Friday, August 18, 2017

Sanhedrin 26

Move Along, Nothing Valuable Here

In the context of a discussion about if one can trust witnesses who are known to be transgressors, the Gemara brings up the case of Shebna, steward to King Hezekiah. He is described as a brilliant scholar who commanded a larger audience for his Torah teachings than did the king. Therefore, when Sennacherib of Assyria advanced on Jerusalem, Shebna thought that the decision to surrender was in his hands, since he had the majority on his side. This was not the case and he ultimately tried to surrender to Sennacherib himself, with his followers. God planned it so that he was locked out of the city alone and Sennacherib thought he was making a fool of him. Therefore, he tortured and killed him.

In the course of this story, the Gemara relates that Shebna was arrogant enough to build for himself a grave among the graves of the kings. The two parts of the story seem to be an attempt to explain the rather incongruous two parts of Isaiah chapter 22. In the first half of the chapter, the prophet talks about how Jerusalem is prematurely celebrating the defeat of Sennacherib, trusting in themselves and not in God. The second part of the chapter discusses Shebna who dug a grave for himself where he should not have.

ישעיהו כב (טו)  כֹּה אָמַר אֲדֹנָי ה' צְבָאוֹת לֶךְ בֹּא אֶל הַסֹּכֵן הַזֶּה עַל שֶׁבְנָא אֲשֶׁר עַל הַבָּיִת: (טז) מַה לְּךָ פֹה וּמִי לְךָ פֹה כִּי חָצַבְתָּ לְּךָ פֹּה קָבֶר חֹצְבִי מָרוֹם קִבְרוֹ חֹקְקִי בַסֶּלַע מִשְׁכָּן לוֹ:

The Gemara goes into detail about the later verses but we want to know about the grave and about Shebna’s title. אשר על הבית  is a term used for someone who is a high ranking official. Obadiah is the אשר על הבית  for King Ahab for example. King Hezekiah seems to have had two of these functionaries, perhaps at different times: Shebna and someone named אליקים בן חלקיהו (Isaiah 36:22 and other places).   That someone of this rank would dig himself a grave near the kings’ graves is not so strange; Isaiah seems to be angry at him not for his arrogance but for his disloyalty, as the Gemara relates.

In 1870, as part of a survey of the burial caves in the Kidron Valley

(Generation Word Bible Teaching)

the French archaeologist Charles Clermont Ganneau found an inscription. Part of it was broken but most of it was legible. It looked like this:

Translation:  "This is ... [... ...] ...iah, the royal steward. There is no silver or gold here, only ... [his bones] ... and the bones of his maidservant with him. Cursed be the man who opens this."

Could this be the illicit  grave of Shebna? Granted, the suffix yahu is a pretty common one in the Bible: Yirmiyahu, Yishayahu, Hizkiyahu. Also, Shebna’s name does not end with yahu. So what makes scholars think this is his grave? The key is the context of the verses in Isaiah and the title  אשר על הבית. Adding yahu to a name is not unheard of in the Bible and it could be that Shebna was also known as Shebnayahu.

Besides the excitement of perhaps finding the grave mentioned by Isaiah, there is also the interesting inscription. The author wanted to make sure no one touched his remains. Therefore, he gave not one but two reasons to leave the grave alone:

Reason number one: No silver or gold here!!
Translation: remember those signs from the 80s advertising that there was nothing valuable in the car:

Reason number two: If you open the grave you will be cursed. People took curses very seriously in those days, perhaps more so than they took the commandment not to steal. So if you didn’t believe the author that there was nothing valuable in the grave, perhaps the curse would still deter you.

And why would you tamper with the grave in the first place? Because in Biblical times, Jews, like others, were buried with possessions. Who knows what one will need in the afterlife?

Did Shebna’s warnings work? Unfortunately for him and for archaeologists, no. The grave, like most graves was found empty, its possessions plundered centuries ago.

Monday, September 12, 2016

Bava Kama 101

The Rainbow Connection

On our daf we have the seemingly strange question of if wool is dyed accidentally, or malevolently, are the wool and the dye two separate items or have they become one new item.  In either case, we ask how can we determine the value of the item(s) and who receives the payment for them. This leads us to the topic of dyes and dyeing – how was it done, what did it cost and other details.

Dyeing is an ancient craft and was often a family business, with the trade secrets passed down from father to son. Jews were dyers in the time of the Mishna and continued in the trade through the Middle Ages and even into pre-modern times. When Benjamin of Tudela writes in the 12th century about visiting Jewish communities all over the world, he often talks about the Jewish dyers. He tells us there were dyers in Jerusalem and the Ramban, a century later, mentions the same fact.  Even today, you can meet people with the family name of Sabag, which means dyer צבעי .

What were the dyes made of? The most popular (and least expensive) dyes were made of plants.  The Mishnah in Shviit 7:1-3 lists some of the most important ones. There isאסטיס  or Isatis tinctorum, popularly known as woad. This is a plant that makes a blue color. 


Then there isפואה  , rubia tinctorum or madder, which produces red. 


Other plants, as well as peels and shells of fruit, made yellow, black and purple. The indigo plant, קלע אילן  , produced a deep blue that Hazal worried would be mistaken for techelet.

This brings us to animal-based dyes. The most well-known are those from the murex snail חילזון ,

used for the blue techelet color, and the crimson worm, תולעת שני , used to make red. These animal dyes were very expensive and only used by royalty or very wealthy individuals. That is part of the idea of techelet – all Jewish males are considered sons of kings בני מלכים, and therefore need to wear a royal addition on their garment.

The names of two dyes are the names of two sons of Yissachar: תולע and פו(א)ה. Perhaps Yissachar was a dye maker.

The important fact about dyeing is that it is an expensive process. Two thousand kilo of Isatis leaves produce four kilo of dye. Twelve thousand murex snails make less than two kilo of purple dye. Dyeing vats found at the Biblical site of Tel Bet Mirsim have a rim so that when the cloth is taken out of the vat, all the leftover dye flows back inside, so as not to waste one drop.  
(Library of Congress)

The expense and the expertise needed to make colored wool help us to understand our cases in Bava Kama – of course the craftsman wants to be paid for his work! Of course the owner of the wool is upset that the color came out wrong or inferior!

Today archaeology is helping us understand even more about these precious colors. Just recently, Professor Naama Sukenik analyzed fabric remnants from the Wadi Murabaat caves in the Judean Desert. These are caves that Bar Kokhba rebels hid in almost two thousand years ago. According to her analysis, these fabrics were colored with dyes of techelet, argaman and tolaat shani, indicating that the cave housed VIP refugees.

Another way these colors are coming alive today is through craftspeople who are reviving the ancient arts. Among them are Suri Provisor of Shilo and the crafts workshops of BeHefetz Kapehah in Ein Karem They are helping to renew our (colorful) days as of old!


Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Take Out the Trash!

Bava Kama 30

Today's daf (and previous ones) talk a lot about what public spaces looked like and what was allowed there. Today we discuss the specifics of throwing your garbage into the street as well as leaving it there to compost. What did ancient streets look like? Was there garbage collection? Seems like streets were pretty nasty places till very recently (the Ottoman Turks cleared away Jerusalem's garbage once a year) but a recent fascinating archaeological discovery suggests that Jerusalem actually had municipal garbage collection two thousand years ago. Here is the Haaretz article with certain relevant highlights bolded. Thanks Tzvi Bessin for the article!

Today we are also advanced in our garbage collection
June 28, 2016 4:23 PM
*Ancient Romans, Jews Invented Trash Collection, Archaeology of Jerusalem
*Archaeologists digging up 2000-year-old landfill think combination of
Roman efficiency and Jewish obsession with cleanliness created a unique
system to take out the trash.*
Ariel David
Israeli archaeologists have stumbled upon the mother of all garbage dumps:
a massive landfill from early Roman times that may have been the result of
the most sophisticated trash collection system in antiquity.
Layer upon layer of waste that was efficiently collected, piled up and
buried some 2,000 years ago has been dug up on the slopes of the Kidron
valley, just outside the Roman-era walls of Jerusalem.
Coins and fragments of pottery show the landfill was in use for about seven
decades, from the beginning of the first century CE until the period of the
Great Jewish Revolt against the Romans, which ended with the destruction of
Jerusalem in 70 CE, says Yuval Gadot, a Tel Aviv University archaeologist
who led the dig.
 The landfill, which was excavated in 2013-2014 in conjunction with the
Israel Antiquities Authority, rose to a towering 70 meters in height, from
the bottom of the valley to the walls of the city. It was quite unusual in
its size, Gadot says.
It seems uncommon, he says. "If you look at history, usually people don’t
do that. They usually lived with their garbage, or they used it at some
point, or it just sat out there in the street,” he says.
Going back thousands of years before the Roman era, as far back as the
Neolithic, humans would dig pits for their garbage. They might collect it
for later use as fertilizer, or use it to level terrain when constructing
new buildings – both practices are still done today. But ancient examples
of large-scale collection and long-term storage of trash in a landfill are
scarce, Gadot says.
*Down the drain in Rome*
Beyond Jerusalem, across the rest of the Roman Empire, garbage disposal was
a chronic problem, especially in large cities.
Rome has the Monte Testaccio, an artificial mound still visible today made
up of millions of fragments of discarded amphorae. In this case, it isn't
that the pottery pieces were collected from around the city – this was
where the adjacent port on the River Tiber dumped trash.
In Rome and Pompeii, trash was sometimes disposed of in the sewage system,
which was commonly used to get rid of anything undesirable. Even the bodies
of the third-century emperor Heliogabalus, who was murdered by his guards,
and of the Christian martyr Saint Sebastian were dumped in Rome’s main
sewer, the Cloaca Maxima.
But most of the domestic trash was simply thrown into the street, usuallyafter dark and with little regard for passersby, so much that the satirical
poet Juvenal remarked that one should always make a will before going out
for dinner, “because different forms of death can rain down from any open
When a young and ambitious Vespasian – later an efficient administrator,
ruthless repressor of the Jewish Revolt and emperor – was in charge of city
maintenance, he failed so spectacularly to clear the streets that, as
punishment, the emperor Caligula (not the sanest of Roman rulers) had him
covered in mud.
*Thou shalt take out the trash*
In Jerusalem, however, it seems that the system worked. The landfill
located on the eastern slopes of the city is not just impressive for its
size: its alternating layers of ancient trash and soil suggest there was a
deliberate attempt to systematically cover the garbage to prevent smells
and deter scavengers, Gadot says.
It isn't that the people of ancient Jerusalem organized to collectively and
obediently throw their dross over the city walls. “It looks like there was
a mechanism in place that cleared the streets, cleared the houses, using
donkeys to collect and throw away the garbage,” Gadot speculates.
The system may have developed out of a combination of Roman administrative
knowhow and a growing observance among Jews of religious purity norms,
researchers theorize.

Jews in early Roman Jerusalem were obsessed with purity and impurity, as
shown by the proliferation of mikvehs (ritual baths), the frequent use of
stone vessels (which were believed to be impervious to impurity) and the
near absence of imported pottery.
“It could be that it became a norm in Jerusalem that you have to take out
the garbage, because it’s impure and has to be brought outside the city,”
Gadot suggests. “It’s not the municipality saying so: God says so, and that
makes it easier.”
Gadot hesitates to say whether Jerusalemites were the first in history to
organize such a large-scale waste management system.
“I don’t know if it’s the first, but it’s unique,” he told Haaretz in a
recent interview. “Maybe there’s another landfill in Rome that was for
domestic use, but at the moment we don’t know about it.”
One problem is also that archaeologists usually prefer to excavate large,
impressive ruins rather than mundane sites like garbage landfills.
*Fish meals in a Jewish city*
Most of the garbage in the landfill is leftovers from “a typical
middle-class lunch or dinner at the time,” including animal bones, charred
remains of grains, olive pits and wood from household ovens.
The picture that emerges is of a fairly wealthy city, with plenty of meat
to go around and even fish brought in from distant locations like the
Mediterranean and the Sea of Galilee.
According to Abra Spiciarich, a student whose MA thesis focused on the
animal bones found in the landfill, the meat mostly came from goats, sheep,
with a smaller proportion of cattle and chickens. This confirms that
Jerusalem’s population was overwhelmingly Jewish at the time, given the
complete absence of pig bones and the marks of kosher slaughtering found on
many of the remains.
Archaeologists also found waste from the manufacture of glass and stone
vessels, which were apparently made in small household workshops in the

But very few bronze and iron artifacts have been found, not because they
weren't in use, but apparently, because they were being recycled.
“It seems that any material that they could recycle, they collected
separately and it never reached the landfill. It was melted or reused,”
Gadot says. “Maybe at the domestic level they sold scraps of metal to
someone who specialized in that.”
*A Roman mop-up operation?*
Not everyone agrees with Gadot’s reading of the site.
“We really don’t know what caused this accumulation,” says Alon de Groot,
an Israel Antiquities Archaeologist who has participated in excavations in
the area just above the landfill.
That neighborhood, today known as the City of David, is considered the
oldest part of the city and its original nucleus. De Groot noted that the
area was destroyed when the Romans captured Jerusalem at the end of the
revolt. Later, they used the ruined buildings as a quarry to reconstruct
the city as a Roman settlement called Aelia Capitolina.
“Then they just cleared up the whole hill, and as a result you find the
garbage below, but this is not really garbage from that period: it’s mostly
a result of the cleaning up of the area above after the city was
destroyed,” de Groot told Haaretz in a telephone interview.
Gadot says he remains convinced that the site functioned as Jerusalem’s
garbage dump, arguing that if parts of the ruined city had simply been
pushed down the slope, archaeologists would have found at least a few large
stones used in construction, instead of just tiny pieces of pottery, bones
and organic residue.
Helena Roth, an archeobotanist on Gadot’s team, studied the charred remains
of wood found in the landfill and compared them to samples taken from the
destruction layers in the city itself. In the landfill she mostly found
traces of olive and fig trees – which surrounded the city and probably
provided a cheap source of fuel. In the city itself, she also found rare or
imported materials like boxwood and Lebanese cedar, likely the remains of
luxury furniture that was burned down with the rest of the city.
The fact that the dump and city had different wood remains supports the
idea that the landfill functioned as a garbage storage site, Roth says.
*The holiest garbage*

Another comparative study conducted by the Tel Aviv team was with materials
found about a decade ago in a smaller landfill from the same period, very
near by - just under the Temple Mount.
There, a team led by archaeologists Guy Bar-Oz and Ronny Reich had found
significant amounts of pigeon bones. Because these birds were often used a sacrificial animal in ancient Israel,
they speculated that this dump was used to collect the remains of the
cultic activities that took place at the nearby Temple. Gadot says that no
pigeon bones have been found in the city dump he excavated, strengthening
the theory that what was found in the northern landfill by his colleagues
was indeed “holy garbage.”

Monday, February 22, 2016

How to Get Rid of Pesky Demons
 Gittin 68

The lengthy discussions about demons and Ashmedai in Gittin are not out of the realm of Gemara discourse but are certainly strange and completely unrelated to the topic of divorce.  Or are they? In a fascinating article  Avigail Manekin Bamberger shows that Aramaic incantation bowls discovered in Babylonia sometimes used the language of gittin to rid the house of demons.

The bowls had a formula that bore similarities to divorce papers. They cite that this is a divorce between the owner of the house and Lilith (or another demon) and even include the standard וכל שום דאית ליה ; and any (other) name the owner has. Bamberger suggests that this shows how widespread and accepted the gittin formula was among Babylonian Jews, as well as how perhaps scribes could have written both writs of divorce and incantation bowls (gotta make a living).

Divorce those demons and have a happy home!
(In case you want to try these at home)

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

We'll Always Have Yavneh

Gittin 56

Give me Yavneh and her sages תן לי יבנה וחכמיה .  Among the many stories presented in the Gemara, this vignette in Gittin, with Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s daring escape from Jerusalem and his prescient request of Vespasian is one of the most famous. We often tell it to help explicate how Judaism was able to survive one of its greatest catastrophes, the destruction of the Second Temple.

But what is Yavneh? What did Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai really accomplish? And how?

Yavneh was, and still is, a relatively small town, not near the major cities of the time: Jerusalem, Zippori, Caesaria.  It was part of the tribal area of Judah and was centrally located  – not far from the sea, near the coastal road, close to the metropolis of Lod. It had a Jewish and a Hellenized population in Second Temple times. And it was the first stop outside Jerusalem for the nomadic Sanhedrin:

But most significantly, according to Josephus,  Yavneh was royal property. First it was owned by Herod, and then by the Roman Caesars, notably Vespasian:

Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, Book 4, Chapter 16: he [Vespasian] moved on to Lod and Yavneh. As these two were subdued already, he settled there a sufficient number of those who had submitted. . .”

Did Rabbi Yochanan choose Yavneh or did it choose him, being a prison camp for troublemakers? Either way, it was far enough away from the rebels in Jerusalem to enable Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai and the sages he gathered around him to quietly start a revolution of their own. The Romans didn’t know it, but Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai was simultaneously keeping the memory of Jerusalem alive and creating a blueprint for Jewish life without a temple.

Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai established some significant precedents in Yavneh, putting it on a par with Jerusalem in some ways. One could blow shofar there on Shabbat, something previously only done in the Temple. People would come on pilgrimage to Yavneh, not to sacrifice but to have their halakhic questions answered (Tosefta Hullin chapter 3, Tosefta Mikvaot chapter 4).  Witnesses came there to testify about the new moon.

And yet, Yavneh existed as a center for a very short period, a few decades at best. The Sanhedrin and the rabbis moved to other places and we don’t even have much in the way of archaeological remains (yet!) on Tel Yavneh. The most dominant building there is a Crusader church converted into a Mameluke mosque:

So why all the fuss? Yuval Shachar, a professor at Tel Aviv University, perhaps put it best in an article about Yavneh (my translation):

“There is Yavneh before Lod or Yavneh before Usha, Bet Shearim , Zippori or Tverya, but there is no Yavneh before Yavneh.”*

Yavneh becomes the template for survival in a world without the Temple. Despite Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai’s dictum  מהרה יבנה המקדש  the Temple should be rebuilt speedily, it is a template that has had to serve the Jewish people for many centuries.

Today, the modern town of Yavneh is a growing suburb and its main attraction for outsiders is cold and sweet, the Ben and Jerry’s flagship store in Israel:

May the temple be rebuilt speedily, and Ben and Jerry’s can be served there too!

*"יבנה התלמודית: שני דורות ותהילת נצח" יובל שחר

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Gittin 21

A Real Page Turner

We are in the midst of a discussion about valid writing materials for a get. Here are some fascinating websites I discovered that help us to picture and understand what Hazal are talking about. See especially the end, about how parchment would often be erased and reused to write something else, exactly what the Mishnah is worried about. Different types of writing materials with great examples of each (see the “mummy tags” for wood). Nice blog post about the connection between the Greek word diftera, used in our Gemara to refer to a type of skin that may (or may not) be used for writing a get; and the Hebrew word daf.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Mountains and Valleys
Sotah 33 and 37

Before we delve into the geographic puzzles of Gittin, a few last words on Sotah. In the seventh chapter we have a comprehensive discussion of the blessings and curses given on Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. This is in the context of what must be recited in Hebrew and what can be said in any language.

The mishnah explains the procedure for giving the blessings and curses and expounds on the verse in Devarim 11 that explains how to get to the mountains:

ארץ הכנעני הישב בערבהמול הגלגל אצל אלוני מרה הלא המה בעבר הירדן אחרי דרך מבוא השמש
Both are on the other side of the Jordan, beyond the west road that is in the land of the Canaanites who dwell in the Arabah – near Gilgal, by the terebinths of Moreh.
(JPS trans.)

There are many details in that verse, not all of them fitting together. The Gemara discusses whether מבוא השמש  means east or west, connects the story to Abraham who goes to Elon Moreh and brings in the Samaritans who insert the words “near Shechem” into their Bibles. But one of the more puzzling details is מול גלגל , opposite (or near) the Gilgal. The Gerizim and Ebal that we know of flank the city of Shechem:

 and certainly cannot be described as near Gilgal which is close to the Jordan. Rabbi Eliezer ben Yaakov offers a midrashic explanation but Tosafot quotes an intriguing explanation in the Yerushalmi:
There were two mounds (גבשושית) that were called Gerizim and Ebal.

By stating that there was an alternate Gerizim and Ebal, besides the well known one, the Yerushalmi not only solves the problem of near Gilgal but also explains the logistical issue of how Bnei Yisrael could possibly have gotten from the Jordan to near Shechem in one day.

In a fascinating example of traditions moving from Jews to Christians, the mosaic map of Israel in the Madaba church in Jordan adopts this explanation and shows two sets of mountains, one near the Jordan and one near Shechem:

The other element of the Gerizim and Ebal story that I want to discuss here is the topography of the site near Shechem. On daf 37 there is a debate over whether the Cohanim and Leviim stood on the slopes of the mountains or down in the valley between them. Satellite pictures of the area show that there is what amounts to a natural amphitheater between the two mountains. This phenomenon was already noticed by Father J.W. McGarvey in 1879. Here is an excerpt from his diary:

Our route took us back through the valley, and we resolved that while passing between the two mountains of Ebal and Gerizim, in the still morning air, we would try the experiment of reading the blessings and curses. It will be remembered by the reader that, in compliance with directions given before the death of Moses, Joshua assembled all the people on these two mountains, stationing six tribes on one, and six opposite to them on the other, and he stood between and read to them all the blessings and curses of the law (See Deut 27-28, Josh 8:30-35). It has been urged by some skeptics that it was impossible for Joshua to read so as to be heard by the whole multitude of Israel. It is a sufficient answer to this to show that while Joshua read, the Levites were directed to repeat the words “with a loud voice” (Deut 27:14), and that it was an easy matter to station them at such points that their repetitions, like those of officers along the line of a marching army, could carry the words to the utmost limits of the multitude. But it is interesting to know that the spot chosen by God for this reading is a vast natural amphitheatre, in which the human voice can be heard to a surprising distance. About half-way between Shechem and the mouth of the valley in which it stands there is a deep, semicircular recess in the face of Mount Ebal, and a corresponding one precisely opposite to it in Mount Gerizim. No man with his eyes open can ride along the valley without being struck with this singular formation. As soon as I saw it I recognized it as the place of Joshua's reading. It has been asserted repeatedly by travelers that, although two men stationed on the opposite slopes of these two mountains are a mile apart, they can read so as to be heard by each other. We preferred to try the experiment in stricter accordance with Joshua's example; so I took a position, Bible in hand, in the middle of the valley, while Brother Taylor and Frank, to represent six tribes, climbed halfway up the slope of Mount Gerizim; and Brother Earl, to represent the other six tribes, took a similar position on Mount Ebal. I read, and they were to pronounce the amen after each curse or blessing. Brother Taylor heard me distinctly, and I could hear his response. But Brother Earl, though he could hear my voice, could not distinguish the words. This was owing to the fact that some terrace-walls on the side of the mountain prevented him from ascending high enough, and the trees between me and him interrupted the passage of the sound. The experiment makes it perfectly obvious that if Joshua had a strong voice,--which I have not,--he could have been heard by his audience without the assistance of the Levites. As to the space included in the two amphitheatres, I think it ample to accommodate the six hundred thousand men with their families, though of this I cannot be certain. If more space was required, the aid of the Levites was indispensable.”  (

And here is an image from Google Earth showing the anphitheater:

May we all merit blessings!