In honor of Hebrew Language Day: Selected Hebrew terms regarding central banks

“Speak Hebrew and you will become healthier”, said Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.  In honor of National Hebrew Language Day, which falls out on the 21st of Tevet each year (this year on December 25), the Bank of Israel takes the opportunity to explain a little about several Hebrew terms connected with the economy, the currency system, and the central bank of the State of Israel—the Bank of Israel.

 

We begin with the term “Governor” (in Hebrew: נגיד – Nagid).  What is this term, and why is the head of the Central Bank referred to with this special word?

 

The Bank of Israel Law, first enacted in 1954, defines the Bank’s functions, the main one being to maintain price stability—meaning to maintain the value of money.  It was also determined that the Governor would lead the central bank, and that his position would be independent—not subject to the government.

 

Due to the importance of the position and its high status, they looked for a term that could be used as his title.  Other terms were considered, such as “President”, similar to the President of the World Bank, but they were rejected.  Policymakers consulted Jewish sources in the Bible, and found the word “Nagid”, first mentioned in the book of I Samuel (9:16), when G-d says to Samuel: “Tomorrow about this time I will send you a man out of the land of Benjamin, and you shall anoint him to be NAGID over My people Israel.”  But here, the term Nagid referred to a king or prince, and in this case it referred to Saul, who would be appointed king.  There was some opposition to the idea of referring to the head of the central bank as a prince or king.  But as people continued looking into the Biblical texts, they came across a verse from I Chronicles (26:24): “Shevuel the son of Gershom, the son of Moses, was NAGID over the treasuries.”  He was a person appointed by the government to function as a guardian over the treasuries.  This was very much in line with the main function of the Governor (to maintain the value of money), and was hence adopted as his Hebrew title.

 

Next we have the word “Shekel”.  This word appears numerous times in the Bible.  Its first appearance is in Genesis 23, when Abraham purchases the field and cave of Machpela in order to bury Sarah.  In Verse 16 we read: “And Abraham weighed to Ephron the silver, which he had named in the hearing of the children of Heth, four hundred shekels of tradable silver.”  It is interesting to note that the term “Shekel” also appears on coins minted during the Great Jewish Rebellion against the Romans between 66 and 73 CE.  The Hebrew word Shekel consists of the three letters in the Hebrew root word meaning “weight”.  This reinforces the Biblical narratives where trade was based on the weight of a precious metal.  The Shekel, in biblical times, was therefore a unit of weight, as in the amount paid by Abraham.  How fitting, therefore, that the previous Israeli currency, the Lira (abbreviated Latin term for “pound”) was replaced with the Biblical Hebrew term “Shekel”.

 

The term “Agora” also comes from the Bible!  “And it shall come to pass, that every one that is left in thy house shall come and bow down to him for an AGORA (small piece) of silver.” - I Samuel 2:36.

 

The term “Calcala” (economy) also comes from Biblical text.  While many believe that the term is relatively new, it actually comes from the book of Genesis (47:12): “And Joseph sustained (“VAYECHALKEL”) his father, and his brethren, and all his father's household, with bread.”

 

To conclude – a short quiz: Is the Hebrew word “MATBEA” (currency) male or female?

The answer is that it is both.  Similarly, the Hebrew word for “ink” – DYO – can also be conjugated in both the male and female styles.  This too is connected with money, since ink serves as a measure of protection on banknotes against counterfeiters.  The security marks on the banknotes include special types of ink that are very difficult to counterfeit.  It is worth noting that the proper Hebrew term for “coin” is “MA’AH”, even though many incorrectly use MATBEA to mean coin as well.  MATBEA is an overall term that includes both banknotes and coins.

 

If you would like to know more about these terms, as well as other words used to refer to money and coinage such as “Pruta”, “Sela”, and “Zuz”; if you would like to see for yourself what is written on the coins that our ancient ancestors minted here more than 2000 years ago with ancient Hebrew letters; and if you would like to know more about the special types of ink that protect banknotes from counterfeiting, you can visit the Bank of Israel Visitors Center.​