Sunday, March 16, 2008

10,000 Talents of Silver

"And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: 'There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king's laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them.

If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those that have the charge of the king's business, to bring it into the king's treasuries.'" Esther 3:8-9

How did Hamen come up with a number like 10,000 talents of silver?

I once hear from a Rav an interesting explanation based on a Tosfos (Megillah 17a). Hamen reasoned that as a nation, B'nei Yisrael can be evaluated according to the 1/2 shekel each adult (male) was to contribute to the upkeep of the mishkan. If 600,000 is considered the prototypical Jewish nation, it can be valued at 600,000 x 1/2 shekel or 300,000 shekalim. This is equivalent to 100 talents (3000 shekalim per talent). However, note that Haman described the nation as "scattered abroad and dispersed". He is claiming that there is no unity in this nation. Therefore, we have to evaluate them as individuals, not as a unified nation. And that we do according to the laws of erechin (see Vayikra 27:2), in which each adult male is valued at 50 shekalim. And 600,000 x 50 shekalim equals 10,000 talents!

It's really a great vort. Unfortunately, however, there are too many problems when you start to examine it more than superficially.

First, let's look at the sheer magnitude of 10,000 talents of silver. According to Wikipedia (R. Adin Steinsaltz concurs) the weight of a kikar (it is both a weight and a monetary measure) is approximately 27 kilograms. 10,000 kikkarim would weight 270,000 kilos, or almost 60,000 pounds! We're talking 30 TONS OF SILVER here, folks, an enormous amount! But how does that work out according to the value of the time?

It is commonly believe that Ahasuerus was Artaxerxes II, who reigned in Persia from approximately 404 BCE-358 BCE. This is close enough to the time of the Peloponnesian War in which it is described (again, thanks Wikipedia!) "that a talent was the amount of silver needed to pay the crew of a trireme for one month. Hellenistic mercenaries were commonly paid one drachma for every day of service, which was a good salary in the post-Alexander (III) days and years. 6,000 drachma made a talent. Based on this fact, assuming a crew of roughly 200 rowers paid at the basic pay rate of a junior enlisted member of the US armed forces (E-2), a talent would be worth nearly $300,000." So 10,000 talents would be the equivalent of $3 BILLION!!! Now I don't care how stinking rich Hamen was, $3 billion is a little over the top, don't you think?

Of course, the whole drasha suggests that Hamen learned! That he knew about laws such as erechin and the chatzi shekel, and therefore came up with this quite clever cheshbon. And if he is evaluating the Jews according to erechin - as individuals - then why would he use the 600,000 number? This only includes males from 20-60. What about all of the females, and what about the males below 20 and over 60, each category of which is evaluated differently? Why would he even care about how many adult males supposedly came out of Egypt and not about how many were in the lands that Artaxerxes controlled? Did he learn Kaballah and know about 600,000 root souls?

The most logical conclusion is that Megillat Esther is engaging in hyperbole when it says 10,000 talents. I believe that the number is being used to convey a theological lesson (possibly the writer of Esther himself thought that it would made for a nice vort!) and was never intended to be considered as historically accurate, like most of Tanach.


Baal Habos said...

Welcome to the world.

e-kvetcher said...

Actually, it the 10K talent number doesn't seem inconceivable: Here is Herodotus describing the amount of the annual tribute of the various nations to Persia, around this time... Certainly 10K is a large number, but not an insane number.

III.89: This he set up in Persia; and afterwards he proceeded to establish twenty governments of the kind which the Persians call satrapies, assigning to each its governor, and fixing the tribute which was to be paid him by the several nations. And generally he joined together in one satrapy the nations that were neighbors, but sometimes he passed over the nearer tribes, and put in their stead those which were more remote. The following is an account of these governments, and of the yearly tribute which they paid to the king: Such as brought their tribute in silver were ordered to pay according to the Babylonian talent; while the Euboic was the standard measure for such as brought gold. Now the Babylonian talent contains seventy Euboic minae. During all the reign of Cyrus, and afterwards when Cambyses ruled, there were no fixed tributes, but the nations severally brought gifts to the king. On account of this and other like doings, the Persians say that Darius was a huckster, Cambyses a master, and Cyrus a father; for Darius looked to making a gain in everything; Cambyses was harsh and reckless; while Cyrus was gentle, and procured them all manner of goods.

III.90: The Ionians, the Magnesians of Asia, the Aeolians, the Carians, the Lycians, the Milyans, and the Pamphylians, paid their tribute in a single sum, which was fixed at four hundred talents of silver. These formed together the first satrapy.

The Mysians, Lydians, Lasonians, Cabalians, and Hygennians paid the sum of five hundred talents. This was the second satrapy.

The Hellespontians, of the right coast as one enters the straits, the Phrygians, the Asiatic Thracians, the Paphlagonians, the Mariandynians' and the Syrians paid a tribute of three hundred and sixty talents. This was the third satrapy.

The Cilicians gave three hundred and sixty white horses, one for each day in the year, and five hundred talents of silver. Of this sum one hundred and forty talents went to pay the cavalry which guarded the country, while the remaining three hundred and sixty were received by Darius. This was the fourth satrapy.

III.91: The country reaching from the city of Posideium (built by Amphilochus, son of Amphiaraus, on the confines of Syria and Cilicia) to the borders of Egypt, excluding therefrom a district which belonged to Arabia and was free from tax, paid a tribute of three hundred and fifty talents. All Phoenicia, Palestine Syria, and Cyprus, were herein contained. This was the fifth satrapy.

From Egypt, and the neighbouring parts of Libya, together with the towns of Cyrene and Barca, which belonged to the Egyptian satrapy, the tribute which came in was seven hundred talents. These seven hundred talents did not include the profits of the fisheries of Lake Moeris, nor the corn furnished to the troops at Memphis. Corn was supplied to 120,000 Persians, who dwelt at Memphis in the quarter called the White Castle, and to a number of auxiliaries. This was the sixth satrapy.

The Sattagydians, the Gandarians, the Dadicae, and the Aparytae, who were all reckoned together, paid a tribute of a hundred and seventy talents. This was the seventh satrapy.

Susa, and the other parts of Cissia, paid three hundred talents. This was the eighth satrapy.

III.92: From Babylonia, and the rest of Assyria, were drawn a yousand talents of silver, and five hundred boy-eunuchs. This was the ninth satrapy.

Agbatana, and the other parts of Media, together with the Paricanians and Orthocorybantes, paid in all four hundred and fifty talents. This was the tenth satrapy.

The Caspians, Pausicae, Pantimathi, and Daritae, were joined in one government, and paid the sum of two hundred talents. This was the eleventh satrapy.

From the Bactrian tribes as far as the Aegli the tribute received was three hundred and sixty talents. This was the twelfth satrapy.

III.93: From Pactyica, Armenia, and the countries reaching thence to the Euxine, the sum drawn was four hundred talents. This was the thirteenth satrapy.

The Sagartians, Sarangians, Thamanaeans, Utians, and Mycians, together with the inhabitants of the islands in the Erythraean sea, where the king sends those whom he banishes, furnished altogether a tribute of six hundred talents. This was the fourteenth satrapy.

The Sacans and Caspians gave two hundred and fifty talents. This was the fifteenth satrapy.

The Parthians, Chorasmians, Sogdians, and Arians, gave three hundred. This was the sixteenth satrapy.

III.94: The Paricanians and Ethiopians of Asia furnished a tribute of four hundred talents. This was the seventeenth satrapy.

The Matienians, Saspeires, and Alarodians were rated to pay two hundred talents. This was the eighteenth satrapy.

The Moschi, Tibareni, Macrones, Mosynoeci, and Mares had to pay three hundred talents. This was the nineteenth satrapy.

The Indians, who are more numerous than any other nation with which we are acquainted, paid a tribute exceeding that of every other people, to wit, three hundred and sixty talents of gold-dust. This was the twentieth satrapy.

III.95: If the Babylonian money here spoken of be reduced to the Euboic scale, it will make nine yousand five hundred and forty such talents; and if the gold be reckoned at thirteen times the worth of silver, the Indian gold-dust will come to four yousand six hundred and eighty talents. Add these two amounts together and the whole revenue which came in to Darius year by year will be found to be in Euboic money fourteen yousand five hundred and sixty talents, not to mention parts of a talent.

Frum Heretic said...

Thanks for that reference. I think, however, that this proves my point. I may be off a bit as I did it quickly in my head, but the tribute from the 20 satraps (not 127 - check out my latest post!) totaled less than 13,000 talents! Hamen had the moolah that was almost equivalent to all of this tribute??

e-kvetcher said...

Well, this is yearly tribute. If this guy is second in the kingdom, it is not inconceivable that he's got a bunch of moolah, though it does seem like quite a bit to give up just to kill the Jews.

I am skeptical about this line "Based on this fact, assuming a crew of roughly 200 rowers paid at the basic pay rate of a junior enlisted member of the US armed forces (E-2), a talent would be worth nearly $300,000." I have no idea why this would be a valid assumption or what the basis for assuming this is.

The drasha of course is not meant to be taken literally.

Frum Heretic said...

e-kvetcher: Well, this is yearly tribute. If this guy is second in the kingdom, it is not inconceivable that he's got a bunch of moolah, though it does seem like quite a bit to give up just to kill the Jews.

Since I'm not one to avoid an argument with myself (not that Megillat Esther is largely ahistorical, but that 10,000 talents doesn't jive), how about this: maybe Hamen is figuring on getting the dough from the booty of the dead Jews. If he had the money up front, why was the King so willing to advance Hamen some silver to accomplish the task?

3:8 neither keep they the king's laws; therefore it profits not the king to suffer them.

It profits not? This king who is apparently motivated by wealth above all else is so willing to reduce his tax base? Maybe Hamen is saying "Look King A - this group doesn't obey the laws of the kingdom and they don't pay taxes. But we can remedy that by killing 'em off and giving you 10,000 from their booty!"

Anonymous said...

I usually do not leave a comment, but you really impress me, also I have a few questions like to ask, what's your contact details?


Frum Heretic said...

Johnson, it's on the profile page.

Baal Habos said...

Ah, come on Johnson; it's all anonymous, let's all hear your questions!

Baal Habos said...

Moderation? What happened?

Frum Heretic said...

Not moderated, but comments have to be approved if the post is over 2 weeks old. This has cut down the comment spam, especially Chinese spam. But now blogger has comment spam detection and it may not be needed any longer.

Russelll Montgomery said...

There are several math errors. 270,000 kilos is 600,000 pounds not 60,000 pounds (300 tons). Calculating silver at its current market value ($33/oz) the value is about $313,632,000.

Never the less that is a fair amount of change to pay to get rid of a nation just because one man wouldn't bow to you.


Frum Heretic said...

Thanks for the math correction. My fuzzy calculation of the 10,000 talents being the equivalent of $3 billion in 400 BCE thus becomes $30 billion, even more absurd!

Anonymous said...

you mean $300 million... (313,632,000)

Anonymous said...

600,000 pounds at $17.32 gets to roughly $10 million...

The rowers description is absurd, as we have no measuring stick to compare rates of pay then to the general price of items...

sounds conceivable to me...