Thursday, October 24, 2013

Earthquakes and King Solomon’s Mines in the Jordan Valley

The Jordan Valley Photo: Tango7174
The Jordan Rift valley - Earthquakes Galore!

Here in Israel we’ve just experienced five mild but noticeable earthquakes in six days.  People are wondering whether there’s a big one on the way.  We have a lot of earthquakes here.  It’s not at all surprising.  We live right at the edge of the Jordan Rift Valley where the African and Arabian Plates meet.  These are so-called tectonic plates.  They are huge slabs of the Earth’s crust that float on the surface of the molten rock below.  Very, very slowly they move with respect to each other.  At these junctions, the movement of the plates gives rise to volcanoes and earthquakes.  The Golan Heights were created by volcanic activity.    Earthquakes have occurred along and around the Jordan Valley throughout recorded history. 

Mt of Olives Earthquake Damage 1927
Photo: Matson Collection 
On July 11th 1927 an earthquake measuring 6.3 on the Richter scale damaged buildings in Jericho, Tiberias, Ramle, Nablus and Jerusalem (including the domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the al-Aqsa Mosque) and killed at least 500 people.  On January 1st 1837 an earthquake in the Jordan Vally east of Safed was felt up to 500 kilometres away but the main damage was in Safed, Tiberias and in Galilee villages.  Thousands of people died in Safed where the whole Jewish Quarter was destroyed. 

The Great Earthquake of 749
Fallen Columns at Sussita
Photo: Akos Nagy

Major earthquakes were recorded during every era in the history of the Holy Land but the most famous of all was in the shemitta year 749.  Whole cities were laid waste.   In Jerusalem the al-Aqsa Mosque and four Muslim palaces around the south-western corner of the Temple Mount were destroyed.  Take a trip to Beit Shean at the junction of the Jordan and Jezreel Valleys or to Sussita (Hippos) on the Golan Heights and you will see the results of this devastating earthquake.  Buildings and columns lie where they fell.  If you look carefully you will see that in Beit Shean the columns fell pointing north and in Sussita they fell pointing south.  Why should this be?  It is visible evidence that the Arabian plate on which Sussita and the Golan Heights sit is moving north with respect to the African plate which includes Beit Shean and the Land of Israel.

Timna and Feinan – Two Halves of a Crater 100 km Apart

Way down south in the Arava Valley, about 26 km north of Eilat, at Timna are the northernmost deposits of copper to be found in Israel.  There are ancient copper mines here.  Timna sits in the western half of a machtesh – a crater caused by erosion.  To find the eastern half of the crater and the copper deposits it contains you must travel 100 km north to Feinan on the Jordanian side of the Arava.  This is biblical Punon where the Children of Israel stopped on their way from Egypt.  Some 30 million years ago movement between the tectonic plates in the Jordan Rift Valley separated the two halves of the crater.

King  Solomon’s Mines?

King Solomon's Pillars Timna
Photo: Chmee2
Timna also hit the news this week.  Tel Aviv University archaeologist Erez Ben-Yosef used carbon dating to examine organic remains from the ancient copper mines here.  He concluded that the mines were from the Iron Age – the time of King Solomon.  Are the legends of King Solomon’s Mines true after all?

Already 6,000 years ago prehistoric man began to extract the copper deposits that could be found at Timna and to produce pure copper by smelting the ore at high temperatures.  At first copper deposits above the ground were exploited.  Over time the miners began to dig open pits then shallow “burrows” and eventually deeper mine shafts to reach the valuable metal ore.  For a time it was thought that these were the legendary King Solomon’s Mines.  Three large sandstone columns formed by erosion became known as King Solomon’s Pillars. 

Egyptian Rock Painting, Timna
Photo: Shlomo Chetrit
The first archaeological exploration of the copper mines at Timna began in 1959.  The archaeologist Beno Rothenberg discovered an Egyptian temple to the goddess Hathor.   Hathor is the goddess of fertility and also the goddess of mining.  This, together with a huge rock painting showing Pharaoh Rameses III paying homage to Hathor seemed to confirm his theory that the major mining enterprise here was Egyptian and dated to the 12th and 13th centuries BCE.  Later, after the Egyptians left Timna, Midianites took over the mining and altered the temple to fit with their rituals and beliefs.

The recent carbon dating evidence gives a strong indication that the mines are not Egyptian but from the Iron Age period.  Ben-Yosef believes that the mines were operated by the Edomites a people that lived along the Jordan Valley.  They abandoned the mines in the 10th century BCE perhaps because of an Egyptian invasion or perhaps due to competition from copper produced in Cyprus.  Are these King Solomon’s Mines?  We can’t say that.  But who knows – they may have supplied his building projects with precious copper.

Beit Shean and Timna Park are fascinating and extensive sites well worth visiting.  Follow the links for more information.

Sussita isn’t really accessible for unaccompanied tourists yet but here’s a link to the Hippos / Sussita excavation project.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

The Riddle of the Sphinx

Greek sphinx.
Photo: Jeanhousen
In Greek mythology the sphinx was a malevolent creature with the face of a woman, the body of a lion, the wings of an eagle and the tail of a serpent.  It was said that a sphinx guarded the approach to the city of Thebes and asked each passer-by a riddle.  She strangled and devoured all those who did not know the answer.  There are different versions of the riddle of the sphinx.  Here is one.
“What is it that goes on four legs in the morning, on two legs at noon and on three legs in the evening?”
The answer is man who crawls on all fours as a baby, walks upright in his prime and uses a stick to walk in old age.
The Great Sphinx at Giza
Photo: Marek Kokjan
The sphinx did not originate in Greece but in Egypt.  There the sphinx had the body of a lion and the face of a man – no wings or tail.  In Egypt the sphinx was seen as benevolent – a guardian of temples and holy places.  The largest and most famous of all is the Great Sphinx of Giza which sits on the bank of the Nile by the Great Pyramids.  We don’t know exactly when this sphinx was built.  Its face is thought to represent Pharaoh Khafra who reigned in about 2,570 BCE.  He built the second largest pyramid in Giza.
Pharaoh Menkaure
Photo: Iry-Hor
Last week it was announced that a team from the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology had discovered the front legs of a sphinx from ancient Egypt in Tel Hazor in Upper Galilee.  Between the feet was a hieroglyphic inscription bearing the name of Pharaoh Menkaure (in Greek: Mycerinus) a son of Khafra whom he succeeded to the throne in about 2,530 BCE.  Menkaure built the smallest of the three Great Pyramids of Giza.  This is the only sphinx of Menkaure discovered anywhere in the world and the only royal sphinx discovered in the eastern Mediterranean.
Now here is another riddle of the sphinx.  We know of no connection between Egypt and Canaan during the reign of Menkaure.  It would be another 800 years before Egypt ruled Canaan.  How did the statue get to Hazor? 
Photo: Prof. Amnon Ben Tor
and Dr. Sharon Zuckerman
There are some clues to help us solve this riddle.  The fragment of the statue was found at the entrance to the city palace in a destruction layer dated to 13th century BCE.  At that time Hazor was the largest and most important city in the region.  The text of the inscription describes Menkaure as “Beloved by the divine manifestation… that gave him eternal life”.  The inscription, say Professor Amnon Ben-Tor and Dr Sharon Zuckerman who lead the excavation at Hazor, suggests that the sphinx originated in ancient Heliopolis a few miles north of the modern city of Cairo.  It seems that centuries later it may have been a gift from a King of Egypt to the King of Hazor during the 15th to 13th centuries BCE when Canaan was under Egyptian rule.
By any standards this is a major archaeological discovery but perhaps this photo will explain why it especially interests me.  It shows my parents in 1950 standing in front of the Great Sphinx of Giza with the pyramid of Khufu, Menkaure's grandfather, in the background.  The little boy my father is holding is me.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

What Have the Romans Ever Done for Us?

The Romans Carry off the treasures of the Temple
Relief fromTitus Arch, Rome
The “Three Weeks”, a period of mourning for the loss of the Temple observed by the Jewish people, began this Monday night on the 17th day of the Hebrew month of Tammuz.  During that period we recall the awful climax of the Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans in the year 70 CE in which the Temple and the city of Jerusalem were destroyed.  Tradition holds that on 17th of Tammuz the walls of Jerusalem were breached by the Romans.

Amongst Jews there has always been a tension between admiration for the great achievements of the Romans and anger and resentment for the way in which they abused their power.  A story in the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 33 b) illustrates this well.

Roman Bathhouse - Hypercaust
Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Jose, and Rabbi Shimon were sitting together and Yehuda, the son of proselytes, sat before them.  Rabbi Yehuda opened the conversation, saying:  "How beautiful are the works of this nation (the Romans).  They have established markets.  They have built bridges.  They have opened bathing-houses." 
Rabbi Jose said nothing, but Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai said: "All these things they have instituted for their own sake. Their markets are gathering-places for harlots.  They have built baths for the purpose of indulging themselves in their comforts.  They have built bridges to collect tolls from those who cross them." 
This month two discoveries in Jerusalem were announced that illustrate both the technical achievements and the brutality of the Romans.

Roman Road Beit Hanina: Assaf Peretz
Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority 
The Romans are famous for their roads.  A good transport system was vital for the military, financial and administrative maintenance of their empire.  Major roads were built to a high technical standard with inns and forts along the way.  The routes and sometimes the surfaces of major Roman roads have survived for thousands of years.  In the Beit Hanina neighbourhood of Jerusalem an archaeological excavation preceded the laying of a new drainage pipe.  The work revealed a beautifully preserved section of a major road from the Roman period linking the port of Jaffa to Jerusalem.  The surface is made of large flat stones that would have been comfortable to walk on.   It is well worn – a testament to the volume of traffic it carried. 

In Roman times, like today, there were two main routes from Jaffa to Jerusalem.  They followed a common path from the coast as far as Lod.  From there one road led through Sha’ar HaGai following today’s Route 1.  A second headed further north via Modi’in and Beit Horon along the line of our Route 443.  It is a section of this road that was discovered in Beit Hanina.  In some places a modern road had been laid only a few centimetres above the Roman road.  The Roman surface must have been visible until just a few decades ago.

In the year 70 CE the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem.  A terrible famine resulted that was made worse by the rebels who hunted for food in the homes of their fellow Jews.  The historian Josephus wrote: 
As the famine grew worse, the frenzy of the partisans increased with it….For, as corn was nowhere to be seen, men broke into the houses and ransacked them.  If they found any, they maltreated the occupants for saying there was none.  If they did not, they suspected them of having hidden it more carefully and tortured them. ...
Many secretly exchanged their possessions for one measure of corn - wheat if they happened to be rich, barley if they were poor.  Then they shut themselves up in the darkest corners of their houses where some through extreme hunger ate their grain as it was.  Others made bread, necessity and fear being their only guides.  Nowhere was a table laid… (Jewish War, V, 428).
The Finds: Photo Vladimir Naykhin
Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority
Three whole cooking pots and an oil lamp were discovered in the cistern of a house that had stood near the Western Wall in the area of Robinson’s Arch.   The residents of the house had gone down into the cistern to eat their remaining food in secret.  The archaeologist directing the excavation, Eli Shukron, said that these are the first finds that connects us directly with the famine during the siege of Jerusalem.

And finally here is a clip from the Monty Python film The Life of Brian on the same theme.  John Cleese who plays Reg tries to arouse his fellow members of the “People’s Front of Judea” to rebel against the Romans but encounters some difficulty.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Connecting the Land and the Book: the Omer and Ethics of the Fathers

A table for counting the Omer
In ancient Israel the first sheaf of the barley harvest was cut on the second day of the Passover festival and a measure of the grain, an “omer”, was taken to the Temple as an offering.   From this date Jews count the seven weeks that lead up to the festival of Shavuot -“the Feast of Weeks”.
“You shall count for yourselves, from the day after the Sabbath, from the day when you bring the Omer as a wave offering, seven complete weeks.  To the day after the seventh week you shall count fifty days ...” Leviticus 23, 15
During these early summer weeks between Passover and Shavuot it is the custom to study the six chapters of Pirke Avot, the Ethics of the Fathers, one chapter each Shabbat.  Ashkenazim continue to study these chapters of the Mishna until the Shabbat before Rosh Hashanah.

Pirke Avot opens by tracing the line of transmission of the Oral Law from Moses via the Prophets, who received their inspiration directly from G-d, to the Sages, the Rabbis and teachers who discussed and expounded the Law on the basis of texts and the oral tradition which they received from their predecessors.
“Moses received the Torah at Sinai and handed it on to Joshua; Joshua to the elders; the elders to the prophets; and the prophets handed it on to the men of the Great Assembly. ...” Pirkei Avot 1,1
Shimon HaTzadik was the last of the men of the Great Assembly.  From him the tradition was passed on to a man called Antigonos from Socho.
“Antigonos of Socoh received from Shimon HaTzadik.  He used to say: Do not be like servants who serve their master on condition of receiving a reward, but be like servants who serve their master not on condition of receiving a reward; and let the fear of Heaven be upon you.” Pirkei Avot 1,3

Across the Elah Vally towards Sochoh. Photo: Ram Eisenberg
Tel Socoh lies in the Shefela, the low hill country of Israel, in the Elah Valley near Azekah.  In
ancient times this was the border area between Israelite and Philistine held territory.  Socoh is mentioned four times in the Bible.  It was part of the inheritance of the tribe of Judah, fortified by King Solomon’s son Reheboam and later captured by the Philistines.  Most famously it appears in the dramatic story of David and Goliath. 
“The Philistines assembled their forces for battle; they massed at Socoh of Judah, and encamped at Ephes-dammim, between Socoh and Azekah.  Saul and the men of Israel massed and encamped in the valley of Elah.” 1 Samuel 17,1
The rest of the story is well known.  The Philistines send out a champion, the huge Goliath of Gath, to challenge the Israelites to single combat.  No-one dares to take up the challenge until the young David, who has been sent from Bethlehem to bring supplies for his brothers in Saul’s army, accepts.  Goliath is scornful but David, armed only with his faith in G-d and his sling and a bag of stones, kills him with a single sling-shot.

A lemelech seal
More than 300 years later, in 701 BCE, the Assyrians under the leadership of Sennacherib attacked the cities of Judah and besieged Jerusalem.  Amongst the archaeological finds from this time are more than 2,000 seal impressions on the handles of large storage jars, known as Lemelech stamps because of the Hebrew letters למלך (LMLK) found on them.  LMLK means “for, or belonging to the king”.  One theory is that these jars contained emergency military rations collected in anticipation of the Assyrian siege.  As well as the letters LMLK each of the seal impressions included the name of one of four towns; Hebron, Ziph, MMST and Socoh.   We don’t know all the details but we do know that Antigonos’ home town of Socoh must have been a place of some significance.  Last year, for the first time, a team from Tel Aviv University carried out excavations at Socho hoping to learn more about the part Socho played in the administration and economy of Judah.  

Spring on Givat Haturmusim
Nowadays Tel Socoh is most popularly known as Givat Haturmusim, Lupin Hill.  It is a glorious place to walk and to picnic especially in the early spring when there is a brilliant display of wild flowers. 

From Antigonos the tradition was passed through five pairs of rabbinic teachers who lived in successive generations during the time of the Second Temple.   Each of these rabbis offers us ethical advice.  The second of these pairs of sages were Yehoshua ben Perahya and Nittai the Arbelite.
“Yehoshua ben Perahya and Nittai the Arbelite received from them. ... Nittai the Arbelite used to say: Keep far from a bad neighbour, do not associate with a bad person, and do not despair of Divine retribution.” Pirkei Avot 1, 6-7 
The Arbel 

Ruins of the Arbel synagogue. Photo: Bukvoed
The rocky cliff of Mount Arbel rises for 380 metres and looks down from the west over the Sea of Galilee.  Just south of the cliff lie the remains of the Talmudic village where Nittai lived and of its synagogue.  Modern Moshav Arbel is nearby. 

In the year 38 BCE Mount Arbel was the site of a spectacular battle between Herod the Great and Jewish rebels.  Herod had returned from Rome where he had been proclaimed King of the Jews.  Now, to take control of his kingdom, he had to defeat the Hasmonean Matathias Antigonos and his Parthian and Jewish supporters.  The last rebels still in the Galilee had barricaded themselves in caves in the almost vertical face of Mount Arbel.   The approach to these caves was so steep and dangerous that at first Herod was confounded.  He embarked on a creative and daring plan. 
“He lowered the strongest of his soldiers in cradles down the side of the cliff until they reached the mouths of the caves; they then slaughtered the bandits with their families and threw firebrands at those who proved awkward.” Josephus, The Jewish War 1, 315

Arbel Cliff. Photo: Lior Golgher
Herod was not known for his mercy but Josephus records that he tried to save some of the rebels offering them the chance to surrender.  They fought to the death rather give themselves into his hands.  One old man expressing contempt for Herod killed his own wife and seven children before throwing himself over the precipice.

Today the Arbel National Park and Nature Reserve offers wonderful landscapes, rare and beautiful
flora and fauna, spectacular views and a glimpse into the history of the Land.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Kaiser Wilhelm II, Vincent van Gogh and Herod the Great: Exhibitions of Genius and Madness

For 2,000 years it has been thought that there is a connection between genius and mental illness.  Seneca, the 1st century Roman philosopher, wrote “There is no great genius without some touch of madness”.   Does the evidence support the idea?  The jury is still out but, even if geniuses are more prone to mental illness than the rest of us, to have psychological problems is no guarantee of genius.

There are three outstanding exhibitions showing in Israel at the moment - two in Jerusalem and one in Tel Aviv.  Each focuses on an individual who was important and influential in his own way despite psychological problems and episodes of mental illness.  Two achieved greatness.  One led his country and the world to disaster.

The Kaiser is Coming!

Kaiser Wilhelm II in 1905
Kaiser Wilhelm II was the last German Emperor.  Wilhelm was undoubtedly intelligent but he was also insecure, bombastic, autocratic and prone to bouts of depression and hysteria.  He was quite unfit to be a ruler.  In 1898 he visited Jerusalem.  His aim was to cement relationships between the German and Ottoman empires. 
The Turks were as determined to honour their imperial guest as he was to strengthen his relationship with them.  He was welcomed with great pomp and ceremony.  Three great decorated arches were set up along his route to the Old City.  The section of the city wall between the Jaffa Gate and the Citadel was torn down and the moat filled in to allow his entourage, complete with horses and carriages, to pass through.  Beggars and stray dogs were banished from the city lest they give a bad impression. 

Wilhelm's Entourage by the Sultan's Arch

Wilhelm saw himself as the patron of the Protestant church and wanted to leave a religious and architectural legacy of his visit to the Holy City.  During his visit he dedicated the Lutheran Church of the Redeemer in the Old City, acquired the land for the Augusta Victoria Hospice on the Mount of Olives and, in a gesture to German Catholics, laid the cornerstone of the Dormition Abbey on Mount Zion. 

Wilhelm's Tent Camp Jerusalem
On November 2nd Wilhelm formally received Theodore Herzl in the elaborate tent camp that had been set up for him in Jerusalem.  Herzl had timed his visit to coincide with that of the Kaiser and hoped to enlist his support for the Zionist cause.  The brief encounter left Herzl deeply disappointed.

Wilhelm’s erratic and reckless foreign policy led to the carnage of the First World War and the downfall of his empire.  He died in exile in the Netherlands in 1941.

There was huge press interest in the Kaiser's visit.  An exhibition in Jerusalem's Tower of David cleverly combines 21st century technology and contemporary reports and photographs to bring this encounter between European and Levantine empires to life and to explore its impact on the city.

“The Kaiser is Coming!” is at the Tower of David in Jerusalem until April 6th 2013.

Van Gogh Alive

Van Gogh - The Potato Eaters
In his own lifetime Vincent van Gogh’s work was not fully appreciated.  Today however he is considered one of the greatest artists in history.  He was born in the Netherlands in 1853 into a family in which art and religion were formative influences.  He began to draw as a child but worked as an art dealer, as a missionary in a poor coal mining district in Belgium and, briefly, as a teacher in London before applying himself more seriously to his art from 1885.  That year he produced his first major work The Potato Eaters.  It reflected the poverty of peasant life and was executed in dark, sombre colours.  His work changed radically when he moved to Paris in 1886.  Here he became interested in Japanese wood block prints and was exposed to the work of the Impressionists and the company of Post-Impressionist artists, notably Toulouse Lautrec, Seurat and Paul Gauguin whom he befriended.  He experimented with their brush techniques and adopted a palette of brighter, primary colours.
Van Gogh - Self Portrait With Straw Hat

In 1888 van Gogh moved to Arles in the south of France.  For a time he worked there together with Gauguin but their relationship became increasingly tense.  Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor blade, but fled and used the razor to cut off his own earlobe.  He descended into delusions and hallucinations and was admitted to an asylum in nearby Saint-Remy where he remained for a year.  In May 1890 he moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb of Paris.  On 27th July 1890, at the age of 37 he shot himself with a revolver and died the next day as a result of his wounds.

Van Gogh left a vast artistic legacy.  He worked quickly producing over 2,000 works of art in ten years and averaging a painting a day during his last two months.  He used bold, dramatic brush strokes that gave a sense of movement and emotion and often applied paint directly from the tube.  Uniquely he used colour to express mood rather than realistically.

Van Gogh Alive is not a regular art exhibition.  It is a dramatic multi-sensory experience.  Large scale projections of over 2,000 of van Gogh’s works are synchronised with classical music.  It takes you on a spellbinding journey through his life, his work, his thoughts and his state of mind.

“Van Gogh Alive” is at the Maxidome, Israeli Trade Fairs and Conventions Centre, Tel Aviv until April 30th 2013

Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey

Herod the Great
Herod the Great was King of Judea from 37 – 4 BCE.  He was one of the most ambitious builders of the classical world combining the most modern building techniques with a determination to defy nature.  In Jericho he diverted a river through the middle of his winter palace.  At Masada, in the middle of a desert with scarcely any water, he built a swimming pool.  In Caesarea Maritima he used hydraulic cement that hardened underwater to create a port where no natural harbour existed.  In Jerusalem he rebuilt the Temple of which the rabbis of the Talmud wrote "Whoever has not seen Herod's Temple has not seen a beautiful building in his life". 

Model of Herod's Temple Israel Museum
Herod was far more than a builder.  He was a skilful and effective ruler - the most successful client king of the Roman Empire.  He was also a difficult and dangerous man, famously paranoid.  Descended on his father’s side from Idumean converts to Judaism and on his mother’s side from Nabatean Arabs he married Mariamne, a princess of the royal Hasmonean line, to strengthen the legitimacy of his kingship.  She and two of Herod’s sons were put to death for Herod suspected even his closest family of plotting against him.  Caesar Augustus commented that it was “better to be Herod’s pig than his son”. 

Josephus the Jewish historian of the Great Revolt describes in graphic detail Herod’s death in Jericho and the procession that accompanied him to his last resting place in Herodium. 
 “There was a solid gold bier, adorned with precious stones and draped with the richest purple.  On it lay the body wrapped in crimson, with a diadem resting on the head and above that a golden crown, and the sceptre by the right hand.  The bier was escorted by Herod's sons and the whole body of his kinsmen, followed by his Spearmen, the Thracian Company, and his Germans and Gauls, all in full battle order.  The rest of his army led the way, fully armed and in perfect order, headed by their commanders and all the officers, and followed by five hundred of the house slaves and freed-men carrying spices.  The body was borne twenty-four miles to Herodium, where by the late king’s command it was buried.” Josephus, Wars, I, 33, 9.
Herodium from above
For over 40 years Ehud Netzer, architect and archaeologist, excavated sites that had been built 2,000 years before by Herod.  Herod’s tomb however remained elusive.  It wasn’t until April 2007 that Netzer and his team discovered the remains of a magnificent mausoleum and three sarcophagi on the slope of the hilltop palace fortress of Herodium facing Jerusalem.  Together with staff from the Israel Museum Netzer began to plan an exhibition of these recent discoveries.  Sadly whilst working on this plan at Herodium in October 2010 he fell to his death.

This world class exhibition represents Herod’s final journey from Jericho where he died, through the Judean Desert to Herodium where he was laid to rest.  The richly decorated throne room of Herod’s Winter Palace in Jericho and the royal box of his theatre at Herodium have been reconstructed together with his sarcophagus and elaborate mausoleum.  These and many other original artefacts are on display for the first time. 

“Herod the Great: The King’s Final Journey” is at the Israel Museum, Jerusalem until October 5th 2013

Friday, September 14, 2012

Sound the Great Shofar of Our Freedom

Here in Jerusalem the days are getting shorter.  The children are back at school.  The summer sun has lost its ferocious heat and the evenings are cooler now with a soothing breeze.   We are approaching autumn (fall) - what the English poet John Keats called “the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness”- and with autumn come “the chagim” – a succession of Jewish festivals that include Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Succot and Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah.

Go to the synagogues or to the Kotel (the Western Wall) around midnight or early in the morning and you will hear selichot being recited, or sung if you choose a Sephardi minyan.  Ashkenazi Jews start reciting selichot on the Saturday night before Rosh Hashanah.  Sephardim begin a whole month before.  These are prayers of repentance, asking for forgiveness and mercy as we approach the annual day of judgement. 
Yemenite Jew blowing shofar

The clarion call to repentance is the sound of the shofar, a ram’s horn.   It is blown every day during the month before Rosh Hashanah, on Rosh Hashanah itself and at the end of the Yom Kippur fast.  As well as calling the people to repentance the shofar echoes events in Jewish history and heralds our hopes for the future.  Hearing its piercing notes recalls for us the binding of Isaac, the giving of the Torah and the destruction of the Temple and speaks of the coming of the Messiah, the ingathering of the exiles and the resurrection of the dead at the end of days. 

Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Segal was a Chabad-Lubavitch Hassid.   Born in the Ukraine in 1904 he and his family made Aliyah in 1920.  He was one of the first members of the Beitar youth movement in Eretz Israel.  He served in the Haganah defending Tel Aviv during the Arab riots of 1929, became a member of the Irgun high command and later joined Etzel (popularly known as the Stern Gang).   He was the first to defy the British prohibition on blowing the shofar at the Kotel.

Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Segal
In 1930, in response to the 1929 riots the British Mandatory authorities decreed that, although Jews may be allowed to pray at the Kotel, they may not pray loudly or read from a scroll of the Torah or blow a shofar there for fear of upsetting the local Muslim population.  They placed policemen there to enforce the decree.  That year, as the Yom Kippur prayers came to an end at the Kotel, the young Moshe Segal turned to a rabbi and asked for a shofar.  The rabbi indicated that there was one in a nearby stand.  Segal found the shofar and shrouded himself in a borrowed tallit to conceal it.  As the closing prayer finished he blew a resounding blast.  He was immediately arrested by British police and imprisoned in the Kishle near the Jaffa Gate.  He was given no food or water.  On hearing of Moshe Segal’s arrest, Rav Kook, the Chief Rabbi, had immediately contacted the High Commissioner’s office and refused to break his own fast until Segal was released.  He was released at midnight without a word. 

The Tzemach Tzedek Synagogue
In 1967 following the Six Day War Rabbi Moshe Segal left Kfar Chabad where he lived and became the first Jew to return to live in the Old City.  He led the first minyan in the only synagogue found intact there - Tzemach Tzedek, a Chabad synagogue that sits above the Cardo.  At the end of the war he heard a young soldier blow shofar at the Kotel.  “What do you know about blowing shofar?” he asked.  “I was the last to blow in 1947” said the soldier.  “And I was the first in 1930” replied Rabbi Segal and embraced the young soldier.  Rabbi Moshe Tzvi Segal died on Yom Kippur 1984 and was buried on the Mount of Olives.

For 17 years from 1930 until the Old City of Jerusalem fell into Jordanian hands in May 1948 a different young man risked arrest and imprisonment each year by blowing a shofar at the Kotel at the end of the Yom Kippur prayers.  In the summer of 2010 six of the seventeen men who had defied the British decree were still alive.  They gathered for a reunion at the Kotel and told their story in a video film made by Toldot Israel.  Rabbie Moshe Tzvi Segal and each of those who followed him can truly be said to have fulfilled what we say in the Amidah prayer every weekday:

"תקע בשופר גדול לחרותנו"
“Sound the great shofar of our freedom”

May you have a sweet, healthy and happy New Year.
לשנה טובה תכתבו ותחתמו.
תזכו לשנים רבות.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Of Kings and Queens and Jubilees

Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee 1897
I spent a few weeks in England recently and was inevitably caught up in the four day public holiday marking Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee - the 60th anniversary of her accession to the throne.  Elizabeth is one of only two British monarchs to have reached their Diamond Jubilee.  Only her great-great-grandmother Victoria reigned for that long a time.

Thames Pageant. Photo: John Pannell
The celebrations were spectacular and reflected Britain’s love of ceremonial splendour mixed with a warm and genuine affection for the Queen herself.  They included a pageant of 1,000 ships on the River Thames and a huge concert ending in a stunning firework display outside Buckingham Palace.  Street parties were held across the country.  Thousands of beacons were lit creating a river of fire that linked all the countries of the British Commonwealth of Nations.  The finale was the appearance of the Queen and the Royal Family on the palace balcony to acknowledge the cheers of the many thousands of people who had gathered there and to watch a fly past by planes of the Royal Air Force.
Nowadays in the world at large a jubilee has come to mean something quite straightforward - the celebration of a special anniversary.  The original concept from the Torah is at once more specific and more complex.

And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land unto all the inhabitants thereof; it shall be a jubilee unto you; and you shall return every man unto his possession, and you shall return every man unto his family.  Leviticus 25, v10..
The Torah details laws relating to agriculture, to the ownership of property and to the ownership of Israelite slaves in the jubilee year.  It was a year in which the earth itself rested, in which real estate was returned to its ancestral owners and in which those who had sold themselves into slavery to pay off their debts were granted their freedom.  The last jubilee was celebrated in the time of the prophet Ezekiel. 
No king of Israel or Judah during the biblical period reigned for as long as Elizabeth.  Two kings of Judah, Uzziah son of Amatzia and Menashe son of Hezekiah, ruled for more than 50 years and so reached what in modern terms would have been their Golden Jubilees.  They each came to the throne whilst they were still young.  Uzziah was sixteen years old at the start of his reign and Menashe only twelve.  Menashe’s grandson Josiah, however, was even younger - just eight years old when he began to rule over Judah.

Rembrandt's Uzziah
Uzziah started out well.  He “sought G-d” and took advice from the prophet Zechariah.  He became financially and militarily successful and developed Jerusalem and the whole of his kingdom.  His fame spread far and wide.  His great success, however, made him proud and his pride led him into a transgression that was his downfall.  He entered the Temple and offered up incense there on the golden altar – a task reserved for the priests.  Whilst the chief priest Azariah upbraided Uzziah and he was full of anger, for no king likes to be criticised, he was struck with tzara’at, an affliction that resembled leprosy.  He spent the rest of his life in isolation.

Menashe by Guillaume Rouille
In contrast to Uzziah, Menashe began his reign by doing “that which was evil in the sight of the Lord”.  He reversed the religious reforms that his father Hezekiah had instituted.  He reintroduced pagan worship, built altars to pagan gods and set up an idol in the Temple.  The Book of Chronicles relates that because of Menashe’s transgressions the Lord brought the hosts of Assyria against his kingdom.  Menashe was taken off in chains to Babylon.  There, in captivity, he repented and humbled himself and prayed to the Lord.  He returned to Jerusalem a changed man.  He rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem and strengthened the defences of the cities of Judah.   He removed the strange gods and the idol from the Temple and tore down the pagan altars.  He repaired the altar in the Temple, sacrificed offerings on it and commanded the people to serve the Lord. 

Walk through the streets of the Greek Colony in south Jerusalem and you will come across the names of the kings of Judah – not all of them, only those who “did that which was right in the eyes of the Lord”.  Uzziah just makes it because he started out doing good even though he transgressed in his later years.

The Uzziah Tablet
In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is an ancient inscribed limestone tablet.   It was found in 1931 amongst the collection of the Russian convent on the Mount of Olives by Eleazar Lipa Sukenik, the archaeologist who first recognised the significance of the Dead Sea Scrolls.  The Aramaic inscription reads:
“To here were brought the bones of Uzziah King of Judah. Do not open.”
We don’t know whether this tablet really marked Uzziah’s burial place.  There is no record of how it came to be in the convent’s possession.  The archaeologists tell us that it dates from the 1st century BCE or the 1st century CE.  Uzziah died centuries earlier in about 740 BCE and was buried in “the field of burial that belonged to the kings” in a grave that was set apart.  It is likely, however, that at the end of the Second Temple period when Jerusalem was expanding, his bones were moved for reasons of ritual purity to a place outside the city boundary.  This tablet then could have formed part of their final resting place. 
To find Menashe Street you have to cross the railway tracks from the Greek Colony into Baka but in this neighbourhood the streets are named for the tribes of Israel.  This street is not named for Menashe the king but for Menashe son of Joseph, the grandson of Jacob and the brother of Ephraim.   It’s just as well that his name found a home here.  King Menashe would not have qualified to have a street named for him amongst the righteous kings of Judah.