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Parashat Vayishlah

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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"The parcel of land ... he purchased for a hundred kesitahs"

(Genesis 33:19)

Dr. Zohar Amar

Department of Land of Israel Studies

This week's reading tells about Jacob buying a plot of land in Shechem from the children of Hamor for the sum of a hundred kesitahs (cf. Josh. 24:32). Job, too, received one kesitah from each member of his household (Job 42:11). This article will discuss briefly the meaning of the term kesitah, and in passing teaches us about the method of payment in biblical times.

According to the science of weights and measures, it is generally assumed that the invention of coins as we know them today took place in the seventh century B.C.E., in Lydia, Asia Minor. The earliest coins discovered in archaeological excavations in Israel date to the Persian period. The first coins (late sixth century, B.C.E.) were Greek, and from the fourth century B.C.E., also locally minted coins appear, such as the one bearing the letters y-h-d, the Aramaic name of the province of Judea in the Persian period. In any event, it is clear that the means of payment in the time of the Bible (until the Persian period) was not coins, but units of metal (brass, silver or gold) by weight, goods (generally agricultural produce), or barter.

The term kesitah according to Targum Onkelos means sheep. In the Middle Ages a similar interpretation was given the word by R. Saadiah Gaon and R. Abraham son of Maimonides in their commentaries on Genesis 33:19. (Also see Mahberet Menahem ben Saruk, under kesev.) According to this interpretation, Jacob purchased the field in Shechem for one hundred sheep.

In contrast, according to R. Saadiah Gaon's translation and interpretation of Job 42:11, a kesitah was an item of jewelry, parallel to the "gold ring" mentioned in the same verse (R. Joseph Kapah, Job with Translation and Commentary of R. Saadiah Gaon, Jerusalem 1973, p. 207). Perhaps in the case of Job it was not simply an item of jewelry, but an ancient sort of adornment having a fixed weight, as apparently was the case with the "gold rings" (cf. Gen. 24:22, Judges 8:24-26).

An Egyptian relief dating to 1380 B.C.E. depicts weighing silver or gold rings against a weight in the form of a cow's head (cf. illustration). This suggests that the biblical term kesitah may have referred to a metal weight in the form of a sheep, representing a fixed weight of an established nominal value.

The Sages give other meanings, as well, for the term kesitah. R. Akiva notes: "When I went to Afriki, they called a me`ah coin a kesitah" (Babylonian Talmud, Rosh ha-Shanah 26a). Interpreting kesitah as the name of a coin surely reflects later circumstances, such as may have pertained in the time of the Sages. Presumably this was the last stage in the evolution of the term kesitah, which originally meant a sheep, or metal weight of fixed size, or some sort of jewelry. All these possibilities are mentioned in Genesis Rabbah 79:7.

In passing we learn that the prevalent method of payment during the biblical period, before the invention of coins, was by means of units of metal, generally silver, having a specific weight. Therefore, the verb sh-k-l (like the Akkadian shaqalu), meaning 'to weigh', also indicated the method of payment, as in Gen. 23:16: "Abraham paid out (vayyishkol--lit. weighed) to Ephron the money (ha-kesef--lit. silver) that he had named in the hearing of the Hittites -- four hundred shekels of silver at the going merchants' rate." The weighing of a shekel of silver was apparently done on scales (cf. Jer. 32:9). Sometimes the metal (silver or gold) appeared in the form of an ingot which could be split (b-k-` ) or cleft (b-tz-` ) into pieces of fixed weight. Apparently the terms beka` (Gen. 24:22, Ex. 38:26) and betza' kesef (Judg. 5:19; rendered by JPS as "spoil of silver' but possibly meaning smaller value units that an entire ingot) are derived from this.

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