The term ‘Shekel’ in biblical archaeology refers to two interrelated terms:

1. The weight system that was used in the Land of Israel during the Iron Age (end of the 13th century-586 BCE):

Prior to the Persian period coins were not used in the Land of Israel (as in most of the world) as a form of payment. Instead, it was customary to weigh silver (and occasionally also gold) with weights to know how much of the precious metal needed to be hacked off and given as payment (hence the term ‘hacksilver’ for silver fragments). When the Bible mentions a ‘Shekel’ or part of a ‘Shekel’ (such as a ‘half-shekel’), it is referring to a metal (usually silver) which was weighed and was equal to a particular scale measurement within the weight system called ‘Shekel’.

 Within this system there are different types of weights. A ‘Shekel’-type weight was first discovered in 1890 when British doctor and researcher Dr. Thomas Chaplin bought such a weight from a child who lived in the area of Sebastia (Samaria). Upon the weight were inscribes the words ‘RB‘A ShL’ (‘quarter of’) in Ancient Hebrew letters. It was suggested that this was a weight equal in scale to a quarter of a shekel. Since then, many weights with different inscriptions have been discovered, such as ‘BK‘A’, ‘NTzP’ and ‘PIM’. These weights reflect different parts of the shekel. A weight inscribed with the word ‘Shekel’ itself has yet to be found, though several uninscribed weights were found; these are regarded as 1-shekel weights. The word ‘Shekel’ as the both the name of the weight system and the name of those particular weights was taken both from the Bible and from a similar weight system used in Assyria and Babylon, which included a weight called a ‘Shiklu’.

Some of the weights within this system were inscribed with an icon that likely symbolized the shekel, kind of how the $ sign represents the dollar. Among the suggestions for the meaning of this symbol may be counted: A tied sack of money, an Egyptian phonetic glyph similar to the Hebrew letter Shin (the first letter in the word Shekel), or a single scale which originally represented the letter Thav (which replaces Shin in some languages) in several ancient Semitic languages. Occasionally a hieratic (one of the ancient Egyptian scripts) numeral was inscribed on the weight, signifying multiplications (for example: 4 shekel, 2 pim, 6 nezef, and so forth) since there weren’t Judahite or Israelite numerals.


The symbol on the shekel weights

2. Weights which signified the central measurement within the ‘Shekel’ weight system:

Within the ‘Shekel’ weight system, it is commonly thought that there were a few different particular weights known as ‘Shekel’ weights (though no weight inscribed with the word ‘Shekel’ has been found yet). Some scholars believe that three types of Shekels may be counted:

  1. The regular Shekel, which was the standard market-value denomination. This Shekel likely weighed between 11.4 and 11.7 grams.
  2. The holy Shekel, which was used for weighing metals for the Tabernacle and later for the Temple in Jerusalem. This Shekel probably weighed between 9.4 and 10 grams.
  3. The ‘LMLK’ (to the king) Shekel, which was used for weighing metals for the royal household. This Shekel probably weighed about 11.3 grams.

On the other hand, other scholars think there was only one type of Shekel, with a single, unified denomination standard (11.33 grams), but ‘LMLK’ Shekels were weights from materials different than those used by merchants, and belonged solely to the royal household. The holy Shekel is viewed as utopian concept which was never actualized. Lighter or heavier weights (than the average standard) may be seen as similar weights from other countries which found their way to the Land of Israel or were local weights which were damaged or not made properly. Another possibility is that they were made before the royal household created the unified standard for the market.


L. Di Signi, ‘Weights and Measurements in Antiquity and Their Modern Presentation’, Cathedra 112 (2004), pp. 137-150 [Hebrew]

R. Kletter, ‘’Four hundred shekels of silver, what is that between you and me?’ (Genesis 23:15): Weights and Weighing in Eretz Israel in Antiquity’, in: O. Ramon et al (eds.), Measuring and Weighing in Ancient Times (Catalogue 17), Haifa 2001, pp. 1-7 [Hebrew]

A. H. Sayce et al, ‘The Hæmatite Weight, with an Inscription in Ancient Semitic Characters, Purchased at Samaria in 1890 by Thomas Chaplin, Esq., M.D.’, PEFQS 26 (1894), pp. 220-231

R. B. Y. Scott, ‘Weights and Measures of the Bible’, The Biblical Archaeologist 22 (1959), pp. 21-40

D. Vainstub, ‘The Canaanite Letters š and ṯ and the Origin of the Shekel Sign’, in: E. Carmon (ed.), Joseph Naveh Volume (Eretz-Israel: Archaeological, Historical and Geographical Studies 32), pp. 55-65. [Hebrew]