Saturday, January 07, 2012

Review of "The Dovekeepers"

‘Dovekeepers’ a tale of Masada as grim death approaches

by Hilary Daninhirsch
[Jewish] Chronicle Correspondent

One hallmark of a good writer is finding a new way to tell an old story. Fans of Alice Hoffman will be surprised, and yet pleased, to discover “The Dovekeepers,” a fresh version of the story of Masada in the year 70 C.E., just after the Temple is destroyed. Historical fiction is a total departure for Hoffman’s adult novels, although she does weave familiar themes of magic and mysticism into the story.

Links to earlier reviews etc. here.

Friday, January 06, 2012

Best footnote ever


Yohanan Ben Zakkai and some Sephardic synagogues

RABBI YOHANAN BEN ZAKKAI serves as the launching point for a Jerusalem Post Travel piece on Sephardic synagogues in Jerusalem.
Off the Beaten Track: Yochanan Ben Zakkai

01/05/2012 14:58

Travel expert Joe Yudin discusses link between famous Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and Four Sephardic Synagogues of J'lem.
Here's the supposed connection:
... in 1877, Bernhard Neumann wrote:

"The Sephardi synagogues are wrapped in an aura of antiquity and all who enter their underground rooms feel a sense of mystery and holiness. The present synagogue, Kahal Zion, was founded by the Sephardim in what was believed to have been the study hall of Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai, before the destruction of the Temple…Ibrahim Pasha of Egypt allowed them to renovate the building; this work was completed in 1845. It was then that an inscribed stone was discovered that proved the building to be 460 years old…"
Be that as it may, the article also retells one of the best-known and most entertaining stories about R. Yohanan:
Perhaps Yohannan ben Zakkai's greatest contribution to the Jewish people lies in the Talmudic story of the destruction of the Temple. The Jewish War was raging in the year 69 C.E. and the Jewish rebels had holed themselves up on the Temple Mount. The Romans were ravaging their way through the Land of Israel and Jerusalem was all but lost. Vespasian and his Tenth Legion would surely breakthrough to the Temple courts at any day. Yohanan ben Zakkai did what no other rabbi dared to do. In defiance of the rebels orders he knew that he must get off the Temple Mount with his disciples in order to continue the study of Torah. He played dead and his students wrapped him in a burial shroud and smuggled him out of the Temple complex, through a cemetery and straight to the camp of the Roman general Vespasian. Ben Zakkai was known to Vespasian as a man of great influence who had tried to discourage the war to no avail. He addressed Vespasian as "king" twice. As Nero was king, Vespasian believed the rabbi was just trying to butter him up, and he had Ben Zakkai locked up in the darkest of solitary confinement awaiting a death sentence. Three days later the news arrived that Nero was dead and Vespasian had indeed become king. Vespasian as a reward for his prophecy would grant the rabbi any wish. His wish was to allow the other great rabbis on the Temple Mount to join him and his disciples in Yavne, and to set up a yeshiva to keep the flame of Torah study alive, and with that he changed Judaism forever.
It's a good story, but perhaps one to be taken with a grain of salt, especially given that the contemporary Jewish historian Flavius Josephus claims to have made exactly the same prophecy to Vespasian when Josephus was a prisoner of the Romans, with a not disssimilar result:
When Josephus heard him give those orders, he said that he had somewhat in his mind that he would willingly say to himself alone. When therefore they were all ordered to withdraw, excepting Titus and two of their friends, he said, "Thou, O Vespasian, thinkest no more than that thou hast taken Josephus himself captive; but I come to thee as a messenger of greater tidings; for had not I been sent by God to thee, I knew what was the law of the Jews in this case? (5) and how it becomes generals to die. Dost thou send me to Nero? For why? Are Nero's successors till they come to thee still alive? Thou, O Vespasian, art Caesar and emperor, thou, and this thy son. Bind me now still faster, and keep me for thyself, for thou, O Caesar, are not only lord over me, but over the land and the sea, and all mankind; and certainly I deserve to be kept in closer custody than I now am in, in order to be punished, if I rashly affirm any thing of God." When he had said this, Vespasian at present did not believe him, but supposed that Josephus said this as a cunning trick, in order to his own preservation; but in a little time he was convinced, and believed what he said to be true, God himself erecting his expectations, so as to think of obtaining the empire, and by other signs fore-showing his advancement. He also found Josephus to have spoken truth on other occasions; for one of those friends that were present at that secret conference said to Josephus, "I cannot but wonder how thou couldst not foretell to the people of Jotapata that they should be taken, nor couldst foretell this captivity which hath happened to thyself, unless what thou now sayest be a vain thing, in order to avoid the rage that is risen against thyself." To which Josephus replied, "I did foretell to the people of Jotapata that they would be taken on the forty-seventh day, and that I should be caught alive by the Romans." Now when Vespasian had inquired of the captives privately about these predictions, he found them to be true, and then he began to believe those that concerned himself. Yet did he not set Josephus at liberty from his hands, but bestowed on him suits of clothes, and other precious gifts; he treated him also in a very obliging manner, and continued so to do, Titus still joining his interest ill the honors that were done him. (Jewish War iii.8.9/iii.399-405, Whiston translation)
The Roman historian Suetonius also refers briefly to the same story with Josephus as the protagonist:
When he [Vespasian] consulted the oracle of the god of Carmel in Judaea, the lots were highly encouraging, promising that whatever he planned or wished, however great it might be, would come to pass; and one of his highborn prisoners, Josephus by name, as he was being put in chains, declared most confidently that he would soon be released by the same man, who would then, however, be emperor. (Vespasian 5)

IDF rabbinate photoshops away Dome of the Rock

IDF rabbinate edits out Dome of the Rock from picture of Jerusalem’s Temple Mount

Photo appears in army packet on Hanukkah describing the Jewish revolt against Hellenistic rule; IDF spokesman: Image meant to illustrate a period in which holy Muslim site did not exist.

By Gili Cohen (Haaretz)
What were they thinking? Did they really think the media would not get hold of this?

You can get a better view of the photo at this Gawker post, where John Cook points out, somewhat less tactfully than I, that a reconstruction of the site in antiquity might better have included the Temple itself in the picture, or at least might have photoshopped out the people in modern dress and the electric lights.

For comparison, here's a reconstruction of how Herod's Temple might have looked. And here's another with a viewpoint closer to that of the IDF photo and with properly attired people. It would not have been at all difficult to find and use something similar, which would have avoided this negative publicity.

900 ancient Judean coins to be auctioned in NYC

900 ANCIENT JUDEAN COINS are going up for auction in New York in March, including a couple of rare ones from the first revolt against Rome. If a private collector buys them, I strongly encourage the new owner to continue to make them available for scholars to study.

Thursday, January 05, 2012

More on the inscribed object from Jerusalem

MORE ON THE INSCRIBED OBJECT FROM JERUSALEM: Joseph I. Lauer has sent out a Hebrew University press release that explains the theory of Professor Naeh more clearly and with greater detail.
News Release

The Hebrew University of Jerusalem האוניברסיטה העברית בירושלים

Controversy in archaeology: Hebrew University professor disputes claims about purpose of newly-discovered Temple artifact

Challenges interpretation of Israel Antiquities Authority; says ancient seal was used by Temple administration to track purchases, not to indicate purity

Jerusalem, Jan. 4, 2012
— A Talmudic scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is challenging the conventional wisdom about the purpose of an ancient artifact recently discovered in archaeological excavations in the Temple Mount area of Jerusalem.

On December 25, newspapers around the world reported the discovery of a tiny object of fired clay, about the size of a button, stamped with an inscription consisting of the Hebrew letters דכא ליה (“DKA LYH” or "Deka Leyah"). The object was discovered in excavations organized by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) about 15 meters north of the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, beneath Robinson’s Arch in the Archaeological Garden in Jerusalem.

According to the archaeologists in charge of the excavation, the letters are an Aramaic inscription meaning "pure for God," and the object was used to mark things brought to the Temple as ritually pure.

But Prof. Shlomo Naeh, a professor in the Hebrew University's Talmud Department and the head of Hebrew University's Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, points out several problems with this explanation. According to Naeh, "Labeling an object as 'pure' is not reasonable because according to ritual law, an object can easily lose its purity at any time, even if merely touched by an unclean person. Moreover, symbols of purity must be attached in a way that prevents their removal or transfer to another object, but this artifact was not found to contain spurs or holes for string that would have enabled it to be firmly attached. And it would not have been used as a stamp, because the writing on it is from right to left, and not in the mirror-image writing typically used on stamps. Preserving the purity of an object must be done in a more secure manner, for example by inscribing and sealing vessels in such a way that it’s impossible to open them without it being noticeable."

Naeh offers an entirely different explanation: the object is a kind of voucher or token, referred to in the Mishnah as a "חותם" (seal), which enabled the Temple administrator to keep track of commerce related to sacrificial offerings. (The Mishnah is a compilation of Jewish oral tradition redacted by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi around 200 CE; it comprises the first section of the Talmud.)

In Temple times, every animal sacrifice was accompanied by additional offerings consisting of flour, wine and oil, in varying proportions depending on the type of sacrifice. These offerings had to be purchased in the Temple to ensure they were kosher and pure.

According to the Mishnah, the sale of these additional offerings was managed in a centralized manner: the person bringing the sacrifice would pay for them at the Temple "office” and receive a seal-like object with Aramaic writing listing the type of sacrifice. The person would then bring the seal to the seller of additional offerings and receive the specified allotment.

According to Professor Naeh, the newly-discovered artifact was used to track these transactions. In an abbreviated code necessitated by the object's small size, the inscription indicates the type of additional offering the buyer was entitled to and the date on which he was entitled to it. In this instance, the letters are an abbreviation of three words: “Dakhar Aleph Le-Yehoyariv,” meaning the buyer was entitled to the additional offerings for a ram, on the first day of the work shift of the Yehoyariv family of priests.

“Dakhar” in Aramaic means “male” (signifying a ram), as described in the Mishnah: “There were four seals in the Sanctuary, inscribed with the words Egel (calf), Zakhar (ram), Gdi (kid), and Khote (sinner); Ben Azai says, the inscriptions were in Aramaic: Egel, Dakhar, Gdi, and Khote” (Shekalim, 5D).

“Aleph” indicates the first day of the week, meaning the sacrifice was brought on a Sunday.

"Yehoyariv" indicates the family that had the first of the twenty-four weekly shifts according to the division of labor among priestly families working in the Temple.

Prof. Naeh explains: "To prevent deception or fraud, they limited the validity of the seal so that it could not be used on any other day. According to the tradition recorded in the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud, they marked it with the day of the week and the name of the priestly shift that was working that week in the Temple." Priestly families were divided into twenty-four shifts and alternated the watches (shifts) so that each family worked approximately once in each six month cycle.

"This archaeological discovery is living proof that the Temple was administered as described in the Mishnah,” adds Prof. Naeh. "This interpretation also explains why this object is such a rare find, because the seals mentioned in the Mishnah were used only in the Temple area as an internal means of exchange, and it can be assumed that only a few items found their way out of the Temple."

Prof. Naeh added that in recent years, researchers of Jewish antiquity have raised doubts about the credibility of early rabbinical descriptions of Temple activity. However in this instance the Mishnah was shown to contain accurate and precise information about the workings of the Temple, and this should caution us against making sweeping generalizations that deny the historical credibility of early rabbinical sources.

For more information, contact:
-Dov Smith, Hebrew University Media Relations, 02-5881641 (international: 972-2-5881641) /
-Orit Sulitzeanu, Hebrew University Spokesperson, 02-5882910, mobile: 054-882-0016 /

Dov Smith
Foreign Media Liaison
The Hebrew University of Jerusalem
Website Twitter Facebook YouTube
Okay, I see now that Professor Naeh was not proposing to find a resh on the seal, as I misunderstood yesterday (see link above). Good, because it doesn't seem to be there. Rather, he is proposing that the dalet is an abbreviation of dakar, "ram," and the aleph an abbreviation for "one," or "first," that is the the first day of the week in which the relevant priestly family was on duty. The Mishnaic references are also given.

This is an interesting idea, but if it is correct we are dealing with three abbreviations in a row, which would not make a text easy to decipher! As I said yesterday, I would like to see some analogies in contemporary texts. Preferably in a peer-review journal article.

I suppose I should also follow Joe Lauer in noting the developing controversy over whether Robert Deutsch proposed this interpretation first and to what degree he should have been cited in the above press release. Deutsch's comment is passed on here by Jim West, which refers to an ANE-2-list posting by Deutsch on 26 December, later reposted on his blog on 31 December, as well as elsewhere. This was followed up with an explanatory post on the ANE-2 list dated 4 January.

Joe Lauer comments:
The following Hebrew University release has: "According to Naeh, **** Moreover, symbols of purity must be attached in a way that prevents their removal or transfer to another object, but this artifact was not found to contain spurs or holes for string that would have enabled it to be firmly attached." [Starred matter omitted.]
The sentences in the Ha'aretz article and the following release seem to mention items or details not mentioned in Mr. Deutsch's postings.
However, if someone has more information, especially of something that I missed (which is entirely possible), please forward it to me.

Wednesday, January 04, 2012

Another interpretation of inscribed object from Jerusalem

ANOTHER INTERPRETATION of that inscribed clay object recently discovered in Jerusalem:
Scholars offer new explanation for rare Temple artifact in Jerusalem

Object, at the northwestern corner of the Temple Mount, was initially thought to read 'Daka LeYa,' which means 'pure to God' in Aramaic.

By Nir Hasson
Although it is true that scholars are suggesting new interpretations of this object (see here), this article, contra the headline, is about a new explanation advanced by one scholar.
But Prof. Shlomo Naeh of the Hebrew University's Talmud department believes the inscription could be read differently. "I was sitting with my son and looking at the photograph, and in a moment of intuition, I realized what it could be," he told Haaretz Tuesday.

Naeh also believes the object is related to Temple worship and purity, but reads the inscription differently, as "Dakar a Leyehoyariv." Dakar in Aramaic means ram and a stands for aleph, the first day of the week, when the priestly order of Yehoyariv was on duty in the Temple.

Thus, the object was used in Temple worship, but not how Reich and Shukron believe it was, says Naeh. To ensure the purity of animal sacrifices offered in the Temple - and to maintain an economic monoply, Naeh believes - pilgrims had to buy their offerings in the Temple courts. They gave money to a treasurer who would exchange it for a token inscribed with the type of sacrifice they had purchased and the date.

Like Reich and Shukron, Naeh supports his theory with a mishnaic verse citing the existence of such tokens. With regard to Reich and Shukron's interpretation, he said: "Purity was very fluid; the touch of an impure person was enough to make the object impure, so it is unlikely such a seal existed."
I take it that Professor Naeh reads the first word as DKRʼ "the ram," rather than DKʼ, "pure," and he accepts the proposed reading of the second word as LYH, but interprets it as the abbreviation of the name of a priestly order rather than a divine name.

The kaph in the first word does have an odd mark above the tick at the top which could perhaps be interpreted as a damaged resh (inserted there for lack of space?), but it looks odd and I would want to see parallels for the placement in other seals of the period. Also, there seems to be a similar smaller mark above the similar tick on the first letter (dalet), which makes me disinclined to read the mark over the kaph as a separate letter. You need to look closely at all of the published photographs to see all this. So my provisional, off-the-cuff reading is DKʼ rather than DKRʼ.

As for Professor Naeh's interpretation of the second word, well, could be. Abbreviations are a bane to the epigrapher. Again, I would like to see some contemporary parallels.

It's nice that this object is getting so much responsible attention from the media and it's fun to propose and discuss interpretations of it informally, but as usual, serious evaluation of its meaning will have to take place in technical peer-review publications.

Also, a small note to Nir Hasson, who does a good job overall of covering these stories. When your article has someone citing a mishnaic verse, it's good form to give the reference.

UPDATE (5 January): I misunderstood part of Professor Naeh's argument: he does not propose to find a resh in the inscription. Much more on his proposal here (next post).

Schiffman on the DSS at

CHABAD.ORG: What Are the Dead Sea Scrolls? Professor Lawrence Schiffman discusses the Qumran Scrolls.

Jazz Talmud

JAZZ TALMUD: Poem as a Noisy Mediterranean Duplex (Jake Marmer, The Forward).
said Rabbi Zusha: “my mother named me Sasha but I fell into a seraphic orchestra pit, and things have not been the same” his students asked him: “what did you see in the pit?” he answered: “behold, four seraphs held a cello, like a naked, newly-formed body, and eight pushed the bow” whose cello? Adam’s whose bow? Mordechai’s, the refused bow that makes cellos of heaven sing the soul-spilling human heaviness ...

Zenobia turns four


Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Talmud Blog Book Club on Rosen-Zvi, "Demonic Desires"

THE TALMUD BLOG BOOK CLUB has posted its first book discussion: The Book Club: Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires. The first of many, I hope.

Philip Esler, "Reading Biblical Narrative with Its Ancient Audience"

PHILIP ESLER has an essay posted at the Bible and Interpretation website:
Reading Biblical Narrative with Its Ancient Audience

Cultures similar to, but certainly not the same as, those of ancient Israel and sharing all of these features have existed around the Mediterranean until very recent times and have been studied closely by anthropologists,... By applying this material to biblical narratives we can wash away our modern, Northern Atlantic understandings of what they meant and find something very different and very exciting underneath.

For further details of this research and for references to the secondary authors referred to, please see Philip F. Esler, Sex, Wives, and Warriors: Reading Biblical Narrative With Its Ancient Audience (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2011).

Hebrew papers on recent Temple Mount excavations

TEMPLE MOUNT WATCH: Those Hebrew conference papers on the new scientific excavations at the eastern slopes of the Temple Mount are now available online at the Temple Mount Sifting Project blog.

Background here.

(HT Joseph I. Lauer.)

Hugoye call for papers

A CALL FOR PAPERS at the Hygoye list:
The editors of Hugoye would like to issue a general call for papers for future volumes of Hugoye. Volume 15 (2012) is set, but there is still time to submit papers to be considered for publication as early as Volume 16 (2013). We know that there are plenty of journals available for scholars to consider, but because Hugoye is one of the few journals dedicated exclusively to the Syriac tradition, we hope that you will submit your papers dealing with Syriac topics to us so that we can ensure that Hugoye remains on the cutting edge of Syriac scholarship.

All the best for the new year,

Hugoye editorial staff
The electronic (and free!) journal Hugoye: Journal of Syriac Studies is here. It publishes lots of good stuff.

Monday, January 02, 2012

More on the Afghan geniza report

Scrolls raise questions as to Afghan Jewish history
By GIL SHEFLER (Jerusalem Post)
01/02/2012 21:49

Scholar hopes findings might shed light on medieval merchants.

An Afghan shepherd enters a wolves den perched high in the mountains of Samangan province looking for a sheep that went astray.

Inside, he doesn’t find what he is looking for, but just as he is about to leave he notices something strange: Pieces of old parchment lie strewn on the dirt floor.
What is it with shepherds and caves and scrolls?
So goes one of the stories behind the recent discovery of about 150 manuscripts and artifacts in a remote cave that belonged to a medieval Jewish community.

“But there are several and they are always the same about shepherds looking for sheep,” admitted Prof. Haggai Ben-Shammai of the Hebrew University on Sunday.

“Who knows how they were really found?” Scholars are currently in the early stages of poring over the texts dating from the 11th century and written in Judeo-Arabic and Judeo-Persian.
Commendable skepticism. I hope that at some point this cave can be located and excavated, as the Qumran caves eventually were.
“They have dates so we can date them precisely,” said Prof. Shaul Shaked of the Hebrew University.

“There’s no doubt that they are authentic. They correspond with similar findings from the past.”

The expert in ancient Persian languages said the scrolls included an ancient copy of the book of Jeremiah; hitherto unknown scholarly works by the medieval sage Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon; personal poems of loss and mourning and even bookkeeping records that could teach us about everyday life in the community.

“The person who wrote it, a Jewish merchant, keeps track of who owed him how much,” said Shaked.

He added that the texts show the community may have been Karaite, a sect of Judaism which strictly adheres to the bible rather than the Talmud and other later Jewish texts, and name several early Karaite leaders.

If Shaul Shaked thinks the fragments are genuine, then that's the way to bet.

The headline and the article refer to "scrolls," but in this period I would expect codices (i.e., something more like a bound book as we know it). But the "bookkeeping records" might well be on individual sheets of parchment.

The 150 "manuscripts and artifacts" (the former reportedly poorly preserved, as one might expect) seem to be the entire lot from this cave. But Professor Shaked seems optimistic that there will be "many more" such "findings in that part of the world." I hope he's right.

(Via Joseph I. Lauer.)

Background here.

Biblioblogging Carnival

THE BIBLIOBLOGGING CARNIVAL for January 2012 (or is it December 2011?) has been posted at Dr. Jim's Thinking Shop. There's a Pratchett theme and, remarkably, there are no pictures of cats and only one cat cartoon.

Sunday, January 01, 2012

Modi'in, past and present

HANUKKAH AND HISTORY: Urban Planning, Hasmonean-Style (Elli Fischer, Jewish Ideas Daily).
In the early 1990s, construction began on Modi'in, Israel's new "City of the Future." Designed by renowned architect Moshe Safdie and located mid-way between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, Modi'in is in many ways typical of modern planned communities.

But Modi'in is not simply Israel's version of Columbia, Maryland. What sets it apart lies not within the city but around and under it: extensive ruins from every historical era of the past 2,200 years, including sites that form the heartland of the Hanukkah story.
More posts on Hanukkah and history collected here.

UPDATE: Also of relevance to Hanukkah: Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 3) (Ophir Münz-Manor, The Talmud blog).

Happy New Year!

HAPPY NEW YEAR! Have a great 2012 and keep reading PaleoJudaica.