Sunday, November 29, 2009

Stories in Stone, pt. 1; Be Not as the Lintel

This post, series actually, is by way of tribute to my father.
What I intend on accomplishing here is, in a manner of speaking, to bring stones to life. As much as I love archaeology, it can be unbelievably dull to tour archaeological site after archaeological site, if all you see are endless heaps of ruins. Stones do have stories to tell, and fortunately for us, some were even written down. This series will provide those stories, drawn from the primary sources. Words and stones will come together, illuminating the past in the proccess.
After each post in this series, there will be another one of travel instructions for those who wish to visit the sites themselves.

One of the most precious finds for archaeologists, short of a text, is a name.
Especially if said name also appears in one of our written sources.
Such a name lends crdeibility to the account, as well as bringing us one step closer to the past.

Soon after the Six-Day War, Israeli archaeologists conducted a survey of the recently captured Golan Heights. Among the sites visited was the abandoned village of Daburiye, situated near a steep ravine with a pair of spectacular waterfalls.
The village had been founded sometime during the early 20th century by Bedouins of the Naaraneh tribe, who had abandoned their semi-nomadic way of life. when they built their village they did not start from scratch, but utilised many of the black basalt stones which they found laying around- the remains of a far older settlement, one which dated back almost 2000 years.
When the archaeologists examined the walls of the mosque, they made an astonishing discovery. A decorated basalt lintel (see the image above) depicting two eagles gripping a wreath by their beaks. Inside the wreath was a Hebrew inscription which reads as follows. "Zeh beit midrasho shelrabi Eliezer Hakapar." This is the beit midrash (religious academy) of Rabbi Eliezer Hakapar.
This discovery had twofold significance. First, it was the first evidence outside the writings of the sages of the beit midrash, and, second, only one other inscription bearing the name of a tanna (a sage from about AD 70-200) had ever been found, and that was in Beit-Shearim.

So who was this Eliezer Hakapar?

One of the last tannaim, and a contemporary of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi (or the Patriarch as it is commonly rendered in English), the great codifier of Jewish law, the exact meaning of Eliezer's surname is unknown.
Among the possible meanings we find either a tar-maker, an importer of cyprian wine, a producer of pickled caper buds, or an inhabitant of Kafira (in Hebrew p and f are interchangable), a tiny village only a few kilometres north of Daburiye.
Whilst the latter option is the likeliest (though it would not surprise me if the village wasn't named after the numerous capers in the region), I find the idea of his having been a wine dealer intriguing, given his many statements in the Talmuds on the subject of wine.
My favourite is enter wine, exit secret (nichnas yayin, yatza sod). A caution to all drinkers, but also some very clever wordplay. One of the many things the Jews adopted from the Greeks was the practice of gemtaria or numerology. Each letter has a numeric value. Wine amounts to seventy, the exact same sum of secret.
Eliezer was an outspoken critic of asceticism and the nazarite lifestyle, prefering people lead a rounded life, enjoying what bounty God has given. An important part of this bounty in Eliezer's mind was wine.
His other big concern was avoiding contention, pride, and anything else that drives away peace and serenity.

Avoid contention (or accusations), lest you contend with others and continue to sin.
t. Derekh Eretz, 7,13.

Love peace and hate disputes (or divisions).
t. Derekh Eretz, 60,13.

Rabbi Eliezer was possesed of a deep love for the land of Israel, a quality shared by my father, who passed it on to us, his children. One of my father's favourite places is actually the very same area where Eliezer lived. My dad fell in love with the central Golan during his military service, and it seems like during my childhood, we would go there at least once a month, if not more.

The Central Golan was home to some of the finest stonecutters of the late classical period. They carved intricate designs in base-relief into the hard basalt, and Daburiye is home to some superb examples.
Rabbi Eliezer's tour-de-force is taken from the daily lives of these Jewish stonecutters. It is recorded in Avot Derabi Natan (The Fathers According to Rabbi Nathan), a collection of maxims and stories relating to the early sages.

Be not as the topmost doorpost, which no hand can touch, neither be as the lintel against which men strike their heads, neither as the raised step over which men stumble,
but be as the threshold which all cross over. The building crumbles, yet the threshold remains.

Avot D. Natan version A, chp. 26.

Rabbi Eliezer cautions people not to be aloof and unreachable, neither to be vain and contentious, which he compares to a highly decorated lintel, but because the doors were set low, people would often hit their heads against it. We should also be careful not to be a stumbling block. Instead we ought to be humble as a threshold, helping others to rise higher. When the proud and vainglorious fail, the humble will remain. The ruins of Daburiye provide plenty of examples of Eliezer's parable.

My father used this story quite effectively in a Sunday school lesson on serving others. This is the illustration he drew for it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Eliyahu HaNavi- Elijah the Prophet; part 3: Elijah's Keys

The aspect which probably interests LDS about Elijah above all others, is, I think, the keys of the priesthood.

The question is, are there any echoes of this in Jewish tradition?
The answer happens to be a yes.

Rabbi Yochanan says four keys has the Holy One, Blessed be He not handed over to any creature in the world, and these are they, the key of rain, the key of prosperity, the key of the graves and the key of fertility (as in child-bearing), but when they were needed he has given them to the righteous. They key of rain to Elijah, as it is said (1 Kings 17:1 "there shall not be dew nor rain these years, but according to my word.

Eliyahu HaNavi- Elijah the Prophet; part 2: Elijah's Chair, or the Messenger of the Covenant

Of all the events and scriptures associated with Elijah, the one that left the deepest impression upon the Jews is Malachi 4:5-6 (or 3:23-24 if you are using the masoretic text).

Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the LORD: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.

Elijah was identified with the messenger of the covenant in 3:1, not only on the strengths of a logical comparison of the last two verses with the first one, but also because of Elijah's zealous struggle to uphold the covenant (1 Kings 19:14). This was the opinion of the early sages.
Based on Malachi 3, they saw the role of the messenger of the covenant as one of resolving religious disputes among the faithful, upholding the oppressed, punishing the oppressors, restoring things to their proper place and order, and puting down contention.

Rabbi Yehoshua said:
I have received this from Raban Yochanan ben Zakay (Ribaz), who heard it from his teacher, who heard it from his teacher, as true as the instruction from Moses at Sinai, that Elijah comes not to defile or purify, to draw near or push away, but to push away those who are near because of strength of arms (violence, threats, coercion, strongarming, corruption, that sort of thing), and to draw near those pushed away because of strength of arms....
Rabbi Shimon says: to resolve disputes...
And the sages say: not to push away and not to draw near, but to bring peace to the world, as it says: "I will send you Elijah the prophet", and concludes with "And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers ".
Mishnah, m. Eduyot 8,7.

We now reach, in a round-about way, the subject of this post. Elijah's seat.

In chapter 29 of Pirkei Derabi Eliezer, a psuedopigraphic work dated by most scholars to sometime around the Muslim conquests, several legends are related regarding circumcision. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant between the Lord and his people, and it was practiced by all the house of Israel until they split int two kingdoms. The kingdom of Ephraim (Israel) stopped its citizens from circumcising, which caused the covenant to be broken. Elijah arose in a fit of jealous (zealous, the two words in Hebrew are identical) rage, and swore the heavens to let no dew or rain fall upon the land.
As a result jezebel tries to kill Elijah. He prayed unto the Lord, who asked him if he were better than his fathers, listing many, from Jacob to David, who were forced to flee for their lives. Elijah gets the not-so-subtle hint, and takes off into the wilderness. Here the Lord again speak to him, Elijah says that he has been zealous for the sake of the covenant, and the Lord replies that he has ever been zealous.

By your life (an oath), Israel shall not circumsize a soul unless you behold it with your own eyes.

As a result, the sages made a seat of honour for the angel of the covenant, as it is said (Mal 3:1): and the messenger of the covenant whom ye delight in cometh. The God of Israel shall hasten and bring in our lifetime a messiah to comfort us.

In Sephardic and Eastern synagogues stands a special chair, Elijah's chair.
Whenever a boy is circumcised, before being given to the godfather, he is placed in that chair, to be held by Elijah, who is present, but unseen.
I myself was circumcised (whole other story, for a different post, at a later date), it was in a Morrocan synagogue, and I too was placed in that seat.
Personally, I rather like the symbolism. It is through the agency of Elijah that we, as latter-day saints, are able to enter into some of the most precious and most sacred of covenants with the Lord, covenants that truly turn children's hearts to their fathers.

Eliyahu HaNavi- Elijah the Prophet; part 1: Elijah's Cup

A good friend of the family's recently had a question about Elijah's role in Judaism, so I thought I would make an overview of it the first blog topic, a series, rather.
This one is geared more for LDS readers, as our friend is LDS, but the information should be of interest to all.

Every Passover, before the passage pour out thy wrath upon the heathen (Psalm 79:6-7) is read, an extra cup- usually the fanciest one- is placed on the table and filled with wine. None of the guests or family touch it, and the door often is opened. This cup is for Elijah the Prophet, who according to legend wanders around the houses of the Jews at Passover time. The origins of this legend are unclear, one theory is that it developed among Jews in Christian lands. In the Middle Ages (and in Eastern Europe until quite recently), Passover was not only a solemn and joyous occasion, but also one of fear and trepidation. This was when blood libels were made against the Jews. A Christian belief was that Jews lured Christian children and murdered them, using their blood to make matzahs (the Passover unleavened bread). This was used to whip the mob into a frenzy of righteous indignation, which resulted in severe violence against the Jews and their property. Among the jews the legend developed that Elijah was sent to protect them from the rioters and so wandered around their homes, much like a policeman patroling his beat. The door was opened to make sure that there were no spies lurking, eavesdropping, or that no dead bodies were placed by their homes.
This legend became intertwined with the tradition of Elijah's cup, which has its origins in an entirely different matter, that of the controversy of the five cups.

The theme of the Passover is salvation and redemption. The Exodus from Egypt is only the backdrop. Despite the repeated allusions tto the past, the focus is on the present and the future.
The Passover haggadah states that in every generation a man must see himself as being led out of Egypt, and must teach this to his sons too. The past is merely a reminder of what the future will be.
One of the Passover scriptures is Exodus 6:6-8:

Wherefore say unto the children of Israel, I am the Lord and I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians, and I will rid you out of their bondage, and I will redeem you with a stretched out arm, and with great judgments, and I will take you to me for a people, and I will be to you a God: and ye shall know that I am the Lord your God, which bringeth you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians.
And I will bring you unto the land, concerning the which I did swear to give it to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob; and I will give it to you for an heritage: I am the Lord.

At the Passover, four cups are drunk, commemorating the four acts of salvation I marked in bold in that verse. A closer look will show that there are actually five acts. There should be five cups, but as this custom arose in Babylon at a time of exile, several of the Geonim (the spiritual leaders of Babylonian and most world Jewry from the 6th to 11th centuries) several were unsure of the propriety of drinking a cup commemorating being brought into the land, when they were not in it.
Following a sharp controversy, it was decided to settle on a compromise. Five cups could be poured, but only four were to be drunk. The fifth one was set aside for Elijah, meaning that when he would come again as the messenger of the covenant, to herald the Messiah, he would settle all disputes of Jewish law.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Obligatory Introductory Post

You are probably wondering who, what and why.
The who is Allen Hansen, a native born Israeli from the Galilee with a passion for history.
The what is a blog about ancient Judaism, the history of Israel, the Bible, Israeli and Jewish culture, and anything else that might on occasion catch my fancy.
I am also a member of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, so some of my posts will be on matters of interest to LDS, while others will try and provide a source of information for LDS on Jewish subjects.
So, why did I pick this name and what does it mean?
Calba Savua, father-in-law of rabbi Akiva, was one of the wealthiest Jews before the great revolt. Calba Savua is a nickname deriving from an Aramaic saying which means as full, or satisfied, as a dog, because no one who would knock on his doors would ever leave empty-handed.
I hope that this blog will have something for everyone.