Close up of a Roman coin hoard, found near Frome in Somerset, England. Portable Antiquities Scheme

Hoarding Consecrated “Second Tithe” Coins

Evidence suggests that hoarding second tithe money held special, religious significance among late antique Jews. How did this curious religious observance develop? What might it have meant to the Jews who practiced it?

Amit Gvaryahu

Deuteronomy’s Innovation of Redeeming
Ma’aser Sheni on Silver

According to Deuteronomy, Israelite farmers are obligated to tithe their produce and consume it “before the Lord your God” (Deut 14:22-23) i.e., at the Jerusalem Temple. Deuteronomy also tells us that if this was too onerous, farmers may sell their tithe for silver and then use that silver to buy food and drink to be consumed in the Temple city for ritual or sacrificial meals:

כד וְכִי יִרְבֶּה מִמְּךָ הַדֶּרֶךְ כִּי לֹא תוּכַל שְׂאֵתוֹ כִּי יִרְחַק מִמְּךָ הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ לָשׂוּם שְׁמוֹ שָׁם כִּי יְבָרֶכְךָ יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ. כה וְנָתַתָּה בַּכָּסֶף וְצַרְתָּ הַכֶּסֶף בְּיָדְךָ וְהָלַכְתָּ אֶל הַמָּקוֹם אֲשֶׁר יִבְחַר יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ בּוֹ. כו וְנָתַתָּה הַכֶּסֶף בְּכֹל אֲשֶׁר תְּאַוֶּה נַפְשְׁךָ בַּבָּקָר וּבַצֹּאן וּבַיַּיִן וּבַשֵּׁכָר וּבְכֹל אֲשֶׁר תִּשְׁאָלְךָ נַפְשֶׁךָ וְאָכַלְתָּ שָּׁם לִפְנֵי יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ וְשָׂמַחְתָּ אַתָּה וּבֵיתֶךָ.
24 But if, when the LORD your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the LORD your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you,  25 then you may turn it into silver. With the silver bundled in hand, go to the place that the LORD your God will choose;  26 spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, ale, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the LORD your God, you and your household rejoicing together.

Tithing is a practice known from other places in the Hebrew Bible (see e.g. Gen 14:20). The rabbis called the tithe described in Deuteronomy 14:22-26 the “second tithe,” to differentiate it from the “first tithe” of Numbers 18:21, which is given to the Levites. A third tithe is the “poor tithe” given once every three years (Deut 26:12-15). According to the rabbinic reading of the Torah, the first tithe is given each year, while the second tithe is only given on years when the poor tithe is not given.1

Redeeming Maaser Sheni on Money (Not Silver)
– A Rabbinic Innovation

In its discussion of what the rabbis knew as the “second tithe,” Deuteronomy 14 could not be referring to coined money—tokens made of precious metal that functioned as legal tender—which was only introduced into Judea during the Second Temple period.2 However, for the rabbis the term “silver” (כסף) in this passage meant coins, and the rabbis stressed that the second tithe was only to be sold (“redeemed”) for current money – not for empty dies or un-coined silver.

משנה מעשר שני א:ב

אֵין מְחַלְּלִין מַעֲשֵׂר שֵׁנִי עַל אֲסִימוֹן וְלֹא עַל הַמַּטְבֵּעַ שֶׁאֵינוּ יוֹצֵא

Mishnah Maaser Sehni 1:2

We do not redeem the second tithe on uncoined dies (asēmon) or on coins that are not current.

Thus, using imperial currency became a necessary part of the rabbinic performance of this law.

Second Tithe Money Post-Destruction

Tithing is not only a ritual incumbent on farmers. It is a central part of the rabbinic food laws.3 Setting aside the second tithe or redeeming it, for example, is a prerequisite for making produce edible.4 Un-tithed produce was, essentially, not “kosher” and its consumption was severely prohibited.5

Crucially, according to rabbinic law one could only consume the second tithe in Jerusalem if the Temple stood. This meant that following the destruction of the Temple, for four out of the seven year shemittah (sabbatical) cycle,6 ten percent of the produce could not be eaten – אם אין מקדש ירקבו, “if there is no Sanctuary, it should rot” (m. Maas. Shen 1:5).

Taking Tithe Money out Circulation
Letting all this produce decompose was not an acceptable option, so it was typically redeemed for money. However, since, following the destruction, the money could not be used to purchase food to eat in Jerusalem, this led to the existence of large amounts of tithe money that had to be kept out of circulation. Thus, a whole area of tannaitic law developed to deal with the money, including rules for hiding and discovering it.7 For example, the Mishnah describes a system for determining whether found money is sacred money on which tithes had been redeemed:

משנה מעשר שני ד:ט

כָּל הַמָּעוֹת הַנִּימְצְאִין הֲרֵי אֵילּוּ חוּלִּין אֲפִילּוּ דִינָרֵי זָהָב עִם הַכֶּסֶף

וְעִם הַמָּעוֹת מָצָא בְתוֹכוֹ חֶרֶשׂ וְכָתוּב עָלָיו מַעֲשֵׂר הֲרֵי זֶה מַעֲשֵׂר׃

m. Maaser Sheni 4:9

 All coins found are [assumed to be] profane, even if there are gold denarii with the silver and the copper.

[However] If one found [a hoard] with a potsherd in it that said tithe,8 it is [presumed to be] tithe [money]

This mishnah suggests that large quantities of off-limits tithe money were stored in homes.9

Hoarding Tithe Money as an Act of Piety
It reasons that hoarding tithe money was not merely a practical issue, but also a pious practice in its own right, as the following story illustrates:

מעשר שני ג:יח

מעשה ברבן שמעון בן גמליאל ור’ יהודה ור’ יוס’ שנכנסו אצל בעל הבית לכזיב. אמרו: לא נדע היאך בעל הבית זה מתקין את פירותיו. כיון שהרגיש בהן הלך והביא לפניהן דלוסקיס מלא דינרי זהב.

אמרו לו. היאך אתה מתקן את פירותיך. אמ’ להם. כך וכך אני אומ’. מעשר שני שבחפץ זה מחולל על איסר זה. אמ’ לו. צא ואכול את מעותיך נשתכרת במעות איבדתה נפשות.

t. Maaser Shen. 3:18

A story of R. Simon b. Gamaliel and R. Judah and R. Jose who went to a householder in Keziv. They said: how do we know how this householder tithes his produce? He noticed and went and brought before them a purse full of golden denarii.

They said to him: How do you tithe your produce? He said: this is what I say: ‘the second tithe in this object is redeemed by this as (a copper coin).’ They said to him: go and use (“eat”) your coins; you have profited in money and lost your soul.

The householder in Keziv would not specify where in the pile of produce the tithe was, and so under rabbinic norms he did not tithe his produce at all.10 Still, this man, who ignored the particulars of rabbinic tithing, proudly showed the visiting rabbis that he was “sacrificing” an astronomical amount of wealth in tithe-money – a gold coin could buy about 220 liters of wheat (!) – by keeping this money and never using it. He took care to store the money in a place in his house where he could readily display it to others. We might speculate that it would have been a reminder of the riches he would never use in this world, but perhaps functioned as an investment in the next one.

The Significance of Late Antique Coin Hoards
Discovered in the Galilee

Students of rabbinic texts debate the extent to which rabbinic regulations were followed by Jews outside of the small rabbinic class.11   For this reason, it is exciting to see that there may be a hint of the second-tithe hoards in the archeological record. Late ancient synagogues (4-7th centuries CE) in the Galilee often contain hoards or caches of coins.12 Archaeologists noticed that these coin caches were typically placed carefully and deliberately under the foundations of new synagogues, suggesting an intentional religious practice of hoarding second-tithe coins.13  It stands to reason that tithe money, which already in scripture is tied to prosperity, was deposited in various synagogue implements and structures to elicit prosperity and good fortune for the community.14

Hoarding Ma’aser Sheni as
the Ultimate Sacrifice

Hoarding Ma’aser Sheni was likely seen as meaningful in other ways as well. By definition, money is supposed to circulate. In fact, it only has meaning as money when it can function as currency and move from one hand to another, creating exchange and commerce in its wake. Even when it is donated to a temple or given to the poor, it goes back into the economy when the Temple or poor use the donated funds to make a purchase. Destroying the coins or taking them out of circulation is a profoundly anti-economic act.  Whatever value these coins had is transferred to a realm outside of human control, and thus hoarding tithe money and depositing it in the synagogue was similar to an animal sacrifice, where an animal is destroyed and its life and flesh are given to God. This “sacrificial practice” of hoarding second tithe money continued for many decades after animal sacrifice had long since disappeared from the Jewish world.

Finally, we should note that ancient coins contained the emperor’s image, which rendered it legal tender. Taking these moneys out of circulation has the additional effect of having coins once made legal by the human (though deified) emperor invalidated by another, truly Divine emperor, i.e., God. Taking the coin out of circulation signifies, may have signified, for the tither, that the dicta of God are stronger than those of the (deified) emperor who made the coin valid with his image.

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amitAmit Gvaryahu is a PhD candidate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is a Rothenstreich doctoral fellow. He is also a visiting student at Princeton University. He works on wealth and money in rabbinic literature and the surrounding cultures.

  1. A good starting point for the various biblical tithes and their development into the rabbinic tithing system, is Zev Farber, “Making Ma’aser Work for the Times: From Temple Tax to Charity and Back Again.”
  2. Coined money was unknown among the Israelites before the Persian conquest and the return to Judaea in the 5th century BCE. For this reason, most of the Hebrew Bible has little to say about coins or currency. “Silver” in scripture is simply a weight of silver. Unlike a coin, such silver is not legal tender for all payments and different objects are bought and sold with other currencies. Although coins were made of precious metals, their central utility was in the faith the public put in them. See John W. Betlyon, “Coinage”, The Anchor Bible Dictioanry (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
  3. As for biblical law, it does not seem that failing to remove the second tithe would make the rest of the food problematic.
  4. Indeed, not only was it important as a biblical commandment. For the rabbis it also helped mark social boundaries by differentiating between “trustworthy” haverim who were careful to tithe, and everybody else.
  5.  m. Yad. 4:3, t. Zev. 12:17, t. Kar. 1:5, t. Maas. Shen. 3:8.
  6. The rabbis knew of two separate non-levitical tithes, the second tithe, and the tithe for the poor. These were spread out during the seven years of the shemittah cycle. The second tithe was taken on years 1, 2, 4, and 5. On years 3 and 6 of the cycle, the tithe was given to the poor instead. Again, see Farber, “Making Ma’aser Work.”
  7.  For example, the fifth chapter of t. Maaser Sheni contains a set of regulations regarding what we might call “monetary housekeeping.” Specifically, how are people to conduct themselves in a household that contains various hoarded coins, some sacred and some profane? What if someone knows they have a cache of coins and then cannot say where they are (t. Maas Shen 5:8)? What should a person do when she sees her father hoarding money in chests (5:11)? How do we assess testimony – sometimes carried by dreams(!) – of where the tithe-money was (5:9)?
  8.  Apparently, the potsherd was used as a label for the hoard, similar to how we use a note clipped to a wad of bills, or a memo on a check. 
  9. According to reigning halakhic interpretations today, this problem is averted by redeeming the tithe at much less than its value and then re-redeeming the tithe coin for less than its value again on another coin. This, of course, can go on indefinitely.
  10.  According to rabbinic law, it is critical to specify the physical place of the tithe in the pile of produce. The householder from Keziv made no such specification – all he said was that the tithe was redeemed on a copper coin. This rendered his tithes invalid, his produce un-tithed, and the money he set aside profane.
  11. Good starting points for the two positions on this debate are the “conservative” and “Israeli” Gedalia Alon, The Jews in Their Land in the Talmudic Age, 70-640 C.E. (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1989) and the “revisionist” and “American” Seth Schwartz, Imperialism and Jewish Society, 200 B.C.E. to 640 C.E. (Princeton, N.J: Princeton Univ Press, 2004).
  12. See the exhaustive survey in Rachel Hachlili, Ancient Synagogues-Archaeology and Art : New Discoveries and Current Research, Handbuch Der Orientalistik. Nahe Und Der Mittlere Osten (Leiden: Brill, 2013), 539–565.
  13.  Ibid., 563–564. Unlike what Hachlili says, gold and silver were in fact valid instruments for initially redeeming the second tithe as can be seen in m. Maas. Shen. 2:5-9. In any case could also have become tithe money when exchanged for copper coins.
  14.   For scripture see Malachi (3:10) concerning Temple tithes: “Bring the full tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in my house, and thus put me to the test, says the LORD of hosts; see if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.”  For rabbinic literature, see e.g. Pesikta de-Rav Kahana, Aser te’aser (ed. Mandelbaum, 160-174), especially Pesikta 10:10 (ed. Mandelbaum p. 172) which bluntly states “עשר תעשר – tithe so you will become rich.” The basic idea of tithing to receive blessing derives from Deuteronomy 26:13-15, where the bringer of first fruits declares:  “I have removed the sacred portion from the house <…> in accordance with your entire commandment that you commanded me <…> Look down from your holy habitation, from heaven, and bless your people Israel and the land that you have given us, as you swore to our ancestors—a land flowing with milk and honey.” In addition, taking the money out of the house to bring it to the synagogue might have been seen as a fulfillment of Deuteronomy 26:13, in which an Israelite is told to declare: “I have taken all of the holy things out of the house.” See also m. Maaser Shen. 5:10-13.
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