Hannah on an Ancient Hilltop – A Tale for the New Year

On the Jewish New Year, the sacred readings reverberate with the triumphs of the vulnerable and the powerless. On Rosh Hashanah we remember that Sarah’s longing for a child was requited (Gen. 21) – and  Hannah’s humiliation came to an end when her son Samuel was conceived (1 Sam. 1–2). In her thanksgiving song, Hannah compares that miracle to no less than victory over enemies, evil, death and injustice.  The Talmud (Rosh Hashanah 11a) also says this was the time of year that the hopes of another barren woman of the Bible were fulfilled  – Rachel (Gen. 30:1).

Hannah and Eli the priest. Engraving by German painter Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1764–1841). Wikimedia Commons.

There’s even part of the sacred liturgy of Rosh Hashanah that’s couched in terms of birth: Congregations around the world chant the hymn Hayom Harat Olam,  which means (freely translated) “this day is pregnant with eternity,” reflecting the belief that Rosh Hashanah is the world’s birthday.

A few weeks ago, I asked my husband Arik if he wanted to take a little archaeology-themed drive to a rocky hilltop not far from our home that I had read might be the burial place of Hannah. I didn’t realize until I stood among the ruins there that a Rosh Hashanah message was hidden among them.

Hannah times three

It dawned on me there that we now have three places to remember Hannah in the Holy Land. The first, of course, is where Scripture says Hannah prayed for a child – Shiloh, next to which an elaborate visitor center now stands. The second is Ein Karem, at the Church of the Visitation – where Elizabeth and Mary met when both were pregnant. That’s the perfect place to read Mary’s paean of praise, the Magnificat, which she traditionally uttered there. Hannah comes into our midst naturally as we compare the Magnificat to Hannah’s prayer.

And now a third place – this hill, called Burj el-Haniyah in Arabic, and Horvat Hani in Hebrew.  It’s marked by the remnants of an ancient convent excavated some 18 years ago by a team led by Uzi Dahari and Yehiel Zellinger. The intersection of an unpaved forest road with the path to Horvat Hani, on a rocky mound in the western Bethel foothills, is almost invisible. But what I would like to see here very clearly is an intersection of three traditions remembering a remarkable woman of Scripture.

Wall of the convent, visible from the dirt road that passes Hurvat Hani, “Hannah’s Ruin.” Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

Archaeologists tell us that the complex that once stood here contained a church, crypt, convent, tower, seclusion cells for nuns (which, by the way, could be locked from the inside, which is not the case in men’s monasteries) a kitchen, pilgrims’ accommodations, dining room, courtyard, olive presses, a winepress, storage cave and cisterns!  Human bones were also unearthed. The bones were only of infants, children and women, whereas archaeologists say they normally find at least some male skeletal remains in such a mix. Hence, they conclude, this was a convent.

Artist’s rendering of the church and convent over Hannah’s putative burial place. Courtesy of Uzi Dahari.

When I was there last month, almost everything was overgrown but the church apse, and I barely caught a glimpse of the cave openings, choked with thick, dry vegetation. After my time on the hilltop, when I hopped back into the van where Arik was patiently waiting, the first thing I said was: “I forgot my cellphone in the van.” “I know,” he responded laconically. We admitted that we both realized I could have ended up at the bottom of one of those ancient caves…Not the kind of drama I had come to invoke!

People may have started coming here to pay homage when only an arcosolium (arched-ceiling tomb) stood on the hill, built in the second or third century CE, and containing, the archaeologists say, a number of female skeletons. But pilgrims really started streaming in apparently  in the fifth century when the convent was first built, with the tomb now in a place of honor under the church apse. And even after the site was abandoned, girls and women, probably Muslims from surrounding villages, continued to be buried there. But who was the revered lady in the tomb? Part of the Arabic name of the site, Haniyah, has led scholars to conclude she was Hannah.

But which Hannah?

Among the scriptural women named Hannah, or Anna, is Jesus’ grandmother and the Temple-residing prophetess of the New Testament. And then – and perhaps most intriguing –  there’s Samuel’s mother. That Hannah, the Bible says, was from Ramatayim-Tzofim (1 Sam. 1:1), and the Church father Eusebius, whose lead pilgrims would have followed, identified  Ramatayim-Tzofim as as a place he called Remphis, east of the pilgrimage magnet of Lod (Lydda). Following the thread of name-related clues, we find that Remphis apparently morphed into the present day village called Rentis, which can still be seen from the ruined church walls.

Apse of the church at Horvat Hani, “Hannah’s Ruin,” looking east toward Rentis. Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

One of the three mosaic inscriptions in Greek unearthed at the site, in fact, right in the church, reads:  “Remember O Lord, Anasia, “the abbess” (or “the most pious”).

Inscription honoring “Anasia, the abbess,” or “the most pious.” Courtesy of Uzi Dahari.

The story of Hannah has many lessons that cross the boundaries of faith and culture. One was taught by the ancient rabbinic sages:  Hannah’s experience shows the power of prayer as it pours from the heart. (And that’s knowing how important structure is to Jewish prayer services.) And moving from form to essence – Hannah’s prayer,  as well as the Magnificat, speak volumes about the power of change, and the possibility of an end to suffering symbolized by that ultimate transformative experience, childbirth.

May Rosh Hashannah be a time of rebirth and new beginnings for us all.


Thanks to Dr. Uzi Dahari for his assistance with information and illustrations.

Hurvat Hani is an off-the-beaten track ruin in the Samarian foothills northeast of Shoham and northeast of road 444. It appears by that name on the 1:50,000 map of Israel (available in Hebrew only). There are no English signs at the site. Colleagues and others interested in reaching Hurvat Hani can contact me for more specific directions.

Want to know more?

Bolton-Fasman, J. 2016. Hannah’s Prayer: A Rosh Hashannah Story.

Cook, J.E. 1999. Hannah’s Desire, God’s Design: Early Interpretations of the Story of Hannah (Journal for the  Study of the Old Testament Supplement Series 282).

Cohn, G.H. 2000.  A Prayer for Rising Above the Routine. (a   ccessed Aug. 22 2018).

Dahari, U. and Zelinger,Y., with contributions by L. di Segni, Y. Nagar and E. Klein. 2016. The Excavation at Ḥorvat Ḥani – Final Report and a Survey on Nuns and Nunneries in Israel. In: Knowledge and Wisdom. Archaeological and Historical Essays in Honour of Leah Di Segni (Studium Biblicum Franciscanum  Collectio Maior 54).




On “Baseless Hatred”

A Ninth of Av Message to my Subscribers and Friends

Have I ever taken you to Jerusalem’s “Herodian Mansion” ? If so, you might remember the story that I want to share with you again here in honor of Tisha B’Av. That’s the annual day of mourning and fasting now upon us, when  Jews recall the destruction of both Temples and other disasters in Jewish history.

As I told you the story, we would have stood together around a heap of ash at this restored, first-century wealthy home. The ash was left by the fire that engulfed the Upper City of Jerusalem a month after the Romans burned the Temple. But read on  to see that this time, I end a sad tale on a note of optimism, one that goes to the very heart of our Judeo-Christian tradition.

The story appears in two ancient Jewish sources: Lamentations Rabbah (4:3) and the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Gittin 55b-56a). That Talmudic tractate is actually devoted to divorce. And as you know, my historical novel, The Scroll, revolves around a divorce document – a real one – found in the Judean Desert in the 1950s, but issued at Masada before it fell to the Romans. In The Scroll I imagine the fate of a woman who split from her husband in the midst of one of the worst tragedies the Jewish people faced at the time, and of her descendants. One of its main themes is same as the reason the ancient Jewish sages said the Temple was destroyed: “baseless hatred” (Talmud, Tractate Yoma, 9b).

The destruction of the Temple and the Sack of Jerusalem. Nicolas Poussin, 17th century. Wikimedia Commons.

The age-old tale is about two men, one named Kamza and the other, Bar Kamza. It’s often quoted to this day as a prime example of baseless hatred.

It goes like this:

There were two men with similar names living in Jerusalem, one named Kamza and the other, Bar Kamza. When the story opens we know nothing about them except that Kamza was a friend of a wealthy man (who is not named) in Jerusalem.

Bar Kamza was the wealthy man’s enemy. One day, the ancient tycoon planned a banquet. As was the custom, all his friends everyone got a personally delivered verbal invitation. Kamza was on the list and of course, Bar Kamza was not.

But by mistake, the servant announcing the banquet went to Bar Kamza’s house instead of Kamza’s! Worse still, Bar Kamza actually showed up! The wealthy host was enraged to discover his enemy Bar Kamza at his door, about to crash his party.

Wealthy banquet, unknown painter, 1st century, Pompeii. Public Domain.

“Be gone!” he bellowed to Bar Kamza. But Bar Kamza begged to stay, just to save face. He even offered to pay for the banquet! The wealthy man refused.

Fuming, the humiliated Bar Kamza planned his revenge. He went to the Roman governor and lied that the Jews were eating the sacrifices the Romans had been sending to the Temple, considering them “blemished” and improper for sacrifice, and were substituting “pure” animals for the sacrifice.

At first, the governor did not believe Bar Kamza. And so he devised an entrapment for his fellow Jews: “If you do not believe me, send an officer and some sacrificial animals with me, and you will immediately know that I am not lying.” Bar Kamza accompanied the Roman officer and the animals to Jerusalem and at night, while the officer was asleep, Bar Kamza secretly made all the animals ritually impure.

When the animals reached the Temple, the priest in charge saw that they were blemished and indeed, he substituted others.

After this happened three days in a row, the officer reported to the emperor that Bar Kamza had told him the truth. Burning with anger, the emperor sent his legions to Jerusalem to destroy the Temple.

The Lamentations Rabbah version adds another level: “Rabbi Jose said: “The meekness of Zechariah b. Abkulas burnt the Temple.” By this the sages meant that Rabbi Jose – who was present at the feast and knew the Jewish tradition that humiliating a person was tantamount to murder – could have exerted his moral authority to stop the host from disgracing Bar Kamza. But he chose not to intervene.

But Gittin, the tractate on divorce, uses the story to explain a verse in Proverbs, 28:14: “Happy is the man who is anxious always, but he who hardens his heart falls into misfortune.” What’s the connection? The late-11th-century Jewish scholar Rashi tells us that the moral of Kamza and Bar Kamza is that being “anxious always” is to be constantly aware of the ultimate outcome of your actions.

As always, I’d like to leave you with a positive thought, one at the very crossroads of our Judeo-Christian tradition. The Jewish folklore expert Esther Shekalim tells us that right on in the afternoon of the mourning and fasting day of the Ninth of Av, in the midst of sorrow, families in the Jewish diaspora of Libya the young men would, of all things, hold donkey races. Why? According to the Jerusalem Talmud, the Messiah is born on the Ninth of Av. Their donkey competitions are said to have honored of Zechariah 9:9: “Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your King is coming to you; He is just and having salvation, Lowly and riding on a donkey, a colt, the foal of a donkey.”


Visitors at reconstructed ancient village of Kfar Kedem in the Galilee enjoying a family donkey ride.

According to our folklore expert, this old custom comes from an idea modern psychology now supports: That by imagining, symbolizing and acting out a longed-for new reality, we can make hope come true.

Please feel free to share this post.

Want to read more?

You can find a fuller version of the Kamza Bar Kamza story on my website here.

Rabbi Joshua Berman, Kamza and Bar Kamza, who was at fault?


Flames of Faith and Freedom: Now that’s a Force to Be Reckoned With

The “graves of the Maccabees” are about as unlikely a place to find shared Judeo-Christian heritage as a Star Wars movie, but there it is

Now that I have your attention, I’d like to share with you something about fire that’s not the outer-space, cinematic, blockbuster kind. I want to tell you about a different kind of fire – the flames of the Hanukkah candles, which each night grow brighter and will reach their brightest light on Sunday night.

Hope of the future - Hanukkah 2014

I learned recently that the first association of Hanukkah with fire is in 2 Maccabees 1:18 where it is called the “feast of tabernacles and of the fire” (KJV) and where the author traces a heavenly fire that “was given to us when Nehemias offered sacrifice” (v. 18), a fire that had been hidden and miraculously appeared.

Similarities between these verses and the story of the fire-bringing, fire-breathing prophet Elijah, whose heroism, like that of the Maccabees, reaches across religious differences, are unmistakable. The backdrop in both is a violent rejection of idol worship. But beyond that, you’ve got your sacrifices laid on an altar with wood (2 Macc. 1:21; 1 Kings 18:23, 33); you’ve got your water pouring and sprinkling  (2 Macc. 1:21; 1 Kings 18: 33–35); in both stories a cloud rolls in (2 Macc. 1:22; 1 Kings 18:44 ); and in both, a wondrous fire is kindled (2 Mac. 1:22; 1 Kings 18:38–39). Also in both stories, major praying and praise are part of the picture (2 Macc. 1:24–29; 1 Kings 18:39).

I leave my interfaith reflections for the moment to share with you how I celebrated Hanukkah week. In addition to candle-lighting, gift-giving, dreidel-spinning and latkes-eating, I decided that for my required continuing education day to renew my Israel tour guide license, I’d join a trip to Maccabee country, only about an hour from where I live, to see the newly discovered tombs some like to call the “graves of the Maccabees.” What a treasure trove! Even my favorite subject – what our faiths have in common – was represented.

Our guide was Dr. Amit Re’em of the Israel Antiquities Authority, who lives in Modi’in, the modern city named for the home town of the famed Mattathias and his sons, first and foremost the iconic Judah the Maccabee.  As Re’em took us around Modi’in, regaling us with stories of antiquities on every hill and dale, he explained that Holy Land scholars have been on a hunt for the Hasmoneans (the dynastic name of the Maccabees) for over 150 years  To make a long story short (for more info see suggested reading at the end of this blog), Re’em and his colleagues were drawn, like French, British and Israeli archaeologists before them, to the site where the ancient village of el-Medyeh once stood. As it turns out, that site, called Horbat HaGardi, has a lot to recommend it as the authentic Hasmonean home town. And that’s despite the fact that a nearby burial site, Qubur al-Yahud (“the graves of the Jews”) – whose tombs, though really old, actually belonged to anonymous ancient pagans or early Christians – has meanwhile become the “official” spot. By the way, try saying the name el-Medyeh out loud; it sounds like Modi’in, which is another of several recommendations for its authenticity, as you’ll read below.

There’s an old tomb building at the site, where one Sheikh Garbawi (“the sheikh of the west”) is buried. In recent years, local devotees of Mattathias have utterly disregarded the Muslim origins of the sheikh; for them this is none other than the final resting place of the priestly paterfamilias of the Maccabees, and they have even installed a tombstone stating as much.


Part of the arched entryway to the tomb of Mattathias, a.k.a. Sheikh Garbawi

Part of the arched entryway to the tomb of Mattathias, a.k.a. Sheikh Garbawi.

The tombstone with the words "Mattathias the high priest" and a dedication, in the Sheikh Garbawi tomb structure

The tombstone with the words “Mattathias the high priest” and a dedication, in the Sheikh Garbawi tomb structure.

An ancient tomb, no matter who is believed to be buried there at any particular historical juncture, can indicate the ancient origins of a burial site’s sanctity. This, despite the occasional conversion from one religion to another inspired by regime change. In this case, another indication that something sacred going on here is an array of scary, hands-off-or-you’ll-die type legends, Re’em told us.

This is what 1 Maccabees has to say about the tomb: “Then sent Simon, and took the bones of Jonathan his brother, and buried them in Modi’in, the city of his fathers… Simon also built a monument upon the tomb… and raised it aloft for all to see, of hewn stone behind and before. Moreover he set up seven pyramids, one against another, for his father, and his mother, and his four brothers….about which he set great pillars, and upon the pillars he made all their armor for a perpetual memory, and by the armor ships carved, that they might be seen by all that sail on the sea” (I Macc. 13:25–30).

The July 20, 1870 edition of the London newspaper The Globe reported that based on earlier finds, the French scholar Victor Guerin had announced the discovery of  “a sepulchral vault two meters [about 6 feet] in length and one meter in width, and 70 centimeters [about 27 inches] deep. It was paved with mosaic work of red, black and white stone…Each chamber we know was surmounted by a pyramid and the place where these pyramids had been fitted into the rest of the building was still visible. It was surrounded by a portico resembling the peristyle of a Greek temple….”

By the time Re’em and his team got to the site a few years back, virtually none of these above-ground remains were left. But then, the excavation started…

The Sign of the Cross

Are these indeed the tombs of the Maccabees? Re’em told us, as he told local and foreign press after the discovery last summer, that he won’t go that far at this early stage. But in addition to similarities with the description 1 Maccabees – including clear signs of a magnificent building, a lofty location that could be seen from a distance, and the name of the site – at the bottom of one of the burials his team discovered, of all things, a mosaic cross. Never before, Re’em said, has a cross like this been found at the bottom of a tomb. And so – taken with all the other evidence – it seems that ancient Christians venerated these tombs as those of the Maccabees.

Now, why would they venerate the Maccabees?

Portion of a mosaic cross, normally covered for protection with the cloth you see at bottom, which Re’em pulled aside with a flourish for us to see.

Seen from above, part of a mosaic cross. With a dramatic flourish, Re’em pulled aside the cloth you see at the bottom to reveal it to us.

Christian reverence for the Maccabees goes back a long way. For example, the famed fifth-century Madaba mosaic map considered it important enough to be illustrate and caption, as you can see in the part of the map I’ve included below.

Portion of the Madaba Map. Below the walled city of Jerusalem, the arrow I’ve inserted points to the Greek words: MOΔΕΕΙΜ · Η ΝΥΝ ΜWΔΙΘΑ ˙ ΕΚ ΤΑΥΤΗC HCAN OI MAKKABAAIOI (“Modi’in, which is today Moditha; home of the Maccabees”).

Portion of the Madaba Map. Below the walled city of Jerusalem, the black arrow I’ve inserted points to the Greek words: MOΔΕΕΙΜ · Η ΝΥΝ ΜWΔΙΘΑ ˙ ΕΚ ΤΑΥΤΗC HCAN OI MAKKABAAIOI (“Modi’in, which is today Moditha; home of the Maccabees”).

Re’em explained to us that for Christians as well as Jews, the Maccabees symbolized victory in the war against idol worship and its cruel demands of monotheists. Now, remember the Elijah connection – the prophet who first brought back his own flock, kicking and screaming, so to speak, to the worship of the one God. So did Mattathias. His sons then fought valiantly to cast off the yoke of the Greeks, in what is often cited as the first recorded war for religious freedom. And there’s no better time than Hanukkah to remember that this is another shared value of our faiths whose flame must never be allowed to die, but only to grow greater, like the flames we kindle this week.



A “burning bush” (actually a firethorn, or (pyracantha), near my home in Har Adar.

A “burning bush” (a firethorn, or pyracantha), near my home in Har Adar. Another fire connection for the season.

For more information, here’s some suggested reading.

“The ‘Real Graves’ of the Maccabees?’ By Miriam Feinberg Vamosh and Ruth Schuster

Excavation Report on Horbat HaGardi, by Amit Re’em, Israel Antiquities Authority

Where is Modi’in? By Prof. Yoel Elitzur

Last year on Hanukkah I shared thoughts on the heroine Hannah:

“Why do we really light candles on Hanukkah?” By Elon Gilad.



























Aramaic – even on Facebook


The Christian world will resonate this Sunday, Palm Sunday, with the word “hosanna” (Matthew 21:9, Mark 11:9, John 12:13). In Jerusalem you’ll hear the crowds shout it as they make their way down the Mount of Olives. The word is a form of the two Hebrew words hoshi‘ana, which appear in Psalm 118:25 and beseeches God to save us.

The word “hoshana,” which is related to hosanna, is Aramaic, the spoken language of the Jews of Jesus’ time. There are other Aramaic words that have survived in the New Testament like “talitakumi,” Jesus’ words that revived Jairus’ daughter “little girl [little lamb] arise” (Mark 5:41). The heroes and heroines in my novel, “The Scroll” spoke it. Well, at least they spoke it to each other when we aren’t reading; when we are, they speak English so we can understand them…)  and in some scenes I tried to imagine the conquering Roman soldiers twisting their tongues around it.

Some people speak Aramaic in the Middle East to this day. In fact, I once guided an American Christian tourist, originally from Syria, who spoke the language and very much enriched the experience of the tour group I was guiding by explaining many things to us. But truth be told, the thing I remember most about him is losing him for an hour in Nazareth after he resolved – without telling anyone – to seek out other speakers of his native tongue. At the Seder table of my daughter Nili’s Kurdish-Jewish in-laws, her husband Amichai’s grandfather conducts the Passover service in Aramaic. You can also hear the ancient sounds of Aramaic in the liturgy of the Syriac Orthodox Church (at the Church of St. Mark in Jerusalem, for example), in the Jewish prayer praising God for the lives of the departed, the Kaddish, and in many ancient Jewish sources.


On a much lighter note, as reported in Haaretz earlier this week. an anonymous Israeli high schooler has posted a Facebook page in Aramaic. It was reported that he even translated the word “Facebook” into Aramaic. In literal Hebrew it would be Sefer Ha-Panim (although no Hebrew speaker would call it that – we just call it “Feisbuk”). In Aramaic it sounds similar to the Hebrew, as Aramaic often does, and so it became “Sifra de-anpin.” The page has garnered 2,000 followers since it was posted earlier this month. You can find something else on that Facebook page you’ve no doubt always wanted to have – a translation of the 1970s hit “Country Roads.” They’ve reportedly sent out a call for suggestions for an Aramaic translation for the ubiquitous “LOL.”

Any suggestions?