By David Hendin for CoinWeek …..
This year the Jewish Holiday of Shavout, also called Weeks or Pentecost, begins the evening of Sunday, May 16.
In ancient times Shavout was one of the three pilgrimage festivals, in Hebrew called “shalosh regalim” (three [using one’s] legs [days]). These were the principal occasions when Jewish people from around the ancient world came to Jerusalem to “Offer a sacrifice to Me three times each year…” (Exodus 23:14). The three holidays are Passover, Sukkot (Tabernacles) and Shavout.
Shavout is celebrated 50 days after the first Passover seder, thus based upon the Greek word for 50 it is also called Pentacost. The holiday traditionally celebrates an ancient harvest festival. During Talmudic times, the Rabbis also celebrated on Shavout the giving of the Torah (Five Books of Moses) on Mt. Sinai seven weeks after the exodus from Egypt.
Ancient Israel was mainly an agrarian society and Shavout was the first day that the local farmers could bring their first fruits (bikkurim) to the Jerusalem Temple for presentation to the priests for sacrifice. The first fruits referred to the earliest blossoms of the famous seven species native to the land of Israel, especially the grains of wheat and barley.
The first fruits of the seven species were carried up to the Temple in a gold or silver basket via a musical procession.
Today, Shavout is not considered a major holiday by many Jewish people. In Israel it is celebrated with parades, singing and dancing focused on the first fruits. Israelis also often load up on water guns and water balloons for traditional water fights. Their origin is probably because in Jewish teachings, the Torah is frequently compared to water–both are necessary for flourishing life. Dairy products–such as cheesecake–are often eaten, linked to references to Israel as the “Land of milk and honey”.
Although COVID has kept me away from Jerusalem for a couple of years, I recall sweetly that the bounty of the early harvest of some of the seven species are always on display in the Old City and in the Mahane Yehudah (Jewish market) around this time of year. This bounty is offered by regular merchants or by local peasants who visit Jerusalem only when products are available to offer their wares. They squat along the walkways and spread out their fresh goods on newspapers or pieces of plastic.
Here one can see all of the seven species:
“A land of wheat, and barley, and vines (grapes), and fig trees, and pomegranates; a land of oil olives and honey (from dates).” (Deuteronomy 8:8)
When driving between towns in modern Israel, it’s a lot of fun to pull over to the side of a road and pick pomegranates or grapes. Fresh olives, of course, are plentiful but taste terrible. They mellow and become delicious when slightly crushed and marinated in garlic and brine for a few weeks. And if you’ve never had the chance to dip fresh bread into freshly made first-press olive oil, then you haven’t yet lived a full life.
Traditions say that there is a good reason there are seven species–just as there are seven days in the week and were seven branches in the menorah in the Jerusalem Temple. The seven species are among the most popular designs in the art of ancient Israel, including coins, which show five of the seven: date trees, wheat or barley grains, grapes, and pomegranates.
Date palm trees appear on coins of the procurators (photo 1), Jewish War (photo 2), Bar Kokhba War (photo 3), and of course Judaea Capta coins (photo 4). The Midrash (Talmudic commentary) on Numbers 3:1:
“As the palm tree contains no waste matter, the dates being for food, the palm branches for service of praise, the dried-up twigs for covering the sukkah (tabernacles), the bast for ropes, the leaves for sieves, the planed trunks for roofing the house, so it is with Israel—they contain no worthless matter, Some of them are Masters of Scripture, some of Mishnah, some of Haggadah, some devote themselves to the performance of pious deeds, some to charitable acts, and so forth.”
After the Roman destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE, the date palm tree became the single symbol that best portrayed Judea to Romans, according to the motif on coins (photo 5).
Ears of grain, either wheat or barley appear on coins of Agrippa I (photo 6) as well as the coins of the Roman prefects and procurators Coponius, Marcus Ambibulus (photo 7), and Pontius Pilate (photo 8). Grains are scattered near the tops of the splayed cornucopias on coins of the Hasmonean kings (photo 9).
The Babylonian Talmud it states that “If one sees wheat in a dream, he will see peace, as it says, ‘He maketh thy borders peace; he giveth thee in plenty the fat of wheat’. If one sees barley in a dream, his iniquities will depart.” (BT Berachot 57:a)
The fig and the fig leaf cannot be found on ancient Judean coins.
Grapevines and leaves are used as a motif on bronze coins of Valerius Gratus (photo 10), the Jewish War (photo 11), and the Bar Kokhba War (photo 12). Grape bunches hanging on vines are depicted on the coins of Herod I (photo xx), his son Archelaus (photo yy), and on Bar Kokhba bronze (photo 13) and silver coins (photo 14).
Meshorer points out that the grape vine was the first species revealed by the spies who were sent by Moses to explore the land:
“And they came unto the brook of Eshkol and cut down from thence a branch with one cluster of grapes, and they bare it between two upon a staff.” (Numbers 13:23)
Olives are also not shown on any coins. However, the rare tetradrachm of Caracalla struck in Ascalon in 215 CE, depicts a dove carrying an olive branch in her beak (photo 15). This, according to Meshorer, “apparently refers to the biblical story of the flood. A similar dove stands on Noah’s Ark on a coin of Apameia of the third century AD.”
Pomegranates, perhaps my favorite fruit, are not so easy to eat, but their taste cannot be beat! A pomegranate appears between cornucopias on some of the Hasmonean coins. A sprig or a scepter with three pomegranate buds becomes the important motif on the silver shekels and half shekels of the Jewish War (photo 16).
“And they made upon the skirts of the robe pomegranates of blue and purple and scarlet, and twined linen, and they made bells of pure gold and put the bells between the pomegranates upon the skirts of the robe roundabout between the pomegranates: a bell and a pomegranate, a bell and a pomegranate. (Exodus 39:24-26)
I only wish that ALL of the residents of the ancient and modern lands of Israel and Palestine (and, let’s be honest, the entire world) would pay better attention to the two fruit trees from the seven species which are referenced in this famous vision (Micah 4:3-4):
“And they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation shall not take up sword against nation; They shall never again know war; But every man shall sit under his grapevine or fig tree with no one to disturb him.”
© 2021 by David Hendin
Parts of some CoinWeek articles may be adapted from my previous articles or my Guide to Biblical Coins.
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David Hendin is First Vice President and an Adjunct Curator at the American Numismatic Society (ANS). Send him your questions at email@example.com and he will try to answer questions of general interest in this space in the future.