What do ancient coins tell us about the Omer period and the time of the Bar-Kochba revolt, when the 49 days between Passover and Shavuot became associated with death and mourning?
According to the Bible, the seven weeks between the two holidays referred to as ‘omer’ – a unit of measure which was used to quantify the amount of produce to offer as a sacrifice to God – was not meant to carry any specific connotation other than its agricultural meaning.
“And from the day on which you bring the sheaf of elevation offering – the day after the sabbath – you shall count off seven weeks. They must be complete: you must count until the day after the seventh week – fifty days; then you shall bring an offering of new grain to the Lord,” reads the 23rd chapter of Leviticus (verses 14-15).
Later on, however, in the decades after the destruction of Jerusalem’s Second Temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 CE, calamity struck; according to the Jewish tradition, during the counting of the omer, some 24,000 students of the great Jewish sage, Rabbi Akiva died, decimated by a plague or killed by the Roman forces during the rebellion led by Simon Bar-Kochba (132-135 CE).
A window into that period and the life in the land of Israel during those years can be opened today through an unexpected means: the ancient coins minted by the rebels.
“Coins were considered an expression of sovereignty,” Donald T. Ariel, head of the Coin Department at the Antiquities Authority (IAI), told The Jerusalem Post. “Minting coins meant to be free.”
The symbolism behind the coins is clearly stated in the ornaments they feature. They include the Temple facade, trumpets, a harp/violin, vine leaves, palm trees – which at the time were considered the ultimate symbol of Judea – as well as writings such as “Year One of the Redemption of Israel” or “Year Two of the Freedom of Israel” and “Jerusalem.”
The revolt – also known as the Third Jewish Revolt – broke over the religious restrictions imposed by the Romans, as well as their decision to build a Roman city over the ruins of Jewish Jerusalem, including a pagan sanctuary where the Temple had stood.
The geographic distribution of the coins found offers important insights into the vicissitudes of the revolt; as much as the insurgents yearn to return to Jerusalem, they were not able to.
“Some 22,000 coins have been excavated in the area of the Old City of Jerusalem. Of those, three were Bar-Kochba coins. Another few were found in other areas of modern Jerusalem. This is important evidence showing that the city was never captured by the rebels,” Ariel said.
Several hundred such coins have been found in excavations around the Land of Israel – mostly in the area that was known as Judea back then – where the insurgents managed to score some important victories over the Romans and establish a brief independent entity.
Some coins were also discovered in the caves in the Judean desert.
The inhospitable environment was considered a safe haven as the war raged. Jews found shelter in the caves and brought what they thought they needed for their new life. In the most recent discovery unveiled in March, the IAA revealed that several coins were found together with the remains of a biblical scroll.
Most Bar-Kochba coins discovered were made out of bronze, and just a couple of dozens out of silver.
“A bronze coin was worth a couple of loaves of bread at the market,” Ariel explained. “Silver coins were much more precious and could be used to pay for things such as military equipment, so the Romans were especially not happy to see someone striking them.”
A very unique characteristic of the Bar-Kochba series is that they were minted using other coins.
“They were struck over other coins, the bronze ones from Ashkelon and Gaza, the silver ones over Roman coins,” Ariel said. “This is the only full series in the ancient world presenting this element.”
The Bar-Kochba revolt was completely suffocated by the Romans, leading to the destruction of all Jewish towns and villages which had participated in the war as well as to thousands of casualties, including Rabbi Akiva himself.
However, this did not mark the last time that coins were minted by Jews in the Land of Israel until modern times.
“In the following years, there were cities where Jews represented the majority of the population which issued coins, such as Sepphoris, Nablus and Tiberias,” Ariel concluded.