Feeling the stones, experiencing their story

Mishnah Days

“Give me Yavne and it’s sages” said the 1st century Jerusalem sage to Vespasian, the Roman Chief of Staff (later emperor), as he layed the siege on Jerusalem that eventually led to the destruction of the 2nd Temple.

This will lead to the evolution of the Oral Torah over the next several centuries. The sages, members of the Sanhedrin (Jewish religious leadership) will break down the commandments of the Torah to small minute details for implementation in daily life.

The man that will finish compiling all the books of the Mishnah is Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi. He lived in the second century, and when you visit Israel next I would love to show you where he learned, lived & was later buried. It’s fascinating to walk through these sites. Next to the modern day town of Kiryat Tiv’on (not far from the port city of Haifa) we can visit the study center (Bet Midrash) that he studied in. Next we travel to Tzipori National Park (in the Lower Galilee). There we can visit what may have been the beautiful home that Rabbi (that’s his nickname, I’m serious..) lived in. That’s only one of the many points that we can experience in Tzipori, though. This site has so much to offer. My favorite is to show off its many colorful mosaics, the most beautiful in Israel, in my opinion. One of the central mosaics in Tzipori is its 1,500 year old mosaic that’s in the middle of its synagogue. We’ll get back to synagogues, though, in a little bit. From here we’ll go to Bet She’arim National Park (next to our above mentioned Bet Midrash), with its burial caves that hold many sarcophagus inside of them. This is where Rabbi and his wife were buried upon their passing circa 200 CE.

During these centuries, from the time of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi and over the next several centuries, 3rd-7th centuries, is the golden age of the Jews in the northern areas of Israel. The Galilee & Golan Heights. Roughly 100 synagogues have been found in these regions, showing a rich & meaningful life for Jews in these areas. The synagogues are adorned with many artistic motifs, amongst them the 7 branched menorah which adorns our synagogues today. All synagogues faced the direction of Jerusalem, in the spirit of “If I forget Jerusalem may my right hand whither..”.

Some of these synagogues have been rebuilt. They are very impressive physically, not to mention that visiting them can be a very meaningful experience.

Unfortunately, the Jewish golden age in the Galilee came to an end 1,300 years ago (8th century) with the Muslim conquest of the land of Israel. From this point on there will always be a small population of Jews in the land, but not until the 20th century will they constitute a majority once again.

Rome vs Jerusalem

“If someone tells you that Caesarea & Jerusalem are destroyed don’t believe them, Caesarea & Jerusalem are standing don’t believe them. Caesarea is destroyed & Jerusaelem is standing or Caesarea is standing & Jerusalem is destroyed- believe them!” (Tractate Megilla, Babylonian Talmud).

You could cut the air with a knife regarding the tensions between the Jews and the Romans during the first century before the common era and through the first two centuries of the common era. The above quote describes this in polarizing the cities in which the leaderships of both sides sit in the land of Israel, Jerusalem and Caesarea.

The Romans, led by Pompey, conqure Judea in 63 BCE. This is the end of Jewish rule until our modern times. In the year 40 BCE the Roman senate appoints King Herod as their client king ruler in Judea, who after having to conquer Jerusalem from rebelling Jews, rules with an iron fist for over 30 years until his death. The tensions between the Jews & Herod reached boiling points many times. One of the main reasons for this is he was seen as the man who ended the beloved Hasmonean/Macabbee dynasty (from the Chanukah story).

After Herod’s death the tensions between the Jewish population and Roman leadership, especially the prefects (local Roman rulers) intensifies. What are the variables that eventually lead to an all out Jewish rebellion against the Romans in the year 66? There are several-

-Increased burden of taxation & corrupt exploitation by the Roman prefects of their Jewish subjects. Things got so bad that many Jews who owned land for generations, had to give it up to the Romans.

-Ever increasing affronts to the Jews religious sensitivities. Josuphus Flavious, who describes the events of the time in his book ‘War of the Jews’, describes a Roman soldier stationed near the Temple lifting up his robe, exposing his buttocks to the crowd of Jewish celebrants, and emitting a rude sound. This is just one example of many malicious Roman insults towards the Jews during these difficult years.

-The Romans riling up the other non-Jews in Judea against the Jews. A well documented incident is of local pagans, in Caesarea, Purposely sacrificing birds to an idol outside a synagogue during prayer time on Shabbat. This in order to spite the Jews, leading to all out riots and the death of thousands of Jews (according to Josephus’s’ description).

-Inner turmoil within the Jewish population. Different lines of belief and ideology led to the creation of many Jewish sects. The biggest & most known are the Sadducee, Pharisees, Sicaree & Essene sects. They differed in their way of observing Judaism, messianic expectations & outlook on combative activism. Some believed in ‘My way or the highway’/sum game zero even among their fellow Jews, conflicts which eventually led to the crumbling of daily life within Jewish society.

All of the above led to the Jews rebelling against the Roman occupation of Judeah in 66 CE. This horrible rebellion lasted for 4 years until the Romans, led by Titus, conquered Jerusalem and burned down the 2nd Temple on the 9th day of Av (July/August) in the year 70. There are a tremendous amount of fascinating archaeological finds, bringing to life these dramatic & horrible events and eventual destruction.

I would love to guide you through these sites in the near future.

Unfortunately, at that point Caesarea was standing and Jerusalem was destroyed. Today, though, in the 21st century, the opposite is true. Jerusalem is flourishing and Caesarea is a gorgeous archaeological site that I’m looking forward to guiding you through, although it’s definitely destroyed since it’s glory days in ancient times.

The video was taken a couple of months ago (as right now we can’t walk more then a few hundred feet outside of our home). You can join me on my explaining the dramatic events that take place on Mt Nitai in the Galilee. Battles between the hated Herod and the Jews take place there in the first century BCE. It’s in that same place, too, that battles between the Jews and the Romans will take place once again 100 years later.

Independent Judea!

We can all get so confused between a Menorah and a Chanukiya. What’s the difference? When are there 7 branches, and when are there 8? How does all this connect to Chanukah and Jewish independence in Judea? Here is the fascinating story!

With the Greeks ruling Judea 2,100 years ago, their King Antiochus announced that Jews can’t keep their Jewish ways anymore (no Shabbat, circumcision etc..). In addition, the Greeks shocked the Jewish people by defiling the Second Temple. They stole the various artifacts from there, and then did something that was totally taboo- placing an idol on the sacrificial alter (that’s only a little worse then wearing a NY Yankees cap in Boston, or the opposite). These Hellenistic believers then brought a sacrifice to this idol on the 25th day of Kislev (December). The exact year is 167 BCE. There was much meaning to this Hebrew date, as the Jews had inaugurated the Second Temple on this exact date 350 years earlier.

The Jews stood up and fought back, though.. Led by Judah the Maccabee and his 4 brothers, they led Jewish fighters in 8 battles against the Greeks over a 7 year period (167-160 BCE). After the 4th battle, they entered Jerusalem and arrived at the desecrated Temple. This was sometime at the end of October/beginning of November 164 BCE. The Jews immediately set about restoring the lost glory of the Temple. They cleaned it, and then rebuilt the desecrated sacrificial alter from new stones. The famous golden menorah had been stolen, so they put 7 swords together, covered them with wood & created cups on top, and then lit them on the 25th day of Kislev.

They chose to reinaugerate the Second Temple on this date because that’s the original date the Jews inaugurated the 2nd Temple 350 years earlier. It’s also the date that the Greeks sacrificed to the idol 3 years earlier. This is the date that we start celebrating Chanukah every year!

The story tells us the the 7 branched menorah was lit with fire for 8 days. There are a few reasons for the 8 days. One reason is because the Jews were unable to celebrate the 8 days Succot in the Temple back in October, due to the fighting going on at the time. They were now making up for those 8 days 2 months later. Another reason is because when the Jews entered the Temple to purify it, they needed to wait 7 days. They were considered impure (Tameh) from their fighting, and needed to wait 7 days in order to be considered pure (Tahor). On the 8th day they created the necessary oil to light the Menorah (their 7 swords quickly strung together..). Of course there is the most famous reason that was written in the Talmud several hundred years later. That is regarding the Jews finding a small can of oil, enough to last for 1 day, which miraculously lasted for 8 days.

There was no 8 (plus 1) branched Chanukiya in the Temple. There was the 7 branched Menorah which was lit for 8 days. Today, we at home light our Chanukiya on Chanukah!

After all of these difficult battles the Jews earned their independence in Judea and beyond. This lasted for 80 years until the Romans arrived in 63 BCE. The Jews won’t have independence again in Judea until 1948.

The Shock of Destruction!

Following the rise and fall of American sports teams has always been fascinating to me. I look at the history of nations in a similar way.

2,600 years ago the mighty Assyrian empire is coming to an end. The Egyptians will then briefly rise up but quickly loose out to the new rising empire- the Babylonians. In between these large empires, we have Judah (known today as Israel). At first we had a wonderful king named Josiah, who unfortunately was killed by the Egyptians. The Egyptians, in turn, took is brother, Jehoiakim, and put him on the throne.

We then get to the next stage. The Babyloneans whip the Egyptians and take over Judea. At this point Jehoiakim makes a very bad political decision and he rebels against the Babyloneans. Our next chess move will be Nebbuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, plundering Jerusalem and deporting Jehoiakim with 10,000 nobles, artisans and young men to Babylon.

We’re still in the game, though, as Nebuchadnezzar puts Zedekiah (Jehoiakim’s uncle) on the throne. Serious Game of Thrones going on here. Zedekiah, though, not learning from the mistakes of his nephew, makes another bad chess move. He too rebels against Babylon. The result? A horrible 18 month siege on Jerusalem. Horrific descriptions of a starving Jerusalem “The famine was sore in the city, young children faint for hunger at the top of every street” (Jeremiah).

In the end, of the 9th day of the month of Av (July/August) The First Temple was destroyed along with the rest of the city “..He burned the house of the Lord, the king’s palace, and all the houses of Jerusalem. He burned down the house of every notable person” (Kings 2).

The Jews wept over Jerusalem, as we read in Lamentations “She weepeth sore in the night and her tears are on her cheeks. Among her lovers, she has none to comfort her”.

Jerusalem’s coronation

Experiencing the City of David, the site of ancient Jerusalem, the ‘place where it all began’, is maybe my favorite site to guide as a Tour Guide. This is the best place to walk through the pages of the Bible (Old Testament) & bring it to life, hand in hand, with the archaeological findings that we see on the ground.

For starters, though, let’s take the name Jerusalem. When was the first time that this name was written somewhere?

Dating back to 3,800 years ago, Ursalum (Jerusalem), is mentioned in the Execration Texts. These were found in Egypt. In those times, if the local ruler of a town didn’t pay taxes (protection money) to the stronger ruler in the region, then the stronger rule would break pottery. On this pottery would be names of the towns with the disobeying rulers. If the Ursalum ruler didn’t pay the Egyptian lord, he would then break the Ursalum pottery. This would bring about the downfall of the city (Voodoo style worshiping).

The next time that Jerusalem will be mentioned is going to be in the El Amarna letters, dating back to 3,300 years ago. In this case, the local Jerusalemite ruler is paying his taxes to the Egyptian Pharaoh. The letters describe the local ruler asking the Egyptians to send him soldiers & archers, as he’s being attacked by the ‘Apiru & Chabiiru’ (unclear who they really are). We don’t know what the end result was.

When jumping forward to the time of King David, 3,000 years ago, and his conquering of Jerusalem, we can ask a question- What were the variables that were taken into consideration when choosing a site to build a city? What’s importat?

There are 4 important variables:

1- Protection. You want to be on the high ground. When we tour together in the City of David during your upcoming trip, I’ll show you how the city is high above the valleys surrounding it on 3 of its sides. It’s vulnurable side, though, is from the north. Ancient Jerusalem/City of David is sitting on a slope that’s sliding down from the top of a hill that’s north of it. This leaves the city open to the enemies attack from there.

2- Main road. You want your town to be sitting on the main travel route, for business purposes. Ancient Jerusalem was sitting about 1 mile east of the main road. Not convenient for business.

3- Water. This is the most important resource in the city, for obvious reasons. Ancient Jerusalem does have a spring, the Gihon spring. This spring, though, has enough water for the inhabitants of this city. We’re talking about a city who’s size is 12 acres, with roughly 2,000 inhabitants. If King David is planning on turning this into a larger city, or a place of gathering for pilgrims coming up to the future Temple, then the Gihon spring is not enough.

4- Fertile land. The land around ancient Jerusalem, predominantly limestone, is quite fertile.

We can see that conquering Jerusalem, on a strategic level, may not have been the wisest thing for King David. He might have been better off going to a different hill. If that’s the case, why did he choose the Jerusalem hill upon whiche the Jebosides (an ancient Caananite people) resided?

There can be many answers, and I’ll give 2 here. Political & traditional.

Politics- The Hebrews back then lived in a tribal way of life. The Bible (Old Testament) tells us that there were 12 tribes, and gives us detailed descriptions of where there borders were. The border of Benjamin ran right to the north of ancient Jerusalem, while the city itself sat within the borders of the tribe of Judah. The future 1st Temple, which will later be built by King Solomon, son of King David, actually saw the border of these 2 tribes running through it. It’s important to understand that Benjamin & Judah are rival tribes. The first king of Israel, King Saul, came from Benjamin. After he was killed by the Philistines, King David of the tribe of Judah emerged. This led to a tough Benjamin/Judah Yankees-Red Sox rivalry (sorry, couldn’t help myself..). Now in order to try and unite these 2 tribes, along with the rest of the tribes of Israel, King David chose this site to be his capitol. It is to here that he will later bring the Ark of Covenant & Tablets. He will also lay the foundations for his son, Solomon, to build the 1st Temple.

Tradition- The book of Genesis tells us the story of the binding of Isaac by Abraham, which takes place on Mount Moriah, that is actually the top of the slope upon which ancient Jerusalem resides. Did King David know this tradition? Does this also lead him to here? I can hear the song ‘Tradition’ sung by Tevia from ‘Fiddler on the Roof’ playing in my ears..

Life in Shilo

While traveling together through biblical era sites, people often ask me the excellent question “Ami, how do we know that these are the same sites that the Bible (Old Testament) is describing?” In order to answer this fascinating question we need to look at 3 variables:

-Preservation of the name. We know that the name Shilo has been used continually as the name of this site for over 3,000 years. There is a wonderful mosaic, dating back to 1,700 years ago, with the inscription “Have mercy on the people of Shilo”. The local residents have preserved the name “Seilon” throught the centuries. And there is a traveler named Eshtori Haparchi who described this site 600 years ago.

-Geographical description. One of my favorite things is to read the Geo description from the Bible & then show it in reality. In the Book of Judges (Bible) it’s written “…There is the annual feast of G-d in Shiloh, which is north of Beth-El, on the east side of the highway that goes from Beth-El to Shechem, south of Levona”. On your upcoming trip to Israel I will show you exactly how this plays out in reality, and we’ll see this with our 21st century eyes.

-Archaeological findings- The findings at our site work perfectly regarding who lived there & when. What do I mean? There were ancient Hebrews that lived there. We know this because of the shape of jugs & style of homes that we can see there today. The biblical story of Samuel & the Tabernacle (Mishkan) takes place 3,100 years ago. Fittingly, there are remains of charred olives & dates that thanks to Carbon 14 testing are dating back to exactly then! The clincher, though, are the remains of the huge stone frame at the site. It fits PERFECTLY with the size of the Tabernacle described in the Torah (80 by 160 feet).

Now that we understand that the site of Shilo that we’re talking about today is the important ancient town of Shilo, we’re ready experience it together in your upcoming trip to Israel.

There are obviously so many more interesting topics to touch upon as we experience Shilo together. The figures who walked here- such as Hanna, Samuel the Prophet & Eli the High Priest. How the actions that they took here in ancient times impact our lives even TODAY!! In what way do these ancient stones lay out the drama of the tensions between the beginnings of Judaism & the already present Paganism, and so much more..

Purim & Coronavirus

I try to imagine what Jews were feeling in Jerusalem, or in Shushan, Persia, roughly 2,500 years ago. The feeling of dread when Haman came out with his announcement of genocide to the Jews all around the world.
Just to put the Purim story into historical perspective. Whether it really happened or not is up to you to believe, but it is our tradition. And within a historical time frame we have Cyrus, King of Persia, who allowed the Jews to build the 2nd Temple a little over 2,500 years ago. Roughly 50 years later we have the Persian king, Xerses. He is Achashverosh of the Purim story (or the king who beat the Spartans in the movie ‘300’). Living as a Jew at this point will be daunting as Haman’s diabolical plan is hanging over your head. Living in Jerusalem at this time is no picnic either, as the locals non Jews are giving the Jews who returned from Persia a run for their money. These feelings of dread are embodied in the famous words in the Esther Megillah “And the city of Shushan was confused/perplexed”.
At the most difficult point, though, events change dramatically. The fortunes of the Jews take a sharp turn for the better, and they are saved from Haman’s horrible plan. A generation later 2 key Jewish figures, Ezra & Nechamia, come to Jerusalem and help bring the city back to life.
In what seemed like natural events in a roller coaster ride in history, the presence of a force above us (Hashem, G-d, the almighty or karma, call it as you may) steered the historical events in our favor. By the end of the Purim Megillah reading it says “and the city of Shushan rejoiced”.
Jumping forward to the 21st century. Our society, the world as we know it today, is being rocked by the Coronavirus. Humanity is confused/perplexed. There probably isn’t a single person in the world who hasn’t been affected one way or another at this point. I have to say that for me this has been a very humbling experience. Watching in awe the effect that this horrible virus has on our daily 21st century lives, literally bringing the powerful economy that I live in to the eve of a standstill, wreaking havoc on the health of lives of people around the world, and so much more..I can only humbly stand by and pray that this too shall pass and that we shall come out of this much stronger. With all of my academic (and sometimes cynical) way of looking at religion, I feel like G-d is putting me in my place a little bit, and teaching me a lesson of humility.
Just as we rose stronger in our story of Purim with the help of G-d, so too do I pray that we’ll come out of this crazy time stronger, with the help of G-d, בעזרת ה’.

Fields of flowers

When people ask me “What is your favorite place to travel in Israel?” My answer is more connected to my ‘favorite time of year’ then ‘favorite place’.

By the time February/March have arrived in Israel, we have experienced much of the rainy season. This will bring about stunning colors throught Israel. Not only do we travel through green hills (otherwise yellow brown), but they are dotted with colorful flowers that are in full bloom. Nestled amongst Israel’s terrain, are specific areas where we can feast our eyes on fields of flowers that naturally cover hills. Anemone, cyclamen, lupine, daffodil, iris are just a few of the types of flowers that turn our hills into a blanket of flower heaven.

In southern Israel, we can visit the Shokeda forest and walk among the anemone flowers. Make sure to experience this in February, otherwise you may find an empty hill. Outside Jerusalem, in the Ella Valley, we have Lupine hill (yes, that’s its name, literally). Spend 15 minutes climbing this particular hill, and then feast your eyes on the majestic blue/purple lupines. Oh, please make sure to specifically visit this hill in March. If you are visiting the Golan Heights in February, wear your boots and pants that you don’t mind getting muddy in order to walk through a small local marsh and enjoy the daffodil flowers.

So the next time that you want to know where I most enjoy traveling in Israel, here you have it. My favorite places during my favorite season. In my eyes, these sites are truly heaven on earth.