The shekel served as the name of the currency of the People of Israel in ancient times dating back even before they were called Jews. When the state of Israel was formed, the founders of the nation termed the currency shekel as homage to the Jewish People’s ancient currency. The shekel was used in a variety of ways in throughout history.
The Half Shekel
In the first temple period (1000-586 BCE) a shekel referred to a specific measure of weight. The word shekel itself comes from the Hebrew linguistic root ‘to weigh’. The Torah (Jewish Bible) commands that all men above the age of twenty must contribute a half a shekel to the building of the Jewish Temple.The Jewish Temple was not the same as the present day synagogue of Jewish communities around the world – i.e., a local place of prayer and nothing more. While it stood, the Temple was the most important religious building of the Jewish people. The Temple was the center for Jews from all corners of the country to come on three festivals – Pessah, Shavu’ot and Sukkot. For 2000 years since it was destroyed, Jews all over the world have prayed for God to rebuild the Temple and restore His presence within it. No other Jewish religious site has any comparable significance.
During the First Temple Period, the half-shekel was a specific weight of precious metal which all Jews in the land of Israel sent to the Jewish temple coffers. When the second Temple was established in 516 BC, the word shekel no longer referred to a measure of weight. Rather, the shekel was a coin, one of a number of different currencies used in the ancient world for monetary exchange.
During the second Temple period (516 BC – 70 AD) every adult Jew was obligated by religious law to donate a half a shekel coin to the temple whether they lived in the land of Israel or not. Some Jews contributed the half shekel through their local community while others provided it individually. At the time, Jews lived in the land of Israel as well as in wealthy cities outside the country such as Rome and Alexandria. Because of this, a large amount of money was contributed to the Jewish Temple.
After the second Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, Jewish communities continued to give a certain amount of money to the Jewish poor in memory of the half shekel offered to the Temple. This was a natural transition as the Bible repeatedly emphasizes the importance of the Divine commandment to give to the poor and the destitute.
Money was given around the holiday of Purim in the middle of the Jewish month of Adar. To this day, observant Jews throughout the world contribute a half-shekel to charity during the month of Adar.
The Zionist “Shekel”
The Zionist movement was established in 1897. As a sign of the Zionist connection to the ancient Jewish currency, movement leaders decided that the certificate for paying membership dues will be called a “shekel”. In exchange for paying annual dues, a “shekel” holder earned the right to vote and be elected to Zionist congresses. The number of Zionist representatives from each country in Zionist congresses was decided based on the relative number of shekel holders. When the state of Israel was established, the Zionist shekel was discontinued.
The Israeli Shekel
When the state of Israel was established in 1948 it inherited the legal tender of the British Mandate, the Palestinian Pound. Israel changed the name of the national currency to the Israeli Lira. Many Israelis, especially from the 1960s onward, complained about the foreign name given to the national currency. They argued to re-name the currency the shekel. In 1969, a law was enacted giving the Treasury Minister the right to re-name the currency. He did not do so until 1980. In 1985, as part of an economic stabilization plan, the shekel was merged into a new currency known as the New Shekel. Today, the official Israeli currency is the New Israeli Shekel or NIS for short.
There are 20, 50, 100 and 200 shekel bills and 1, 2, 5 and 10 shekel coins. The shekel coins are silver. Lesser coins are called an agora; 100 agorot = 1 shekel. There are 10 agorot and 50 agorot coins, both of which are bronze-casted.
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