Where some people – perhaps wisely – stayed away from disciplines considered hostile to traditional beliefs, some intrepid souls managed, in the words of the Gemara, to discard the shells and take the kernels. Phillip Biberfeld comes to mind, with his work on archeology a few decades ago. In our own time, Prof. Lawrence Schiffman, Chairman of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU (and completely Orthodox) has distinguished himself as an authority on Second Temple history in general, and the Dead Sea Scrolls in particular. In both scholarly and popular writing, he has demonstrated that instead of the Scrolls constituting a challenge to traditional Judaism, they in fact corroborate one of its central tenets – the antiquity of the Oral Law. He shows how so many details first recorded in the Mishnah were part of Jewish practice well before. This contrast sharply with the standard heterodox view of late manufacture of the Oral Law.
The item that follows was not authored by Dr. Schiffman, but points in the same direction. It was written by Alan Tunkel, a British barrister. (Thanks to Martin Brody for the contribution.) It provides a fascinating side-bar to a Mishnah that many of us are encountering just about now in Daf Yomi (Sukkah 34B).
Coins had been invented in the 7th century BCE. During the First and Second Jewish Revolts against the Roman occupation of Judaea (66-70 CE and 132-136 CE) the Jewish Authorities took the trouble to mint their own coins. They did this by obliterating the head of the Emperor and the Roman gods that
were found on the coins then circulating and by overstriking them with Jewish symbols and an appropriate message, e.g. “Year Two of the Freedom of Zion”. (Coins had major propaganda value in an era without widespread literacy, travel news, media or books).
What Jewish symbols did the Jewish Authorities choose for their coins? Nothing that was liable to be worshipped as a “graven image” was suitable. Accordingly, during both Revolts, they chose to depict the Lulav and Etrog. However, on close examination of the coins of each Revolt an interesting
difference emerges. Whereas the Lulav of the First Revolt includes many twigs of willow and myrtle, the Lulav of the Second Revolt has just one twig of each. Was there a reason for this or was it just a whim of the engraver?
In Tractate Succah, Chapter 3, Mishnah 4, Rabbi Ishmael states that three myrtle and two willow twigs are required whereas Rabbi Akiba states that one of each is sufficient. Apparently the coin of the First Revolt supports the opinion of Rabbi Ishmael whereas that of the Second Revolt supports Rabbi
Akiba. Why should this be so?
The leader of the Second Revolt was Simon Bar Kochba. Rambam, in his Laws of Kings and Kingship, Chapter 11 paragraph 3, describes Rabbi Akiba as the “armour-bearer” of Bar Kochba. When the Romans defeated Bar Kochba’s
forces, they tortured and killed Rabbi Akiba, an event that we remember when we read of the Ten Martyrs on Yom Kippur each year. Of course Bar Kochba and his mint-master followed the opinion of Rabbi Akiba when engraving a Lulav on the dies for their coins. He was their Rav.
The Mishnah was not redacted until long after these Revolts but these ancient coins provide unexpected and dramatic confirmation of the accuracy of the Mishnah now handed down to us and show how the laws were obeyed meticulously by our ancestors even at times of great danger and hardship.