New Stuff: Coins that bear witness to Sabbatical Years

Written by Claire Pfann

April 13, 2008

After reviewing the cycle of dated coins, it became apparent that numerous bronze issues of coins that were produced by Jewish leaders happened to coincide with Sabbatical years. These tended to be small bronze coins, prutot and lepta (half prutot) and were produced in unusually large numbers. The emblems upon the coins tend to be connected with grains and fruits which were scarce or lacking during those years, due to prohibitions on harvesting grains and fruit during those years due to prohibitions on harvesting. Even for similar denominations of coins that did not bear dates, it became apparent that during the early years from the years of John Hyrcanus I until the early part of the reign of Archelaus the double cornucopia was used almost exclusively for the smaller bronze issues. From the last years of Archelaus’ reign onward various grains and fruits connected with the various feasts, especially the feast of booths, were used. These coins may also have been produced in particular during sabbatical years.

Why were these coins prevalent during Sabbatical Years? One must first consider the nature of the economy during these years. Since the normal means of barter by kind, produce, was hampered, coinage became the primary means of commerce during these difficult years. Here, the ethnarch/king apparently flooded the economy with small denomination bronze coins in order to bolster the economy and alleviate the financial crisis brought on by shortages of produce during the Shmitta when bartering in kind proved difficult. To a certain extent the king was improving his image as a redeemer before his people by paying a debt to society during a year of severe hardships and potential financial reversals.

During the revolts, when messianic expectation was a key rallying point, the coins used the more unusual term (hlag instead of hfimu) for the sabbatical year which was used to bolster the messianic expectation of the period. The Messiah as the GOEL/Redeemer would arrive during as Sabbatical year or in a Jubilee year to redeem his people from debt, slavery and oppression and to atone for their sins before God. During other, non-sabbatical, years the term “freedom of Zion/Jerusalem” was used instead. During the first year of the second revolt, a sabbatical year, the term hlag was not limited to the bronze denominations but was added to silver coins as well.

There is evidence from dated coins that this practice of flooding the economy with small bronzes during the sabbatical years took place especially during the reigns of “kings”such as Alexander Jannaeus, Herod the Great, Agrippa I and during both Jewish Revolts (only “Geulat” issues) against Rome. This suggests that the case may be the same for many non–dated issues as well. The following list enumerates some of these coins whose dates (or dates with significant inscriptions) coincide with sabbatical years:

79/78 BCE: year 25 of Alexander Jannaeus

37/6 BCE: year 3 of Herod the Great

41/42 CE: year 6 of Agrippa I

69/70 CE: year 4 of the First Revolt, “geulat Tsion

132/133 CE: year 1 of the Second Revolt, “geulat Yisrael


S. Pfann, ‘Dated Bronze Coinage of the Sabbatical years of Release and the First Jewish City Coin’. Bulletin of the Anglo-Israel Archaeological Society 24 (2006) 101-113.

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