. Some coins also have names in Greek, reflecting a certain degree of Hellenization, and those are identifiable with confidence. The coin shown here is typical of the types, although only one in a thousand has survived in this condition.

The inscription on the front is very straightforward: ‘Yehochanan Hakohen Hagadol VeHever Hayehudim’ = Yehochanan the High Priest and the Council of the Jews. If you weren’t able to read that right away, perhaps it’s because the script is Ancient Hebrew, already not in use for at least 200 years by the time these coins were struck! Still, this “font” was chosen as a reminder and throwback to the glory days of the First Temple period, when this was the writing of the day. (The State of Israel did something similar when it produced its first stamps and coins in 1948, copying designs from ancient Jewish coinage.)

This Yehochanan Kohen Gadol is not the father of Matityahu mentioned in Al Hanisim. He is that man’s great-grandson, through Matityahu and Shimon. He successfully ruled Eretz Yisrael for 31 years (135-104 BCE), enlarging his reign and strengthening his kingdom. He was a vassal under the more powerful Antiochus VII of Syria. In keeping with his upbringing with the Perushim, he did not take the title King, only Kohen Gadol, which was a major political office in addition to its religious implications. The body described as Hever Hayehudim (= Council of the Jews) is assumed to be the group we know as the Sanhedrin, which, of course, played a significant role in guiding Jewish life.

A Greek letter Alpha appears above the Hebrew inscription. It has not been fully explained to this day but may be a nod to the Syrian king who dominated the region.

The designs are simple yet symbolic. A wreath of olive branches and fruit encircle the inscription. The wreath represents leadership and authority in the symbolism of that era.

The reverse side of the coin shows a double cornucopia—a horn of plenty. This was a Greek symbol that pervaded many cultures. Here we see a grain of wheat and a bunch of grapes sticking out. In between the horns is a pomegranate fruit. Together, it represents the abundance of the Land of Israel, Eretz zavat chalav u’dvash.

This is true Chanukah gelt, a tangible link with people and events “from those days” still commemorated “at this time.” Chag Same’ach.

Rabbi Yablok speaks to schools and synagogues on a variety of Jewish topics, all illustrated with original artifacts. He can be reached at [email protected].

By Rabbi Binyamin Yablok

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