The year 1862 was a big one for the United States. The battle of Antietam led to the bloodiest day of the Civil War, abolitionist Julia Ward Howe published her famous song “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” and Congress passed the Legal Tender Act, which meant the federal government could print its own paper money.
The act was one of the first steps on the path to a standard American currency, one that looks the same and is worth the same wherever you are in the country. And it both successfully financed the Union in the war and simplified what had been a very chaotic financial situation.
Before then, states and even local regional banks could print their own currencies, all of which looked different and were valued differently. You could go into your local store with a wallet full of different currencies worth different amounts, and good luck paying for your new shovel. And that’s on a local level; we can only imagine how complicated interstate commerce was.
But the truth is that in many times and places — the United States before 1862, Mexico City in the 1760s, and the original Roman Empire in late antiquity — multiple currencies flourished alongside one another. Roman emperors minted coins with their faces on them, but cities across the empire continued to mint their own local currencies as well. And all of these currencies were used at the same time, and in the same places.
Presumably, the rabbis knew the difficulties of making financial deals in a world with multiple currencies. But on today’s daf they ask a specifically rabbinic question about them: Which currencies are halakhically meaningful? When the Torah imposes a fine on a transgressor of biblical law, or the rabbis impose a fine on one who transgresses rabbinic law, what currency is that fine calculated in?
Rav Yehuda says that Rav Asi says: Every money mentioned in the Torah is in Tyrian coinage. And by rabbinic law — provincial coinage.
The silver coins minted in Tyre (which is today in Lebanon) became a currency standard across the eastern Roman empire. Though on one side they were stamped with an image of the Phoenician god Melqart, in the time of the Second Temple they were sent to Jerusalem by Jews across the empire to pay for sacrifices and Temple upkeep. According to Rav Asi, when the Torah requires payment (for example, Numbers 18:16 requires a father to pay five shekels to the priest to redeem his first-born son), the shekels are Tyrian silver coins. But when the rabbis of the Mishnah or Talmud impose a payment (for example, the rabbis fine a person who hits someone else one sela), the coins are the local provincial currency. And just to make things even more complicated, the rabbis often use the same term, “sela,” to refer to both kinds of currency.
The Talmud goes on to explain the very real financial stakes in determining which kind of currency is meant when the rabbis impose a one-sela fine:
What is one sela? (It is a Tyrian sela worth) four dinar. Rather, what is one sela? Half a dinar, as people commonly call half a dinar isteira.
Apparently, the rabbis’ local currency, the isteira, was valued at only one-eighth the Tyrian shekel, which is worth four dinars — and all three currencies are sometimes referred to as a sela. Understanding which fees are calculated with which currency has some serious impacts for the person required to pay the fee.
But as we can see, it also has a serious impact on how the rabbis communicate the relative weight given to fees imposed by the Torah and those imposed by the rabbis. If the rabbis impose rabbinic fines that are substantially less than biblical fines, then that tells us something about how seriously they take the biblical prohibitions.
As someone who lives in a post-1862 United States, the thought of a single region using multiple currencies at the same time seems chaotic and confusing. And yet, the rabbis on today’s daf have a very different approach. In a world with all kinds of coins in circulation, the rabbis make that multiplicity meaningful, using it to distinguish between biblical and rabbinic laws, while integrating both broader imperial trends and local traditions into a single holistic system. And that move should not surprise us — after all, in some ways, our entire journey through the Talmud has been one of finding meaning in multiplicity.
Read all of Kiddushin 11 on Sefaria.