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Yakov’s First Tefillin

Daniel & Yakov saying the orning prayers the first day Yakov put on tefillin
Daniel & Yakov saying the morning prayers the first day Yakov put on tefillin

When Yakov, our older grandson, turns thirteen later this week, he will be considered an adult in for purposes of religious observance. Among other mitzvot, he will then be obligated to put on tefillin every day. Tefillin, the small black boxes tied to the head and arm by long black straps, are worn by religious men when saying the morning prayers. Because laying tefillin is a positive commandment performed at a specific time, women are exempt from it; their family duties take precedence.

Each of the tefillin contains the four passages from the Torah. These specific passages command Jews to bind God’s words to their arm and put them as a sign between their eyes. Each passage must be written by hand on parchment. The words must be written in order. If the sofer, the scribe, later notices he has made a mistake, he cannot go back and fix it—he must write the whole small scroll over from the beginning.

Rabbi Rav Menachem Goldberg, the sofer who made Yakov’s tefillin, explained all this to us when he came to Daniel and Aliza’s house one evening in May. Rav Menachem had already written the parchments and made the boxes to contain them. Now he was teaching us all about the tefillin as he assembled them. Daniel and Allen would do some of the work.  Because only those obligated to perform the mitzvah can participate in fabricating tefillin,  the rest of us could not help. Yakov and Moshe were too young; Aliza and I are women. Sara was disqualified on both counts.

We each received a small piece of parchment to feel and examine. One side was smooth and the other side was slightly fuzzy, like closely shaved velvet. Only the smooth side is written on.

“Tear it,” instructed Rav Menachem. Only Yakov and Moshe were successful.

The rabbi then unrolled the small piece of parchment designated for the arm tefillin. Because the four passages were written as four distinct paragraphs next to each other, this small scroll was about one inch in height and about fifteen inches long.  He then pulled out of his plastic box four smaller scrolls, folded to about one inch square. Each of these scrolls contained one of the four passages. They would go into separate compartments in the head tefillin.

Every part of the tefillin comes from an animal source. What does the sofer write with? Sara eagerly volunteered the answer. “A feather!”

Rav Menachem pulled a long feather from his tool box. Its tip had been sharpened to a point. He also pulled out a slender piece of wood, whose stained black point had been similarly sharpened. “Moses,” he explained, “used a stick of wood to write the first tefillin. Today we also have ceramic pens to write with. The important thing is the tip—it can’t come to a point like a pen. It has to be wide. The width of the line changes, depending on its direction.”

He demonstrated by writing a few letters with the quill. Without changing his grip or twisting his arm, the wide point enabled him to write letters whose vertical lines were thinner than their horizontal lines. He handed the quill to Yakov to write with. As Yakov slowly wrote, we saw that writing with a quill pen is a skill that needs to be practiced to be done well.

Tefillin shel rosh (for the head) showing the slots for the four parchments.
Tefillin shel rosh (for the head) showing the slots for the four parchments.

Rav Menachem then placed the two black tefillin boxes on the table, open so we could see the single chamber in the arm tefillin and the small four slots in the head tefillin which would hold the parchments.

Next he pulled out two large misshapen off white pieces of what looked like plastic. “This  is what the boxes are made from. Anybody know what it is?” he asked, rapping one of them on the table. It made a sound like something hitting wood.

“Wood?” I volunteered.

He shook his head. “No, every part of the tefillin comes from an animal source.”

“So there’s no such thing as vegetarian tefillin?” Aliza asked.

“No,” said Rav Menachem. He looked around the table. We all were stumped. “It’s skin, just like the parchment. But it comes from a different place on the animal. Parchment is made from thin skin. This is from the back of the neck or the cheek.” He rubbed the back of his neck up onto his skull as he spoke. “Each box is made from one piece of the leather, carefully folded.”

Now it was time to assemble the tefillin. The rabbi held the head box open so Daniel could insert the small folded parchments in their designated slots. They were a tight fit and didn’t slide in easily, but Daniel managed the job. Despite going in a bigger hole, the parchment for the arm also required a firm touch to insert.

Now it was time to sew the boxes closed. Rav Menachem held up a card around which was wrapped thin beige cord. “And this is…?” he asked.

Allen said “Gid” in Hebrew at the same time as I said “Tendon.” We were both right.

Rav Menachem picked up the head box and held the bottom and top together with a vise. He threaded a needle with the tendon and handed it to Daniel to sew. The holes in the edges of the box were predrilled, but nonetheless it was difficult to pull the needle through. Daniel had to use a small needle-nosed pliers to do the job.

“Perhaps Saba would like to help sew the tefillin?” Rav Menachem asked. 

Sewing the tefillin box
Allen sewing the tefillin box

Allen nodded, took off his glasses to see the small holes better, and finished sewing the last side of the box.

But the job wasn’t done yet. To be kosher, the box must be closed completely, which meant sewing the edges again. This time the needle went through each hole in the opposite direction so that there was an unbroken line of stitches around the entire perimeter. The second time around was more difficult because the holes already had some tendon in them. Daniel and Allen needed to use the pliers to grip the needle on almost every stitch.

The process was repeated with the box for the arm.

The last step in making tefillin is attaching the straps that bind them to the arm and the head. The arm straps are easy. The wearer simply wraps them as tightly as he needs every day.

The strap for the head has to be measured to fit the wearer’s head. After threading the strap through the slot in the head tefillin, Rav Menachem placed it in the correct spot on Yakov’s head. He then carefully measured the strap and marked it. Placing it on the table, he explained the knot as he tied it. The knot has mystical significance, because, looked at in the right way, it shows the letters of the word “Shad-dai,” one of the names of God. When Moses begged to see God’s face on Mount Sinai, God replied that no one could see His face and live. But He granted Moses the sight of His back. This knot was what Moses saw when God passed by him.

What could be done at the house was completed. Rav Menachem carefully put Yakov’s tefillin in a plastic box, which he packed in his tool box along with all his supplies. He would take it all back to his workshop in northern Shomron to do the finishing work: sealing the edges, polishing the straps, checking that everything is perfect.    

Two weeks ago Yakov wore his tefillin for the first time. By the time he is required to put them on daily, he will be able to put them on quickly and, more important, correctly.

The first time Yakov put on tefillin, his teacher checks to make sure he has done so correctly
The first time Yakov put on tefillin, his teacher checked to make sure he did so correctly. Like many religious men, Yakov will not wear a large tallit (prayer shawl) until after he marries.

These tefillin were constructed as described in the Gemara. Of course, the Gemara’s description, having been edited in 600 CE, may not have been exactly correct in all its details. When two thousand year-oldtefillin were found at Qumran, the Essene settlement near the Dead Sea, they attracted much interest and excitement. If the find was authenticated, they  were the oldest ever tefillin found. Finally, the scholars thought, we will learn how tefillin are really supposed to be made. Imagine their surprise when, after thorough examination, the tefillin were found to be almost exactly the same way as tefillin have been constructed for centuries.

Just like the ones Yakov has recently started to put on to say the morning prayers.

Following Pilgrims’ Route to the Temple Mount

Nahshon Szanton points out route of Roman road from Pool of Shiloach to Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Nahshon Szanton points out route of Roman road from Pool of Shiloach (Siloam) to Temple Mount.

The “Tours with the Investigator” follow a set pattern. The archaeologist introduces himself and gives a brief introduction. Then he takes off at a rapid pace, because if we are to hear everything he wants to tell us, he must be quick. Our destination? A white sheet metal wall with a sign that says, in Hebrew, Arabic, and English: “Archeological Excavation. Danger. Do Not Enter.” He pulls a large ring of keys from his pocket, unlocks the padlock on the barrier, and motions for us to enter. The he locks it behind us.

Nahshon Szanton unlocked one of the barriers on Maalot Ir David, and told us to go down the stairs. We walked down and down, to three or four stories below street level, through a hole in the rock, and into a large tunnel. Lit by a string of light bulbs hanging from a wire, the tunnel stretched several hundred meters in each direction. Its lower sides were crudely plastered, the upper walls and roof held in place by a double metal arch. A chain conveyor belt hung from one row of arches—it looked like it traversed the length of the tunnel. Nahshon asked than no one take photographs since the work has not yet been completed. He does not want to see the first publication of his discoveries on Facebook.

All of us on these tours are archaeology groupies. We have all been to dozens, if not hundreds, of archaeology sites in Israel. We could tell from the large size of the neatly cut rectangular stones that we were standing on Roman pavement. The original Roman pavement. It still seems incredible to me that I can walk on streets that have been here for two thousand years. Nahshon is sure he is excavating the Pilgrim’s Route, the road pilgrims followed from the Pool of Shiloah (Siloam) to the Temple during Roman times. But when he started digging where we entered, he didn’t know where the road would lead. He needed more evidence than a few Roman style paving stones in a spot that seemed right.

There is an axiom in archeology: Not finding something is not evidence that it is not there. Negative evidence is meaningless in the context of the past. If you didn’t find anything, it may only mean you did not look in the right place.

Sometimes the “right place” is a matter of a few centimeters.

From 1894 to 1897, the British-based Palestine Exploration Fund sponsored Frederick Jones Bliss and Archibald Campbell Dickie. They goal was to uncover some of the history of Jerusalem. In just a few years, Bliss and Dickie managed to discover parts of Roman Jerusalem’s southern wall, the drainage channel in the Tyropoeon Valley, and parts of the road from the Pool of Shiloah to the Temple Mount. These are all significant finds. About two thirds of the way up the hill from the pool, they dug out the corner of a few steps. They concluded that these steps were the entrance to a building that fronted the road. But excavating exactly in that spot, did not uncover the whole structure of the steps. Another meter further, they would have found something even more interesting.

But before we walked down the road to see Bliss and Dickie’s work, Nahshon needed to explain some things he had found. From the Pool of Shiloah, two roads appear to ascend toward the Temple Mount. So far, the archaeologists are unsure if they are two separate roads, or the two sides  of one very wide road. Additionally, the excavated part of the road goes only part of the way up the hill. People who want to follow the Pilgrims’ Route to the Kotel Plaza have to walk in the old Roman sewer the rest of the way. (You can see the road and sewer under it in this video featuring Nahshon. It was published on YouTube a few months after he led our tour of the site).

Walking through the ancient Roman drainage channel under the road from the Pool of Shiloach (Siloam) to the Temple Mount in Jerusalem
Walking through the ancient Roman drainage channel under the Pilgrims’ Route from the Pool of Shiloach to the Temple Mount.

Since the Romans always constructed sewers under streets, it is reasonable to assume that the old road overlies the old sewer. Nahshon moved a large stone and lifted a thick piece of wood, uncovering a hole. We peered down and saw a paved tunnel beneath us—the Roman sewer. Later, as Nahshon was talking, we would hear voices floating up through  some of the holes in the pavement. He interrupted himself to comment on them, “Tourists.” 

The question of major importance that Nahshon wants to answer is who built the road, and when did he build it? One of the most important clues in dating things are layers of destruction. In Jerusalem, when the Romans destroyed the Temple, a thick layer of black ash remained. Anything below this destruction layer must have been in place before the 9th of Av 70 CE. Archaeologists get very excited about finding a destruction layer, especially when, as in the case of this road, the ash lies right on top of what they want to date.

They also look for other things to help them date construction—pottery, coins, glass, stone vessels, bones, organic matter. The latest thing you find under something gives a clue to when it was built. The coins Nahshon and his team found dated from the fourth decade CE, somewhere around the year 30, at the time of Pilatous.

Investigators often use the rulers’ and writers’ Latin names, which are unfamiliar to those of us who do not read Latin. Apparently, we were supposed to recognize Pilatous, because he stopped and asked, “You know who is this Pilatous?”

A man standing behind me replied, “He killed their god.”

From the murmur around me, I realized that most of us were putting it together at the same time—that Pilatous, Pontius Pilate.

Satisfied with our reaction, Nahshon continued the history lesson. Although he said he is not a historian—“I work with details”—he showed his firm grasp of the history of Roman Judea.

Every Roman leader had to build. They built to honor the new Caesar, they built to further the glory of Rome. Pontius Pilate ruled the province of Syria for only ten years, but in that time he was responsible for several significant construction projects. Because water is always in short supply on the edge of the desert, Pilate decided to bring water to Jerusalem from south of the city, and built the upper aqueduct. Additionally, he built the street on which we were standing.  Most likely he built the Pilgrims’ Route to curry favor with the Jews.

We walked a short way down the street, to a set of steps standing in the middle of the tunnel. These are the three steps Bliss and Dickie had found. At their base, they look like the bottom of a monumental stairway, the kind that leads up to a Temple or important building. Bliss and Dickie had thought they lead to a shop or a home. But Bliss and Dickie had uncovered  only the corner of the steps. Nahshon’s team has excavated the steps in their entirety. They do not lead to a doorway; the top is flat.

So why were they built? Steps this large and well built must have served an important purpose. The Romans sometimes constructed such platforms to support a pillar topped with a statue. But there is no inscription on the steps, nor are there any remnants of a pillar.

The archaeologists looked for a parallel structure somewhere, but didn’t find anything. Then a member of the team remembered his Gemara studies. A Braita, a statement by an early Rabbi, described an Even Toane, a stone of testimony. This was a specific covered place in Jerusalem where people could seek lost items and announce items they had found.

 Could this be an Even Toane ? Nahshon smiled. He pointed out that in Jerusalem there have always been things that are found only here and nowhere else. It could be the Even Toane, or it could be something we don’t know anything about.

 He admitted he wanted to say yes. “If I were a youth group leader,” he said, “I would point to those steps and say ‘Here you see the Even Toane.’ But I’m not, I’m an archaeologist.”

Touring Sha’are Hesed with the First Grade

Etrog School first grade girls in front of Agam sculpture in Sha'are Hesed, Jerusalem.
Etrog School first grade girls in front of Agam sculpture in Sha’are Hesed, Jerusalem. Marah Chanah is the one who isn’t eating a red popsicle.

This year is the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Reunification of Jerusalem. Every organization and institution in the country seems to be recognizing the event. Special tours, concerts, lectures, and conferences are being held. Those who don’t support the reunification have planned protests and threaten violence.

Last week the Etrog Public Religious Elementary School in Givat Ze’ev, attended by three of my granddaughters, held “Jerusalem Day.” The whole school came to Jerusalem. Since each child needed to have an accompanying adult, I was enlisted to be the adult for one granddaughter. The teacher gave me permission to join them at the Kotel, so I didn’t have to take a 6:30 AM bus from Jerusalem to Givat Ze’ev in order to join them for the bus trip to Jerusalem.

Taking a whole school for an outing requires excellent planning, superior organizational skills, and a large measure of good luck. Etrog was a little deficient in all three. The schedule was too tight. They were supposed  to leave the school at 7:30 “exactly.” Prayers at the Kotel would be at 8:00 “exactly.” This timing was unrealistic. Just unloading 17 buses at the Dung Gate and getting everyone through security would take half an hour. When I arrived at the Kotel Plaza, a little after 8, they had not yet arrived. I sat down and read some Psalms as I waited.

Over the next half hour clusters of children wearing bright blue Etrog School t-shirts with accompanying adults filtered through security into the plaza. Adina had claimed me as escort, so I just hugged her sisters and then followed Morah (Teacher) Chana and the rest of the first grade.

Our first stop, of course, was the bathroom. Like other public restrooms in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City, it was spotlessly clean. I don’t know how the city does it, but no matter what time of day, the bathrooms are always clean and usually well stocked.

And then we went to the women’s section of the plaza.

The girls classes did not have an organized prayer service. Small clusters of girls sat together on the ground or pulled white plastic chairs into a circle to say the morning prayers. Other girls asked for paper on which to write a private message to God. They then inserted their plea into already-stuffed cracks between stones of the wall.

I intended to complete my prayers at the Kotel, but I was too distracted to give them the attention they require. I was busy keeping one eye on Adina, who is good at disappearing in a crowd, and one eye on her teacher. Morah Chana is short and thin, but I quickly learned to recognize her black vest and the comb holding her long brown hair.

After about a half hour at the Kotel, the teachers started gathering their classes to leave. Outside the Dung Gate, a long line of buses waited for us. Each class had its own bus to its assigned neighborhood, which the children had already learned about. The children would describe events that had occurred there. Yocheved and Sara went to Har Homa, the farthest southern part of the city. Yael and Danny went to Bayit veGan, just a little west of where we live. Adina and I headed for Sha’are Hesed, located between center city and the Mahane Yehuda shuk. During the bus ride, Adina took out her speech and read it twice. That was in addition to the three times she had read it before leaving home in the morning and the three times she had read it at the Kotel. Her part was three sentences long. She probably had it memorized by the time it was her turn to speak.

Our first stop, however, was the plaza in front of a theater/school complex. There  the girls ate their snacks and ran around. There were plenty of low walls and stairs—a perfect place for six-year-olds to expend some of their excessive energy.

 

The original 1909 gate to Sha'are Hesed.
The original 1909 gate to Sha’are Hesed.

Sha’are Hesed (Gates of Loving Kindness) was one of the early neighborhoods built outside the walls of the Jerusalem, which was still dangerous and unsettled. At the time, new neighborhoods were built so the walls of the  houses formed a wall around them. A gate was closed and locked at night for security, to protect residents from bandits as well as from wild animals. The original 1909 gate to Sha’are Hesed still stands, even though it is no longer closed at night.

After Morah Chanah said a few words, the first girl read her piece. I was only a few feet away but barely heard her. That didn’t matter. I wasn’t on this tour to learn about Jerusalem; I was there to spend time with my granddaughter.

Sha’are Hesed was built as a neighborhood for religious Jews, and remains so today. We passed many small synagogues and yeshivot as we walked, winding our way past as many significant sights as possible. The teacher pointed out the former home of Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, one of the great Rabbis of the last generation.

One of the girls read a famous story about Rabbi Auerbach. A student asked for permission to take a few days off to go to the Galil to pray at the graves of Tzaddikim, holy ones. Rabbi Auerbach replied that whenever he wanted to pray at the grave of a Tzaddik, he took the bus to the military cemetery at Har Herzl, about twenty minutes away. All the people buried there died fighting for our holy land—they are all Tzaddikim.

On the wall of one synagogue is a sundial, placed there so the men would know the correct time for prayers. It was made by Moshe Shapira, who also built other sundials in Jerusalem. This sundial, however, is only correct until around noon because of the angle of the wall.

Now it was Adina’s turn to speak. She must be shy in class, because her teacher asked if she really wanted to read. Adina hadn’t practiced her part all morning to be skipped over.

Adina reads about Moshe Shapira under a sundial he constructed.
Adina reads about Moshe Shapira under a sundial he constructed.

She nodded yes, and then, standing next to Morah Chana, and without looking up at the rest of us, she read about Moshe Shapira the clock maker, in a loud clear voice.

“Kol hakavod!” said the father standing next to me.

“You read that so beautifully!” I said to her. She smiled at us.

Two blocks later we stopped at a makollet and all the girls got popsicles. We then walked to the nearby Wolfson Towers, five buildings, 14 to 17 stories high. The buildings unfortunately block the view of the Knesset and the Valley of the Cross that residents of Sha’are Hesed had enjoyed before the towers were built.

Because of the steepness of the hill, the entrance to building at the end of KKL street is on its seventh story. The roof of the sixth floor meets the street in a large plaza which features a pool and Beating Heart, a sculpture by Yaacov Agam. The girls sat by the pool to finish their popsicles.

By now it was noon, the scheduled end of the trip to Jerusalem. At this point, Danny was still wandering around Bayit veGan with the third grade, and Sara was stuck in Har Homa with the fifth grade. Since a six year old could not be left at the school by herself, I told the teacher I would accompany her. Several parents objected. I had apparently already done more than a Savta’s duty by touring Jerusalem with them. One of the fathers insisted he could take Adina to his house to play with his daughter until Sara or Danny returned.

So I walked back up the hill to one of my regular bus stops. Later in the day Sara reported that Adina, normally a perpetual motion machine, was passed out on the couch.

While I learned about Sha’are Hesed with the first grade, I also know that I did not see or learn enough about the neighborhood. I plan to go back to see it all again.

Fighting for Kibbutz Yad Mordechai

Reconstruction of the battle for Yad Mordechai
Reconstruction of the battle for Yad Mordechai

In 1948, the Egyptians thought it would be easy. The British were leaving the Palestinian Mandate in mid-May. The sparsely populated areas where Jews lived in the south were ripe for the picking. The Egyptian army could quickly wipe out the few Jewish defenders in the Negev and on the Mediterranean coast. In two or three days they would be in Tel Aviv.

On May 14, the Jews declared independence, as of the British departure at midnight. The Egyptian army, gathered on the border in Sinai readied to attack. I’m sure no soldier sleeps well the night before a battle, not even those about to fight poorly armed untrained Jewish farmers and refugees. Still, I imagine Egyptian soldiers dreaming about lying peacefully in the sun with their families on beaches of Tel Aviv within the week.

The new nation of Israel woke up Shabbat morning, May 15, to news of the Egyptian invasion. The Egyptians headed north east towards Nirin and Kfar Darom. Facing unexpectedly heavy opposition from the Israelis, they withdrew after two days. Since the eastern path to Tel Aviv obviously would not work, they headed west, closer to the coast. Several towns posed obstacles, but they remained confident. Tel Aviv would soon be in their hands. Their air force was already dropping bombs on the city. The only real obstruction in their way was Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, located at a crucial crossroad. They had the superior power—two infantry battalions, one armored battalion and one artillery battalion. They thought the fight would last a few hours.

The agricultural kibbutz had been founded in the late 1930s by Polish immigrants. The founders learned apiculture from some British and Australian soldiers. Soon they were selling honey throughout the land. In December 1943 it was renamed Yad Mordechai, in memory of Mordechai Anielewicz, one of the leaders of the uprising against the Nazis in the Warsaw ghetto. By 1948, about 130 people lived there. The farmers had dug trenches so they could move about fairly safely if under attack. They had been joined by a couple dozen Palmach fighters in anticipation of the coming battle. Even so, it couldn’t hold out for very long against an onslaught of thousands of Egyptian soldiers.

On May 18 the Egyptians camped around the kibbutz.

The Israelis worried about the children. It would be too dangerous for them to stay on the kibbutz, but it was also dangerous to send them away. The only road to safety led through the Egyptian lines. With much trepidation they decided to evacuate the children. I imagine the parents trying not to show their fear as they bundled their children into vehicles in the middle of the night. I doubt any of them slept that night, as they envisioned the vehicles slowly making their way around and through the Egyptian encampment and Arab towns. As first light dawned in the morning, word came through. All ninety-two children were safe.

Now it was time to prepare for battle.

We heard the story about the battle at Yad Mordechai standing on a small hill in the kibbutz, looking down at the plain which leads to the Mediterranean Sea. The field below was probably covered with new crops then. Today there are cast iron silhouettes of soldiers, a static reconstruction of the battle. Three old

Egyptian tank, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai since 1948 invasion
Egyptian tank, at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai since 1948 invasion

Egyptian tanks face us. At the edges of the hill two reinforced bunkers overlook the battlefield, connected by the old trenches. The trenches have fresh gravel on their floors and metal sheeting lining the sides. I watched as young volunteers, dressed in the khaki shorts and kova tembel hats of the period, led a family through the trenches at a run, reminding them to crouch down so the Egyptians won’t see them.

The First and Seventh Battalions attacked. The kibbutzniks repelled them.

The Egyptians attacked again, but again they were repelled. Their artillery bombarded the kibbutz, destroying the water tower and buildings.

The Egyptians repeatedly tried to capture the outpost, and failed. Several thousand trained Egyptian soldiers should not have so much trouble overrunning small farming community. Even their tanks didn’t help. They had plenty of guns and ammunition, but they couldn’t wipe out a hundred and thirty Jews. The Jews were so poorly armed that at night they crept over the battlefield gathering rifles and ammunition from the enemy dead.

Five days later, the Jews were out of ammunition and exhausted. Half the defenders had died or were wounded. They could fight no longer. They crept away during the night, through the Egyptian lines, to safety at Kibbutz Gvar’am. Only Yitzchak Rubinstein and Livka Shefer, who carried the injured Binyamin Eisenberg, on a stretcher did not make it. .

During the ceasefires and then after the armistice, Chief Rabbi of the IDF Shlomo Goren searched for missing Israelis. It was crucial, he believed, to determine who had died, and to give them proper burial. Rabbi Goren crossed enemy lines many times, sometimes walking across minefields, to search battlefields and makeshift graves, looking for the remains of Israeli dead. He spoke to as many fighters, Jewish and Arab, as he could to gather eyewitness testimony. But he never learned what happened to the three missing men from Yad Mordechai. They are still listed as “Open Cases,” soldiers whose death and burial place are unknown, by the IDF MIA Accounting Unit.

On the sixth day of the battle, not knowing the defenders had retreated, Egyptians opened fire again. After about four hours of steady artillery bombardment, they realized no one was shooting back at them. They entered the kibbutz, only to find it empty. Not even bodies remained; the Jews had buried their dead in a mass grave.

The Egyptian army destroyed the kibbutz and continued towards Tel Aviv. In Ashdod the Israeli Air Force attacked them. Egypt hadn’t known Israel possessed an air force, nor that they had already seen it in its entirety—all four planes. Surprised by bombs dropping on them from directly above, they retreated.

Actually, a week earlier the Israeli Air Force had not existed.

After World War II, the Jewish community in British Palestine knew that sooner or later they would have to fight the British or the Arabs to gain a state. Agents were sent to Europe to buy surplus military equipment. One found Messerschmitts in Czechoslovakia, then ruled by the USSR. When the USSR decided to support Israel, the Czechs sold five planes plus spare parts, to Israel. Experienced fighter pilots and airplane technicians were recruited from the US and Canada.

Boxes of airplane parts arrived in Haifa and were taken to Zichron Yakov, a town near the coast. The planes were reassembled in a large wine storage cave. They were not equipped to drop bombs, so they were loaded with hand grenades and bottles full of water.

By this time, the Egyptian army was marching up the coast.

The brand new Air Force took off and flew south. One plane crashed into the sea, but the remaining four planes attacked the Egyptians in Ashdod. The pilots dropped the hand grenades and water bottles out the window. The grenades killed only a few soldiers. The water bottles broke with loud noise. The Israeli air attack was successful only because the Egyptians were surprised and panicked. They turned and fled back to the Negev.

In Ashdod today you can stand on the Ad Halom (“This Far”) Bridge. The Egyptian army got that far north and no farther.

Kibbutz Yad Mordechai paid a terrible price—twenty-three of its members had died and all its buildings had been destroyed. But in the six days it held the Egyptian army at bay, Israel had built an air force which saved its largest city.

About six months later Israel retook Yad Mordechai. The farmers returned and rebuilt. Today, with more than 600 members, it is the largest producer of honey in the country.

Several Egyptian tanks still sit in its fields. Defensive trenches still rim one of its hills. The cast iron soldiers stand where once live soldiers fought. And visitors look at it all, listen to the recorded description of the battle, and learn about the sacrifices it took to make the country.

Location of Kibbutz Yad Mordechai

Mysteries of Susya

Byzantine era synagogue in Susya --wood roof modern addition to protect
Byzantine era synagogue in Susya –wood roof modern addition to protect what remains

After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the Roman conquerors forbid Jews to live in Jerusalem. Although most Jews moved to the north, small groups moved south to Karmiya, Eshtamol, and Susya. Although the last town was well populated in the first millennium, we have no idea what its name was at the time. The Crusaders named it “Susya”  about four hundred years after it had been abandoned, because it sounded like the Arabic name of the area.

In the Byzantine period, from around 300 to 800 CE, it had been a relatively large, strong Jewish city, known for its wine and olive oil.  However, after the Muslim Conquest in 638, there was an upheaval in life all across the land. Wine is forbidden to Muslims; therefore, vintners in the land could no longer make and sell wine. Given the religious and political policies of the new government, some residents may have converted to Islam. The final death blow to the town was the earthquake of 749 CE, probably the worst in Middle Eastern history. Although town was not totally destroyed, its population disappeared.

What happened to all the people? It’s a mystery. Yitzchak Ben Zvi, a historian and the second President of Israel, had an interesting idea. He noted that all the residents of Yata, the neighboring Arab town, are Muslims. However, a small community within the town, called M’chamrim by their neighbors, are unlike the other Muslims. They refrain from eating camel meat, they drink wine, light Chanukah candles, and marry only among themselves. Ben Tzvi suggested that these M’chamrim are descendants of Jews from Susya who converted to Islam under threat of death. Nonetheless they maintained some Jewish customs.

At the time Ben Tzvi developed his theory, the M’chamrim were quite open about their special customs. More recently, they have been very quiet. Since the rise of Palestinian nationalism, it may have become dangerous to publicize their similarities to Israelis.

Susya is a wonderful example of a Jewish town from the Byzantine period. There is no destruction layer since it was never conquered or destroyed in a war. The main streets and the alleyways are clearly visible, as are the houses that line them. The house foundations are obvious, as are the shared courtyards bordered by homes on each side. The doorposts have indentations in them at the correct height and size for holding a mezuza, the small scroll with the Sh’ma on it. This prayer has marked the doors of Jews since God gave the commandment to Moses.

Interestingly, almost every house has a manmade cave under it. Here on the edge of the desert, having your own cave would have been sensible. The temperature in a cave is fairly constant throughout the year. These caves would have offered respite from the oppressive desert heat during the long dry season.

Susya is located in spar hamidbar, the border area between settlements and desert. The desert has always been home to nomads, raiders, and bandits. The caves would also have been good places to hide when raiders attacked.

Entrance to Byzantine era burial cave in Susya. The rolling stone protected the entrance.
Entrance to Byzantine era burial cave in Susya. The rolling stone protected the entrance.

On the right side of the main street leading up to the town, near the town wall, there is a large square depression. A cave sits at one end. This cave was employed for the two stage burial popular during the time of the Second Temple. The dead were first laid on shelves in an outer chamber of the cave. After about a year, the bones were then gathered and placed in a stone box, an ossuary, for preservation. Ossuaries were made to accommodate the largest bones in the body. They are the length of the thigh bones and the width of the skull. The ossuaries were kept in the burial cave.

A large round stone leans against the wall of the depression next to the cave’s entrance. It would have been rolled in front of the entrance to keep wild animals from entering and disturbing the bones.

In the rest of the land, people began to be buried in individual boxes (coffins) at some point in the second century CE. But in Susya secondary burial in ossuaries was practiced well into the 5th century. Were the people of the region so cut off from the rest of the Jews that they didn’t know burial fashions had changed? Or were they more resistant to change? Another mystery.

One feature of the town stands out. There are a relatively large number of mikves, ritual baths. Thirty-five have been discovered. That is many more than exist in religious towns of similar size today. That’s also more than in other towns of similar size from the Byzantine era that have been excavated. Most of these mikves seem to have been private, for use by residents who shared a courtyard.
Entrance to the synagogue in Susya
Entrance to the synagogue in Susya

The synagogue on the top of the hill has wood roof, which is obviously new, unlike the stone walls and floor. The original floor mosaic is in the Mosaic Museum near Maale Adumin. However, a copy of the mosaic is in the synagogue, with uncolored cement filling in for missing tiles. The mosaics are  Byzantine–the tiles are bigger and the colors not as varied as in Roman mosaics. The mosaics include geometric designs and Jewish symbols such as the menorah and the lulav, the palm branch waved during the Succot holiday. One of the mosaics contains an inscription, stating that it was donated by Rabbi Isai the Cohen. The date on the mosaic tells the year since the creation of the world, the usual Jewish format. Additionally, that mosaic is dated as year two of the seven year Shmitta, or Sabbatical, cycle.

On the northern wall of the synagogue, the one closest to Jerusalem, an indentation shows the location of the Aron Kodesh where the Torah scrolls had been kept. The Aron itself, however,  has been removed and can be viewed in the Byzantine section of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem.

The building is oriented east-west, just as the Temple in Jerusalem. The steps going up into the synagogue are in three groups—three, five, and seven steps. This arrangement echoes the number of words in the three sentences of the Cohens’ blessing of the people.

The building is large for a city of this size, and clearly had a second story. In a modern synagogue, the second floor would be reserved for women. Whether or not the women actually sat separately from the men is another unanswered question. There are, of course, three possibilities. The women could have sat separately upstairs, or men sat up there because women did not go to synagogue. The men and women might have sat together throughout the building. No evidence exists to support or disprove any of the possibilities.

A very large round stone was standing inside the building near the entrance. It is thought that in times of danger, when bandits attacked the village, the residents would run to the stone walled synagogue. They would then roll the stone across the entrance for protection. Further evidence that the building was used for shelter in times of danger is provided by the entrance to a tunnel in the corner of the courtyard. The tunnel leads out to a cave in a nearby field. When marauders were sighted, the farmers could run to the cave, whose entrance was probably hidden by bushes. From there they could gain access to the synagogue. Several of the younger men from our tour went through the tunnel and reported that in places they had to crawl to get through. From the dirt on their trousers and shirts, I’d say it was a tight fit.

The many unusual features uncovered in the excavation of Susya have led to speculation about the origins and population of the city. One theory is that it was a city of Cohanim, of priests. Its location, fairly close to Jerusalem, meant that while the Temple still stood, the priests could travel there easily. After the destruction of the Temple, they remained ready to return to Jerusalem on short notice when it would be rebuilt. That would also explain the high prevalence of mikves. They could keep themselves in a state of tahara (ritual purity) for the imminent restoration of Temple worship. The orientation of synagogue, use of the double dating system, and Jerusalem style burial also point to preservation of the Temple culture. This would have been more important to priests than to the rest of the people.

The presence of the mezuzot, mikves, and menorah decorations indicate all the residents of Susya were Jews. But as for the other questions, we have no answers. They remain open mysteries.

Where Susya is:

The Synagogue by the Hot Springs

Symbols of the Temple depicted in the mosaic floor of the 4th century CE synagogue at Hamat Tveriya, just south of modern Tiberius
Symbols of the Temple depicted in the mosaic floor of the 4th century CE synagogue at Hamat Tveriya, just south of modern Tiberius.

Steam rose from the open drain next to the sidewalk where we stood. My class from Pardes Institute was at Hamat T’veriya, listening to Leah Rosenthal review the Talmudic discussion about the use of hot water on Shabbat. Is it permissible to warm food with steaming water from such a spring on Shabbat? Is it permissible to bathe in a hot spring? Well, it depends….

Steam rises from the underground hot water through the chimneys at Hamat T'veriya, near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)
Steam rises from the underground hot water through the chimneys near the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee)

Behind her, steam rose from chimneys built into the ground.

Hamat, or Hot Place as it was originally called, sits at the southern end of the modern city of Tiberias. It’s near the southern end of the Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The hot springs have drawn people to the area for millennia, and are reason Tiberias is located where it is.

If you come here by cab, you have to be sure the driver understands you want to see the archeological area and national park. Most drivers will automatically take you a little further south to the modern installations of Hamat Gader. There, you can indulge in a leisurely soak in the mineral-rich waters that bubble up, pre-heated by geological forces.

In 1985, our family had spent a couple hours at the modern hot springs on a synagogue-sponsored trip. It was late December, and we had just passed several cold damp days in Jerusalem. Between the normal Jerusalem winter chill, and the lack of heat almost everywhere, I had often felt like I could never get warm. I was unenthusiastic about putting on a bathing suit and immersing in an outdoor pool. But the building itself was very warm. My youngest child needed close adult supervision. And the steam rising off the indoor and outdoor pools enticed me.

The warm water quickly warmed even my cold feet. It was so warm and relaxing, I didn’t feel like swimming—I just wanted to drift near the inlet where the hot water entered the large pool.

My son asked me to come to the outdoor pool with him. Standing in the pool was a surprise. The water, heated underground, was hot, but the air above the pool was chilly. I quickly bent my knees to keep as much of my body underwater as possible. I understood the appeal of hot springs, and why Sir Walter in Jane Austen’s Persuasion took his family to Bath.

On our trip current to Hamat T’veriya with Pardes, however, we were interested in the hot springs only in passing. We had come to see the remains of a synagogue from the Mishnaic period.

Past the chimneys venting underground steam, a side path leads uphill a short distance to a modern shed-like building. It protects a fourth century CE synagogue, which was discovered in 1920. The archeologists who excavated the sanctuary discovered two older synagogues under it. A holy place is a Holy Place. If a particular site was hallowed by house of prayer, then it was only logical to build its replacement on the same site.

Visitors are restricted to an elevated platform that runs along two sides of the preserved structure. The remaining walls, about waist high, surround a beautiful mosaic floor. The mosaics follow the same pattern as I’ve seen in other synagogues of the Mishnaic period.

Because it was built in the north, the building faces south. A clear glass sheet stands on the south side, where an indentation in the floor indicates the Aron might have stood. “Ve’ahavta l’rayacha camocha” (You shall love your neighbor as yourself) is painted in black letters on the glass.

The architectural details of the synagogue, however, are not terribly interesting. The mosaics are the focus of attention.

Mosaic floor dedicatory inscriptions in Greek in the synagogue at Hamat T'veriya
Mosaic floor dedicatory inscriptions in Greek in the synagogue at Hamat T’veriya.

On the north side are several inscriptions that sound familiar to anyone who has ever entered a synagogue. One says, in Greek, “May he be remembered for good and for blessing, Profoturos the elder constructed this aisle of the synagogue. Blessing upon him. Amen. Shalom.” Shalom is written in Hebrew. The inscriptions, ancient equivalents of “Dedicated to the memory of Mr. and Mrs. Aaron Cohen,” shows how some things just never change.

Closest to the south wall, a row of mosaics depict symbols of the Temple: shofars, trumpets, an incense shovel. The center of this mosaic shows a large menorah, which had become the prime symbol of Judaism. There are no six-pointed stars in the building, or indeed, in any of the early synagogues. Today’s symbol of Judaism, now called the Star of David or Magen David, did not come into common use until the 17th century CE.

The most striking mosaic, in the center of the floor, is a large circle, enclosed in a square. On its circumference, the circle is divided into twelve sections, each one portraying a sign of the zodiac, or as they are called in Hebrew, a mazal. The term mazal refers to the belief that one’s sign determines one’s fate in life—a belief borrowed from surrounding cultures. We’ve seen zodiac cycle mosaics in other Byzantine era synagogues. They seem to have been a common decorative motif of the period.

Signs of the Zodiac, in mosaic floor of 4th century CE synagogue near the Kinneret
Signs of the Zodiac, in mosaic floor of 4th century CE synagogue near the Kinneret

The signs of the zodiac are symbolic of the sun’s position in the sky at a particular time of the year. Therefore, it is natural to see some symbolic depiction of the sun in the middle of the zodiac cycle. However, this mosaic seems to go a little too far. In the chariot, which carries the sun through the sky every day, stands not the sun, but the figure of a man. Helios, the sun god, rides his chariot across the synagogue floor? That seems strange to our eyes.

Today’s belief in the power of astrology is most likely not the same as it was ancient Israel. Lester Ness postulates that ancient Jews believed that because God created the stars, He controlled their powers. TThe signs of the zodiac were thus visual symbols of God’s power. Jews could not make a picture or a statue of God for their synagogue. Instead, they made mosaics that showed the emissaries through which He worked. In this way, they showed they were both part of the cultures that surrounded them, and also separate from those cultures. Their use of imagery of the zodiac and of Helios symbolized God’s power and control of the world.

The synagogue in Hamat T’veriya is an example of how Judaism has changed over the centuries, yet how it has remained the same. It doesn’t matter how God’s power is expressed. It could be through the astrological power He gave the stars, through the ten plagues that led to the Exodus from Egypt, or through the miraculous survival of the Jews through so many centuries. But our belief in one God remains steady.

The Sages of the Mishna at Beit Shearim

The entrance courtyard to the cave at Beit Shearim in which Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is buried
The entrance courtyard to the cave at Beit Shearim in which Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is buried

When Uri Savir was growing up in the early 1950s, the area around Kiryat Tivon was largely undeveloped. On Shabbat, when his father did not have to work, the two of them would explore the surrounding hills of the Galil. They collected mushrooms in the forest. Often they walked to the monument to Alexander Zaid, who had founded the Jewish self defense organization, Hashomer, in 1926. In the late winter and early Spring Uri and his father picked the bright red kalaniot (anemones) that grew wild.

The hills are pocked with caves. Uri and his father never entered any of them. It was too dangerous —you could get cave fever from exploring a cave. But they would stand at the openings and look in, staring at the sarcophagi inside. In those days, the biggest archeological find was a menorah engraved on one cave entrance.

Everyone knew that the menorah was a uniquely Jewish design. Finding it on a burial cave meant that the sarcophagi inside held the remains of Jews. These caves are just outside ancient Beit Shearim, one of the cities where the Rabbis of the late Roman period developed the Mishna. The Mishna, or oral law, is a compilation of Rabbinic discussions and interpretations explaining Torah law. Many of the Tannaim, the sages of the Mishna, were buried in sarcophagi in Beit Shearim. All the burial caves are man-made, carefully dug out of the soft limestone, with alcoves and shelves to hold the deceased. As the vast necropolis was excavated, the graves of many of these Rabbis were identified.

The caves had been discovered in 1830, but little  archeological work was done then. Benjamin Mazar came and did some excavation from 1936 to 1940. In the 1950s, Nahman Avigad continued the earlier work.

By the time Mazar and Avigad started work in Beit Shearim, grave robbers and unscrupulous antiquities dealers had already raided the caves. Nonetheless, it was remarkable how much of historical value still remained. The necropolis has been recognized as a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO. For this designation, it had to meet two criteria. The first one is that the site demonstrates an interchange of human values, including architecture, technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design. Secondly, the site must offer a unique testimony of a living cultural tradition, or a lost one..

We were touring the Galil with my class from Pardes Institute,  studying the sages of the Mishna.. This tour of places associated with the development of the Mishna was our capstone. Because we had many places to see, we entered only two caves.

One of the highly decorated sarcophagi in the Cave of the Coffins in Bet Shearim
One of the highly decorated sarcophagi in the Cave of the Coffins in Bet Shearim

The first cave we entered has been named the “Cave of the Coffins” by the Nature and Parks Authority. When first excavated, this cave held 135 coffins, twenty of which were carved with decorations. Several of these coffins sit in alcoves of the cave, lighted to show off the animals and plant ornamentation.

At the far end of this cave a menorah has been carved from the wall. Many menorot have been found in the caves, but this one is the largest, standing 1.9 meters high by 1.25 meters wide, a little over 6 feet by 4 feet. The Parks Authority has worked with the Israel Antiquities Authority to preserve it in situ.

The entrance to the Cave of the Coffins has three doorways. Another cave with three doorways sits in a courtyard, deliberately built there. Additionally, benches cut into the hill above the cave, allow visitors to the grave to pray or study All this is in keeping with the stature of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who is buried in this cave. As Nasi, the President or Prince, he was head of the Sanhedrin, the Rabbinical court. His major work was compiling the Mishna, committing the Oral Law to writing so it would not be lost as the Jews scattered throughout the world. His stature was so great, that to this day, he is simply referred to simply as “Rebbi.”

Interestingly, Rebbi’s name is not inscribed anywhere in the cave. However, the names of his two sons, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Gamliel, are painted in the chamber closest to the door. A stone inscribed with name of the man that Rebbi had appointed head of the Sanhedrin in his stead, Anina the Younger, was also found here.

In the back of the cave are two graves dug directly in the ground. No coffin was found, just the two graves, side by side, as might have been prepared for a man and his wife. The graves were originally covered with large stones. The structure of this grave is another bit of evidence that Rebbi was laid to rest here.

At the time of his death, Rebbi lived in Tzippori, a larger town about 15 km away. Nonetheless, he left instructions that he be buried in Beit Shearim. He also requested that he not be put in a stone coffin, but be dressed in a simple linen shroud and laid directly in the ground. Today, the custom in Jerusalem is to be buried as Rebbi was—dressed in hand sewn linen shrouds and laid directly in the ground.

Leah Rosenthal teaching a gemara about Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi in the outdoor "classroom" above his grave at Beit Shearim
Leah Rosenthal teaching a gemara about Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi in the outdoor “classroom” above his grave at Beit Shearim

We exited the cave, and climbed the old worn rock steps up the hill into which the burial cave is carved. We sat on the stone benches of the outdoor classroom for a short class. Leah Rosenthal, our teacher, presented an excerpt from the Babylonian Talmud about Rebbi. She joined us on the two day trip to continue the learning we have been doing since last Fall.

Our course has focused on the personalities of the Tannaim, as revealed by what was written in the Mishna and in the Gemara. The Gemara is the record of the discussions of the Rabbis about the Mishna. It records their decisions about the halakha, the religious law. Because the Gemara developed simultaneously in the Galil and in Babylonia, there are two versions, known as the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The excerpt Leah chose to learn with us was from the Babylonian Talmud.

To start, she pointed out that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi was not the first one to compile texts. Rather, he was the sage who had such stature that his compilation was accepted by everyone. He ushered in a new era. From that time, to this day, all students study the Mishna, as compiled and redacted by Rebbi.

Leah chose to highlight Rebbi’s skill as a master teacher. The excerpt starts with his quoting a line from Psalms: “But whose desire is in the law of Lord.”(1:2). Rebbi explained this as meaning that “One can learn only that part of Torah which is one’s desire.”

The Talmud goes on to illustrate Rebbi’s application of the verse from Psalms. Two students, R. Levi and R. Shimon, disagreed about what to study: Psalms or Proverbs. Rebbi decided to study Psalms. They read the first chapter. When they reached the second verse, Rebbi explained it in his usual way. R. Levi stood up and said, “Rebbi! You have given me the right to rise!” He understood that because he did not desire to study Psalms, he would not learn much from that class. Rather, he would learn more from studying Proverbs, as he had originally wanted. Rebbi, by stating that one can only learn well what his heart, had given him permission to study something else.

Flowers and trees bloom at Beit Shearim National Park in March
Flowers and trees bloom at Beit Shearim National Park in March

Sitting at the top of the hill, on the ancient stones, above Rebbi’s grave, we learned some of his work. In those few moments, Leah had brought him to life.

As long as students continue to study Mishna and Gemara, the ancient sages remain alive.

Looking out at the flowering trees and wildflowers scattered in the grass, we had no desire to go elsewhere to learn.

Where is Beit Shearim?

Looking for David and Goliath on Tel Azeka

Children listening to teacher explaining the importance of Tel Azeka, Israel.
Children listening to teacher explaining the importance of Tel Azeka, Israel.

On Rosh Chodesh Adar, the first day of the new month, my class on the tribes of Israel traveled through the land allotted to Judah. This is the land that became the majority of kingdom of Judea, as described in the first book of Kings.

Kalaniot (wild red anemones) in bloom. Be careful not to step on them--they're a protected species.
Kalaniot (wild red anemones) in bloom. Be careful not to step on them–they’re a protected species.

At this time of year, at the end of the rainy season, the land is especially beautiful, because the wildflowers are blooming. The southern part of the country celebrates with a series of special events called Darom Adom, the Red South. The events take their name from the kalaniot, or anemone, which is bright red.

Pardes, where I study, was not the only school on the move. At Tel Azeka we competed for space to sit with groups from at least three elementary schools. The students all looked to be ten to twelve years old. One group must have been from a religious school; the boys were all wearing black slacks and white shirts, the uniform of the day on Rosh Chodesh.

From the top of Tel Azeka it was easy to understand the strategic importance of the site. In the time of the Judges and the Kings, it was a border city, between the Israelites in the mountains and the Philistines in the plain. The tel is located just above the Elah Valley. The young shepherd David began his military career in this valley by killing the Philistine champion Goliath with a well-aimed stone from a slingshot. On the far side of the valley, the Mountains of Judea lead off into the distance.

Near the end of the period of the First Temple, the Assyrians conquered and destroyed the city. Azeka was almost the last to fall to king Sennacheriv before his unsuccessful assault on Jerusalem. The city was rebuilt, only to be conquered and destroyed again less than a hundred years later. by the Babylonians. The Babylonians went on to conquer Lachish and then Jerusalem, where they destroyed the Temple and exiled much of the population to Babylonia.

The Judean Mountains, as seen from the top of Tel Azeka, Israel.
The Judean Mountains, as seen from the top of Tel Azeka, Israel.

We stood there, admiring the view, and enjoying the antics of the beautiful children. I didn’t envy the teachers, especially the ones trying to corral the boys. I wondered how much the boys in the almond trees absorbed of the teacher’s explanation of the Biblical events.

Here in Israel the Bible isn’t a fusty old book. It’s a living text and a guide to the land these boys and girls walk every day. They may not remember the strategic placement of sites. They may never be able spell Sennachariv or Nebuchadnezzar. But they’ll grow up knowing they live in a beautiful land with thousands of years of history.

And if they’re lucky, it won’t be on next week’s test.

The Jordan River at Qasr al Yahud

Baptism in the Jordan River at Qasr-al-Yahud, where Joshua led the Children of Israel into Eretz Israel
Baptism in the Jordan River at Qasr-al-Yahud, where Joshua led the Children of Israel into Eretz Israel

If you’ve ever listened to how the old Negro spirituals portray the Jordan River, you would expect it to be deep, wide, and chilly. To cross it you need to row your boat ashore. The reality is rather different.

At Qasr al Yahud, near Jericho, the river is shallow, narrow, and pretty warm. And because it is an international border guarded by soldiers on both sides, the boat is useless.

Warning that the river is an international border
Warning that the river is an international border

This week, I went to Qasr al Yahud on a tour with my class from Matan, a women’s seminary in southern Jerusalem. We’re studying the territories assigned to each tribe during the settlement of the land of Canaan, as described in the books of Joshua and Judges. And where better to start than at the place Joshua led the people across the Jordan River?

G-d tells Joshua that the Cohanim, the priests, will lead the crossing. The Cohanim will carry the Ark of the Covenant, and when they step into the river, the waters will stop; they will heap up and the Children of Israel will cross on dry land. It sounds a lot like what happened to their parents and grandparents at the Red Sea when they left Egypt forty years earlier.

We know the crossing occurred a few days before Passover, the end of the rainy season. The Tanakh specifically tells us that the river was in flood. The Jordan must have been a mighty river back then, not the paltry stream we see today. In a year of plentiful rain, there would have been a significant flow of water. Photos from 1935 show the Jordan in flood, spread out for miles.

It wouldn’t happen today, even in a year of plentiful rain, because water flow in the river is highly regulated. The three main tributaries of the Jordan—the Dan, the Hasbani, the Banias—come out of the mountains join together just north of Lake Kinneret (Sea of Galilee). The outflow from the southern end of the lake is controlled by the Degania dam, which is rarely opened wide. Very little of the river water flows out the southern end of the lake. Instead it is channeled through the national water carrier to cities, towns, and farms in Israel, or through special pipes to neighboring Jordan.

During rainy season, dry wadis throughout Israel become streams and rivers. Those on the eastern side of the watershed discharge into the Jordan, increasing its flow. Water from farms whose irrigation is not carefully controlled also increases groundwater runoff. Because many Palestinian villages in Areas A and B refuse to connect to sewage treatment lines, surface runoff is highly polluted. Between the low water flow in the river, plus the sewage and other pollutants in the river, by the time it gets to the vicinity of Jericho, it is a ugly greenish brown color.

Neither the small size of the river nor the pollution discourage Christian pilgrims. Every year approximately 300,000 visitors arrive, many to be baptized where John baptized Jesus more than two thousand years ago. Although the exact site of the baptism is unknown, evidence from the Bible points to the area known by its Arabic name as Qasr al Yahud.

Qasr al Yahud, like many names in Arabic and in Hebrew, can be interpreted two ways. It might mean “the Palace of the Jews” or it might mean the “Crossing [Place] of the Jews.” The latter translation refers to where the Jews crossed the Jordan River into the Land of Canaan.

The Biblical description of the river crossing indicates that this is the correct area. It is described as being opposite Jericho. Driving down from Jerusalem, we went past Jericho, and could see its outskirts behind us as we turned onto the Qasr al Yahud access road.

The Jordan River, for all its length from the Kinneret to the Dead Sea, is far below sea level. Near Jericho the land around the river is flat; if it is not too hazy, you can see for miles in any direction.

However, several miles north of Jericho, the mountains of Samaria come right down to the river. When the river is in flood, the mountains can act as a natural dam, constricting the flow. If an earthquake dislodges boulders, the river can actually be stopped here. Earthquakes did indeed stop the flow of the river for several days after an earthquake in 1546. The 1927 earthquake may have also have blocked the river and caused the water to back up for a few hours. Some scholars have theorized that such an earthquake was responsible for the Jordan stopping and the waters heaping up “like a wall,” allowing the Jews to cross without getting wet.

It is unlikely that such an earthquake would cause the waters to accumulate like a wall today, unless it also caused the Degania Dam to collapse.

The Bible records another instance of the Jordan River stopping to allow people to cross it on dry land. In Kings II, Elijah and Elisha walk to the river from Jericho. Elijah hits the water with his cloak, and the river splits so the two prophets can cross. As Elijah ascends to heaven in a whirlwind, Elisha grabs his cloak. He returns to Jericho, using the cloak to split the river so he a can again cross without getting his feet wet.

The people we saw on the banks of the Jordan this week were not worried about getting their feet wet. They had come to Qasr al Yehud specifically to dip in the Jordan’s water, as Jesus had.

 

Baptismal gowns for sale at the gift shop, paid for in your choice of currencies
Baptismal gowns for sale at the gift shop, paid for in your choice of currencies

The gift shop sells white baptismal gowns for the convenience of pilgrims who have not brought their own. Next to the gift shop is an enclosed area for those being baptized to change and to shower. Given the high level of pollution, post-baptism showers, even if not required by religion, are certainly necessary from a health standpoint.

I watched as the priest spoke to a group. They stood on the wooden platform as they prayed together and sang a hymn. Then the priest led them to the stairs. He stood on the second step, getting wet up to his knees. Repeatedly filling a cup with water, he poured it  over the head of each person in turn. After being baptized, most of the people waded out into the waist deep water and dunked themselves up to their shoulders. Out in the deeper water, they lost their seriousness, and laughed as they bobbed up and down. Not one of them approached the floating cord that marked the border between Israel and Jordan.

Many of them posed for photos with their friends as they came back up onto the platform. I took a few photos of them too, but as I did so, I thought of how

Sitting in the shade on the other side of the river, a Jordanian soldier is more interested in his phone than in the people on the Israeli side of the Jordan
Sitting in the shade on the other side of the river, the Jordanian soldier behind me is more interested in his phone than in the people on the Israeli side of the Jordan

I feel when tourists at the Kotel take photos. It always makes me uncomfortable to see a camera pointed in my direction as I pray. Yet, here I was doing the same thing. So I pointed my camera in another direction—towards the wooden platform on the other side of the river.

The Jordanian side of the river is as holy as the Israeli one, but we saw only two or three pilgrims on the opposite bank. The Jordanian soldier sitting there seemed bored. It looked like he was more interested in his phone than in watching the river. Just like the IDF soldiers on our side.

I could only wish that the soldiers on all our borders would have such dull uninteresting duties.

A Modern Grave in the Kidron Valley

The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir, as seen from the western side of the Kidron Valley
The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir, as seen from the western side of the Kidron Valley

The view of the Old City walls above us across the Kidron Valley was impressive. We could see the terraced steep hill we had recently walked down. The tan color of its retaining walls is punctuated by dark green bushes and small trees. The crenelated city wall stands on the top of the hill like a crown. The Old City is on one of the lower hills of the Mountains of Judea; from the top of the Mount of Olives you look down on it. The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir is located near the bottom of the Mount of Olives, in the Kidron Valley. From there, the city looks like the peak of the mountain range.

The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir is carved into the bedrock of the Mount of Olives. From the road just below the city walls, it looks like a large rectangular entryway, held open by two limestone pillars. But from the foot of the Mount of Olives I saw that appearance was deceptive. The columns are merely decoration, carved out of the same rock as the rest of the cave. The actual entrance is on the side. We clambered up some rocks, then ascended three short metal stairways to enter the tomb. From there,we climbed an interior stone stairway.

The central large room is well lit in the late afternoon, as the sun shines in through the pillars. From the inside, it is clear that they serve no structural purpose—they are part of the rock from which the cave was cut. But they do look nice, and the space between them offers a beautiful view of the Old City.

Several smaller caves branch off from this main interior central space. In the second century BCE, the Hasmonean period, when the tomb was built, the dead would have spent their first year in a side cave. Later their bones would have been gathered and placed in stone ossuaries, which remained in the burial cave.

This is one of the few ancient tombs whose identity is known. The names are carved in Hebrew in the architrave, the space above the columns. The inscription translates as: “This is the tomb and the nefesh of Elazar, Haniah, Yoezer, Yehuda, Shimon, Yohanon, the sons of Joseph son of Obed, Joseph and Elazar the sons of Haniah, priests from the sons of Hezir.”

The tomb, the man-made cave where we stood, is the place for the physical body to lie in eternity. It was built during the period when Greek influence on beliefs was prevalent. This included their belief in the separation of body and soul. Thus, a “nefesh,” a special structure to house the soul of the deceased (his nefesh), was constructed behind the tomb. Other tombs from that period, such as the Tomb of Avshalom, feature a nefesh on top.

Because of its layout, experts believe that this tomb was most likely constructed the first century BCE. But, the inscription is of a much later style from around 100 CE. Perhaps no official notice was needed when the descendants of Hezir were entombed. Everyone in town knew which tomb belonged to which family. But as the Jews began to scatter throughout the Roman empire, labeling burial sites became necessary. Thus the list of the names of the sons of Joseph the son of Obed was carved .

When we see tombs, it is natural to ask, “Who is buried here?” But the more important question, the one many people do not ask, is “Who deserves something so impressive?”

Our guide, Re’ut, explained that in the late Hasmonean and Herodian periods there were only a few families who could afford tombs this elaborate. The priestly family of Hezir was one of the older families in Judea and

Zachariah's Tomb isn't actually a tomb, but a Nefesh, a structure built to hold the soul of the deceased
Zachariah’s Tomb isn’t actually a tomb, but a Nefesh, a structure built to hold the soul of the deceased

apparently had more resources than most other families. The family of Hezir is listed in the book of Nehemiah. They were Cohanim who returned in the first wave of resettlement of the land in 539 BCE.

We exited the cave and filed into the space between the tomb of the Sons of Hezir and the next monument, that of the priest and prophet Zechariah. He had run afoul of the government of King Yehoash by attacking idolatry, when the first Temple still stood. On the order of the king, the people stoned him to death. The sages of the Talmud considered his death especially bad. In killing him the people had committed seven separate sins. They had killed a priest, a prophet, a judge, spilling innocent blood, which defiled the Temple. They had murdered him on Yom Kippur  which was on the Sabbath, thus desecrating two holy days.

Like many other recognized burial places in Israel, the tomb of Zechariah does not hold his bones. It’s solid rock, the nefesh of an unidentified tomb. Apparently, souls did not need empty space within which to dwell for eternity. The the Ionic columns and Egyptian acanthus leaf carvings, shows it was carved out of the bedrock during the time of Herod. That was more than five hundred years after the prophet’s death.

I found what was behind Zechariah’s “tomb” more interesting than the structure itself. The space is about ten feet wide, which would have been sufficient for all of us. However most of the area is taken up by two modern graves.

The graves are those of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref 

The graves of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref and his wife, in the Kidron Valley.
The graves of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref and his wife, in the Kidron Valley.

and his wife. Rav Shlomo Zalman was a follower of the Gaon of Vilna (the GR”A), an influential rabbi in nineteenth century Lithuania. The GR”A encouraged his students to settle the land of Israel long before Theodore Herzl founded political Zionism.

The Tzoref family made their to the Holy Land, landing in Haifa in 1811. They first settled in Tsfat, but after the 1813 cholera epidemic, they moved to Jerusalem. Rav Zalman quickly became one of the leaders of the Ashkenazi community. In need of funds, the community sent Rav Zalman to Europe to raise money to support the community. On his way back to Jerusalem, he stopped in Egypt. There he received permission from Muhammed Ali, the ruler of the land of Israel, to rebuild the Hurva synagogue. The original Hurva had been destroyed more than 130 years earlier.

Unfortunately, he did not live to see the building whole and in use. He survived a first attempt on his life. The next attempt was more successful—an Arab hit him on the head with a sword. He lingered for three months before dying of his wounds. He was buried on the Mount of Olives, behind Zachariah’s Tomb. The original grave markers no longer exist. The current tombstones were put on the original burial site more than a hundred years later..

Rabbi Shlomo Zalmon’s influence in Jerusalem and Israel is felt to this day through his hundreds of descendents. His son Mordechai changed the family name from Tzoref (silversmith) to Salomon, in honor of Rav Zalman. One grandson, Moshe Yoel Salomon, founded the city of Petah Tikve. He was among the first people to move outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Following the 1863 cholera epidemic, he and six friends built the neighborhood of Nahalat Shiva (Homestead of the Seven). Today Nahalat Shiva is a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. It is a vibrant area with two new boutique hotels, and restaurants, many of which feature outdoor seating. It’s a great place to go to buy gifts- shops sell jewelry, ceramics, clothing, and Judaica.

In the national cemetery on Har Herzl, there is a monument to victims of terror. Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref’s name is listed there, the first victim of terror in modern Israel. As we walked back up the hill, I wondered what he would have thought of today’s city. It’s a far cry from the crowded walled city he knew. But I think he would have been proud to pray in newly rebuilt Hurva synagogue, the architectural highlight of the Jewish Quarter of the walled city.