Straight from the Bible: Tiny First Temple stone weight unearthed in Jerusalem

Times of Israel

Volunteer at City of David sifting project finds rare ‘beka’ measure, used by pilgrims paying half-shekel tax before ascending to Temple Mount, in dirt from dig near Western Wall

  • A First Temple period weight measure called a ‘beka’ was unearthed in a City of David excavation in the Davidson Archaeological Park and discovered in the wet sifting project in Jerusalem’s Tsurim Valley. (Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)
  • A First Temple period weight measure called a 'beka' was unearthed in a City of David excavation in the Davidson Archaeological Park and discovered in the wet sifting project in Jerusalem's Tsurim Valley. (Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)
    A First Temple period weight measure called a ‘beka’ was unearthed in a City of David excavation in the Davidson Archaeological Park and discovered in the wet sifting project in Jerusalem’s Tsurim Valley. (Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)
  • A First Temple period weight measure called a 'beka' was unearthed in a City of David excavation in the Davidson Archaeological Park and discovered in the wet sifting project in Jerusalem's Tsurim Valley. (Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)
    A First Temple period weight measure called a ‘beka’ was unearthed in a City of David excavation in the Davidson Archaeological Park and discovered in the wet sifting project in Jerusalem’s Tsurim Valley. (Eliyahu Yanai, City of David)

An extremely rare, minuscule biblical stone weight inscribed in ancient Hebrew script with the word “beka” was discovered in rubble taken from excavations at the foundations of the Western Wall.

Only a handful of similar stone beka weights have been unearthed in Jerusalem, said archaeologist Eli Shukron, who directed the excavations on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority. He told The Times of Israel that none have been found with this exact inscription.

The “beka,” a First Temple-period weight measure used by pilgrims paying their half-shekel tax before ascending to the Temple Mount, was recently discovered by a volunteer in the City of David’s wet sifting project in Jerusalem’s Emek Tzurim National Park.

The word “beka” appears twice in the Torah: first as the weight of gold in a nose ring given to matriarch Rebecca in the Book of Genesis, and later in the Book of Exodus as a weight for the donation brought by the Jewish people for the maintenance of the Temple and the census, as recorded in Exodus 38, Verse 26: “One beka per head; [that is,] half a shekel, according to the holy shekel, for each one who goes through the counting, from 20 years old and upward, for 603,550 [people].”

The beka stone was discovered in dirt taken from 2013 excavations under Robinson’s Arch. According to Shukron, the earth came from a drainage canal under the foundation of the Western Wall.

This beka is the only example to date of the inscription being written in “mirror writing,” said Shukron, and the letters are engraved from left to right instead of right to left. For example, the letter “bet” incised into the small stone is facing the opposite direction.

“This is the only one not written ‘properly,’” Shukron said, which leads him to conclude that the artisan who formed the weight also created seals, which are written in mirror script.

“Apparently, the seal craftsman got confused when he engraved the inscription on the weight and mistakenly used mirror script as he was used to doing. From this mistake we can learn about the general rule: the artists who engraved weights during the First Temple period were the same artists who specialized in creating seals,” said Shukron in a press release.

Unlike several hundred years later, during this era, there was no half-shekel coin. Pilgrims brought the equivalent weight, a beka, in silver to pay their tax, which would have been measured out on scales in the very spot under the Temple Mount where the tiny stone weight was unearthed.

Shukron said in a press release, “When the half-shekel tax was brought to the Temple during the First Temple period, there were no coins, so they used silver ingots. 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 Beka was equivalent to the half-shekel, which every person from the age of 20 years and up was required to bring to the Temple.” According to the release, the biblical shekel weighed 11.33 grams.

The first coins bearing Hebrew script were inscribed with the word “beka” and date from the 5th century BCE, according to a 1993 Biblical Archaeology Review article. The beka coin was minted by permission of the Persians, wrote article author Oded Borowski.