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.

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