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?


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

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



Dr. Amit Gvaryahu is a Rothenstreich doctoral fellow at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is also a visiting student at Princeton University. He works on wealth and money in rabbinic literature and the surrounding cultures.