By Marvin Tameanko

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The genuine, ancient shekel, struck during the First War of the Jews against the Romans in A.D. 66- 70, was a historically important coin, often revered as a relic of the Bible, and it was imitated and reproduced for centuries afterwards. One large group of these shekel copies, sometimes called 'false shekels' or 'censer pieces', played an indirect part in the creation of the modem State of Israel but they have never been given the recognition or credit they deserve. Instead, these strange copies were considered to be quaint tokens of an 19th century religious revival and a renewed interest in the Bible among Christians. However, their history begins much earlier than this date and their origins or functions are far more interesting. The story of these false shekels or censer pieces perhaps begins at a reproduction of the Holy Sepulcher church in Prussia in 1480 with the fabrication of the first known copies and ends in England in 1917 with the famous Balfour Declaration, a document that favored the creation of a homeland for the Jewish people in the Land of Israel. But the line between these two events and dates is a intricate path through the history of the Jews in Europe.

A genuine shekel of the second year of the First War of the Jews against the Romans (AD 67). It weighs 14.2 grams and is 22 millimeters in diameter This silver coin served as the model for the false shekels or censer pieces. The obverse depicts a chalice used in the Temple and the date is given above the vessel by the letters SB for year two, in Paleo-Hebrew script. The obverse inscription is SHEKEL OF ISRAEL. The reverse shows a branch of a pomegranate tree with three buds. The legend reads, THE HOLY JERUSALEM. Greek Imperial Coins and their Values by David R. Sear, no. 5630.

Some of these imitations of the shekel were given the label, 'censer pieces', because of a misinterpretation of a part of the design on the authentic coins. The ancient Hebrew letters, S B (Shin Bet), representing the date of year two, located above the chalice on the obverse of the most commonly found genuine shekel, was considered by the copiers to be smoke rising from the vessel. Because of this, the chalice was thought to be a censer bowl containing burning incense. Other authorities suggested the vessel was a pot of the biblical Manna giving off a holy mist. Similarly, the pomegranate branch with three buds on the reverse of the authentic shekel was interpreted as being the biblical rod of Aaron that miraculously flowered and budded. The inscriptions on the censer pieces were the same as those on the genuine shekels, that is, on the obverse, (censer or chalice side), SHEKEL OF ISRAEL. On the reverse ( rod or branch side), THE HOLY JERUSALEM. However, the inscriptions on the imitations were engraved with the so-called modern, square Hebrew (Aramaic) lettering while the genuine shekel was inscribed with the ancient, paleo-Hebrew alphabet.

The origin of these censer pieces may be found in the 14th century when, even after the loss of the Crusader kingdoms in Palestine, Europeans continued to make pilgrimages to the Holy Land. These excursions were dangerous and sometimes resulted in death from the many illnesses and plagues that ravished the Middle East. Most of these voyagers were deeply religious Europeans, tracing the paths or walking in the footsteps of their Lord. Many of them wore pilgrims' badges or some other sign of their faith and, if possible, they acquired relics or coins to use as talismans on their voyage and to bring home as mementoes. Eventually the merchants in Palestine, lacking authentic artifacts or coins to sell to the pilgrims, fabricated imitations. Especially popular were medals or tokens that looked like shekels and were offered as examples of the 'Thirty Pieces of Silver' paid to Judas Iscariot for betraying Jesus. These became the most common types of early false shekels available in souvenir shops and many of them ended up being deposited in the home town churches of the pilgrims. Selling these tokens was a lucrative business and many other types of coin-like amulets were sold at European places of pilgrimage, especially in Rome. The popularity of these religious pilgrimages to the Holy land and the souvenir medals or badges purchased by the travelers continued right up into the present century.

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