‘Finders Keepers’ and the Ancient Coin

By David Hendin

Did you ever find a five dollar bill and then mention it to someone? And the someone says, “Hey, did it have Lincoln’s picture on it?” You reply, “Yes.” And the smart aleck answers, “well…I lost one just like that.”  It’s an old joke, just as “finders keepers, losers weepers” is pretty much the truth.

But in ancient times, things did not necessarily work that way. The Talmud, codified in the fifth century A.D. speaks directly to the subject of lost coins, and offers some interesting twists for modern collections. The Talmud is the most important compilation of many hundreds of years of Jewish oral traditions and rabbinic interpretations of the Torah, or Five Books of Moses.

In Talmut Bava Metzia, the question is posed:  “If one found a Sela coin in the market, and his friend encountered him and said to him: ‘the coin is mine,’ and the claimant went on to state one of the following features of the coin: ‘it is new’ or ‘it is a Neronian,’ or ‘it is of king so-and-so,’ he has said nothing of significance and the finder may keep the coin.”

So, it turns out that the “old” joke mentioned in the first paragraph is very old indeed, and the Talmud itself was already repeating wisdom from earlier times.

BUT…what if the person’s name was actually written on the coin? ‘How?’ you may ask. But then again think of the ancient coins you have seen referenced, which contain “graffiti.” Graffiti is the scratching or stamping of symbols, letters, and even names upon coins. For example, Athenian tetradrachms, Ptolemaic tetradrachms, and also some of the tetradrachms of Antioch, in Syria are often found with graffiti.

By interpreting this particular portion of the Talmud, we may assume that space was devoted to this subject, because it was a question that came up with a certain amount of frequency. Not so incidentally, there are literally thousands of references to various situations regarding coins and money in the Talmud.

In this case, as usual, the Talmud’s response is very wise: “But even if [the claimant’s] name is written on [the coin], he has said nothing of significance because there is no valid identifying mark for a coin.”

Yes, you CAN scratch your name or stamp your symbol on a coin or even write your name on a five dollar bill. But, the rabbis recognized that, “For [the finder] can say: ‘Perhaps [the claimant] spent [the coin] and it fell from another person.”

Fascinating. Of course it you write your name on a coin it only proves it was once in your hands, NOT that you owned it forever. As the commentary in the Art Scroll translation notes, “Since coins are commonly spent, we must consider the possibility that the claimant previously brought something with one of his inscribed coins, and it was the seller who subsequently lost it. Moreover, it is probable that the claimant wrote his name on more than one coin. Therefore, even if the claimant really lost a coin with his name on it, the coin that was found may not be his. Thus, a signature on a coin is never considered a ‘simian’ (basically this means a ‘reliable symbol’).”

On the other hand, this note observes, “if someone FOUND a coin with a unique identifying mark, it would be treated as any other lost object, which must be announced and returned.” (This line of argument from the footnote is referenced to the influential 13th century Spanish Rabbi known as Ramban.)

Here we not only see a very practical ancient reference to graffiti on ancient coins and why it may have come about. But we also get a glimpse into the way the later rabbis discuss the contents of the Talmud.

Another interesting point in the Talmud Bava Metzia is the mention of the lost coin as a “Neronian.” This specifically identifies this coin as a “Neronian sela.” We know this coin to be the tetradrachms of Nero that were struck at Antioch during Nero’s reign. These coins represented an important portion of the coinage of ancient Israel in the second part of the first century A.D.

There is another specific reference to these coins in Talmud Bechoroth:  “In a light-hole which was not made by the agency of man, the size required is as large as a big fist, such as the fist of Ben Battiah. Said R. Jose: And this [fist] is as large as a big head of a man. If [the light-hole], however, was made by the agency of man, [the Sages] fixed the size to be as large as a hole made with the large [carpenter’s borer kept in the Temple cell], which is as large as an Italian dupondium or as large as a Neronian sela.”

Thus even the approximate size of the Neronian sela is passed down to us in the Talmud as well as by the coins themselves!


Copyright © 2004 by David Hendin