Artifacts from the First Temple period are extremely rare, especially in Jerusalem. Yet now archaeologists report finding a second stone weight from that era that may well have been used in Solomon's Temple itself.
These stone weights, called bekas (singular – beka) were used on scales to ascertain the value of worshippers’ donations.
This second beka was found while sifting archaeological soil taken from the foundations of Robinson’s Arch at the Western Wall. This is the last remnant of the wall that had surrounded the Second Temple courtyard.
Archaeologist Eli Shukron directed the previous excavations on behalf of the Antiquities Authority, and tells Haaretz he found the first beka a few years ago in much the same spot.
Both the first and second wee weights are inscribed in ancient Hebrew script with the word beka, which pretty much decides what they were used for.
Both the first and second beka weights found in Jerusalem have the word “beka” engraved on them in ancient Hebrew script. But while the first was carved into the stone properly, from right to left, this “new” one is written backwards.
“Beka weights from the First Temple period are rare; however, this weight is even rarer because the inscription on it is written in mirror script. The letters are engraved from left to right instead of right to left,” says Shukron. “It can therefore be concluded that the artist who engraved the inscription on the weight specialized in engraving seals – since seals were always written in mirror script so that, once stamped, the inscription would appear in regular legible script.”
Shukron’s theory is that the beka maker was guilty of human error: The craftsman was used to making seals and used to writing in mirror script, so he did that on the weight too. Given the time it takes to carve letters finely into stone, one wonders how nobody noticed, or whether the first one evinced an early example of dyslexia and this one was “correct.”
Taxing for men
Jews in the era of the First Temple, which was supposedly built by King Solomon around 3,000 years ago, didn’t have coins (David and Solomon ostensibly reigned between roughly 1050 B.C.E. and 930 B.C.E.) The Jews would pay their “temple tax” in precious silver, Shukron tells Haaretz. Coins would only reach Israel in the Persian era of the land, in the fifth century B.C.E., he added.
Though women did make pilgrimages to the Temple in Jerusalem, they were exempt from this “tax,” adds linguist Elon Gilad.
“When the half-shekel tax was brought to the temple during the First Temple period, there were no coins so they used silver slivers,” says Shukron. “In order to calculate the weight of these silver pieces, they would put them on one side of the scales, and on the other side they placed the beka weight.”
The Temple would apparently use these donations for its maintenance, to buy animals for sacrifice, and so on.
The word beka comes from the verb meaning “to split” – i.e., it represented a fraction of a larger measure, in this case the biblical shekel, explains Gilad.
As explained in the Bible itself, beka weights were used in the First Temple to evaluate the half-shekel donation that Jews aged 20 years and up were expected to offer for the temple’s upkeep:
"This they shall give, every one that passeth among them that are numbered, half a shekel after the shekel of the sanctuary – the shekel is twenty gerahs – half a shekel for an offering to the Lord" (Exodus 30:13).
In case anybody remained unconvinced, the Bible continues:
"A beka a head, that is, half a shekel, after the shekel of the sanctuary, for every one that passed over to them that are numbered, from twenty years old and upward, for six hundred thousand and three thousand and five hundred and fifty men" (Exodus 38:26).
To be clear, the biblical shekel weighed 11.33 grams. The half-shekel, and therefore this stone beka, weighed half of that, or just over 5.5 grams.
The reason certifiable artifacts and remains from the First Temple period, in Jerusalem especially, are extremely rare is multiple. One issue is that stones from the homes and walls – and possibly the First Temple itself – were probably repurposed during the city’s many phases of destruction and rebuilding.
And from that, Shukron postulates, it seems that the artisans who carved the stone weights during the First Temple period were the same ones who made seals.
Among other momentous discoveries by the Emek Tzurim National Park sifting project is a seal mark that may well have been made by King Hezekiah (or on his behalf) 2,700 years ago. That had been discovered, in 2015, in excavations by the Temple Mount.
Another seal impression from exactly the same time was found last January, which renowned Jerusalem archaeologist Eilat Mazar, of Hebrew University, believes is engraved with the letters Yeshayahu NBY – meaning Isaiah the Prophet, who was quite the bugbear to Hezekiah back when. The seal is damaged, so part of the lettering seems to be missing. Not everybody buys that it had belonged to Isaiah, partly because the ancient sage would have needed a seal calling himself “Prophet.”
“This 3,000-year-old beka weight inscribed with ancient Hebrew was likely used in the First Temple, anchoring once again, the deep historical connection of the Jewish people to Jerusalem," said Doron Spielman, vice president of the City of David Foundation.
The City of David Foundation notes that the beka weight will be on display to the general public in Emek Tzurim National Park during Hanukkah.
The sifting was done in the national park under the auspices of the City of David Foundation.