This week’s Torah reading of Ki Tissa begins with God’s commandment to Moses to levy a tax on the Israelites of a single half-shekel silver coin per person, on the Israelites, which also serves as a census. In Second Temple times, the levy continued to be collected annually, and the funds helped to cover the Temple’s expenses. The talmudic tractate devoted to the mechanics of this tax specifies that coins manufactured in the city of Tyre—today in Lebanon—are preferred for this purpose. As David Hendin notes, from the 2nd century BCE to the 1st century CE, these coins were the most widely circulated in the Land of Israel:
One of the most common questions I have been asked over the years is why the Tyre shekels were chosen to be used for such holy use in the Temple. The issue that confuses people the most has to do with the graven image of the Tyrian chief god Melqarth (a local adaptation of Hercules) on the obverse, which surely represents a pagan deity, abhorrent to the Jews. There is no precise answer to this question.
Some years ago I discussed this issue with the late Israeli scholar Dan Barag. . . . “In general,” he said, “silver coins were simply used. Almost all ancient silver coins that circulated in Judea had heads. You must note that the image on a coin is very two-dimensional. One could not suspect that a person would actually bow down to a coin.”
I also discussed this with a non-numismatist, my late friend Rabbi Abraham Twerski (he died in Israel last month of COVID-19 at age ninety), a ḥasidic (and medical) scholar, who also pointed out that the practical nature of using contemporary money has not been a problem for Jewish people throughout history.
Read more on Coin Week: https://coinweek.com/ancient-coins/graven-images-and-the-coins-of-ancient-tyre/