Reproducing the Incense of the Holy Temple

Balsam, C. gileadensis, growing at Guy Ehrlich's farm in Almog , Jordan River Valley.
Balsam, one of the main ingredients of incense used in the Temple, growing at Guy Ehrlich’s farm in the Jordan River Valley.

When Guy Ehrlich moved to Almog in the Jordan River Valley, he was searching for a project that engaged his heart and soul. When he learned about ancient afarsimon, known popularly as Balm of Gilead or balsam, he found it. (In the Bible and Talmud, the plant is also called bosom, nataf, and tzori;  I’ll call it balsam or afarsimon.)

The balsam tree, Commiphora gileadensis, used to grow on the shores of the Dead Sea. The ancient Jews were the only ones who knew how to cultivate it. They started to grow the afarsimon  when the Queen of Sheba gave some plants to King Solomon. They continued to farm it until the fall of the Roman Empire, more than 1200 years later. Its pure oil was used to anoint the Kings of Israel. It was also one of the ingredients of the incense used in the Temple. It was so popular for perfume and cosmetics among the Romans, it became the second largest industry in Judea.

The destruction of the Temple and subsequent exile of Jews caused the balsam industry to go into decline. By the sixth century, it had disappeared. By the twentieth century, the only true balsam plants in the world grew wild in Yemen, Oman, and Saudi Arabia.

The secrets of its cultivation and use were lost, maybe forever.

Finding C. gileadensis plants

Guy Ehrlich decided he would revive the balsam industry. Whatever he grew needed to be commercially viable. The afarsimon, he hoped, would fill that purpose. It could be used as an essential oil, as a medication, and for perfume and cosmetics. When the Third Temple is built, it will be needed to make incense again. But first, he had to find the plant.

He learned that some plants had been smuggled to Israel from Saudia Arabia and were at the Botanical Garden in Jerusalem. Unfortunately the climate of Jerusalem is too cold for the desert-loving plants. Fortunately, before all the afarsimon died, the garden sent some to Dr. Elaine Solowey, director of the Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Kibbutz Ketura.

Guy convinced Elaine to give him some of her C. gileadensis. It thrived on his land. Chemical analysis of residue in ancient pottery demonstrates this plant is identical to one used in antiquity. But they cannot be 100% sure. Until that tiny doubt is removed, he will continue to cultivate his plants. His farm now has about five thousand balsam plants.

Before he moved to Almog, Guy had been a journalist. He knew very little about business. So he turned to the MATI, the government small business center, for help in turning his small stand of trees into a money-making venture.

They told him he was crazy—he would never make a living growing balsam. He should focus on tourism by establishing an educational visitors’ center. He would continue to grow the plant he loved, and teach tourists and students about its history and uses.

With the help of MATI, he established his tourism venture. at his Balm of Gilead Farm. He also expanded his agricultural aspirations. Why stop at growing only one ingredient of the incense? He began gathering more medical and perfume plants that had been named in the Bible. Today his Balm of Gilead Farm has the largest private collection of Biblical plants in the world.

Because he cultivates Biblical herbs, Guy keeps in close touch with Temple activists. He has consulted with Rabbi Yehuda Glick, a member of the Knesset who promotes Jewish visits to the Temple Mount, the holiest place in the world. Jews. He also works with Rabbi Yisrael Ariel, the founder of the Temple Institute. Rabbi Ariel works with a team of scholars and craftspeople to research and reproduce instruments and furnishings of the Temple. They also want to make sure the raw materials of the incense will be available when the Temple is rebuilt.

The fragrance of balsam

We met Guy at the Balm of Gilead Farm in Almog when we toured the Jordan River Valley with One Israel Fund last month. After he reviewed the history of balsam and of his farm, he walked over to a stand of bushy trees, and pulled down a branch. With a small knife, he peeled a small strip of bark and made a shallow cut in the wood. Sap bubbled up. He gathered a drop of it with his finger, and then applied a tiny amount to the wrist of everyone who wanted to smell it. All fifty us wanted a sniff, so he ended up repeating the procedure with two more thin branches. That was a lot of sap from such a small cuts.

 The aroma of the raw balsam is light and pleasant, with a slight lemony tang. To produce oil from this sap, he needs to gather 150 Kg of plant material to distill 250 cc of the essential oil. Thus, it requires about 330 pounds of raw balsam to produce a cup of oil. No wonder it was so valuable.

Four years ago an American company looking for a good source of rare essential oils offered to partner with him. They invested a substantial amount of money in his venture. Unfortunately, they never received a return on their investment. Under pressure from the Boycott, Divest, Sanction (BDS) movement, the company withdrew its support. As a result, Guy had to let his Palestinian and Jewish workers go. He now relies on volunteer workers to help maintain the Balm of Gilead farm.

We’ve heard the same story before, at other small businesses in Judea and Shomron. Under pressure from BDS, foreign businesses withdraw their support. With a decreased customer base, the local companies are forced to downsize and let employees go. BDS supporters say they are acting to help Palestinians. I doubt that the thousand plus Palestinians who have lost jobs at Soda Stream, Havat Sde Bar, Balm of Gilead Farm, and other places, think they have been helped.

Frankincense growing at Balm of Gilead farm. The netting above the trees provides protection fro full strength of sunlight.
Frankincense growing at Balm of Gilead farm. The netting above the trees provides protection fro full strength of sunlight.

Guy took us on a short tour of the area around his tourist shelter, pulling down branches of various trees and shrubs planted there. We stood in the shade of some tall Frankincense trees, Boswellia sacra. There are twenty-two species of Boswellia. Experts, however, are certain that this one is the species used in the Biblical incense. It used to grow in the wild, in places like Somalia, Oman, and Yemen, but because of war and habitat destruction, it is disappearing. This farm is the only place in the world where it is being grown agriculturally. Without Guy’s thousand plants, Biblical frankincense is in danger of becoming extinct.

“I’m not a religious person,” Guy points out. He covers his head only when working in the sun. When he started farming, he had no plans to observe the strictures of shmittah, the sabbatical year. During shmittah, planting and tending to crops is forbidden, The land is left alone to produce what it will. In the year before shmittah, farmers prepare the land for its “vacation.” Guy did not plan to observe shmittah. He had a farm and the plants needed care.

Then, he changed his mind. He decided not to plant anything during the shmittah year. “It just seems like the right thing to do,” he said. The ingredients of the Biblical incense would be grown according to agricultural halakhah (Jewish law).

For now, there is no market for Temple incense. The secret of how to make it, the proportions of the various herbs, even the exact identity of some of its ingredients, disappeared with the Temple’s destruction.

Medicinal uses of balsam, frankincense, and myrrh

To make the farm economically viable, Guy needs a market for his herbs and herbal products. Most of the plants he grows were used as medicines in the past. It is hard to find information on balsam, because what is marketed as balsam oil is not derived from Commiphora gileadensis. Rather, the oil is produced from several species of poplar trees, which have similar fragrances but not all the same constituents. True balsam (Biblical afarsimon) can be used to help heal wounds, as well as for cosmetics and perfumes.

Frankincense can be used for colic and indigestions. It is recommended by some herbalist to treat acne, improve dental hygiene, deodorize spaces, and relieve stress. Additionally, it is an ingredient in some skin lotions. Myrrh is an anti-inflammatory resin, and beneficial for indigestion, ulcers, colds, cough, asthma, lung congestions, arthritis, and pain. It is also be applied topically for bedsores, wounds, abrasions, and boils. Cosmetically, it is used as an ingredient in perfumes and a preservative in cosmetics.

Guy said several times that research is needed on all these herbs to determine how their pharmaceutical qualities can be put to best use. The Romans used many of the herbs in cosmetics and perfumes. He has developed a perfume and soap scented with balsam. After our tour, he displayed his products. The perfume oil has a pleasant light scent, and I bought a large (100 cc) bottle.

When the Moshiach (Messiah) arrives, the Third Temple will be built. The Temple Institute will be ready to reinstate prescribed worship there, with everything needed for worship. The secrets of the incense will be revealed to the Cohanim and they will again make incense, from the herbs supplied by Guy Ehrlich.


From the Schocken Library to Villa Schocken

Schocken Library conference room. Books are stored in glass fronted cabinets on right and in locked cabinets of the far wall and the wall on the left.
Schocken Library, Jerusalem, conference room. Books are stored in glass fronted cabinets on right and in locked cabinets of the far wall and the wall on the left.

A few years ago, on a tour of the Rehavia neighborhood of Jerusalem, we walked through a security gate and past the entrance of the Prime Minister’s (PM) Residence. Further down Balfour Street, but still within the secure area, guide pointed out the Schocken Library. It’s a private research facility that now belongs to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

The library is an unimpressive building—two stories, no balconies, square in front. Aside from a strange tall curved window sticking out of the south side, the building looked neither architecturally nor historically interesting. I almost forgot about it. 


But recently, the Schocken Library was open for public tours during the “Houses from Within” event. Allen and I went, and ended up seeing more than just a library.

Zalman Schocken’s rare book collection

Zalman Schocken was not a religious man. As the publisher and a patron of  Martin Buber, he had read Buber’s edition of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov’s stories. The book changed his view of Judaism from a set of rigorous practices to Judaism as a tradition and a culture.

So Schocken started collecting Jewish books. He didn’t have a specific goal in mind, but every time he heard about an old book he bought it. He started in his home town of Zwickau, Germany, and then widened his search to all of Germany. Eventually he collected books frolm all over Europe, and even in British Mandatory Palestine.

By 1932, he had a substantial collection of rare books. Conditions in Germany were becoming difficult for Jews. He needed a permanent home for his collection. What better place could there be for a vast collection of books about Jews and Judaism than Jerusalem?

At that time, Eric Mendelsohn, one of the most renowned architects in the world, had recently made aliyah. He was happy to accept Schocken’s commission to design both a house, to be called Villa Schocken, and a library for the book collection in the new Rehavia neighborhood.
By British law, the exteriors of buildings in Jerusalem had to be the local cream or pink limestone, today called “Jerusalem stone.” That law is still in force, and gives the city its uniform appearance. In the 1930s, all buildings were constructed of stone blocks. But Mendelsohn’s buildings were concrete faced with limestone.

The Schocken Library

After a brief introduction about Schocken and Mendelsohn, our guide Alon, led us through the building. He mentioned several times that

The coatroom, with a shallow gutter to carry away water that drips from raincoats and umbrellas. At the Schocken Library, Jerusalem.
The coatroom, with a shallow gutter to carry away water that drips from raincoats and umbrellas.

Mendelsohn always combined practicality with design. Alon showed us the cloakroom in the back hall. The line of coat hooks along the wall is not unusual, nor is the grid for umbrellas. However, I was impressed by the small gutter running along wall to channel the water that dripped from coats and umbrellas. The polished stone floors found in most Israeli buildings are slippery when wet, so this small detail is important. The drain seems like such an obvious idea. Why don’t more places have drains built into coat rooms, so that rain water doesn’t get tracked into the rooms?

On the second floor is the large conference room/library, which still looks as it did in the 1940s. The long north side of the room features glass-fronted shelves packed with old books. A row of windows runs along the top of these cases. The other three walls are locked wooden cabinets, from floor to ceiling. In the middle of the long wall opposite the glass fronted bookcases, a glass-walled alcove filled with bright sunlight juts out from the room.

The conference room alcove, as seen from the south side of the Schocken Library building. While allowing plenty of light into the room, it does not allow any direct sunlight to hit the rare books.
The conference room alcove, as seen from the south side of the Schocken Library building. While allowing plenty of light into the room, it does not allow any direct sunlight to hit the rare books.

The room highlights Mendelsohn’s concern for combining the aesthetic and the practical. Direct sunlight can damage old books, and the room was designed so the sun would not shine directly on them.

Nonetheless, the room was full of natural light. The east and west walls of the room have no windows. The high windows above the bookcases allow indirect northern light to enter the room. Because the alcove faces south, sunlight floods it all day. Its shape, however, prevents direct sunlight from touching the books, no matter if they are on the shelves or one of the tables.

The line of the wooden dividers in the bookcases continues across the room as dark stripes in the pale stone floor. On the other side of the room, the supports of the wooden cabinets continue the line up to the ceiling. The locked wood cabinets hold more books.

Alon called an elderly man to the lectern. After introducing himself as Danny, he showed us two photos. The first showed him at age five sitting on the front steps of the library. He explained that his mother had been

The garden in front of the building.
The garden in front of the building.

the librarian, and he often came to play.

The second photo was of a model of the area in the 1940s that his father, an engineer, had constructed of small blocks. It showed the Villa Schocken, its spacious gardens, and Balfour Street. Because of all the construction in the last seventy years, Danny had to run his finger along each street to orient us. Then he pointed to the corner of Villa Schocken. “This is where my family lived.”

When we walked out gate, Danny’s friend suggested they go see the building where he had lived as a child. He demurred—the building had been changed, it was in the compound of the Prime Minister’s house, the guards wouldn’t let them in. But she insisted. What would it hurt if they asked?

They agreed when I asked if we could accompany them.

Villa Schocken

To leave the secured area, we had to go past a chayal (male soldier), a chayelet (female soldier), and a security guard which, of course, shouldn’t be a problem. However, the building Danny wanted to show us sat within the secured area. That should not have been a problem either, because the area he wanted to enter was on the other side of a wall that divided the former Villa Schocken from the Prime Minister’s residence.

The friend went to the soldiers and explained we had just toured the Schocken Library. She pointed at Danny and said that he wanted to show us where he grew up.

Danny showed them the photo of his father’s model. The soldiers peered at it, and after turning it upside down, they identified the streets.
The security guard asked to see the other photo, and Danny handed it to him. The young man looked at the picture of the small boy and asked, “This is you?”

The friend answered, “What, you can’t identify him?”

The soldiers looked at the photo of the five year old, at the 85 year old man, and laughed.

A moment later, the chayelet, still looking at the photo, exclaimed, “That’s the library over there!”

Danny had established his credibility. Now he had their full attention. They all wanted more details. Danny explained that his father, an engineer, had built the model. He pointed first to the photo, and then at the dilapidated building to our right, and said he had been born right there, in that room. The family had lived there until 1944 when the British took over the property. While the British were in charge, Jews had not been allowed in the area.

After the British left and the state was established, the building had been used as school. Later, it became a music academy. Now it was simply an abandoned building.

The soldiers let us approach the building. It was tricky going; like many abandoned properties, it was surrounded by a collection of trash. We picked our way through old bottles, bits of wire, and discarded paper cups, to the ground floor window, and peered through the dirty glass. The room we saw was large. Papers were strewn all over the floor, as if it had been ransacked by someone looking something valuable. This had been the main room used by Danny’s family.

He carefully made his way to look in a second window. “This was my room,” he said.

The guards had not followed us. They must have deemed us harmless. As we exited the area, they nodded at us.

I wondered what they would tell their friends that evening. No, nothing exciting happened at the PM’s place—no terrorists (Thank God!), no obnoxious demonstrators today. Just a bunch of old people who came to see where one of them used to live. But the routine had unexpectedly changed. A boring shift guarding the small side entrance to the street along the PM’s residence, had turned into an interesting day.

Karaites: A Different Way of Being Jewish

The "Temple" area of the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem's Old City, as seen through a window in the Karaite Museum.
The “Temple” area of the Karaite synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City, as seen through a window in the Karaite Museum.

Like most Jerusalemites in the holy city, I had often walked past the Karaite Synagogue. Sometimes I even wondered what it was like inside, how it differed from synagogues in which I have prayed. Last week, I got to see.

At the time, all I knew was that the Karaites rejected the Talmud and two thousand years of Rabbinic tradition. Shulie Mishkin, our guide for the morning in the Old City, mentioned they are similar to the Saducees and Essenes of the Roman period. However, as a distinct group they first appeared in Jerusalem in the 7th or 8th century. Karaites have lived in Jerusalem since. They called themselves ”Lovers of Zion” and believed it was important to live in Jerusalem, even in its destroyed state. Their cemetery in the Hinnom Valley contains graves from the tenth to the twentieth centuries. 

When we arrived at the museum, Avi, the Karaite representative, invited us to sit and watch a short video on the history of Karaism. While in the museum, he said, we would have the opportunity to see the synagogue, but could not enter it for reasons of ritual purity.

Principles of Karaite Interpretation

Karaites consider themselves a branch of Judaism, and allow intermarriage with other Jews. They believe the whole Tanakh (Bible) is holy. Indeed, most of their prayers are from the book of Psalms. As we walked through the museum, Avi stopped several times to explained their customs in detail. The three foundations of their religious observance are the Tanakh, analogy, and tradition. Because the Tanakh gives no details about how many mitzvot are to be carried out, many commandments need explication. Rabbinic Judaism relies on certain principles of interpretation that are enumerated in the Talmud. Karaites use only analogy to explain the laws.

Avi gave us an example, using the line from the Sh’ma: “uk’shartem otam–You will bind them [my commandments] upon your arm and as totafot between your eyes.” This was interpreted by the Rabbis as meaning we should put on tefillin when we pray in the morning. These small boxes of animal skin contain certain paragraphs of the Torah written on parchments. The Karaites, however, do not wear tefillin. In B’raishit, it says that Jacob’s soul was k’shura, bound up, with the soul of his youngest son, Benjamin. Karaites point out that here K-SH-R is a spiritual, not physical, bond. Using analogy, they hold therefore uk’shartem means spiritually binding the words to the body. Thus the boxes with words of the Torah are not necessary.

Further along in the room we saw an exhibit of Karaite tzitzit, the fringes tied to the corners of any garment with four corners. Two differences between their tzitzit and those of mainstream Jews were immediately apparent. The knots are tied in a different pattern, and the blue thread is prominent.

Tzitzit tied according to the Karaite tradition.
Tzitzit tied according to the Karaite tradition.

In D’varim (Deuteronomy), when God commands us to tie fringes on the corners of our garments, it is specified that the fringes include a blue thread. When the Temple was destroyed the identity of the blue dye was lost. To compensate, two traditions arose. Some Sephardi Rabbis held that the color blue is more important than the specific dye used. Accordingly, some eastern Jews continued to tie tzitzit with a blue thread. Most Ashkenazi Rabbis however, ruled that in the absence of the traditional dye, the tzitzit should be plain undyed wool. Like the Sephardim, Karaites feel that the color is more important than its source, and they tie blue and white tzitzit on four-cornered clothes.

How the Karaite Calendar Differs from the Standard One

The calendar, and thus when holidays are observed, also differ. The Jewish calendar is a combination of lunar and solar cycles. New months begin at the time of the new moon. However, the major festivals (Succot, Passover, and Shavuot) must be celebrated at specific times in the agricultural cycle, which is governed by the movements of the sun.

When the Temple was destroyed and the Sanhedrin no longer existed, there was no one to proclaim the new month or to reconcile the lunar year with the solar one. A new type of calendar was required. Somewhere between 320 and 385 CE, Hillel II, also known as Hillel the Younger, calculated the calendar that we still use today. The Karaites, however, adhere to the calendar as it was originally practiced. New months begin only when the new moon is sighted.

Karaite experts go out into the fields in late winter to check the state of the growing barley before proclaiming when the month of Nissan will begin in the spring. Passover must be celebrated at the time of the barley harvest. Avi pointed to a large photo of men checking the barley in the field. Stalks of barley at different stages of ripeness were below the photo, with explanations of what the experts looked for. If the grain in the fields looks like it will ripen in March, they declare that the month of Nissan will be proclaimed when the next new moon is sighted. If the barley is not sufficiently mature, they rule that an extra month is needed. A second Adar is proclaimed at the next new moon. The start of Nissan is then proclaimed when the following new moon is sighted. Thus, the lunar year is realigned with the solar one. 

The Karaite Synagogue
The "hall" area of Karaite synagogue. Before entering to pray, worshipers remove their shoes.
The “hall” area of Karaite synagogue. Before entering to pray, worshipers remove their shoes.

Following our tour of the museum we descended another floor to see the synagogue. A window to our left allowed us to peer into the synagogue and see its “temple.” This is a raised area in the front where the Chazan stands to lead the prayers. Cohanim also stand there to bless the congregation. The sanctuary contains no chairs. The congregation stands or sits on the floor for most of the prayers, and bows down at appropriate points. The lack of chairs made their sanctuary look empty, but waiting to be filled, with people, perhaps, or with the sound of prayer. 

The sanctuary had no windows, and was below street level, so a multitude of lamps hung from the ceiling. This, of course, led to a question. One of the big differences between Karaites and those they call Rabbinites relates to the use of fire on Shabbat. Karaites hold that absolutely no fire may exist on Shabbat. Mainstream Jews believe that fire is acceptable if it was lit before the Shabbat and nothing is done to change the fire. Thus we have warmth and light in our homes and synagogues on Shabbat, while the Karaites have neither. If they cannot light the lamps on Shabbat, how do they see to read the Torah and pray?

To his credit, Avi did not duck the question. It is disrespectful to pray in the dark, he said, and therefore, it is permitted to light the lamps and use electric lights on Shabbat. Artificial light can be used only in adherence to some very specific rules, which he did not go into. I wondered if his air of discomfort with his answer was because discussing the use of light on the Shabbat was too close to Rabbinic interpretation of Torah law. This was the only point in an hour and a half at which he seemed less than confident during his explanation.

Karaite mezuza on museum entrance.
Karaite mezuza on museum entrance.

As we walked out of the building, one of the women in our group noticed the mezuza attached to the door post. It was a small thick metal plaque of the Ten Commandments. “What’s written inside?” she asked.

“Nothing,” said Avi. “It’s empty. The metal plaque itself reminds us to observe God’s commandments.”

So at the end, although we have many differences, nonetheless Karaites are similar to those who observe mainstream Rabbinic Judaism. We all keep the commandments in the way we believe God meant them to be observed.

(Although Karaites do not observe Chanukah, Avi added, “We do eat sufganiyot, because that’s Israeli.”)


Climbing Tel Givon

Olive grove growing on edge of Tel Givon. A polluted stream flows by.
Olive grove growing at the foot of Tel Givon. A polluted stream flows by.

Tel Givon may be one of the most important archeological sites in Israel, according to Professor Yoel Elitzur of Herzog College. He was guiding my class to sites connected to the prophet Jeremiah.

But first, we had to get there.

The tel sits within the original tribal lands of Benjamin, in Area A, on the Arab side of the security barrier. Although we had permission of the IDF to enter the security barrier, our visit could be canceled at any time, depending on of the situation. Nonetheless, Yoel was very excited to be leading us up the tel. The last time he had visited the site was forty years ago, when he had taken his son to see it. In 1977, relations between Arabs and Jews had been more casual and movement between Arab and Jewish towns had been easy. The intifadas and terror attacks had changed that.

We arrived before our 9A.M. appointment with the IDF at the entrance to Givon Hayishana (Old Givon). Meir Rotem, our local guide, talked about the history of the area while we waited for someone to come unlock the first gate in the security barrier.

In this area, the barrier is a twenty foot high wall, like the one seen on most newscasts from Bethlehem. The security road runs along the Israeli side of the wall. Closer to us, down a small hill, a barbed wire fence runs parallel to the road.

Almost an hour after we arrived, the Border Police pulled up. Two policemen got out of the armored car and talked to Meir and Yoel. After about fifteen minutes, the policemen walked up the hill to the barbed wire fence and unlocked the gate.

We walked to the open gate, but had to wait for the IDF to arrive before going through. Yoel spoke some more about the history of the Gibeonites. A half hour later we heard the IDF was on its way. We walked up to the road, and along the wall for about two kilometers, to where the security barrier changes from wall to an electronic fence. The security barrier is a chain-link fence fitted with electronic sensors, to detect penetration or interference with its integrity, for more than 95% of its length.

The security barrier between Area A and Area C, showing where it changes from fence to wall near Old Givon and El Jib (photo from Arab side)
The security barrier between Area A and Area C, showing where it changes from fence to wall near Old Givon and El Jib (photo from Arab side)

Soon a green IDF armored vehicle pulled up to the gate in the fence. Three soldiers got out and walked around as we all waited for Magav Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Border Police) to come unlock the gate, and then re-lock it behind us. After a while, they arrived in their light gray armored car. Two policemen got out. One of them unlocked the gate. The other border policeman and two IDF soldiers accompanied us as we—finally!–walked through the gate. They would accompany us for the two hours we remained in Area A.

We walked down a small hill, through some fields, across the valley and then began to ascend Tel Givon. The valley through which we walked is bordered by Nebi Samuil, which at 908 meters is one of the highest points in the Judean mountains. At the top of Tel Giv’on we would be on eye level with Nebi Samuil.

As we walked through the valley, past olive groves and fields being readied for planting, Arab cars whizzed past us on the road between Ramallah, Al Jib and Al Judeira. Part of the way, we walked along a small stream. It had rained in the previous week, so I wasn’t surprised to see the water flowing. Due to its geology many springs in Benjamin flow year round. I was surprised, however, by this stream’s sick green color and sewage smell. Israel has offered to build sewage systems in several Arab areas, but for political reasons, the Palestinian Authority has refused. I wonder if the people who live with these open sewers know that their own government is forcing them to put up with this stench.

After crossing the small stream by stepping on rocks that offered almost secure footing, we started to climb the hill. There is no smooth path, like at established archeological sites and national parks. We walked through olive groves on soft soil, and along ridges of cobblestone sized rocks. We scrambled up small cliffs, clinging to outcropping larger rocks, carefully placing our feet on the same rocks the person in front of us did. In some places, a more adventurous classmate would walk a little farther along the flatter area, and find an easier route up a ten-foot high cliff. A few times I gratefully grasped the proffered arm of a taller, more fit, classmate to ascend a particularly high gap between a stone and the more secure footing above. It was not an easy climb. We hiked for about forty-five minutes without stopping.

Our security escorts climbed with us. At least one of them was always the last person in our ragged procession. Often one of them walked ahead of us, scouting his own route. I noticed how they held their weapons. None of them let his rifle hang down his back for more than a moment or two. They weren’t wandering through a quiet national park or down the streets of Jerusalem for pleasure. They had been assigned to hike with us because their services might be needed. Or, perhaps, to ensure their services would not be needed.              

A shepherd in a red sweatshirt watched us scramble up one cliff and cross the path in front him to climb the next steep area. I envied the goats’ sharp hoofs that could enabled them to climb up and down this hill easily.

About two-thirds of the way to the top, we stopped to enter a first Temple period burial cave. All the bones had been removed more than two thousand

Arabic graffiti in a First Temple period burial cave on Tel Givon
Arabic graffiti in a First Temple period burial cave on Tel Givon

years ago, when the cave was converted to an olive press. The Arabic graffiti on the walls showed the cave was still in use. Yoel read some of the graffiti and translated into Hebrew: “Hamas yesodi.”  It could be translated into English more than one way: violence is fundamental or Hamas [the group] is primary.

Leaving the cave, we continued to climb. At the flat top, we saw several large circular excavations. The shallow one had been used to press grapes. Yoel pointed out areas where the grapes were pressed and the channels carved in the rock to collect the juice.

The larger excavation was much more impressive. It was very wide and deep. Hugging the interior wall, more than a hundred stairs led to the bottom. Yoel led a few energetic people down the stairs to see where the water had once collected. The first few steps were covered with small stones; they looked more like a steep hill of rubble than a safe slope. I remained at the top. Even though Yoel was dozens of meters below us, those of us at the top could hear his explanation of the water system. Even our security escorts hugged the fence at the top of the water system, listening.  

Our IDF security detail was interested in hearing about the ancient water system on Tel Givon
Our security detail was interested in hearing about the ancient water system on Tel Givon

The pit reminded me of the circular excavations with carved stairs I had seen at Megiddo and at Tel Sheva. Yoel compared this water system to them, mentioning that it dated from either the Canaanite or First Temple period. A nearby, shallower tunnel to the spring is dated similarly. Experts question which access was constructed first. Because the Palestinian Authority has not permitted complete scientific excavation of the tel, the question will remain unanswered.

The shepherd in the red sweatshirt wandered past on the ridge above us. Four Arab men gathered on the stone steps above us to watch and listen for a while. They soon left.

I did enter the more shallow water tunnel. It was totally dark, except for the flashlights of those in front and behind me. I wondered if joining this short exploration had been a mistake and hoped I wouldn’t trip. Keeping one hand on the cold damp stone walls gave me a small feeling of safety. The short trip renewed my appreciation of what our ancestors did to survive. Fetching water was often a job for girls in antiquity. That’s why so many ancient cultures tell stories about boys and girls meeting at a well.

At the other end of the tunnel, water ran out of the hill in a cement block trench, built by the British during the Mandate, 1919 to 1948. While listening to

Goats and sheep on Tel Givon
The goats and sheep that seemed to follow us on our climb up

Meir explain the British work, I looked up and saw goats, sheep, and the red-shirted shepherd standing on the bank we had just scrambled down. I wondered if he was following us, or his regular route with the goats took him on a path that just happened to cross ours.

As we turned to go back down the tel, it started to drizzle. Descending wasn’t as difficult as climbing been. No strong arms were needed to help any of us traverse a particularly steep spot. Balance was a challenge because the rocks were getting slippery.

The man behind me quoted something we’d been told in class, “this is ‘intermediate level’ difficulty.”

“Then I don’t want to see ‘difficult level’ difficulty,” I answered.

He grunted.”You have to remember. In a terrorist attack, ‘intermediate injury’ means the person loses only an arm or a leg.”

At the bottom of the tel, as I walked back across the fields, I heard shouting behind me. Arabs at the top were yelling and throwing stones at us.

“Don’t worry!” shouted Meir. “They are out of range. They won’t hit anyone.”

The line of stragglers behind me, still on the steep hill, kept up their steady pace. Our security escort, a short distance behind the stragglers turned and moved towards the rock throwers. The Arabs disappeared.

We only had to wait a few minutes at the barrier for the Border Police to come unlock the gate. But when we got back to the barbed wire fence we had to wait a while in the rain for the Border Police to come unlock the gate. Cold and wet, I climbed on the bus, grateful that the driver had turned on the heat.

It was three days before my overstressed thighs could navigate stairs and hills easily. But getting to see ancient Giv’on was worth the pain. 

Tel Giv’on is on the eastern edge of Al Jib on this map.

Watching Birds Migrate in the Galil

Migrating cranes fly to Agmon Hula to spend the night on the lake in the Galil , Israel
Migrating cranes fly to Agmon Hula to spend the night on the lake in the Galil

Nir, the guide at Agmon Park Nature Reserve, told us to hurry and get off the bus. “The cranes are already coming. You can hear them.”

As I walked toward the lake, I could hear a faint sound.

Nir pointed towards the mountains to our south. “See?” he shouted. “Here they come!”

I looked towards a depression in the line of mountains, but I saw only gray clouds. And then I saw a large group of black specks, slowly getting larger as they came closer, resolving into tiny v-shapes, and then into bird silhouettes. The cries of the birds steadily grew louder, as the birds came closer, and as more and more flew towards the water. The cranes were coming from the surrounding fields to the lake where they would spend the night. The first group came near and circled over the lake. Another group appeared from over the mountains. A large flock flew in from the north and circled. The flocks kept coming—thousands of birds.

Israel is on the second largest migration flyway in the world. In the fall the birds fly over us on their way from Europe to Africa. In the spring they fly back north. More than four hundred species, five hundred million individual birds transit Israel twice a year.

Draining the Swamps

Throughout history, the Hula Lake and its surrounding swamps were major attractions for birds. In the 1950s, however, David Ben Gurion decided that draining the swamps should be a major project of the young state of Israel. The project was necessary to provide additional land for agriculture The new settlements being built for the influx of immigrants needed land for housing and to farm. Draining the Hula Valley would also decrease disease. Too many early pioneers had died of malaria, and the mosquito-borne disease continued to affect too much of the population.

The Jewish National Fund (JNF-KKL) built canals on both sides of the valley and deepened the channel of the Jordan River to the east. It was not until the swamps were drained that they discovered they had done too good a job. Swampy soil needs to stay wet or it becomes dry dust, unsuitable for growing crops. Migrating birds now found little food. Migratory paths were disrupted.

Farmers and ecologists realized the water engineering had gone too far. So the JNF-KKL undertook a project to restore the swamps and lake. They renovated the canal system to channel the water and keep the soil wet all the time. Today the water table is about a meter below the surface. The swamps are now much smaller and healthier—no anopheles mosquitoes. Agriculture flourishes in the area. The birds returned, and tourism has become a local industry. And the birds are happy—particularly the cranes.

Not all the birds migrate to Africa

The fall bird watching season runs from October through November. But every year several thousand cranes don’t continue on to Africa. They stay in Israel. That many cranes pose a problem to local agriculture. Farmers complained about the birds eating all the seeds and tiny sprouts, destroying the crops before they even started growing. Bird lovers became upset because it’s not right to wantonly destroy creatures who are just trying to survive. The birds that stayed were fledglings not yet strong enough to fly to Africa and their mothers, as well as injured birds. Eventually, a compromise was worked out.

When a farmer seeds his fields, Agmon Park workers keep the birds away from the field until the plants are too big to be eaten. Park employees scare the birds away from newly seeded fields by driving equipment through the field several times a day. They also put out food for the cranes in another part of the park, so the birds have no need to forage in the farmers’ fields. This bird feeding program runs from December through February every year.

The bird feeding program is a successful venture. The farmers are able to grow crops, and the cranes get the food they need. About 30,000 cranes overwinter in the vicinity of Agmon Hula.

Cranes are not the only birds that like the Hula Valley. We were too late in the year to see the eagles and storks. However, with the help of binoculars, we could see a small flock of fifteen white flamingos standing together on the far side of the water. My first reaction when Nir pointed out a pair of ducks flying over the canal was that Mr. and Mrs. Mallard were far away from the swan boats of Boston Garden.

Birds of prey encouraged

The park encourages birds of prey because they help control the rodent population. We walked past one of the many owl houses, which are not occupied at this time of year. The owls are such good hunters, when park staff clean the owl houses after the birds have left for the season, they find many uneaten carcasses of rats, voles, and other small rodents.

Despite the predations of the raptors, the rodent population seems to flourish.

Black Shouldered Kite rests on treetop at Agmon Park Nature Reserve during migration through Israel
Black Shouldered Kite rests on treetop during migration through Israel

We walked by numerous holes dug by a variety of rodents. But the only rodent we saw was a river rat, also known as a nutria. It looked a long dark brown furry blob crossing the road. I had never seen one before—I had no idea nutria were that big.

Around a bend in the road, we spotted a large black and white bird sitting on the bare top branch of a tree. It was a Black Shouldered Kite. It obligingly sat there staring off into the distance long enough for all of us to snap its photo. This species of kite is rarely around, so we needed those photos to prove we had actually seen it.

Cranes fly to lake at sunset

The highlight of the afternoon was watching the cranes come in for the night. Although they forage in the fields during the day, they spend the night on the water. Between sunset and nightfall they all leave the fields, fly over the valley, and land on the water. The first flock flew in from the south. And the next one, and then the next—too many birds in each flock to count. We were so focused on these birds, we did not notice those flying to the lake from the north until they were directly overhead. More flocks flew from the fields closer to the Jordan River on the east, and then a few from the mountains of Naphtali to the west. And still more came from the south.

There were too many in each flock to count. Nir had told us earlier that there were 33,000 cranes in the park that week. How, I asked him, do they know the number? He said staff count the cranes early in the morning, before sunrise when the birds rise from the lake to forage in the fields during the day.

Cranes settling on the water for the night at Agmon Hula during migration through Israel from Europe to Africa
Cranes settling on the water for the night at Agmon Hula

We stood there more than ten minutes, watching as more and more cranes filled the sky. After flying in large circles over the park, they began to land on the water, just a few at first, who were soon joined by others. The water in front of us began to disappear under its cover of birds.

The light had faded. The group coordinator told us we had to get back on the bus, but we stood there mesmerized by the cranes. Finally, the coordinator made the ultimate threat: if we wanted a bathroom stop on the way home, we had to leave immediately. Reluctantly, we headed back to the bus.

After finding my seat, I looked out the window. In the growing darkness, cranes were flying in from the east and the north, flying from Europe to Africa, as they had for millennia, as, God willing, they will continue to do for all the years to come.

Where is Agmon Hula Nature Reserve?

Treating Wounded Syrians in Tsfat

Mural in lobby of Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat (Safed), where almost a thousand wounded Syrians have been treated over the past five years.
Mural in lobby of Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat (Safed), where almost a thousand wounded Syrians have been treated over the past five years.

Health care in Syria is almost nonexistent after six years of civil war. Yarden, an Arabic-speaking social worker at Ziv Medical Center in Tsfat (Safed), cited a few illustrative statistics: “Their medical system is 70% destroyed. About a million people live in the border areas, but there are only seven doctors.” One doctor for every 143,000 people? The number was shocking.

My husband and I were on an Honest Reporting trip to learn more about how wounded Syrians were receiving care in Israel. Ziv’s program has evolved in response to a need.

In March 2011, when the civil war startedi Syria, the IDF had a policy of watchful waiting. But then, on Saturday, February 16, 2013, seven badly wounded Syrians crossed the border into Israel. IDF medics evaluated them and transported them to the nearest hospital. Ziv doctors were called to come in for an emergency. They had no idea who the patients were or what the problem was until they reported for duty and met the wounded Syrians.

Syria has been at war with Israel since May 1948. Syria’s leaders have refused to participate in any peace talks. They have never considered negotiating a treaty. These wounded men were our enemies. But the doctors did not hesitate—an injured person is a person in need of care. The men were treated. When they recovered the IDF took them back to the border and sent them home. Since then Ziv Hospital has treated almost 1000 patients who have made their way over the border.

Yarden instructed us not to take any photos. Photos could endanger the men and their families. We never learned any patient’s name. All newspaper and TV stories about treatment of Syrians in Israel change patients’ names and either blur their faces or photograph them from an angle which does not reveal their identity.

Dr. Lerner describes care

We met with Prof. Alexander Lerner, the Director of the Department of Orthopedic Surgery. He first described the care of a young bearded Syrian man whose left arm looked like it was caught in a metal cage. The elaborate fixation device was attached by pins to his arm. Dr. Lerner explained that the man’s elbow joint had been destroyed. The hinge in the middle of the device was locked to keep the reconstructed joint still. As the bone and muscle start to heal, therapists will release the lock to perform physical therapy. Later, the patient will also need a skin graft.

Like many of the injured Syrians who are treated at Ziv, this young man will probably go home with the fixation device still in place. The devices cost $2000 to $3000 each. For local patients, they are used several times. But Syrian patients do not come back to the hospital for follow-up; the expensive devices are not returned.

Another young man walked out of the room with his left leg in a cage-like fixation device that was longer than his leg. His foot hung in the air several inches above the end of the device, which rested on the floor. Despite the disparity in the lengths of his legs, the device enabled him to walk. He had arrived at the hospital with a partial amputation of his leg. When he recovers from a leg elongation procedure, he will receive a special shoe to enable him to walk.

Both Yarden and Dr. Lerner pointed out that they know nothing about these patients. Unless the Syrians themselves choose to reveal something, the medical staff have no idea if they are civilians or fighters. Many of the men say they were injured in an accident, and leave it at that.

The lack of medical history is a serious problem. Previous injuries, chronic diseases, even allergies are all unknown. The doctors can only hope the patient is not allergic to needed antibiotics.

Complicated trauma frequently results in infection. Dr. Lerner said that similar injuries treated at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington have an infection rate of 17%. However, the Syrians at Ziv are all infection-free by the time of discharge. It’s not just a matter of antibiotic use. Dr. Lerner believes the difference lies in continuity of care. By the time injured US military personnel arrive at Walter Reed, they have already been treated at a field hospital, a local military hospital, and the military hospital in Germany. At each point, a different doctor with a different approach cares for them.

At Ziv, one doctor directs all care from initial admission until discharge. He plans the first surgery with follow-up care, future operations, and

Dr. Alexander Lerner's book about what the staff have learned about complex trauma from treating wounded Syrians
Dr. Alexander Lerner’s book about what the staff have learned about complex trauma from treating wounded Syrians

rehabilitation in mind. He can follow those plans throughout the patient’s hospital stay.

Someone asked what Dr. Lerner had learned anything caring for these patients. Had he published anything about such complex trauma?

The doctor smiled. He proudly showed us a photo on his phone of his latest book, Complicated War Trauma and Care of the Wounded, which he co-edited with Salman Zarka. The book describes not only orthopedics and other surgical treatment, but also psychological therapy and ethical issues involved in treating soldiers and civilians from an enemy country.

Getting to Ziv Hospital

As word spread that free medical treatment was available in Israel, more and more Syrians started showing up at the border. They always arrive at night; it is impossible to safely cross the border during daylight. The IDF carries out initial stabilization of patients, and transports them to Ziv or to Poriya hospital for treatment. Because they arrive at night, it is often easier to get time in an operating room than during the day. The patients arrive with nothing. After an incident when a fighter pulled a weapon hidden in his clothing, the hospital only accepts patients in their underwear. The Red Cross provides them with clothing, a toothbrush, soap, and other necessities.

The patients are unaccompanied. No family member or friend can visit during their entire hospital stay, which can last several months. The only exceptions to this rule are children; a parent accompanies patients less than 18 years old.

Recently, Ziv has opened a free one day pediatric clinic. Every three weeks a bus brings Syrian children from the border. A parent accompanies each child. The clinic provides standard well child checkups as well as treatment for more complicated problems. Most of the children return to the border at the end of the day. Occasionally a child will stay for further treatment. Although they arrive during the day, like the wounded men, they probably travel to the border under the cover of darkness.

All patients are given a summary of their medical treatment when they return to Syria. Written in Arabic on plain paper, the summary has nothing on it to indicate they received treatment in Israel. I suspect the Syrian doctors know where their patients were treated. Injured people could not have found the sophisticated treatment in their home country’s collapsed medical system. And they could not have afforded care in Lebanon or Jordan.

The wounded Syrians are not charged for their care. It is paid for by the Israeli government, Ziv Medical Center itself, and by individual contributions to Ziv. The medical center brochure we received points out that contributions to Ziv are tax deductible in both the US and Israel. (Friends of Ziv Medical Center, Inc. is a registered 501(c)(3) charity).

We’re not the only visitors who have come to observe the treatment of Syrians at Ziv. A few weeks ago Conan O’Brien stopped in during his tour of Israel. His team was allowed to film in the Syrians’ room, on condition that they not show any of the patients’ faces. His hospital visit became part of his Israel show.

Rainy Succot

Decorations to hang in succot for sale,
Decorations to hang in succot for sale,

I was pulled out of my sleep by a five note snippet of an unfamiliar tune, repeated over and over. My first thought was, Why did I change my alarm sound? As I picked my phone up from the windowsill, I realized the notes were coming, not from my phone, but from the succah just below the open bedroom window. Although I not changed my alarm sound, I would be awakened by this musical snippet for the rest of the Succot holiday.

That’s what the holiday is like in Jerusalem. With so many succot built in almost every conceivable spot, you’re never out of earshot of one. And since the holiday is at the end of summer, before the winter rains start, many people sleep in their temporary huts. Thus, the alarm clock ringing outside my window at 6:15 AM.

Okay, it does rain here during succot almost every year. Usually the rain is a light drizzle, lasting only a few minutes to an hour. Depending on what time it falls, it may chase people into the house for their meal or cancel  plans to sleep outside. But it is rarely the cold drenching October rain familiar to North Americans, nor is it the significant heavy rain of Israeli winter.

Rain on Jaffa Road, Jerusalem Photo by Marc Israel Sellem,Jerusalem Post
Rain on Jaffa Road, Jerusalem — Photo by Marc Israel Sellem, Jerusalem Post

This year it was different. Late Monday morning the skies opened up and it poured. It rained almost everywhere in the country. On Facebook, people posted photos and videos of the rain in their succot. Rain was even reported falling near Jericho, which normally receives about 4 inches of rain a year. Compare that with Jerusalem’s 22 inches, or to Philadelphia’s 47 inches.

Several roads flooded in the north of the country. As usual for the first rain, electric outages were reported from several localities. You would think that the electric company in high tech Israel would know by now that heavy rain falls every year. Even the Bible mentions yoreh—the heavy fall rain. You would think they would take preventive measures to protect against such outages.

A flash flood near the Dead Sea temporarily stranded 150 hikers. Since it takes only about an inch of rain in Jerusalem to cause flash floods near the Dead Sea, that story isn’t unusual. That it happened during succot, before the “official” start of winter’s rains made it newsworthy.

Most people’s succot suffered some damage. The rain washed all the dirt off the s’chach, the bamboo or palm leaves used as roofing, leaving a coat of mud on chairs and tables. Paper decorations were ruined, and some succot were even moved or knocked down by the wind.

Our succah survived intact. However, even though it was dry by dinner time, we didn’t eat in it Monday night. A nearby ant nest was flooded, which might not have been a problem if it was normal sized. But this one, apparently, was no ordinary anthill; I suspect it was the capital city of the ant kingdom of Jerusalem. When we inspected our succah in the afternoon, large black ants, some with translucent white wings, were swarming out of hundreds of small holes in the ground. Pouring an ant-killing mixture of soap and red pepper solution down the main entrance to the nest didn’t affect the population in the succah, nor did pouring it into the holes on one side of the table. There were just too many exits from the city, and too many ants.

 In Wilkes Barre we used to worry about the local skunks visiting our succah uninvited. One annoyed skunk could ruin the succah for the season. The local wildlife in Jerusalem is primarily feral cats. Although they like to explore succot looking for treats, they generally run away when people approach. But the six legged creatures are not shy, and when they want to take over a space they can do so.

Perhaps by next year, one of the families that builds their succah in the parking lot will move away. Then we’ll be able to use their space. I don’t look forward to another ant-infested holiday.

On Thursday, the last day of the holiday season, we prayed for rain. That prayer officially initiates the winter season. After the Prayer for Rain on Shemini Atzeret/ Simchat Torah, rain can fall at any time. Most years, however, the yoreh holds off until the beginning of November.

But whenever it falls, rain is welcome—as long as it doesn’t knock out your power.

Evidence from Lachish Confirms Bible Story

Remnants of the city tower at Lachish, viewed from the city's 8th century BCE gate.
Remnants of the city tower at Lachish, viewed from the city’s 8th century BCE gate.

According to the Bible, Lachish was once the second most important city in the Kingdom of Judea. But after the land was conquered by the Babylonians, it disappeared. There was a local tradition that a certain massive hill about 40 km southwest of Jerusalem was the location of ancient Lachish. Those who believed the Bible recounted historical truth, needed no proof that Lachish had actually existed. Non-believers in the Bible’s historical truth took the stories with a grain of salt.

Looking for the Assyrian Palace

About 2600 years after the city’s disappearance, European archaeologists in Iraq began excavating an area they thought was ancient Nineveh, the capital city of Assyria. Sir Henry Layard wanted to uncover the palace of the Assyrian King Sennacherib. During Sennacherib’s reign, the empire grew southward, almost to Egypt. The Bible describes how his army captured the Kingdom of Israel and exiled its population. This expulsion ultimately led to the disappearance of the ten northern tribes.

Sennacherib went on to conquer, by his count, 46 cities in Judea. Lachish was the last.

The Assyrians laid siege to Jerusalem, the capital. It must have been a frightening sight, to stand on the newly built city wall and look out at the enemy. Thousands of soldiers covered the hills as far as the frightened Judeans could see.

And then, in one night, the Assyrians vanished (Kings II, 7:6-8).

Lachish Frieze in Iraq

No evidence had ever been found to corroborate the Biblical story. Then in 1845 Layard uncovered Sennacherib’s palace. Much of the remains were in good condition. One reception room had a large frieze carved on its long wall. The carving depicted the conquest of Lachish. It shows Assyrian preparations, the battle itself, and the captured Judeans going into exile. The detail of the stone carvings is fascinating. The double wall of Lachish is clear as are the gates. Five battering rams stand on the Assyrian siege ramp and two more stand near the city gate. The weapons, including well as the bows and arrows, spears, and others are clear.

Portion of the Lachish frieze from King Sennacherib's Palace in Iraq, showing Judeans being taken into captivity by the Assyrians.
Portion of the Lachish frieze from King Sennacherib’s Palace in Iraq, showing Judeans being taken into captivity by the Assyrians.

Like all proper nineteen century archeologists, Layard carefully removed the frieze from the palace wall and took it home. The original is now in the British Museum in London. A replica hangs in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

When I visited Lachish more than fifteen years ago, I didn’t understand its significance. Having studied Kings II in high school, I knew a little about its history. But it was one of the first tels I had seen, and I had little to compare it to.

Tel Lachish Today

Today, looking at the large hill in the middle of the level farmland, I understand just how large Lachish was. I now appreciate its strategic importance. It had been part of the line of fortresses between the Israelites and the Philistines. It helped protect the Israelites, the people of the mountains, from the sea people who invaded from the west.

The Assyrians built this siege ramp to enable them to breach the walls of Lachish in the 8th century BCE
The Assyrians built this siege ramp to enable them to breach the walls of Lachish in the 8th century BCE

From the parking lot the height of the tel is impressive. There must have been layers upon layers of cities built and rebuilt in this spot to make it so tall. The sides of the tel are almost vertical, except on the southwestern side. Here is the ramp, built by the Assyrians to them to break through the walls into the city. Archeologists estimate it contains 13,000 to 19,000 tons of stones. When they excavated the ramp, they found spears and iron arrow heads dating from the 8th century BCE. These ancient weapons supported both the Bible story and the illustrations in the Lachish frieze.

The Judeans rebuilt Lachish, adding another layer to the tel. The new city lasted less than 150 years. The Assyrian empire itself had even fewer years left. It was conquered by Babylonia, the new power in the Middle East.

We did not follow in the Assyrian footsteps up the siege ramp. Instead we walked up the nearby modern path to the outer city gate.

In 1935, James Starkey, the first archeologist to excavate here, found many letters in one chamber of the gate. The letters offer eyewitness testimony of the battle against the Babylonians. After conquering Nineveh, the Babylonians gobbled up the rest of the Assyrian empire. The most famous of the Lachish lettersis from Hoshiyahu, probably a military commander stationed in the area. He wrote to Ya’ush, probably the commander of Lachish. The letter reports on the Babylonian progress. It says that Hoshiyahu’s people are “watching over the beacon of Lachish, according to the signals which my lord gave, for Azekah is not seen.” One by one, the fortresses were falling, and only Lachish remained standing..

But not for long. Lachish was destroyed again, and this time Jerusalem did not escape. The Babylonians conquered the capital city and destroyed it in 586 BCE.

City Gate

Lachish was a large city. After entering the outer gate, we walked about a hundred meters, still outside the main city wall, to the inner gate. Shulie Mishkin, our guide, pulled aside a wire fence to let us walk into a restricted area. I’m used to going into restricted areas with the archeologists from Ir David, so I didn’t find this unusual. We were not supposed to be there. I thought that if the archeologists didn’t want tourists wandering around, they would have secured the gate with a padlock. At least they would have hung a “Danger! Excavations!” sign on the fence. But perhaps they don’t feel it is necessary because Lachish is in such an out-of-the-way place.

The inner gate consists of six chambers, three on each side. It’s the only six-chambered gate found in Judea (so far). David Ussisskin excavated the three chambers on the northern side of the gate. The other side was excavated more recently. The remains of these chambers revealed evidence of daily activities at the gates of the city.

The innermost of the three chambers must have been a reception chamber for merchants. Benches line the room, where the new arrivals could sit while the tax collectors inspected and evaluated their merchandise. The archeologists found measuring scoops of varying sizes and clay jug handles with the word lmelekh (for the King). Some jug handles were stamped with the name Nahum Avi, who may have been the tax collector. Jug handles bearing his stamp have also been found at other First Temple period administrative centers.

The Altar in the City Gate

Not much of interest was found in the middle chamber. The outermost chamber, however, may be the most interesting for Bible scholars. The gate was built during the time that sacrificial worship was restricted to the Temple in Jerusalem. They were clearly Jewish altars. A traveler arriving safely after a dangerous journey, as all journeys were at that time, would naturally want to offer a sacrifice. However, sacrifices outside of the Temple were forbidden. Nonetheless, the practice prevailed throughout the land. Most of these sites were in cities on the frontier, the edge of civilization. It didn’t matter where they were; such worship was prohibited. That’s why the Bible prophets traveled the land denouncing the shrines and berating the people who frequented them.

In Kings II, King Josiah of Judea who ruled between the Assyrian and Babylonian conquests, instituted religious reformation. He ordered all the priests of Baal be killed and the altars and idols in Jerusalem destroyed. Inspectors went through the land, searching for, and destroying, all unauthorized altars. The altar in Beer Sheva was dismantled and hidden in a basement; the one in Arad was buried. In Lachish, however, the people desecrated the altar. They cut off the horns at its corners.

Eighth century BCE toilet found in one of the gate chambers at Lachish.
Eighth century BCE toilet found in one of the gate chambers at Lachish.

But, removing the horns of the altars was not enough. A toilet was placed in the room with the desecrated altars, which shows no evidence of ever having been used. Simply putting a toilet in the room was sufficiently sacrilegious to invalidate any prayer that might be offered.

Throughout history some things just do not change. Although today’s bathroom fixtures may be connected to running water, they still look almost the same as the ancient Judean one. And we still do not pray in the same room as a toilet.

Hevron: Where Our Forefather Avraham Stood

Old Hevron. Ma'arat HaMachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) is the large rectangular
Old Hevron. Ma’arat HaMachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) is the large rectangular structure in the middle.

Every time I start to think I’m getting to know Israel something triggers the realization that I’m still a newcomer. Walking in a place I’m familiar with, I see or hear an aspect I had never been aware of. While traveling with my sister Susan recently, my awareness of my own lack of knowledge of the country has been triggered multiple times.

For example, on our tour of Ir David, the most ancient part of Jerusalem, the guide mentioned something was from the Persian Period. I knew that. I’ve been to that part of Ir David numerous times, but this guide was the first one to mention a dog cemetery. For some reason, more than two thousand years ago, Persians buried dogs in a certain position. Cemeteries in several areas have been discovered, containing the earthly remains of thousands of dogs. This peculiarity helps archeologists date other things found at the same level of excavation.

Susan and I also went to Hevron, on a tour of the city sponsored by the Hevron Fund, guided by Rabbi Simcha Hochbaum. Hevron had been on our itinerary when Susan and I started planning for her visit several months ago. However, between making reservations and the day of the tour, current events overtook us. UNESCO decided that Ma’arat HaMachpela (the Cave of the Patriarchs) in Hevron is a Palestinian Heritage Site. Their vote effectively rejects the city’s history prior to the Mamluk conquest in 1287. Nothing that happened earlier—thousands of years of Jewish and Christian history at the site—is significant.

The holiness of Ma’arat HaMachpela to Jews is based on the belief that it is the burial place of our forefather Avraham and his wife Sarah. Additionally, Isaac and Rebecca, and Jacob and Leah are buried there. Avraham bought the cave and the land around it from Ephron the Hittite for four hundred silver shekels. (Genesis 23:7-20). In those days, that was a small fortune. Muslim tradition holds that it is not Sarah, but Hagar, who is buried there. This is an important point to them because Hagar is mother of Ishmael, the ancestor of the Arabs. However, Sarah’s name is the one engraved on the plaque identifying the other monument in the Avraham hall. The largest room is named for Avraham’s son Isaac, the second Jewish forefather. A third room is named for Jacob, who does not figure in Muslim history at all.

The building over Ma’arat HaMachpela clearly dates from the time of King Herod, the great builder. According to the Muslims, it’s a mosque. It has always been a mosque. UNESCO did not explain how the Romans came to construct a building to be used for a religion that would not exist for another 600 years. 

The UNESCO vote also denies Christian history at the site. During the short reign of the Crusaders, from 1099 to 1187, they added a church to the Herodian building. The Mamluks destroyed the church after vanquishing the Crusaders. The Christian history at the site doesn’t seem matter to the members of UNESCO.

In response to the UNESCO vote, someone sponsored a demonstration of the Jewish connection to Hevron. By advertising on Facebook and by word of mouth, they recruited five bus loads of people to go pray at Ma’arat HaMachpela. They did not go to Hevron to see any of the city—most of their time was spent at the ancient building itself.

Five hundred year old Torah scroll in Avraham Avinu synagogue in Hevron, Israel. Photo courtesy of Susan Schreibstein
Five hundred year old Torah scroll in Avraham Avinu synagogue.
Photo courtesy of Susan Schreibstein

Our group’s visit to Hevron included much of the Jewish area of the city. We went to the graves of Jesse and Ruth, the father and great grandmother of King David. We walked through the Avraham Avinu (Our Father Abraham) neighborhood. In the almost 600 year-old Avraham Avinu synagogue, Rabbi Hochbaum showed us a 500 year old Torah scroll. The congregation reads the weekly portion from it every Shabbat. Its parchment, made from deer skin, is light brown.

And of course, we went into Ma’arat HaMachpela to see the catafalques of Avraham, Sarah, Jacob, and Leah. The catafalques of Isaac and Rebecca are in a part of the building that is closed to Jews for all but ten days of the year. In the plastic-roofed courtyard between the Avraham Hall and the Jacob Hall, we joined with another group to say the afternoon prayers.

But for me, the most interesting part of the day was the our first stop in the morning. Rabbi Hochbaum led us across the street and up a steep

Tour group gathers around Abraham's well in Hevron, Israel.
Tour group gathers around Avraham’s well in Hevron, Israel.

dusty hill. Everyone in the group, except the small children being carried by their parents, quickly became short of breath. When we stopped, the rabbi reminded us to drink. Not that we needed the reminder—we were hot and sweaty, and the day had barely started.

He led us into an area cleared of bushes, with olive trees and a rectangular hole. On three sides of the hole, three foot high cement walls protect it. On the fourth side the tall black iron gate can be closed to keep animals out. From the gate, stone stairs descended to water. This, Rabbi Hochbaum informed us, is Avraham’s Well.

The well still has water in it. We could see it. Rabbi Hochbaum told us that today it is used as a mikveh (ritual bath) by Jewish residents and visitors to Hevron. Every Friday and on the eve of holidays, a long line of

Steps leading into Abraham's well, in Hevron. At the bottom, we could see the water. Photo courtesy of Susan Schreibstein
Steps leading into Avraham’s well, in Hevron. At the bottom, we could see the water. Photo courtesy of Susan Schreibstein

men come up the hill to purify themselves in the mikveh. As refreshing as it would have been, however, none of us would be dipping in Avraham’s Well that day. We were a mixed crowd, men and women, and had much more to see in Hevron.

This is where our forefather Avraham pitched his tent, outside the wall of ancient Hevron. Avraham was sitting under these very olive trees, recovering from his brit mila (circumcision), when he looked up and saw three strangers coming to visit.

Olive trees are remarkably long-lived, but 4000 years old? The one I was sitting against was green and flourishing, like the others in the surrounding grove. Olive trees have been growing around this well for millennia. Olive pits unearthed in the area dropped from trees about 4000 years ago, as shown by carbon dating. I suspect that the trees whose shade we enjoyed are the descendants of those Avraham and Sarah sat under. It doesn’t matter. Whether or not they are the same trees, I got a thrill knowing that I was sitting in the same place my Biblical forbears had lived.

That’s one of the reasons I enjoy travelling the land so much. Looking over the land my our ancestors saw and walking where they walked, makes history come alive. It seems like I’ll never run out of history to appreciate this way.

A Special Blessing: Elon Moreh and Ivei Hanahal

The Tirzah Valley, which extends from Nablus to the Jordan River, as viewed from Elon Moreh. The dark green on the valley floor are Arab farms
The Tirzah Valley, which extends from Nablus to the Jordan River, as viewed from Elon Moreh. The dark green on the valley floor are Arab farms

When Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, the head of the Hesder Yeshiva in Elon Moreh, welcomed us, he asked how many of us had previously visited the town. A few hands went up. The rabbi smiled and told us there is a special blessing the rest of us should say. The blessing is recited when visiting a place in the land of Israel that had been settled by Jews, destroyed during the time of the Temple, and then rebuilt. Rabbi Avraham Yitzchak HaCohen Kook, zt”l, the Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate, said the blessing whenever he visited a new town. Rabbi Levanon recommended that before we leave, we go to a synagogue and say the blessing.

The Beit Midrash in Elon Moreh, where we said the special blessing for rebuilt places
The Beit Midrash in Elon Moreh, where we said the special blessing for rebuilt places

At the end of our drive through Elon Moreh, we stopped at the Beit Midrash, the yeshiva’s synagogue, to say the blessing. “Blessed are you, Lord our God, who has removed the limits of the widow.” Widow is the word used in Eicha (Lamentations) to describe the destroyed city of Jerusalem. By extension, it refers to all the towns and cities that have been destroyed, whether by Babylonians, as in Eicha, or by others. In removing the limitations on these places, God has allowed Jews to return and rebuild.

Elon Moreh is built on Mt Kabir, one of the mountains in the Shomron that surround Nablus. This is the town that in the days of our forefathers was called Shechem.

The book of Genesis tell us that Elon Moreh is the first place Abraham Avinu stopped when he came to the land from Haran. According to some traditions, this is where he stood when God told him to look out over the land. Everything he could see, God would give to Avraham’s descendants. Yakov, following in his grandfather’s footsteps may also have stopped in Elon Moreh as he passed by Shechem.

Modern Elon Moreh was founded in 1980. The Hesder Yeshiva was one of the first buildings. As at all hesder yeshivot, its students spend two of their five years there serving in the military. Rabbi Levanon explained to us that his yeshiva places special emphasis on the study of practical halacha—how religious principles are carried out in day-to-day life.

But none of that history mattered when we walked to the observation point because when we stood there, the view captured us. It’s mid May, the fields of the Arab farmers in the wide Tirzah Valley are still glowing bright green. Unirrigated areas are already turning yellow or tan. On the other side of the valley, the mountains of the Shomron are tan and brown, disappearing into the distance. Our guide said that on a clear day, you can see Mt. Hermon. This day the Hermon’s snow covered cap hid itself in the haze. The valley stretches around Mount Kabir where we stood to beyond where we can see—all the way to the Jordan River in the east.

Tirzah Valley was the highway the Tribes of Israel used when they walked from the Jordan River to Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Eval when on first entering the Land under the leadership of Joshua. I tried to imagine what that must have looked like—the people must have filled the valley. It would have been more than 600,000 men, plus their wives and children who were not counted in the census. And they would have brought uncounted numbers of sheep, cattle, goats, and donkeys. The stragglers would probably just be getting their feet wet in the river’s mud when Joshua reached Shechem. The leaders would have been directing six tribes up onto the slopes of Mount Gerizim and six of them up Mount Eval, while the Cohanim were setting the Holy Ark down near Shechem. The noise of their passing would have been heard for miles.

I thought, I could sit here on the bench in the shade all day. If I lived in Elon Moreh, I wondered how much work I would get done. With that view outside my window, I’d probably stand there transfixed every morning until my alarm rang, reminding me it was time to leave the house.

I had the same feeling this week, standing on the porch of the small house Rabbi Ari Abramowitz built for himself in the Judean Desert. The house stands up the hill from Ivei Hanahal, at the end of a packed dirt road. From one side of the porch you look back at the yishuv of Ivei Hanahal, a town inhabited by forty-two families. Looking east from the porch, you see the desert mountains marching off towards the Dead Sea. The sea is a vague shape of darker blue against the backdrop of the hazy blue Mountains of Moab in Jordan. The house is built almost on the edge of the steep drop into Wadi Arugot, the largest river valley in the Mountains of Judea. The wadi, which at this time of year is dry except for a narrow steam in its bed, winds around the house, giving a spectacular view of the desert. Ari can’t see this view from his bedroom. He has to get out of bed in the morning and go into his living room to look at it. I am sure that was a deliberate decision when building the house.

Wadi Arugot in the Judean Desert
Wadi Arugot in the Judean Desert

Don’t look for the site on a map. Ivei Hanahal is too small for Google maps to find. Forty-two caravans, a stuccoed shelter for the soldier on guard duty, and a beautiful playground for the children doesn’t rate one of Google’s little red teardrops. They place the symbol for Wadi Arugot in the middle of an empty space, about halfway between Hevron and Mitzpe Shalem. You can almost find it more easily in the Bible.

Ezekiel (47: 6-10) prophesied that the water from the Third Temple will flow through the desert in large quantities. According to the prophet, the Dead Sea will become a fresh water lake, with fish swimming in it. The local interpretation is that Ezekiel was talking about Wadi Arugot.

Ari was one of the co-founders of the Land of Israel radio network, along with Jeremy Gimpel. The English language network describes itself as devoted to “broadcasting the truth and beauty of the land of Israel and the Jewish people.” The radio station’s headquarters are nearby. They are building a retreat center there, with eighteen small suites and

When completed, this retreat center at Ivei Hanahal will have 18 guest suites, conference rooms, and an outdoor pool
When completed, this retreat center at Ivei Hanahal will have 18 guest suites and an outdoor pool

conference rooms. They plan a swimming pool, to be surrounded by bushes, trees, and flowers. Here, in the middle of the desert, with the help of volunteers from Germany, they have just finished planting 500 olive trees. They envision planting a pomegranate orchard and a vineyard as well.

While we sat in Ari’s living room, he talked about building the house. He recently had heard about the blessing one says when visiting a once destroyed place that has been resettled by Jews. When he moved in to his house, he said the blessing, “…who removes the limits of the widow.”

I mentioned to Ari we had recently recited the blessing in Elon Moreh. Then I told him what Rav Levanon had said about Rabbi Kook’s custom of saying it when he visited somewhere new in Israel.

“Rav Kook did that?” Ari asked.

I nodded.

He smiled. “I’m going to do that now too.