As far as non-Jews go, I have generally considered myself to be pretty current on issues related to Judaism and Jewish customs. It wasn’t just that I had spent a chunk of High School living in Israel (although that certainly laid a good foundation), but over the years I had developed a strong network of friendships within New York’s vibrant Jewish community.
So, the invitation from my friend and writing partner Richie Hecker to attend a Shabbat dinner he was hosting was, on the face of it, nothing out of the ordinary. What I didn’t expect, however, was that sometime between Kiddush (the blessing of the wine) and Bentch (the end of the meal prayer), my friend somehow managed to put Bitcoin on the menu.
Not literally, of course.
After the Challah was passed around, Richie surprised his guests by unveiling that this Shabbos would have a specific theme—a cryptocurrency theme, to be exact. And that’s when things began to get a little odd.
Unless you have been working in a mine in North Korea the past few years, you are probably aware that cryptocurrencies (also known more broadly as digital currencies) such as Ethereum, Dash, and Unikoin are the New, New Thing. According to crypto-entrepreneur, Amith Nirgunarthy, CEO of BlockStreet, “Data shows that there are over 1,500 different types of cryptocurrencies in circulation worldwide.”
Bitcoin, the largest of the mainstream cryptocurrencies, has about 16 million coins in circulation, each trading at over $5,000 a coin as of print. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Digital currencies have gained popularity for their portability, transactional anonymity, and as a store of value not subject to traditional currency and tax controls.
But back to the Shabbat dinner.
At first, Richie’s guests were a bit taken aback that our host was introducing a “theme” to Shabbat dinner—and a money-related theme no less—to an age-old traditional Jewish custom.
His announcement was met with some awkward laughter, to be sure. As Richie’s guests got to chatting, they discovered that they all shared some sort of link to the cryptocurrency world. Several of the invitees were entrepreneurs deeply ensconced in the world of digital tokens and the like. Others present, as it turns out, were media and PR executives who had some tangential link the world of Bitcoin.
Richie’s girlfriend, Kit, took the reins of the evening and wasted no time in getting everyone into the spirit. With the aplomb of a true Manhattan socialite, she breezed about the gorgeous salon where the dinner was being held, distributing what she called “#ShabbatCoin”—foil-wrapped, liquor-filled chocolates that were to be used as a proxy for the evening’s currency. (Both Richie and his girlfriend later made a point of telling me, once I decided to write about this, that the official spelling of #ShabbatCoin carries the hashtag.)
“These chocolates symbolize digital currencies and are part of a naturally decreasing money supply,” Richie stated as Kit handed out the coins. “As they get eaten, or melt, they will become more valuable over time. Welcome to the first Initial #ShabbatCoin Offering, or ‘Kosher IDO (Initial Dinner Offering).’ Shabbat Shalom!” he said.
After the ceremonial Kiddush, Richie quieted the room and welcomed everyone to the first Crypto-Shabbat Dinner. Since it was staged as a potluck, everyone had exchanged something of value at the entrance. Richie awarded everyone one with a single chocolate #ShabbatCoin, which he then said was worth one token. He told the room, “Tonight there are no rules; let’s just see what happens. And Good luck!” And with that, glasses of Shabbat sangria were raised for the traditional toast of the Kiddush.
Although there was no Central Bank (digital currencies are by nature decentralized), Richie’s girlfriend dutifully played the role of the #ShabbatCoin Yenta, seeding the money supply by issuing chocolate tokens to the attendees.
Initially, there was some indication that perhaps Richie’s grand #ShabbatCoin experiment was going to be a bust. People were mingling, somewhat awkwardly, as they tend to do in the company of strangers at the beginning of an evening with new acquaintances, holding their drinks and their chocolaty currency in their hands. Others hid their uncomfortableness by taking big gulps of Richie’s Shabbat sangria, the special drink of the evening, while others loitered around the impressive spread that was laid out on the tables before them.
Twenty minutes into the affair, Kit begun to circulate among the guests and announced that she held extra tokens that had not yet been released into the market. She went around the room, asking, “What does one do for an additional #ShabbatCoin?”
Eventually (and with the aid of Richie’s sangria—which he claims was not made from Manischewitz), the tenor of the evening changed. People began having fun with this novel twist on an age-old traditional meal. The first trades were barter: someone had traded a token for a necktie. (Then curiously, the tie itself began to trade on the secondary market, getting passed around the room.)
Things got a little more risqué; a group of young female “bankers” pooled their chocolates and traded them in for a young man’s dress shirt. (He was in good shape and remained shirtless for the remainder of the evening.)
Richie’s girlfriend, ever the market-maker, then began to turn up the heat, selling tokens for cash.
The first cash trade happened at the exchange rate of three tokens for $20, or $6.33 per token. Within the hour, these same #ShabbatCoins were going for $20 a piece—a major increase in less than an hour. Something was happening here in Richie’s crazy little experiment.
Then the party temporarily halted as a young woman shouted that she had been “robbed”—someone had swiped a few chocolate tokens from her pocket. There was a pick-pocket in the midst—the #ShabbatCoin currency had been hacked.
Another gentleman, while rummaging through the dining room, had stumbled upon Kit’s stash of chocolates, and essentially looted the local mint. This led one of the cryptocurrency entrepreneurs in attendance to begin pitching the idea of turning Richie’s refrigerator into community #ShabbatCoin Bank—a safe place where tokens could be stored in a temperature-controlled (i.e melt-free) environment, safe from hackers and thieves. (Unfortunately, she didn’t raise enough tokens to fund her venture. The #ShabbatCoin angel investor community had not yet developed.)
Later, Richie did another token sale, announcing like an old school soap-box salesman that additional coins would be released. This time, however, the market took a turn. The clearing price dropped back to the price of the first cash trade—$6.33 per token. Demand was waning.
As the night edged to a close, Richie’s chocolate tokens, much like their real-world counterparts, had begun taking on unexpected roles, even greasing the wheels of the black-market; in this case as a means for betting on a heated game of pool.
Around midnight, Richie explained what had been the real purpose of the evening: to prove that if you introduce currency into a situation, people will start trading it, first as a means for barter, then as a medium of exchange with more and more applications developing. Although these transactions did not come close to providing the anonymity or portability that most decentralized block-chain currencies provide, he was successful in demonstrating human nature’s inexplicable yet compelling yearning to barter and trade—the primordial driver behind the surge of the digital currency craze.
After most of his guests had left for the evening, Richie realized that his store of #ShabbatCoins was fully depleted. They had all either been consumed or taken home. Then Kit reminded him that they had one more box of chocolates left over. “Why didn’t I release those chocolates into the market when they were trading at $20 a piece?” Richie asked aloud.
Arick Wierson is a six-time Emmy Award-winning television executive and former political and communications adviser to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. He is the founder of NYC TV and NYC Media Group, the largest publically-owned broadcast entity in the United States. Currently, Wierson is a political strategist and branding consultant to clients in U.S., Latin America, and Africa. You can follow him on twitter @ArickWierson.