Votive Offerings and Genizot

Historical background and description

A votive offering or votive deposit is an object displayed in a sacred place for broadly religious purposes without the intention of recovery, often, but not necessarily, to fulfill a vow or gain favor with supernatural forces.[296] This phenomenon is known from the early Neolithic period to the modern day and can be found in religious spaces ranging from prehistoric funerary monuments to Greco-Roman temples, Christian churches, and Buddhist temples. Such offerings might include libation vessels, small objects that represent human body parts, images of people, incense and other smoke devices, texts and notes, and precious materials. The group of offerings is “open” or “living” in the sense that items can be added and removed at any time. Offerings represent objects that circulated over a long period.

We know that votives were offered in ancient synagogues. Josephus tells us how the successors of Antiochus Epiphanes gave to the synagogue at Antioch the votive offerings he had taken from the Jerusalem temple. These objects were “laid up in the synagogue” for display. Later monarchs continued to give gifts and these “costly offerings formed a splendid ornament to their synagogues.”[297] The practice of making votive gifts to synagogues continued into Late Antiquity.[298] A Roman law from the Codex Theodosianus tells us that on February 15, 423, the emperors Honorius and Theodosius II decreed that the synagogues of the Jews should be protected from future seizure and damage, adding: “Votive offerings (donaria) as well, if they are in fact seized, shall be returned to them provided that they have not yet been dedicated to the sacred mysteries (sacris mysteriis); but if a venerable consecration does not permit their restitution, they shall be given the exact price for them.’’[299] Apparently, Christians were looting synagogues before destroying them, and laws were needed on what to do with the votive offerings inside. Thus, it seems that on occasion, synagogues would receive objects from Greco-Roman rulers or others, which were subsequently placed inside the building for all visitors to see. The hope was that viewers would not only recall the item but also the donor for decades or maybe even centuries afterwards. [300]

Votive offerings of coins were not uncommon in the ancient Mediterranean world.[301] Coins had images on them — of emperors, gods, communal buildings, or military themes — and were thus fitting objects for rulers to donate.[302] Coins were an effective medium of propaganda and many ancient sources attest to the power of the imperial image: under Tiberius it reportedly was illegal to enter a brothel or lavatory carrying a coin with the emperor’s image on it.[303] Numismatic imagery could transcend the currency it was stamped on and enter the realm of the “magical” or religious sphere (see also “Coins as Apotropaic Devices” ). In the Philopseudes, the satirist Lucian describes a statue of Pellichus, a Corinthian general, with coins lying at the statue’s feet and other small silver coins stuck onto the statue with wax as “votive offerings or payment for a cure from one or another of those who through him had ceased to be subject to fever.” At the sacred site of Mamre near Hebron, pagans, Christians, and Jews worshiped at the sacred tree and the altar next to it well into the 5th century, leaving behind bronze coins.[304]

Combining these different sources and archaeological evidence from around the Mediterranean, it is conceivable that votive coins were deposited in synagogues as well, either by its users to fulfill a vow or to give thanks, or by its leaders, to show the dominance of a ruler.[305] Perhaps a special bench or area could even be dedicated for these materials (for example, could the Horvat Kur stone have been used for votive offerings?).[306]

However, it is difficult to identify any coins in ancient synagogue deposits as votive offerings. If they were not removed before the building was destroyed or abandoned, we would simply identify them as “lost coins.” Unfortunately, written sources also do not inform us about what happened to votives once they were no longer needed or wanted inside the building (for example, when a ruler went out of favor,[307] or the synagogue building was remodeled). Were they taken out of the building and put back into circulation, or were they destroyed? Or were they stored somewhere inside the building, as part of a genizah? A genizah is the permanent storage of old, broken, or otherwise unwanted sacred objects that were once used in synagogue rituals but became worn-out and needed to be discarded.[308] According to Jewish law, these ritual objects, especially when containing the name of God, could not be destroyed but were deposited in a storage space or genizah.[309] Since the Talmud (pt. Shabbat 115a) directs that holy writings in other than the Hebrew language also be deposited in a genizah, it is likely that votive coins were included. [310] The genizah commonly was placed inside the bemah or under the Torah shrine, the most sacred place within the building, but it could have also been a hole in the wall, as was the case for the famous Cairo Genizah.[311] Every so often, the genizah would be opened and obsolete objects added to the collection.[312] Thus, coins used as votive offerings could have found their way into these genizot, accompanied by other disposed artifacts. Of course, it is always possible that the coins found in genizot were originally used in other synagogue rituals, but if that is true then we do not have any (written or archaeological) indication of their original purpose. Votive offerings make the most sense based on our current knowledge of ancient synagogue usage.[313]

I believe there are four characteristics a coin deposit should have to make it a genizah deposit:

1) the number of coins is low (each specific coin fulfilled a distinctive role),

2) the deposit is accessible (so coins can be added to it),

3) the coins are found mixed with other objects,

4) and the deposit is found in a symbolic or distinctive location within the synagogue.

Deposits categorized as votive offerings or genizot

Based on our catalogue, I have identified the following nine deposits as possible votive offerings or genizot: Gush Halav (Deposit 2), H. Shema’ (Deposit 1), Beth Alpha (Deposit 1), Hammath Tiberias (Deposit 1), Horvat Kur (Deposit 2), Ma’oz Hayyim (Deposit 2), Horvat Sumaqa (Deposit 2), and Horvat Rimmon (Deposit 3) and Horvat Rimmon (Deposit 5). A map can be found at https://www.ancientsynagoguecoins.com/votive-offerings-and-genizot/ .

Let’s go over each assemblage to indicate why I have placed them under this category.

The coin deposit at Gush Halav was discovered in a side room of the synagogue building. It consists of 141 bronze coins, with at least two clusters (perhaps indicating that they were originally stored in money pouches?), found in a soil layer that formed the make-up for a plaster floor above it, but originated as an accumulation upon the plaster floor of the previous synagogue phase. In this soil layer, an assortment of other artifacts was discovered: lamp fragments, iron implements, and bronze, glass, and wheel-turned hanging lamps. At Khirbet Shema’, archaeologists discovered 13 bronze coins in a small chamber under steps leading from the western side room into the synagogue hall. This man-made cave could originally have been part of an industrial installation, but was later integrated into the synagogue structure. Inside the cave, archaeologists found the coins together with pieces of glass and an oil lamp fragment, and pieces of Islamic pottery. At the time of discovery, the chamber was sealed off and had flooded with water. At Beth Alpha, 36 Byzantine coins were found in a plastered hole dug into the floor of the apse, which was covered with stone slabs. No other objects were found. [314] At Hammath Tiberias, 31 bronze coins were found in a cist or hole in the floor, in a small room or niche on the southeastern side of the hall. The cist was built into a stone slab floor laid on top of an older mosaic floor, and originally had a wooden structure above. With the coins were oil lamp fragments, a spindle whorl, parts of a stone measuring cup, a fragment of a roof tile, three broken bone needles, fragments of a bone spatula, and some metal hooks and nails. At Horvat Kur, archaeologists found 45 bronze coins dispersed over several layers of stone floors and fills inside the stone bemah, together with a bronze oil lamp and many fragments of pottery and clay oil lamps. At Ma’oz Hayyim, archaeologists found “several” (probably bronze) coins in a hole in the floor in the apse of the building behind the bemah, together with some pieces of clay and glass lamps. These coins, however, were never published. At Horvat Sumaqa, three bronze coins were discovered in a cave under the northern part of the west wall of the synagogue building. As this natural cave was not blocked off during the time that the synagogue was in use, and a small wall built inside the cave has the same make-up as the synagogue wall on top of it, the excavators assume that the cave was contemporaneous with the synagogue building and the contents can be connected to it. Together with the three coins were metal, stone, and bone vessels, some cosmetic tools, a bronze pin, a spindle whorl, some iron working tools, and two large nails. Last, scattered bronze coins were found in two deposits inside the western side room of the synagogue building at Horvat Rimmon: according to the excavators 160 loose bronze coins were found in dirt debris beneath the ash floor in one area of the southern part of the room,[315] and 54 coins in another. The coins were found mixed in with other objects like lamps, pieces of candelabra, and jewelry. [316]

All the deposits from this category were found in distinct, retrievable places in or around the synagogue: in bemot, in caves, or in holes in the floor. The coins were always found mixed in with other objects: oil lamps, vessels, working tools, hooks and nails, etc. These artifacts are not of particular high monetary value and are mostly broken; seemingly the remains of ritual objects that were no longer being used.

All the coins in this category (444 in total, plus an unknown number from Ma’oz Hayyim) were bronze. Unfortunately, many of the coins are illegible as they were placed in unprotected contexts: for example, at least two deposits were found in chambers that flooded regularly. When looking at the dates of the 403 legible coins, one can discern a clear emphasis on the 4th -5th century: 160 coins were minted in the 4th century, and 95 in the 5th century. Only Horvat Kur has six coins of the late 6th century (https://www.ancientsynagoguecoins.com/votive-offerings-and-genizot/ ). Most coins could also not be connected to a minting place; only 63 of the 444 coins could be read. Of those, 13 came from Antioch, 13 from Constantinople, and 9 from Nicomedia.

Map of all sites where Votive Offerings have been found. Hover over a triangle to see the name of the site.

Table of all Votive Coins broken up per deposit. Toggle the parameter to show the emperor under which each coin was minted, the minting place, or the end date (final terminus post quem) of each coin.

Table of all Synagogue Votive Coins. Toggle the parameter to choose between exact dates or quarter centuries.

Table of all Synagogue Votive Coins. Toggle the parameter to show the emperor under which each coin was minted, the minting place, or the end date (final terminus post quem) of each coin; or choose between absolute numbers or percentage of total.


[296] In this project, I adopt an inclusive definition of the word votive, encompassing both objects connected with prior vows (ex voto) as well as those requesting the repetition and re-performance of a donor’s prayers.

[297] Josephus, J.W. 7. 44-45.

[298] Satlow 2005, p. 93.

[299] Codex Theodosianus 16.8.25 (trans. Linder 1987, p. 288, no. 47).

[300] Satlow 2005.

[301] See, for example, Crawford 2003 on the use of coins as votive offerings in the Hellenistic period, Sauer 2004 on votive coins in mithraea, Rowan 2009 on examples of votive coins hidden beneath the masts of ships, Lykke 2017 on the use of coins in Greek sanctuaries, and Leatherbury 2019 for coins as votive offerings in Greece, Asia Minor, and Syria-Palestine.

[302] See also “Coins as Apotropaic Devices” for more examples of coins with imperial images given by ruling emperors as diplomatic gifts.

[303] Suetonius, Tiberius 58: “The defendant was found guilty and in time malicious accusations of the following kind resulted in capital trials: beating a slave near a statue of Augustus, or changing one’s clothes there; carrying a coin or ring bearing his image into a lavatory or a brothel; criticizing any of his words or deeds.” See also the example found in Mark 12:13-17, in which a coin with the image of Caesar is portrayed as a symbol of power and oppression.

[304] Leatherbury 2019, p. 257; Kahlos 2020, pp. 170–171.

[305] Among synagogue leaders, the most fitting person to fulfill this ask would have been the nasi, who fulfilled a political role in Jewish society. Of course, it is unknown in how far people would have paid attention to these portraits, but it might have been the only imperial images the Roman and Byzantine leaders could have smuggled into the synagogue!

[306] Crawford 2003, p. 72 discusses some possible places for coins as votive offerings in Hellenistic pagan spaces: both offering tables as well as suspension seems to have been used.

[307] Of course, this means that someone would pay attention to this, to ensure the right emperor was being shown.

[308] The Hebrew word genizah, גניזה, means “hiding,” or “to put away.” Genizot are best known as depositories or archives for worn-out Hebrew books and papers on religious topics, but they could also contain ritual and sacred objects. Although the origin of the genizah lies in Late Antiquity, the burial of religious objects in Palestine is in fact an ancient custom that existed since the Late Bronze Age, then more commonly known as a favissa (Garfinkel 1994; Straβburger 2015, 2018; Kletter 2010, 2018). The word favissa originally refers to hewn subterranean chambers near the Capitol Hill in Rome, used to store temple objects: statues of gods and votive objects that became obsolete (fovea means “hole, pit”). Just as with the word “foundation deposit”, however, archeologists have used the term favissa to refer to a range of different phenomena, including foundation deposits, the ritual burial of “cancelled” religious shrines, the burial of votive offerings, the deposition of discarded religious cult objects, etc. (see for more info, Kletter 2010). Thus, the word favissa overlaps with many of our coin deposits and is hence not a useful categorization term, and it will not be used in this project.

[309] The term genizah (Ezra 1, 7-8; Esther 3, 9; Ezekiel 27, 24; etc.) derives from the Persian-Elamite term ganzabara, meaning roughly “treasurer.” A similar phenomenon of deposing of ritual objects did not exist in early Christianity, however, which might explain why we do not find hidden coins in churches from Late Antiquity in Palestine.

[310] Mishna Shabbat 16:1: “With regard to all sacred writings, one may rescue them from the fire on Shabbat, whether they are read in public (e.g., Torah or Prophets scrolls), or whether they are not read in public (e.g., Writings scrolls). This ruling applies even though they were written in any foreign language. According to the Rabbis, those scrolls are not read in public, but they are still sacred and require burial.” The same Mishna paragraph, furthermore, discusses the existence of coins with the holy objects “in the same casing of tefillin” (תִיק הַתְּפִלִּין, a phylactery or the container for the tefillin): “One may save the container of a scroll together with the scroll, and the container of tefillin together with the tefillin, even if it [also] contains money.” Does this indicate that it was common to have a “bag holding holy objects” that would also contain coins? The tractate then continues to discuss the writing of amulets and blessings by rabbis, which was forbidden according to the Talmud, however, their destruction was seen as an even worse violation, as they may contain the divine name.

[311] See, for example, Hoffman et al. 2016.

[312] In this regard, one could confuse the storage location of these coins with the Chamber of Secrets, the space to place the charity funds, or even with the treasury space. The difference, however, is that coins, once placed inside a genizah, could never be taken out and used again for non-ritual purposes. Their low value and small quantities also indicate that the deposit was seen as symbolic; they were not to be retrieved as savings. The one exception might have been made for magico-religious purposes: coins could have transferred from the genizah to the floor in tertiary deposits (see chapter “SYNAGOGUE COIN DEPOSITS: THE FLOOR DEPOSITS”).

[313] Thus, I connect the location of the coins (genizot) with a possible interpretation (votive offerings), as this is the aim of this project. Of course, other scholars may choose to just designate these coins as genizah coins, with an unknown primary function.

[314] This deposit is a hard one to determine, because the coins were not found mixed together with other materials, as would be a requirement for this category. However, the 36 bronze coins found in the bemah were excavated in 1929, a time in which excavation standards were not yet high (for example, the archaeologists did not sift the soil). The plastered cist had also collapsed and filled up with rubble: it is thus unclear if all archeological materials were collected. The long range of dates and the small number of (low-value) coins makes me think this was a genizah, but they also could have been part of a treasury or charity accumulation, like Sukenik indicated: “It is probable that this cavity served as the treasury of the synagogue, and that these coins, in course of time, dropped down to the floor of the cavity” (Sukenik 1932, p. 13).

[315] But only 131 could be found at the IAA and have here been used in the analysis.

[316] I made the decision on the deposits at Horvat Rimmon based on the fact that the coins in these two deposits were found in a scattered fashion, surrounded by other artifacts and they were left inside the building after its destruction/abandonment. However, the large number of coins could also indicate that they were (originally) a treasury or charity fund.