Hadasim, Aravos, and Bar Kochba Coins

Where some people – perhaps wisely – stayed away from disciplines considered hostile to traditional beliefs, some intrepid souls managed, in the words of the Gemara, to discard the shells and take the kernels. Phillip Biberfeld comes to mind, with his work on archeology a few decades ago. In our own time, Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, Chairman of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU (and completely Orthodox) has distinguished himself as an authority on Second Temple history in general, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in particular. In both scholarly and popular writing, he has demonstrated that instead of the Scrolls constituting a challenge to traditional Judaism, they in fact corroborate one of its central tenets – the antiquity of the Oral Law. He shows how so many details first recorded in the Mishnah were part of Jewish practice well before. This contrast sharply with the standard heterodox view of late manufacture of the Oral Law.

The item that follows was not authored by Dr. Schiffman, but points in the same direction. It was written by Alan Tunkel, a British barrister. (Thanks to Martin Brody for the contribution.) It provides a fascinating side-bar to a Mishnah that many of us are encountering just about now in Daf Yomi (Sukkah 34B).

Coins had been invented in the 7th century BCE. During the First and Second Jewish Revolts against the Roman occupation of Judaea (66-70 CE and 132-136 CE) the Jewish Authorities took the trouble to mint their own coins. They did this by obliterating the head of the Emperor and the Roman gods that
were found on the coins then circulating and by overstriking them with Jewish symbols and an appropriate message, e.g. “Year Two of the Freedom of Zion”. (Coins had major propaganda value in an era without widespread literacy, travel news, media or books).

What Jewish symbols did the Jewish Authorities choose for their coins? Nothing that was liable to be worshipped as a “graven image” was suitable. Accordingly, during both Revolts, they chose to depict the Lulav and Etrog. However, on close examination of the coins of each Revolt an interesting
difference emerges. Whereas the Lulav of the First Revolt includes many twigs of willow and myrtle, the Lulav of the Second Revolt has just one twig of each. Was there a reason for this or was it just a whim of the engraver?

In Tractate Succah, Chapter 3, Mishnah 4, Rabbi Ishmael states that three myrtle and two willow twigs are required whereas Rabbi Akiba states that one of each is sufficient. Apparently the coin of the First Revolt supports the opinion of Rabbi Ishmael whereas that of the Second Revolt supports Rabbi
Akiba. Why should this be so?

The leader of the Second Revolt was Simon Bar Kochba. Rambam, in his Laws of Kings and Kingship, Chapter 11 paragraph 3, describes Rabbi Akiba as the “armour-bearer” of Bar Kochba. When the Romans defeated Bar Kochba’s
forces, they tortured and killed Rabbi Akiba, an event that we remember when we read of the Ten Martyrs on Yom Kippur each year. Of course Bar Kochba and his mint-master followed the opinion of Rabbi Akiba when engraving a Lulav on the dies for their coins. He was their Rav.

The Mishnah was not redacted until long after these Revolts but these ancient coins provide unexpected and dramatic confirmation of the accuracy of the Mishnah now handed down to us and show how the laws were obeyed meticulously by our ancestors even at times of great danger and hardship.

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12 Responses

  1. Avrohom Adler says:

    Fascinating! I will bli neder link to this tomorrow on our Daf Notes.

  2. S. says:

    >they in fact corroborate one of its central tenets – the antiquity of the Oral Law.

    Is the antiquity of the Oral Law one of traditional judaism’s central tenets or the Sinaitic (or Mosaic, if you like) origin? Dr. Schiffman demonstrates that what is called rabbinic Judaism was a natural outgrowth of biblical Judaism–which it of course was–but certainly nothing that would really fly in most yeshivot. He demonstrates the link between the rabbinic Judaism of the post-Hasmoneans to the Hasmonean period, and the Hasmoneans period to the era of Ezra, but without making grandiose and maximalist claims; he doesn’t claim that the rabbinic Judaism of the 1st century would have grown naturally from, say, the Davidic era. This is definitely not the traditional view!

    He also corroborates the mishna and beraitot as highly accurate in describing conditions which antedate these literatures, thus, he tries to identify the Qumran sect as renegade Sadduccees rather than Essenes. In short, his scholarship is friendly to Orthodoxy but does not demonstrate it.

    While I am hardly a tzitzit checker, Dr. Schiffman–at least in his scholarly writings–writes nothing a whit more Orthodox than what is in, say, Dor Dor ve-Dorshav,I.H. Weiss’ history of halakhah which was roundly condemned as a heretical approach to Torah she-be-‘al peh in the 19th century.

  3. joel rich says:

    but certainly nothing that would really fly in most yeshivot.

    IIUC most yeshivot do not view the study of history as having any value (and might argue that posts like this one are counterproductive because giving weight to history when it proves our point might lead some to believe there is a value in history and then have problems when history does not seem to support our view)

    To expand a bit, the traditional yeshiva approach doesn’t place value in trying to understand through history why R’ Akiva held a certain way but rather places value on how the chain of mesorah understood why R’ Akiva held a certain way (there’s a famous joke which I probably won’t get exactly right -especially in translation – that R’ Chaim Soloveitchik asks the Rambam in shamayim why he seemed to hold 2 contradictory opinions and the Rambam answers it’s a mistake in the girsa(text), R’ Chaim stares in disbelief and says , that’s how you answer a difficult Rambam???

  4. Baruch Horowitz says:

    I found the article written by Alan Tunkel very interesting. There is a museum in Boro Park which has artifacts from Mishnaic and Talmudic times that can help one visualize topics from the Gemara. I also know of a Talmid Chochom who has expertise in this area. Such artifacts bring Chazal’s words to life, and can also be a source of chizuk of emunah, as pointed out by Mr. Tunkel.

    A parenthetical comment regarding Rabbi Adlerstein’s opening remarks:
    Today, the approach in the Yeshiva World is not to engage non-traditional scholarship head-on. I read, for example, that R’ Yitzckak Halevi Zt’l, wrote his Doros Harishonim primarily as a response to Dor Dor ve-Dorshav( referred to by S), and of course, there was the Moreh Nevuchim. Today’s approach, however, is due to sensitivities to the dangers of emuna al pi chakira and also to the words of the Rambam in the second perek of Avoda Zara(see article by R. Yehuda Parnes in TUM Journal). Instead, we strengthen Yahudus from within, such as by learning Torah in depth, and through other experiential means of Yiddishkeit(see Rabbi Yair Spolter’s discussion of F. Margolese’s “Off the Derech” in the current JO).

    Nevertheless, even if we are not engaging Haskala head-on, I think that we should not commit mistakes which leave us open to criticism. For example, when discussing the Rishonim’s opinions on science, philosophy, or on quoting non-Jewish scholars, or when writing Gedolim biographies, a topic should be discussed fully, fairly and honestly. Selectively quoting from Rishonim or Acharonim for favorable views, or altering a photograph in a biography for ideological reasons would not be acceptable, at all, in the academia.

    To be fair to the other side, I understand that because of the forum and the wide range of readers, a complete discussion often can not be had. But nevertheless, for those of us that have an appreciation for Jewish history or for philosophical Rishonim, the current approach has drawbacks. I do not know how to satisfy everyone, but I think that Yeshiva World publications need to be sensitive to this group of people.

  5. Baruch Horowitz says:

    “but rather places value on how the chain of mesorah understood why R’ Akiva held a certain way”


    I appreciate your comments regarding correcting girsaos. In this vein, the Gra and Bach corrected textual mistakes in the Gemera. Also, I think that the Sredei Aish said that we he gets to Shomayim, Rashi, not the printer, will thank him. 🙂 Nevertheless, the primacy of the understanding of the mesorah is not a contradiction to this.

    For example, RYBS Zt’l said(from FKM’s website):

    “However, the truth in talmud Torah can be achieved through singular halachic Torah thinking, and Torah understanding. The truth is obtained from within, in accord with the methodology given to Moses and passed down from generation to generation. The truth can be discovered only through joining the ranks of the chachmei hamesorah. It’s ridiculous to say “I have discovered something of which the Rashba didn’t know, the Ketzos didn’t know, the Vilna Gaon had no knowledge; I’ve discovered an approach to the interpretation of Torah which is completely new.” It’s ridiculous! One has to join the ranks of the chachmei mesorah, Chazal, rishonim, gedolei acharonim, and must not try to rationalize from without the chukei haTorah, and judge. We must not judge chukim umishpatim in terms of a secular system of values.”

  6. joel rich says:


    Exactly, in this statement R’YBS is stating the classic yeshiva approach. Yet AIUI he was open to girsaot issues. Perhaps it comes down to that only an insider (as described by R’YBS in the beautiful piece you quoted) gains the right to consider these issues. I always found his quoting the Gaon in this context of interest since aiui the Gaon felt very comfortable with reworking otherwise accepted traditions when he felt his understanding of the sources led him there.


  7. S. says:

    Being open to girsaot issues is scarcely the same thing as being a textual critic of the Talmud, which is a prerequisite for modern scholarship since study must begin with a correct text. R. YY Weinberg was exactly such a person. Being open to girsaot issues can sort of mean that you’ve got a Vilna Shas in front of you with hagaot ha-Bah and some bracketed and parenthesed passages. 🙂

  8. Yitzchok Adlerstein says:

    S. –

    Of course the central tenet is Sinaitic origin, not antiquity. But when your critics often argue for more recent authorship, taking some of the wind out of their sails has to count as a victory. Personally, I would give Prof. Schiffman more credit than you are giving him.

    Any comparison to I.H. Weiss is entirely coincidental. It reminds me of the story of a din Torah about an engagement gone sour, with radically different narratives offered by the families of the bride and groom about who was as fault. After listening to both sides, the Rov peremptorily sided with the groom. Onlookers were astounded. “We also heard both sides, and each had strong, equally attractive arguments. Why do you look at things differently?”

    “The difference,” he said, “is that I saw the bride.”

    I know Dr. Schiffman. He is a believer. He may not be able to “prove” the Sinaitic origin of the Torah She-B’al Peh in scholarly journals, but he works to make that belief at least more compelling to those who would otherwise scoff. I.H. Weiss, from what I recall, explicitly rejected the Sinaitic origins of the majority of what we call the Oral Law.

    They should not be compared.

  9. S. says:

    >Any comparison to I.H. Weiss is entirely coincidental.

    I do not think it is. I just think that what was vexing and scandalous 130 years earlier is oftentimes natural and acceptable 130 years later. IH Weiss was also a believer. His writings were permeated with love of God and Torah. He certainly was shomer Torah u-mitzvos. However, what an Orthodox Jew could say in 2006 an Orthodox Jew could not say in 1856 so he could not be considered an Orthodox Jew in 1856 (although ironically in some cases the reverse is true as well).

  10. Barzilai says:

    A close examination of the Bar Kochba coins also reveals that some of the esrogim are depicted as having a “gartel”– that is, a narrowing in the middle of the fruit. So for those that thought that looking for a ‘gartel esrog’ is a recent and silly affectation, here is an example:

  11. BD says:

    Somewhat of a late comment, so I am not sure if it will be seen.

    The introductory sentence quoted from Turkel is problematic. The seventh centure BCE is well into Bayis Rishon. Stating that coinage was invented so late (the accepted view amongst historians and archeologists) disagrees with the Oral Law.

    Chazal learn via a drasha that the redemption of Ma’aser Sheni requires an engraved coin (Kesef Tzurit). That would imply that coinage would have to exist at least as far back as Matan Torah (over 3300 years ago).

    Any thoughts on this?

  12. Shlomo Zalman Jessel says:

    Rabbi Landy, from Mordecai Kornfeld’s Daf Yomi Kollel, had the same insights, which he discussed in one of his history/archaeology lectures in our online archive.

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