Tag Archives: Jewish Quarter

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.”)


Archeologist Shows Byzantine Jerusalem

Archeologist Dr. Oren Gutfeld at the excavation under Tiferet Israel Synagogue, in ancient Jerusalem's Jewish Quarter
Archeologist Dr. Oren Gutfeld at the excavation under the site of the Tiferet Israel Synagogue, in Jerusalem’s ancient Jewish Quarter

Much of Jerusalem and the area around it is basically one big archeological dig. In some places, like the Givati parking lot, it is a standard open excavation. In other places, like the Rova, the Jewish Quarter, much of what current excavators seek is hidden under buildings. Thus, the archeologists’ work is a matter of happenstance and serendipity.

Although it seemed like a disaster in 1948, the destruction of most of the Rova by the Jordanians was actually a gift to historians and archeologists. So many buildings had been destroyed and rubble was everywhere. Therefore, when the Israel recaptured the city in 1967, rebuilding had to start with clearing up and sorting through the remains. Nahman Avigad, a well respected and experienced archeologist was in charge of the first phase. For several years, reconstruction was done only with shovels. What they uncovered changed our pictures of Jerusalem back to the time of the book of Genesis.

Excavations in and around the Old City continue today. Our knowledge increases in fits and starts. Construction of new buildings always begins with a salvage dig, to find out what was on that site before.

Megalim, the Institute for Study of Ancient Jerusalem, is sponsoring a series of tours led by archeologists about finds in the city. Each “Tour with the Investigator,” features the supervising archeologist of a site. He discusses his project and what they have found at the dig itself. It is conducted in Hebrew, of course.

At the end of November I went on a tour led by Dr. Oren Gutfeld. When he met us, he told us his major field of interest was the Byzantine period. We would see remains of Byzantine structures in several places in the Jewish Quarter.

Oren, as he insisted we call him, describes himself as being the recipient of a nes, a miracle. Near the end of his doctoral studies at Hebrew University, he had to decide on a dissertation topic. His interest in the Byzantine period led him to examine two projects of the Emperor Justinian: the Cardo and the Nea Church.

The Cardo is the main north-south street in all Roman cities. Jerusalem’s Cardo had not yet been completely investigated. A major question remained: was its southern half Roman or Byzantine?

The Nea Church, the largest in the Middle East, was completed in 543 CE. It was largely destroyed about 70 years later when the Persians conquered Jerusalem in 614 CE. Many of the large stones that remained were taken to be used in construction in other parts of the city a few decades later.  Thus stones quarried and used by the Byzantines  can be seen incorporated into buildings from the Umayyad Muslim period.

At the time he started writing his dissertation, no one had examined the archeology of the Cardo or Nea Church incorporating contemporaneous Christian, Muslim, and Karaite texts. Nor had anyone yet fully compared their structure to other known Byzantine Churches or Roman and Byzantine Cardos. His work would change the conception of the size and layout of Jerusalem in the fifth and sixth centuries CE, and help us understand life in the city in the late Byzantine and early Muslim periods.

With that introduction, he led us into the basement of the Hurva Synagogue. I’ve been there before. I’ve seen the Second Temple period mikveh and the small Roman street that covers part of it. After pointing out these features, and explaining their significance, Oren led us into an area behind us. We stood there, fifty people crowded onto a small wooden platform, and looked down at the continuation of that Roman street. When I was in the Hurva basement less than a year ago, the street extended a few feet to a wall. The guide spoke for less than two minutes. Nothing to see here; we moved on.

Byzantine street that leads to the Cardo being excavated under the Hurva Synagogue
Byzantine street that leads to the Cardo being excavated under the Hurva Synagogue

Now that street extends much further. It still ends at the wall, but the wall has a hole in the middle through which you can see that pavement continues. The wall also has a wooden ladder leaning against it. And at the top of the ladder is another hole in the wall, through which one might crawl into the lighted area beyond it.

Oren explained to us that as part of his ongoing investigations of the Cardo, he visited all the modern shops on the eastern side of the street. Then he used the word nes again. In one jewelry store, he noticed the peak of an arch, filled in with other stone, coming up through the floor in the back. When he asked the proprietor about it, the man replied that behind the arch was an empty space. The man used it as a safe, to store things.

That was the clue Oren was looking for. With the store owner’s permission, his team broke through the wall, and found the continuation of the street we saw under the Hurva Synagogue. I don’t call that a miracle. That’s a scientist immersed in his work. He knows where to look and what questions to ask to find the missing parts of the story he wants to piece together.

After exiting the synagogue, we walked across Hurva Square to the Street of the Karaites. We stopped in front of a one story tall stone wall, pierced by several arched openings. This was once the Tiferet Israel Synagogue, which rivaled the Hurva in size and beauty. The top of its dome was even higher than that of the Hurva. The story is that the congregation ran out of moneyduring its construction and could not complete the building. In 1869, Emperor Franz Joseph stopped in Jerusalem on his way to Egypt. Noticing the synagogue, he asked Rabbi Nissan Beck why it had no roof. The Rabbi supposedly replied that it had removed its hat in honor of the Austrian Emperor. No doubt amused by the rabbi’s words, the Emperor donated money to build the dome.

The synagogue stood tall on the Old City’s hill, taller than the Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa mosque. During the War for Independence, the Jordanian Legion systematically worked its way through the Jewish Quarter. On May 21,1948, they destroyed the Tiferet Israel Synagogue. Only part of the front wall remained recognizable amid the rubble.

Looking down into completed archeological excavation where the destroyed Tiferet Israel Synagogue is due to be rebuilt in the Rova of Jerusalem's Old City
The archeological excavation where the destroyed Tiferet Israel Synagogue is due to be rebuilt

After standing as a reminder of the destruction for more than sixty years, the synagogue is about to be rebuilt, almost exactly the same as originally. Oren had the privilege of conducting the salvage dig to determine what was under the ruins. He pulled some keys out of his pocket and unlocked the padlock that secured the sheet metal fence around the site. We filed down the metal stairway to stand on the boardwalk on one side of a very deep pit.

From inside we looked up at the arches of the doors on street level. The arches will be incorporated into the reconstructed synagogue. People coming in will enter the new building through the original nineteenth century doorway.

The excavation, which is now completed, took several years because it had to be done painstakingly. Examining each layer required removing everything above it. Therefore, they systematically documented everything. Once a layer was fully excavated and examined, the archeologists dug out the next layer down. Gradually they moved down through the layers, finding artifacts from successively earlier times

In the synagogue basement level they found the mikve and the boilers that warmed the water. Heated mikvaot were rare in the nineteenth century, so this Ottoman period mikveh was famous.   Artifacts were found from many earlier periods as well, including the twelfth century Mamluk.   Findings from the Byzantine period included a white mosaic floor and a wall fresco. They also found the continuation of the street from the Cardo that ran under the Hurva. Below the Byzantine layer was a thick layer of black ash. The layer of ash this deep was evidence of the burning of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 CE.

Below the ash they found artifacts dating back to the times of Second and First Temples. Oren told us about finding a broken stone, half hidden in the black ash. As they cleaned it, he saw that it had an inscription on it–two lines written in Aramaic. As he began to decipher the ancient Hebrew script, he realized that this was an official weight belonging to a member of the family of Katros. He reminded us that a similar weight was found many years ago in the ash layer of house not too far away. It also belonged to the same family, which makes sense historically. The Katros family is mentioned in the Bible as having been responsible for weights and measures in the Temple. He still sounds moved by uncovering something with directly connected to the Temple.

Learning how archeologists are recovering our past is always fascinating. Listening to them tell about it, at the site where they discovered the evidence, and hearing the excitement in their voices, makes it immediate. Even if I don’t understand every word, I catch that sense of wonder.

And if that archeologist says holding a Temple period relic is a miracle, I’m not going to argue with him.

Kaytana Savta Keeps Grandparents Busy

August is the end of the summer, the last month of Hofesh hagadol, the big vacation. Even the Yeshivas with eleven-month academic years give students three weeks off at this time of year. The professionally-run day camps have completed their sessions. Children are freed from all scheduled activities. But—and herein lies the problem—most parents still have to work.

The solution? Grandparents. IF you’re lucky enough to have some on call. And IF they are energetic enough to keep up with the grandchildren.

Kaytana Saba is in session. Or in my case, Kaytana Savta.

Four weeks ago, we had all three Bernstein girls overnight. We spent most of one day at the Bloomfield Science Museum. I’m not sure if they learned any science, but they had fun playing with the blocks and levers, looking at the plants, and playing with the optical illusions. We also saw a 3D video that compared the lives of two small rodents facing life-threatening challenges in very different habitats. The young chipmunk in a northern forest had to find and store food for the winter, fighting a larger older chipmunk to protect his supplies. The young desert rat had to find food and escape from a large snake on his first foray from the nest into the surround desert. Who would have thought you could care so much about the fate of these tiny creatures? But we all held our breath and rooted for these brave little rodents to make it through their day.

I don’t do well at 3D movies; an ear infection when I was studying pediatric nursing has left me with a tendency to get dizzy. Closing my eyes at a few critical junctures got me through the film without losing my breakfast.

I was not the only grandparent at the museum that day. A quick glance around the auditorium revealed me that audience members were either under the age of 12 or over 60. Not that I needed proof by then. All morning I had heard children calling ”Saba!” or “Savta!” No child called for their father or mother to come see what they had just discovered.

On Wednesday we had gone to a “multi-sensory show” about Jerusalem. That’s how the publicity describes it. The video screens surround the audience, not just on the sides, but on the floor and ceiling as well. The seats were equipped with safety belts and a safety bar.

The seats tilted and vibrated as the video swooped through the city’s narrow streets and over the red rooftops. Again, I had to control my dizziness by closing my eyes in a couple spots. The kids loved the experience. And once again, I sat in audience of people my age and their grandchildren. Kaytana Savta on a field trip.

As soon as we left the theater, the girls announced they were hungry. Unfortunately, we were in the Mamilla mall, an upscale shopping area in what for years had been falling apart ruins by the Old City walls. Given my granddau

Reaching up, to try to kiss the mezuza on the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem
Reaching up, to try to kiss the mezuza on the Jaffa Gate, Jerusalem

ghters’ tastes in food, I was not about to pay Mamilla prices for lunch. But I knew a pizza place in the Old City. “The Jaffa Gate,” I said, “is up there, at the end of the stores.”

I’m not sure they would have agreed to pizza in the Rova if they had known it would be a half hour walk. But they were eager to go. We spent a few minutes at the Jaffa Gate as Yael clowned around trying to reach up to kiss the large mezuza.

Walking to the pizza place, it struck me. Here I was, in the heart of the Holy City, walking through the Jewish Quarter, as if it was a normal thing to do. I grew up thinking of Jerusalem’s Rova the same way I thought about the moon. It was there, but inaccessible. The moon was inaccessible because of physics; the Old City inaccessible because of politics. Both situations changed in the late 1960s. And although I’ll never walk on the moon, walking through the Jewish Quarter has become so ordinary, I thought nothing of taking my granddaughters there for a slice of pizza and an ice cream cone.

When I was a teenager, any access to the Old City of Jerusalem for Jews was a dream. Today it is a reality. My grandchildren are growing up taking for granted their ability to walk the streets of the Holy City.

May they always do so.

Seeing the Temple

The Levite statue at the entrance to Machon Hamikdash, the Temple Institute
The Levite and me

At the entrance to Machon HaMikdash, the Temple Institute, stands a statue of a Levite dressed in his work clothes—a white robe and head covering, red belt, and no shoes. He holds his long trumpet near his mouth, as if ready to provide the musical accompaniment to the next Psalm. As we entered the museum, several of us stopped to take pictures with him. It isn’t everyday you see a fully dressed Levite in the streets of Jerusalem.

In 1967, Rabbi Yisrael Ariel was a paratrooper, one of the first to pray at the liberated Kotel, the Western Wall of the Temple Mount. He interpreted that experience as being the start of the Geula—the final redemption of the Jewish people that would be completed with the rebuilding of the Temple on Har Habayit, the Temple Mount. If temple worship was to be reinstated, appropriate instruments and utensils would be needed. He and a group of like-minded people began to study the Bible, Mishna, and Gemara for descriptions of how these were originally made and what they looked like. And then they set out to make them.

It was a complicated process, requiring much study and interpretation of the original texts. Some of the details were argued over, back and forth among the scholars, until a final decision was made. And then they had to find craftsmen with the necessary skills to actually do the work. Many of Temple furnishings and tools were pure gold or silver.

My Tour with Text class on the Second Temple period spent an hour at the Temple Institute this week viewing these objects and learning about the Temple’s operation. It’s one thing to read about the Temple service in the Bible or Talmud. It’s another thing entirely to see the pitchers and bowls and spice altar in front of you, exactly as they looked in the Temple over 1900 years ago.  Every item in the museum is authentic, made to the original specifications.  As we walked through the museum, we saw silver trumpets, gold pitchers for olive oil, the copper washing station, a gold incense altar. They are all ready to be used tomorrow should the Moshiach arrive today. All authentic, except for two things that Shulie Mishkin, our guide, would be careful to point out.

Painting of Solomon inaugurating the First Temple in Jerusalem
King Solomon inaugurating the First Temple in Jerusalem, as the ark is carried in by Levites.

A large model of the Second Temple made of marble, copper, and gold, stands in the middle of the first room. It is surrounded of paintings depicting scenes in its history. The paintings are interesting because of their historical accuracy according to traditional commentators. They also show some creativity in their artistic interpretation of the events. It was easy to identify what each one depicted. One shows the tabernacle in the desert and at Shilo. King David dances in front of the ark as it enters into Jerusalem in another painting. A third shows King Solomon dedicating the Temple.

In the next three rooms, additional paintings depicted aspects of the Temple service. In the second room we saw paintings of them arrayed on fifteen steps as they would have been when playing and singing the Psalms of ascent. Two Cohen Gadol (High Priest) mannequins stood in a glass case near the entrance. One was dressed in the Cohen’s daily clothes and the other wore the all white Yom Kippur clothing. Shuli pointed out the small bells and pomegranates attached to the hem of the everyday blue tunic. “Just a few years ago,” she said, “we found a small bell in the old Roman sewer leading down from Har Habayit (the Temple Mount). So we know this is what they actually looked like.”

The High Priest, dressed for Yom Kippur (left) and for all the other days of the year (right), as specified in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, at Temple Institute, Jerusalem
The High Priest, dressed for Yom Kippur (left) and for all the other days of the year (right), as specified in the books of Exodus and Leviticus

I examined the clothes carefully. My father was a Cohen, as were his father and grandfather before him. Had I been a boy, I too would have been a Cohen, and worn these linen clothes to work. In those days before bleach and washing machines, how would we have kept those robes, hats, and sashes so white? Linen wrinkles easily—would our clothes ever have looked as neat as those on the mannequins? I wondered if the families were responsible for care of the priestly garments, or was there a special laundry on the Temple Mount.

A related question came up when we entered the third room, the one devoted to the inner sanctuary, menorah, and the Holy of Holies. Here we saw models of two items: the menorah and the ark. The Temple Institute commissioned a Temple menorah, more than six feet tall made of 43 kilos of pure gold. It stands in a clear case on one of the landings of the long stairway leading from the Jewish Quarter down to the Kotel, where almost anyone who visits the Kotel can see it.

The simulated ark sits behind a red curtain designed to hang in the sanctuary, in

Shulie Mishkin explains the Holy of Holies in front of a model of what the ark looked like, at the Temple Institute in Jerusalem
Shulie Mishkin explains the Holy of Holies and the ark

front of the Holy of Holies. The Cohen Gadol, the High Priest, was the only person to ever walk into the Holy of Holies, which he did only on Yom Kippur. The Holy of Holies was a dangerous place; if the High Priest was not worthy of his office, he would die. There was a custom to tie a rope around the Cohen’s foot, so if he did die, the other priests would be able to pull him out. In the last years of the Second Temple, when the High Priesthood was often achieved by bribery or political machinations, this situation supposedly occurred regularly.

Which raises the question: How did they clean the Holy of Holies? Jerusalem is on the edge of the desert and experiences regular dust storms in addition to its normal dusty condition. If you fail to clean your house for a week, you’ll notice the dust. If the dust settles on our bookcases so quickly even when the windows are closed, it surely was filtering into the Temple. And that’s in addition to the smoke of the incense the High Priest brought in on Yom Kippur, and perhaps spilled bits of the incense itself.

Apparently, the holiness pertains only to the floor. If you could enter without walking through the doorway, you were safe. On the roof of the building were two trap doors. Young priests would sit on a platform that was lowered down into the Holy of Holies, and they would reach over and clean it. In the Temple as it was remodeled by Herod, the ceiling was very high. Cleaning it must have been a pretty scary job.

In the last room, where groups can sit to discuss what they’ve learned of the past and the future, one last painting hangs on the wall. The rebuilt Temple looks just like the models of the Second Temple, and the city behind is full of large buildings. In the lower right corner, a tram pulls into the Temple light rail station.

As we were leaving, a large group of boisterous five and six year olds came down the street and into the building. The Temple Institute is not only a museum, but an educational institution. It makes the Bible come alive. These school children were excited to be coming here to see it all as it was, and will be.

I overheard two little boys talking as they approached. “Look,” said one, pointing to the statue at the top of the entrance stairs, ”There’s a Cohen.”

His friend corrected him. ”No it’s not. That’s a Levi—a Cohen wouldn’t have a trumpet.”

These children, they already know.

Behind the Kotel Plaza

Children play on Jerusalem's Cardo. In background are original Roman/Byzantine wall and pavement. Photo: Yehudit Reishtein
Children play on Jerusalem’s Cardo. In background are original Roman/Byzantine wall and pavement. Photo: Yehudit Reishtein

For years the back of the Kotel Plaza at the Western Wall of the Temple Mount was been blocked off with temporary eight foot high metal barriers. I assumed the barriers were to protect people on the plaza from construction on the cliff rising up to the Jewish Quarter. But when Aish HaTorah’s new building was completed, the barriers remained.

Recently, I found out why. They surrounded an active  archeological dig.

Roman cities were built with two main streets. They had an east-west street and a north-south street, called a Cardo. When the Romans came to Jerusalem, they built new streets through the city. Their east-west street ran from the Jaffa Gate to the Temple Mount. Today’s David Street in the Christian Quarter, which continues as the Street of the Chain through the Muslim (Arab) Quarter follows its route. The north-south street ran from the Damascus Gate to the Zion Gate. This Cardo is one of the Jerusalem landmarks shown on the 5th century mosaic map of the Holy Land found on the wall of a church in Medaba, Jordan. 

During the reconstruction of the ruined Jewish Quarter after 1967, the original Roman-Byzantine Cardo was found. Part of it remains open to the air, and several reconstructed Roman columns stand in it. Part of it runs under more recent construction. The old roof was repaired, and new shops were opened within the stone framework of the ancient ones. Much of the pavement is modern. But near the entrance to the roofed Cardo is a wide area where you can see, and walk on, the ancient paving stones. One rainy day I was walking there and saw young children riding their tricycles and bimbas. Their mothers stood nearby, chatting with each other. No doubt they were glad to have  the dry place for their youngsters play outside. The Romans thought they had destroyed the Jewish people when they destroyed the Temple. I wondered, what they would have thought if they could see these Jewish children playing on their street, almost 2000 years later?

In Jerusalem, a secondary Cardo was built in the central valley that separated the Temple Mount from the western hill. The Medaba map clearly shows this street running along the side of Temple Mount. The Byzantines had not been able to rebuild the secondary Cardo. Too many huge boulders lay embedded in it from the earlier Roman destruction of the city.

This street was forgotten, hidden under centuries of other buildings and debris. During the reconstruction of the Jewish quarter after 1967, the archaeologist Roni Reich discovered this secondary Cardo while clearing the Kotel Plaza. But making the Jewish Quarter livable again and constructing homes were higher priority. Although no building was permitted in this area, it was not excavated either. It took 35 years before the Company for the Reconstruction and Development of the Jewish Quarter was ready to allow archaeologists to explore the second Cardo.

Excavated secondary Cardo at back of Kotel Plaza. Photo: Yehudit Reishtein
Excavated secondary Cardo at back of Kotel Plaza. Arches are entrances to what were once small shops..
Photo: Yehudit Reishtein

When the archeologists did start work in the this part of the Kotel Plaza, they found remains and artifacts from the First Temple period through the 12th century. They determined that this part of Jerusalem had been an administrative and commercial center. Government functionaries and merchants worked here long before the Romans came to this side of the Mediterranean, and even before the Babylonians conquered Jerusalem.

 Today, before you can build anything or open a business, you need official approvals at many steps along the way, in the form of stamps and signatures. So it was in ancient times. Their stamps were made of clay, which made an impression on soft wax seals to indicate official approval. These clay stamps are called bullae, and hundreds of them were found in this excavation, primarily in the remains of a four room house built in typical First Temple period style.

When the First Temple stood, Jewish names usually included G-d’s name. Often the name ended with “-el” or “-yahu,” (Hebrew words for G-d), and many of the bullae were inscribed with such names.

Among other artifacts, excavators found a signet ring bearing the name Netanyahu ben Yoash. All artifacts found in archaeological digs belong by law to the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA), but the authority has lent this ring to the current Prime Minister,   Benjamin

Clay seal from 8th century BCE with name "Netanyahu" in ancient Hebrew writing.  Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority
Clay seal from 8th century BCE with name “Netanyahu” in ancient Hebrew writing. Photo: Israel Antiquities Authority

Netanyahu. He is said to keep it with him at all times. When challenged about Jewish rights in Israel, he pulls this bulla from his pocket as proof that Jews lived and worked here in Jerusalem over 2500 years ago. In showing this ring, Netanyahu is not trying to prove that his personal lineage in the land of Israel has been continuous since First Temple times. I’m sure he is well aware that his father changed the family name to Netanyahu. Rather, he is saying that Jews, carrying names that are still used by today’s Israelis, have been present in the land, and particularly in Jerusalem, for all this time.

While walking around the excavated area in the Kotel Plaza, I noticed some round holes in the stone pavement. They were the size of a large mixing bowl or a wash basin. Because they were cut into the stone of the street, they could not have been used for cooking, and because they were open to the air they would not have been used for water storage. I wondered if they had been used for dying cloth, but then rejected the idea. I was about to ask when the guide preempted my question.

“Did you see those round holes full of water? What do you think they are?”

No one answered him.

“These holes are much later than the street itself. They were used for dye. Cloth dying was always a trade practiced by Jews in Jerusalem. When Moses Maimonides came to Jerusalem in the 12th century, the only Jews he found in the city were dyers.”

Despite the Crusaders having banned Jews from the city, two Jewish dyers lived in Jerusalem in the late 1100s. Even in times when the authorities tried to keep Jews away from their holy places, the economic needs of the inhabitants could override their edicts. For the sake of clothes in nice colors, Jewish dyers were allowed to lived and work in Jerusalem.

I have visited the Kotel Plaza at least a hundred times, but I never realized so many additional links to our history were found under and around it. Discovering such unexpected links in what I felt were familiar places is one of the many things I love about living in Jerusalem.


The Hurva Synagogue Rebuilt

The rebuilt Hurva synagogue in the heart of the Jewish Quarter
The rebuilt Hurva synagogue in the heart of the Jewish Quarter
photo: Yehudit Reishtein

Hurva means destruction or ruin. The Hurva synagogue has been built and destroyed several times on the same  site in the Jewish quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem. 

The first synagogue on the site was built in the 1700s, but the congregation that built it fell on hard times. When members could not pay the debts, it was destroyed by the Arabs.

In the 1864, a new synagogue was built. Its full name was the “Beit Ya’akov Synagogue in the Courtyard of the Ruin of Rabbi Yehuda Hassid,” but everyone simply called it the Hurva. It was the highlight of the old city, as it served as the center of Jewish life in Jerusalem

Arab Legion soldier in Hurva rubble, 1948 Photo: John Roy Carlson
Arab Legion soldier in Hurva rubble, 1948
Photo: John Roy Carlson

from then until 1948. When the Arab Legion conquered the old city, they exploded the Hurva. An iconic photo was taken by John Roy Carlson just after the Hurva was destroyed. 

After the reunification of Jerusalem in 1967, the rubble of the Hurva was left as it was found for many years. It testified to the destruction wrought by the Jordanians in Jewish Quarter of the Old City. After years of long debates about what should be done with it, the Hurva was rebuilt, starting in 2005, according to the 19th century plans. It took more than five years to build.

Our tour of the recently rebuilt Hurva started in the basement. In Jerusalem, before you build anything, the archaeologists get first crack at the site. And wherever you dig you find our past, our ancestors who lived in Jerusalem thousands of years ago. And how can we be sure the ruins under the Hurva are of Jewish homes? There is a mikve, a ritual bath used for purification purposes. It is built just as specified in the Talmud, just as mikvaot are built today. This mikve, which archaeologists think dates from first Temple times, was partially filled in and paved over by Roman paving stones from the time of Herod (Herodian stones were cut a certain recognizable way). On the side it was cut off by a Byzantine structure, as if the Romans and Byzantines wanted to insure that the Jews would never return to Jerusalem.

Batya, our tour guide looked at us and asked, “Except where are the Romans and Byzantines today? And where are the Jews?”

Hurva synagogue interior, showing aron kodesh.
Hurva interior, showing aron kodesh.
Photo Yehudit Reishtein

The Aron Kodesh, where the Torah scrolls are kept, is magnificent. Batya told us that the Aron is as deep as the stone walls. She was there one time when it was open and the Rabbi actually walked inside the Aron to take out a Torah. 

The walls that had been left standing by the Jordanians were incorporated into the building structure. They remain as their natural limestone color, unpainted. The tallest original wall is the one behind the aron kodesh, clearly visible in the photo, above.

The paintings on the walls are similar to the ones that were there

The Cave of Machpela, painted near ceiling Photo: Yehudit Reishtein
The Cave of Machpela, painted near ceiling
Photo: Yehudit Reishtein

originally. In the former building, there were paintings on all the walls, everywhere one looked. In her book about growing up in the Jewish Quarter, Forever My Jerusalem, Puah Shteiner writes about going to the Hurva with her Friday on Shabbat eve. The ceiling attracted her, its “high domed ceiling, painted sky blue  and strewn with golden stars.” Modern sensibilities appreciate a more spare style, and the rebuilt Hurva features just a few paintings.

We also went out onto the balconies that surround the dome, and

Roofs of the Jewish Quarter, as see from Hurva balcony
Roofs of the Jewish Quarter, as see from Hurva balcony
Photo: Yehudit Reishtein

could see large parts of the old city. I had a serious case of garden envy standing on this balcony, looking at the roofs of the old city. Imagine growing trees on your roof! 

When those of us who dared to climb the tightly twisted iron stairs to the upper balcony arrived there, we could look down on the Temple Mount. You can see the top of the golden Dome of the Rock. Even the top of the original Hurva dome was higher than the Dome of the Rock and Al Aqsa mosque, which in those days was forbidden by the Ottoman rulers.

The golden Dome of the Rock can be seen over the roofs of the Jewish Quarter from the top of the Hurva Photo: Yehudit Reishtein
The golden Dome of the Rock can be seen over the roofs of the Jewish Quarter from the top of the Hurva
Photo: Yehudit Reishtein

But the Pasha’s own favorite architect had designed the synagogue, and no one was going to tell him he couldn’t do that. So today’s Hurva is also higher than the local mosques.

Part of the fun of living in Jerusalem is seeing history of the city everywhere you go. And when you visit places like the Hurva you see layers of history, what came before what is here now. You can actually see how one civilization built right on top of a previous one: Roman ruins cover First Temple ruins and the Wall of Hezekiah, described in the second book of Kings, runs in what is now a trench through the center of the Jewish Quarter. It illuminates how each new culture tried to supplant the existing one, and which ones were more successful at it than others. More importantly, we see which groups tried to build the land and the country and which ones let it stagnate.

And we see how today’s modern industrial Israel tries to preserve and renew it all.