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The Real Coins of Hanukkah and their Story

One of the features of the Hanukkah celebrations are the foil wrapped chocolate coins, known as Hanukkah “Gelt” (Yiddish for “money”). This week I was fortunate enough to hold two ancient coins from the period of the Hasmonean ruler Alexander Janneus (Jonathan/Yehonatan, Yannai) who ruled over Judaea between 103-76 BCE. He was the great-grandson of Mattathias, the leader of the uprising against the Seleucid Hellenists, which culminated with the eventual independence and self-rule of Judea, which we will be commemorating next week with the festival of Hanukkah.

Growing up in the diaspora Hanukkah was a time of year marked by oily food, lots of presents and stories about men in skirts and swords.  Next week I will be lighting the Menorah in Modiin, the place where the events that shaped modern Jewish history actually took place. Holding coins in my hand, whose energy I feel, from this period certainly makes the events seem more “real” and tangible. It is no longer a history lesson, or “her story,” but rather “our story!”

Hellenistic oil lamp with two coins from Alexander Janneus (104-76 BCE). Photo (c) T. Book, 2020



Yet, fascinatingly, the Prutah coins have a tale to tell which is not all light and goodness. Alexander Janneus issued the coins. He was one of the longest reigning and most controversial rulers of the Hasmonean dynasty. The small bronze coins are witness to the tumultuous events that characterised his rule. One coin has on it in Greek the inscription, “ΑΛΕΞΑΝΔΡΟΥ ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ” (King Alexander) around an anchor and on the reverse, “Yehonatan Hameleh” (Yehonatan the King) in Paleo-Hebrew between the rays of a star with eight rays. Until this point the Hasmonean rulers had studiously avoided using the title “king” in Judea and had used the less offensive title “Ethnarch” instead, in order not to upset the traditionalist Jews, who believed that only a descendent of the house of David had the right to be named “King of the Jews.” When Alexander’s grandfather, Simon, had been appointed ruler by the Jewish council it had been only a contingency appointment, “until a true prophet arises [and appoints a king from the house of David].”  The coins caused so much controversy and violence among the more traditional Jews, that he minted a second coin on which was inscribed, “Yehonatan the High Priest and the Council of the Jews” written in Paleo-Hebrew in five lines within a wreath. The reverse side featured a double cornucopia adorned with ribbons, and a pomegranate, within circular beaded border. Gone were the mentions of Kingship. Coins were seen as tools of propaganda. This is one of the few instances during his long and bloody reign where he acceded to the wishes of his more traditional co-religionists, later known as Pharisees.

Under Alexander Janneus the Jewish kingdom reached its largest territorial limit and the Hasmonean court its zenith in prestige, importance, and world recognition. Alexander gained full control of the Mediterranean coast (with the exception of Ashkelon) and extended the Hasmonean hegemony in Transjordan. He also succeeded by the end of his reign into forcing the neighbouring Nabateans to cede territories to him.


Remains of the Hasmonean desert fortress of Alexandrium/Sabaste overlooking the Jordan Valley built by Alexander Janneus. Photo(c) T.Book, 2020


Alexander however, caused much internal strife, and his rash and arrogant actions polarised the Jewish population in his kingdom. Upon assuming the throne and the high priesthood from his brother he married his brother’s widow, Salome Alexandra (Shlomzion). This offended the traditionalists, as the Torah forbids the High Priest from marrying a widow. Alexander presided over a royal court with all of the Hellenistic trappings and employed non-Jewish mercenaries. This evoked the ire of the Jewish traditional purists who had fought for and backed the Hasmoneans precisely to avoid such a scenario. Many of them were also unhappy with the Hasmoneans assuming the office of High Priest, which they believed belonged only to a descendent of the priestly Tzadok family. In this and other issues Alexander showed complete disregard for religious sensibilities. Indeed the historian Scheindlin observed that,

"The whole character of the ruling family changed, from priestly rebels dedicated to the overthrow of a Hellenised ruling class to a succession of Hellenised despots."

Alexander was truly a Hellenistic-style warrior-monarch. Barely sixty years after the Maccabean uprising, the head of the Judean state, who was the grandson of Simon and the great-grandson of Mattathias, had a Greek prænomen (first name), and only his cognomen (surname) was Hebrew! He died besieging a fortress in Transjordan. One of his last requests to his wife and successor was that she attempt to make peace with the Pharisees. Indeed, relative internal peace and domestic order came only with the reign of Alexander Janneus’s wife and successor, Salome Alexandra.

Everyone, whether a believer or simply a lover of history or of numismatics, will find in these coins direct evidence of and witness to an episode the memory of which has survived 2000 years, both the Hannukah Revolt that marked the end of pagan domination of Judaea and the hubris that led to the ultimate demise of Jewish self-rule.   The lessons are just as valid now as they were then. “In those days and these days.”


Modern sign on “Hasmoneans” street in Modiin celebrating the miracle that took place in the same place over two millennia previously. Photo (c) T. Book, 2020

 Exploring Alexander Janneus’s Desert Fortress Alexandrium

Dr. Tuvia Book is the author of “For the Sake of Zion, A Curriculum of Israel Education” (Koren, 2017).   His forthcoming book on the Second Temple Period,  will be published by Koren next year.  He also is a  Ministry of Tourism licensed Tour Guide, Jewish educator and a Judaica artist.