During the uprisings of the first and second centuries C.E., when the Jewish leadership was looking for images to stamp onto the coins that would express their independence from Rome, one of the most popular choices was the palm frond.
It is not immediately obvious why this particular ritual object, associated with just one of the numerous festivals of the Jewish calendar, should have achieved such disproportionate representation among the numismatic remains. This question has provoked scholars to provide explanations.
We should note at the outset that not everyone is convinced that the plants depicted on those coins had anything to do with Sukkot. One distinguished historian of ancient Judaism insisted that the true popular religion of ancient Jews was not the arid legalism of the rabbis, but rather an occult spirituality akin to the Mediterranean mystery religions. Therefore he ascribed the palm branches to some sort of mystical nature cult.
We must recall that long before their appearance on Jewish coins, palm trees had been a popular motif in other currencies, especially those of Tyre or Phoenicia and its north African colonies (“phoinix” is in fact a Greek word for date palm).
The Hasmonean monarch Alexander Yannai was the only member of that dynasty to use that motif; he restamped the date-palm designs over Tyrian currency. When later Roman colonial administrations adopted a similar approach, they were also emulating the established Tyrian practice. Apparently they had noted that (unlike human or pagan imagery) the portrayal of a date palm was not offensive to Jewish religious sensibilities about “graven images”. With no apparent political or religious agenda in mind, they found the palm tree to be a congenial emblem of the agricultural bounty and natural attractions of the Middle Eastern provinces, and the motif remained popular through the vicissitudes of subsequent Jewish-Roman relations. The tetrarch Herod Antipas issued a series of date-themed coins portraying palm trees and date clusters.
There was yet another association that was evoked by palm branches in ancient culture. Portrayals of victorious athletes or litigants often showed them raising up a palm branch (“baion”) to publicly proclaim their triumphs. The same convention was employed to depict the authority of Hellenistic monarchs and Roman emperors.
Indeed, the midrash invoked the baion metaphor in connection with the lulav ritual on Sukkot, which it interpreted as Israel’s proclamation before the hostile nations of the world that they had been exonerated in the solemn spiritual judgement that had culminated a few days earlier on the Day of Atonement.
In the year 70 C.E. at the height of the revolt against Rome that led to the destruction of Jerusalem, the Jews minted coins of their own that reflected their distinctive national and religious values. The images that appeared on the new tetradrachms were not generic date palms or fruits, but specifically the “four species” of plants carried in the Sukkot procession. The reverse side portrayed baskets of assorted fruit, probably denoting the ceremonial offering of the first fruits (bikkurim) in the Temple.
Lulav imagery shows up again in the coinage of Simeon Bar Kokhba, leader of the revolt in 132 C.E. Numerous conjectures have been proposed as to his reasons for emphasizing Sukkot-related motifs.
One theory attempted to link the lulav imagery with the Jews’ nostalgia for the time when the forces of Judah Maccabee and his successors triumphed over their Hellenistic enemies. According to the Second Book of Maccabees, the reason why Hanukkah was ordained as an eight-day festival was to compensate for the fact that the fighters had been unable to celebrate Sukkot that year under combat conditions. Later, when Simeon the Hasmonean overcame the last pockets of resistance in Jerusalem, he “entered the fortress singing hymns of praise and thanksgiving, while carrying palm branches and playing harps, cymbals, and lyres.” (It has been suggested that similar associations were being evoked by the Jewish crowds who waved palm branches as they hailed Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, apparently on Passover, extolling him as the anointed king of Israel whom they expected to expel the Roman occupiers.)
Midrashic tradition suggests that the Romans also regarded the lulav ritual as politically subversive. Speaking about acts of spiritual heroism and martyrdom at the time of the Bar Kokhba insurrection, Rabbi Nathan enumerated several precepts whose observance incurred severe punishment at the hands of the imperial authorities: death (by decapitation) for performing circumcisions, burning for reading the Torah, crucifixion for eating matzah on Passover—and flagellation for carrying a lulav.
It has been noted that most of these designated punishments conform precisely to what we know about the Roman laws and edicts of the time. Thus, circumcision was banned (not specifically for Jews) under the “Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficis”; and it is readily understandable how the public teaching of the Law of Moses and Passover’s theme of liberation from oppression were regarded as incitements of rebellion or treason against the current Pharaohs. However the inclusion of the lulav in the index of punishable offenses is problematic, especially when we bear in mind that the imperial administration rarely interfered with the established religious practices of its colonial subjects; and in fact the lulav ritual was not all that different from some pagan ceremonies.
It has therefore been suggested that in the Jewish consciousness Sukkot and its rituals served as a symbolic rallying call for the rebuilding of the Jerusalem Temple and the restoration of the joyful pilgrimages whose memories were still vivid amid among the people. Indeed, the reverse sides of those lulav coins contained such images as the façade of the Temple, grapes, trumpets and lyres, along with the inscriptions “for the freedom of Jerusalem” or “the redemption of Israel.” Another historical association that might have been meaningful to later generations of patriotic Jews was the fact that the dedication ceremonies for both the first and second Temples had taken place during Sukkot. It has accordingly been conjectured that Bar-Kokhba, by placing the lulav on the coins of his short-lived independent state, meant to send a message to the Romans that the military and political tables were about to be turned on them.
This idea takes on additional significance when we recall how the emperor Hadrian commemorated his replacing of Jerusalem with the pagan city Aelia Capitolina by minting coins in which vanquished Judean children held out palm branches to their conqueror or sat weeping in the palm tree’s shade. The humiliating “Judaea Capta” coins continued to be minted for twenty-six years after the end of the revolt. It is therefore quite understandable that Jews would wish to transform an image of subjugation into a symbol of liberty and independence.
Two texts preserved in Bar-Kokhba’s archive are devoted to supplying his forces with lulavs and etrogs in the midst of wartime conditions. One letter in Aramaic commissioned the recipient to load up two donkeys with lulavs from Ḳiryat ‘Arabaya [“the village of the willows”] and to receive a cargo of myrtles and willows. The letter concluded with a terse blessing, “heyeh shalom”—may you enjoy peace.
The illustrious general may not have achieved that cherished objective in the military or political senses—and yet the regard that he and other Jewish leaders expressed for Israel’s sacred customs might well have contributed to the long-term spiritual survival of their people.