Tag Archives: Shomron

A Special Blessing: Elon Moreh and Ivei Hanahal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Rav Kook did that?” Ari asked.

I nodded.

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

Har Eval: The Mountain of the Curses

Near the top of Har Eval, where Joshua built an altar
Near the top of Har Eval, where Joshua built an altar

From where we were standing, near the top of windy barren Har Eval, we could not see any towns, houses, or farms. All we could see were the gently sloping ridges of the mountain top. It was noon, and we could hear the muezzins’ calls to prayer in Nablus.

“Listen,” said Eve Harow, our guide. “Standing up here, as B’nai Israel did when they entered the land with Joshua, you can hear what is happening in the valley on the other side of the mountain.”

I had always read the story about the blessings and curses in the Book of Joshua with skepticism. How could people standing on two mountains hear and respond to what priests were declaiming in the valley between them? Yet I was standing on one of those mountains, listening to the sounds from that valley.

We had driven an hour and a half north of Jerusalem on this One Israel Fund trip into the territory once held by the tribe of Menashe (Menassah). In Shavei Shomron we had stopped to meet up with our army escort. Har Eval, on the outskirts of Nablus, is within Area A which is controlled by the Palestinian Authority. Because we would be traveling on roads which are both illegal and dangerous for Israeli cars to drive on, we had received permission from the IDF for our excursion and would be accompanied by an IDF escort.

Nablus was originally built by the Romans on the site of ancient Shechem, the town near which Jacob and sons lived and pastured

The Old City of Nablus, from Har Eval.
The Old City of Nablus, from Har Eval. Joseph’s Tomb, which can’t be seen from this spot, is in front of building with gold-colored dome.

their sheep. Joseph’s grave is located there, in the oldest part of Shechem. In the 1980s a yeshiva was established at Joseph’s Tomb but it came under attack by the Arabs during the Al Aksa Intifada. When violence erupted, it became increasingly difficult to protect the students. The Yeshiva was evacuated. After the Palestinian Authority, as stipulated in the Oslo Accords, guaranteed police protection for the tomb, the IDF also left. That very day, the Palestinian Authority police watched a mob burn the tomb. Today, Jews can visit what is left, as long as they do so in a protected group escorted by the IDF. 

Like almost all Israelis, Allen and I had never seen Har Eval. All I knew about it was from the Bible. It was first mentioned in Deuteronomy (11: 29) when Moshe tells B’nai Yisrael that when they enter the land, blessings and curses would be read to them by the priests standing between two mountains. Half the tribes would stand on Har Gerizim. When they heard a blessing, what would happen when they obeyed G-d’s commands, they would answer “Amen.” The other half of the tribes would stand on Har Eval. When they heard the curses, the consequences of flouting G-d’s laws, they would answer “Amen.” 

The Book of Joshua describes the people crossing the Jordan, walking up a broad valley, arranging themselves on the two mountains, and hearing the blessings and curses. Joshua then had an altar built (8:30), sacrifices were offered, and the people left.

The mountains themselves were neither blessed nor cursed by the ceremony. Nevertheless, somehow the tradition arose that the mountain on which the people stood to answer “Amen” to the curses was itself cursed. The two altars built there, one on top of the other, were each used only one time. There is no archaeological evidence of any settlement, building, or farm anywhere on Mt. Eval.

As we drove towards the mountain, we could see much of the town of Nablus. It spreads out in the valley and winds around the feet of the mountains, and up the slopes of Mt. Gerizim. Nablus looks prosperous, with large well built houses featuring intricate stone walls that let light on to the patios and balconies, yet prevent passersby from seeing any women who might be sitting on them.

And then we were on a narrow winding dirt road ascending Har Eval. Fairly high up, a turn took us to the other side of the mountain, and Nablus disappeared. Our escort stopped and the bus parked in a small area cleared of rocks.

The hill around us was littered with large stones. Between them were smaller stones, pebbles, and small plants and grass. We older people carefully walked down the dirt track towards the altar, while the children with us raced down the hill, sure footed as gazelles. 

We saw down to the flat green Tirza Valley, winding through the rocky mountains toward the Jordan River. Tirza is the only valley wide enough to enable thousands of people to walk from the Jordan to the mountains in one day, and it leads directly to Har Eval and Har Gerizim.

Although pagan altars were always built on the highest place around, Jews were commanded to build their sacrificial altars in lower places. Whenever the ancient prophets wanted to turn straying people back from idol worship to the worship of G-d, they cried out to destroy the Bamot, the high places.

Remains of Joshua's altar on Har Eval
Remains of Joshua’s altar on Har Eval

So we walked from a high place on Mt. Eval down towards what is believed by some to be Joshua’s altar. Adam Zertal, the archaeologist who, with his students, discovered this altar, is sure of its identity. It is definitely a Jewish altar, made of unhewn stones. approached by a ramp. Only bones of kosher animals—sheep, goats, deer—have been found in its vicinity, despite the plenitude of wild boar in the area at the time of its construction. It was used only two times, around 1250 and 1200 BCE, which puts it in the period of the entrance of the Jews into the land. The pottery shards found here date from that time or earlier.

The evidence against this being Joshua’s altar? It faces the wrong direction. Mt. Gerizim, the holy site of the Samaritans, is on the other side of the mountain, on the other side of the city of Nablus.

This does not bother Zertal. He says the traditional Mt. Gerizim is not the actual site of the blessings. According to him, despite their unbroken tradition going back to First Temple times, the Samaritans offer their Passover sacrifices on the wrong hill top. Zertal claims that Tel Kabir, the mountain that can be seen from the Mt. Eval altar is the real Mt. Gerizim.  

Others have suggested that the traditional Mt. Gerizim is correctly identified. The Bible does not say that Joshua’s altar was built where the people stood to listen to the curses. They could have listened while facing Mt Gerizim across the valley, and then walked to the other side of Har Eval to build the altar and offer the sacrifices.

Until further evidence is uncovered, the question remains unresolved. It is likely to remain so for a long time. The two mountains are in Palestinian Area A. No Muslim authority will grant an archaeologist permission to conduct a dig which might support the authenticity of the Jewish Bible or evidence that might support Jewish claims to the land.

Even if the authenticity of the altar is in question, seeing places like Mt. Eval makes them real. When reading the stories in the Bible, we believe them because we want to believe. Actually seeing an altar that Joshua may have built helps make a visceral connection—it makes the story physically real. Seeing the valley that probably served as a highway for the Jews crossing the Jordan into Canaan and hearing the Muslim calls to prayer from a valley far below us turn the Bible story into an event that actually could have happened the way it is written.

Which is why we go on so many trips around the land. Having seen so many Biblical sites, I read the Bible with different eyes than I used to, eyes more open to how the stories unfolded. It is endlessly fascinating.