Philosophical Dictionary, by Voltaire


A weight and denomination of money among the Jews; but as they never coined money, and always made use of the coinage of other people, all gold coins weighing about a guinea, and all silver coins of the weight of a small French crown, were called a shekel; and these shekels were distinguished into those of the weight of the sanctuary, and those of the weight of the king.

It is said in the Book of Samuel that Absalom had very fine hair, from which he cut a part every year. Many profound commentators assert that he cut it once a month, and that it was valued at two hundred shekels. If these shekels were of gold, the locks of Absalom were worth two thousand four hundred guineas per annum. There are few seigniories which produce at present the revenue that Absalom derived from his head.

It is said that when Abraham bought a cave in Hebron from the Canaanite Ephron, Ephron sold him the cave for four hundred shekels of silver, of current money with the merchant — probatæ monetæ publicæ.

We have already remarked that there was no coined money in these days, and thus these four hundred shekels of silver became four hundred shekels in weight, which, valued at present at three livres four sous each, are equal to twelve hundred and eighty livres of France.

It follows that the little field, which was sold with this cavern, was excellent land, to bring so high a price.

When Eleazar, the servant of Abraham, met the beautiful Rebecca, the daughter of Bethnel, carrying a pitcher of water upon her shoulder, from which she gave him and his camels leave to drink, he presented her with earrings of gold, which weighed two shekels, and bracelets which weighed ten, amounting in the whole to a present of the value of twenty-four guineas.

In the laws of Exodus it is said that if an ox gored a male or female slave, the possessor of the ox should give thirty shekels of silver to the master of the slave, and that the ox should be stoned. It is apparently to be understood that the ox in this case has produced a very dangerous wound, otherwise thirty-two crowns was a large sum for the neighborhood of Mount Sinai, where money was uncommon. It is for the same reason that many grave, but too hasty, persons suspect that Exodus as well as Genesis was not written until a comparatively late period.

What tends to confirm them in this erroneous opinion is a passage in the same Exodus: “Take of pure myrrh five hundred shekels, and of sweet cinnamon half as much; of sweet calamus two hundred and fifty shekels; of cassia five hundred shekels, after the shekel of the sanctuary; and of olive-oil a ton, to form an ointment to annoint the tabernacle”; and whosoever anointed himself or any stranger with a similar composition, was to be put to death.

It is added that with all these aromatics were to be united stacte, onyx, galbanum, and frankincense; and that a perfume was to be mixed up according to the art of the apothecary or perfumer.

But I cannot perceive anything in this composition which ought to excite the doubt of the incredulous. It is natural to imagine that the Jews — who, according to the text, stole from the Egyptians all which they could bring away — had also taken frankincense, galbanum, onyx, stacte, olive-oil, cassia, sweet calamus, cinnamon, and myrrh. They also, without doubt, stole many shekels; indeed, we have seen, that one of the most zealous partisans of this Hebrew horde estimates what they stole, in gold alone, at nine millions. I abide by his reckoning.

Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:14