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Ki Tissa: The Image of the Emperor

Updated: Jun 23

Restored Holy Half Shekel minted in Jerusalem by Reuven Prager
Restored Holy Half Shekel minted in Jerusalem by Reuven Prager Z"L

In parashat Ki Tissa (Exodus 30:11–34:35), a census is conducted through the holy half shekel. Regardless if one was rich or poor, all were required to give, highlighting the idea that regardless of status, each person is valued equally in the eyes of HaShem. According to Rashi, the silver from these half-shekels were used to create the silver sockets in the Tabernacle. Today, the modern state of Israel uses the word “shekel” as the word for its currency,  but originally the word actually described a weight. Coins themselves were not introduced as a currency until around 700 BCE. Interestingly, the Sages teach that Moshe was unsure of what HaShem meant by a ‘half-shekel’. The Midrash adds a fascinating detail,

“R. Meir expounded: The Holy One, blessed be He, took what resembled a coin of fire from beneath the Throne of Glory and showed Moses, ‘This they shall give,’ namely, they shall give a coin that resembles this one.” Numbers Rabbah 12:3, Soncino Press Edition [1]

According to the Midrash, Moshe was “taken aback” by the idea that one could ransom his soul via this offering of the coin, so as a visual aid, HaShem showed him a coin of fire. What was the secret connection between the soul and the coin of fire?

The Plague of the Pharisees

Fast forward from the time of Moshe to the Second Temple era. The Synoptic Gospels record that some disciples of Pharisees attempted to entrap Yeshua of Nazareth in his words. It is important to note that the Pharisees enlisted the help of the Herodians. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, they may have been part of, or closely aligned with, the Sadducees in their opposition to the Pharisees. The Herodians were called by the Rabbis the “Boethusians.” What was the purpose of their presence in this question to Yeshua? The account is as follows,

“Then the Pharisees went and took counsel on how they might entrap him in his talk. They sent their disciples to him, along with the Herodians, saying, “Rabbi, we know that you are honest, and teach the way of G-d in truth, no matter whom you teach, for you aren’t partial to anyone. Tell us therefore, what do you think? Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar, or not?” But Yeshua perceived their wickedness, and said, “Why do you test me, you hypocrites?  Show me the tax money.” They brought him a denarius. He asked them, “Whose is this image and inscription?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” Then he said to them, “Give therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to G-d the things that are G-d’s.” When they heard it, they marveled, and left him, and went away.” Matthew 22:15-22 [2]

Notice the introductory words of these Pharisees,

“Teacher, we know that you . . . teach the way of G-d in truth, nor do you care about anyone, for you do not regard the social status of men.”

They begin to “praise” Yeshua for his fearlessness in preaching the truth, despite whom it might offend, and intentionally highlight the fact that he is not afraid to speak it in front of anyone, regardless of their financial, religious or political status. This was said because the Herodians were present, who were deliberately included in this dispute so they could “witness” His answer to their trick question. The Herodians would have been quick to inform Herod of the slightest word spoken against Caesar, superficially guarded these Pharisees from being classed as moserim, ‘informers’, who were categorized along with heathens, irreligious Jews, and minim (heretics). The Jewish Encyclopedia notes,

“Nothing was more severely punished by the Jews than talebearing; and no one was held in greater contempt than the informer. On account of the fact that his deeds frequently caused mischief and even entailed death and destruction, the sages of the Talmud compared the “moser” to a serpent.” Jewish Encyclopedia on Moser [3]

Unfortunately, misinterpretations of similar passages have caused the word “Pharisee” to have a negative connotation today, especially in Christianity. Many dictionaries today, after defining the historical meaning, give the following meaning, “A self-righteous or hypocritical person.”

Oftentimes, the boundaries between Pharisee and Sadducee are blurred into one group. It is important to note that the corrupt Sadducees controlled the Priesthood and the Temple, taught against the resurrection of the dead, and were diametrically opposed to the Pharisees. The Pharisees represented the people, taught the correct theology regarding the Torah, and are the ancestors of those who wrote the Mishnah and Talmud. However, it is important to note that even the Pharisees spoke of a “plague” within their group, by defining seven types of their number,

AND THE PLAGUE OF PHARISEES etc. Our Rabbis have taught: There are seven types of Pharisees: 1) the shikmi Pharisee, 2) the nikpi Pharisee, 3) the kizai Pharisee, 4) the pestle Pharisee, 5) the Pharisee [who constantly exclaims] “What is my duty that I may perform it?”, 6) the Pharisee from love [of G-d] and 7) the Pharisee from fear.”

1) The shikmi Pharisee – he is one who performs the action of Shechem. (i.e. gets circumcised for the wrong reasons, or wears his deeds on his shoulder) 2) The nikpi Pharisee – he is one who knocks his feet together. (he walks with exaggerated humility) 3) The kizai Pharisee – R. Nahman b. Isaac said: He is one who makes his blood to flow against walls. 4) The pestle Pharisee – Rabbah b. Shila said: [His head] is bowed like [a pestle in] a mortar. 5) The Pharisee [who constantly exclaims] What is my duty that I may perform it? but that is a virtue! Nay, what he says is, “What further duty is for me that I may perform it?” (he feels that he has already accomplished the mitzvah, and nothing else is left) 6) The Pharisee from love 7) and the Pharisee from fear.

Abaye and Raba said to the tanna [who was reciting this passage], “Do not mention the Pharisee from love and the Pharisee from fear”; for Rab Judah has said in the name of Rab: “A man should always engage himself in Torah and the commandments even though it be not for their own sake, because from [engaging in them] not for their own sake, he will come [to engage in them] for their own sake.” R. Nahman b. Isaac said: “What is hidden is hidden, and what is revealed is revealed; the Great Tribunal will exact punishment from those who rub themselves against the walls.” Sotah 22b, Soncino Press Edition

Only the Pharisee from love and the Pharisee from fear are listed as meritorious. The Pharisee from love, however, surpasses the one who observes Torah out of fear.


R’ Samuel Dresner describes the condition of Israel in the European Diaspora preceding the Chassidic movement as equivalent to the Second Temple Era. He writes of R’ Yaakov Yosef, one of the most prominent disciples of the Baal Shem Tov, R’ Israel ben Eliezer (1698-1760CE),

“Further evidence of internal decay was the disastrous decline of Torah study which had previously characterized Polish Jewry had been its glory, especially in those areas where the destruction of life and property had been worst during the seventeenth century wars and pogroms. The nature of the religious literature had now changed; it abounded in fruitless controversies. Cases of petty hairsplitting occupied the time and pens of the rabbis, to the exclusion of the legitimate needs and problems of the people…R’ Yaakov Yosef – who died in 1782 – was well aware of the physical suffering of his people…But he suffered infinitely more for the spiritual privation: felt ever so much more keenly the prevalent lack of inwardness in observance of the mitzvot, the use of Torah study for the sake of show, the bickering among the people, the lack of unity between people and leader and among the leaders themselves, the corruption on part of the appointed officials who “purchased” their appointments, the aloofness of the rabbis and the contempt in which they held the people. He understood the problem as his time as essentially an inner one, a spiritual one…What distressed him most was a crisis of the spirit – the spiritual condition of the people…According to the Talmud, “neglect of Torah study” was responsible for the destruction of the first Temple while “needless hatred” caused the destruction of the second temple. In the eyes of Rabbi Yaakov Yosef, it was as if that destruction had taken place again in his own time. . . The duties of “Torah study and prayer” have to be fulfilled, “but above all else is the yearning, the spark of flame which sets fire to hitlahavut – the craving, longing for His love.” Forgotten was the obvious and self-evident, that all the commandments in the Torah – study and prayer, Sabbath and Festival – were only for the sake of drawing closer to the L-rd. A relearning of “the first principle” was necessary. A return to the Master to learn that first principle again was the spiritual need of the time.” R’ Samuel Dresner, The Zaddik, Schocken Books, pgs. 28-29, 35

Before the great Baal Shem Tov, there was Yeshua of Nazareth. Yeshua’s movement was the first real Chassidic Movement. Like the Chassidim after him, Yeshua experienced intense opposition from the “Plague” of the Pharisees. This particular dispute had an immense impact upon the crowd. All were amazed at the words and indeed reading the text by itself, his answer is quite brilliant. However, in knowing the Jewish context of his words, his answer is beyond brilliant, leaving one dumbfounded, speechless, like those who tried to trap him.

A Rock and a Hard Place

If Yeshua spoke anything against the tribute paid to Caesar, it would be considered as an insurrection against Rome. By paying taxes, one acknowledges the governmental authority to whom is given tribute. Denying the power of the ruling government to collect taxes undermines the foundation of their lawful authority. Roman interference in Eretz Yisrael began under Pompey in 63 BCE. Around the time of the birth of Yeshua, a census was conducted by Rome [4], which was contrary to how the Torah instructs Israel to conduct a census (which is through the Holy Half-Shekel). In 6 CE, after Rome’s disposal of Herod’s son, Archelaus, direct occupation of the land began,

“…the emperor decided to impose direct Roman rule on Judaea, which was now declared a province of the empire. Quirinius, the governor of Syria, was sent south in AD 6 to carry out a census for tax purposes (previously taxation had gone directly to Herod) and the first praefectus was appointed. It was a messy business. One Judah of Gamala led resistance to the Roman intrusion and his followers were crucified along the roads of the new province.” A New History of Early Christianity, Charles Freeman, Yale University Press, pg. 4

The situation ultimately culminated in the uprising against Rome, which led to the destruction of the Temple and the exile of Israel. However, the stakes were high if Yeshua’s answer affirmed the authority of Rome to conduct censuses, and collect taxes. He would have violated the Torah, denied that the land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people, and ultimately rejected the restoration of the Kingdom of David. All of Yeshua’s followers, who all passionately desired to see the Throne of David restored to Israel, would have been crushed if he had sided with Rome and denied a fundamental precept of the Torah. Conversely, if he had denied the right of Caesar to collect taxes, as the Pharisees had expected, the members of Herod’s political party would have immediately ran and told Herod, who would have, in turn, informed Caesar of Yeshua’s promotion of insurrection. This would inevitably lead to his arrest and possible execution for sedition. This is the ultimate “rock and a hard place.” The young Rabbi asked for the coin as a visual aid for his upcoming answer,

“Show me the tax money.” So they brought him a denarius. And he said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to him, “Caesar’s.” [5]

 Pontiff Maxim. Courtesy Doug Smith.
Pontiff Maxim. Courtesy Doug Smith.

A Coin of Silver

What coin was this? What did it look like? It is possible the coin that they brought to was the Pontif Maxim:

“Tiberius was Emperor for 23 years and is represented by two denarii. After 15 AD all Tiberius denarii were the same type: PONTIF MAXIM surrounding a seated female figure. Huge numbers of these coins were produced; many thousands of them still exist today.” Doug Smith, Tiberius: The Tribute Penny [6]

However, there were many denarii circulating at this time, therefore,

” . . . there is no real evidence that Jesus saw this coin. Denarii in circulation that day (over fifteen years into the reign of Tiberius) would have included quite a mix of Republican types and vast numbers of the common types of Caesar Augustus . . . The purpose of the coin in this case could have been satisfied by any Republican denarius with a head and Latin inscription. That coin collectors have settled on this one coin as THE Tribute Penny is more of a convention than a historical fact. It is, however, quite likely that this type was among the most common denarii in circulation in the early 30’s AD and it does show the Emperor who reigned at the time of the ministry of Jesus Christ.” Doug Smith, Tiberius: The Tribute Penny [6]

A Coin of Fire

Confident that they had painted the Great Teacher into an inescapable corner, Yeshua answers their treacherous plot with words that have echoed throughout millennia, “Show Me the tax money.” So they brought him a denarius. And He said to them, “Whose image and inscription is this?” They said to Him, “Caesar’s.” And He said to them, “Then give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to G-d what is G-d’s.” When they heard these words, they were amazed, and left him and went their way.” The theological backdrop of his reply deepens the Rabbi’s response, and reveals unknown depths and meaning to His amazing words. The Mishnah says,

“For a person mints many coins with a single seal, and they are all alike one another. But the King of king of kings, the Holy One, blessed be He, minted all human beings with that seal of his with which he made the first person, yet not one of them is like anyone else. Therefore everyone is obligated to maintain, “On my account the world was created.” Mishnah, Sanhedrin 4:5

Philo of Alexandria, a Jewish scholar at the time of Yeshua, known for his Platonic and allegorical interpretations of the Bible, makes a similar comment,

“. . . the great Moses has not named the species of the rational soul by a title resembling that of any created being, but has pronounced it an image of the divine and invisible being, making it a coin as it were of sterling metal, stamped and impressed with the seal of G-d, the impression of which is the eternal word.” Philo, Concerning Noah’s Work As a Planter, Section V, translated by C.D. Yonge

Professor Brad H. Young comments,

“Perhaps these theological concepts serve as a background for the saying of Jesus, “Then render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and to G-d the things that are G-d’s.” After all, not only is Caesar’s image stamped upon each coin that he has minted; the divine image of the King of kings is stamped upon each person. Jesus was calling upon the people to give everything to G-d, the Creator of every human being.” Brad H. Young, The Parables, Jewish Tradition and Christian Interpretation, Hendrickson Publishers, pg. 10


This understanding amplifies Yeshua’s amazing words. Give unto the earthly king his image, and give unto the Heavenly King His image, that is, yourselves, your entire being, and all that is within you. In Pirkei Avot, it says,

רבי אלעזר איש ברתותא אומר: תן לו משלו, שאתה ושלך שלו. וכן בדוד הוא אומר (דברי הימים א כט) כי ממך הכל ומידך נתנו לך

“Rabbi Elazar of Bartosa would say: Give Him what is His, for you, and whatever is yours, are His. As David says: “For everything comes from You, and from Your own hand we give to You” (I Chronicles 29:14).” Pirkei Avot 3:7, cited at [7]

This also reveals to us the value of each person, and how all are equal before HaShem. In the Gospel of Luke, Yeshua gives the Parable of the Lost Coin,

“…what woman, if she had ten drachma coins, if she lost one drachma coin, would not light a lamp, sweep the house, and seek diligently until she found it? When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the drachma which I had lost. Even so, I tell you, there is joy in the presence of the angels of G-d over one sinner repenting.’ Luke 15:8-10

When a rich young ruler came to Yeshua, and asked him, “What is the greatest mitzvah (commandment)?” Yeshua’s answer to him was, in essence, the same as it was to the Herodians and Pharisees: Give unto HaShem your entire being, which is the real coin, and is the very fulfillment of the Sh’ma:

שְׁמַע יִשְׂרָאֵל יי אֱלֹקינוּ יי אֶחָד
וְאָהַבְתָּ אֵת יי אֱלֹקיךָ בְּכָל־לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל־נַפְשְׁךָ וּבְכָל־מְאֹדֶךָ

“Hear O Israel, HaShem Our G-d HaShem is One. And you shall love HaShem your G-d with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might.” Deuteronomy 6:4-5



  1. See also Rashi on Exodus 30:11, Midrash Tanchuma 9;  Naso p. 35; Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 19a; Midrash Tehillim 91:1; Yerushalmi, Shekalim 1:4

  2. Cf. Mark 12: 13-17, Luke 20:20-26

  3. Jewish Encyclopedia on Moser

  4. For a detailed discussion about the chronological issues of the Census of Quirinius, see The Lukan Census

  5. It is interesting to note that the Talmud calls the Messiah a “Caesar”, and David a “half-Caesar”: “The Holy One, blessed be He, will raise up another David for us, as it is written, ‘But they shall serve the L-rd their G-d, and David their king, whom I will raise up unto them: not ‘I raised up’, but ‘I will raise up’ is said. R. Papa said to Abaye: But it is written, And my servant David shall be their prince [nasi] for ever? — E.g., [קיסר ופלגי קיסר , kesar u’falgei kesar] an emperor (Caesar) and a viceroy (Half-Caesar).” Sanhedrin 98b, Soncino Press Edition

  6. Images of the Pontiff Maxim are © copyright Doug Smith. Special thanks to Doug Smith for his permission to use images of the Pontiff Maxim. Visit his website at

  7. Pirkei Avot, Chapter Three

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