Masada

This Passover, a Tiny, Inspiring Find

Woman holding a coin from the Jewish revolt, Jerusalem March 2018. Courtesy of Eilat Mazar/ the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

When I saw the photo at right, provided to the press by the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and archaeologist Eilat Mazar, my mouth dropped open. It’s as if reality raided my literary imagination (instead of the other way around!). There she is! The unnamed woman in this picture ponders a tiny Jewish rebel coin she grasps. It was one of a trove discovered in Mazar’s Ophel excavation in Jerusalem south of the Temple Mount. Even the stone walls in the background eerily recall the scene from The Scroll, a scene that played out (in my mind’s eye) at the fortress of Masada, after the destruction of the Temple. Here’s the scene as I wrote it:

The stone was loose and she pried it out easily. Behind it lay a small bronze box, whose top was beaten into a delicate chain of rosettes. Inside was…a purse with the twelve silver shekels, with which her mother had entrusted her after her father was killed. It would easily pay the first three months’ rent on the house in which they would live after they left Masada, her mother had said—triumphant, of course…after the last of the conqueror’s soldiers had left Judea forever. More than two years had passed since she had last opened the coin purse. It had had no value for her on the mountain. Neither did a single little bronze coin, minted in the white-hot forge of the revolt, brought to the fortress by refugees from the fallen city. Now it gleamed dully at her when she opened up the purse. Its inscription “Jerusalem the Holy,” seemed to mock her.

Mazar and her team found the tiny bronze coin together with dozens of others in a cave south of the Temple Mount. The finds unearthed in the cave take us back to the last desperate days of the first revolt of the Jews against the Romans (66–70 AD). Numerous pottery fragments were also found, mainly jars and cooking pots. The dates on the coins and their inscriptions reflect the backdrop of the times I sought to bring alive in The Scroll.

These coins bore the mark – literally – of the Jewish rebels’ fight for independence.  The coins, which by their very minting rejected Roman dominion, bore unmistakable Jewish symbols such as the Four Species, invoking the Feast of Tabernacles and joyous pilgrimage to the Temple. Moreover, they advertised each year of Jewish freedom. The legend on the earlier coins reads: “Year 2 of the freedom [herut] of Zion,” proclaiming the hope for liberation, just at hand, they believed. But, as Mazar pointed out, seared into the later coins, produced after the deadly Roman siege on Jerusalem had begun, was a cry for divine intervention: “Year 4 of the redemption [geulat] Zion.”

The cave in which the coins were discovered is a large one – 21 x 47 feet. The archaeologists say that one amazing aspect of the discovery is that such a large cave, which was partially visible to boot, was never again reused after the Temple was destroyed.  It’s almost as if  it was waiting for Mazar’s team to reveal it to us, to remind us of the precious gift of freedom that we celebrate on Passover.

As for the fate of my imaginary character and her coin in The Scroll? Hint: She was one of the survivors of Masada. She trod the same desperate road as the rebels who left those coins behind in the cave, until she reached her destiny’s crossroad. For me, she symbolizes every woman of faith who  chooses life against unimaginable odds.

Some of the Jewish rebellion coins, recently discovered in Jerusalem. Courtesy of Eilat Mazar/the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

May  this Passover and Easter bring the blessings of renewed strength and hope for all.

 

Leafy-Vine-Stitched-8-Inch

Want to know more?

The Scroll; An Unforgettable Holiday Read

Women of The Scroll and Women of the Bible – Advanced Level Survival Skills Instructors 

Beyond The Dovekeepers  

The Scroll – An Unforgettable Holiday Read

Alright, Danessa, I’ll tell them! That’s my late mother, chief cheerleader in all my endeavors, whose passing we commemorate on Passover eve. Now that I’m working hard to help get the word out about my first historical novel, The Scroll, there she is, persistent as ever. You’ve got a website! So use it! So alright, already, mom, I’ll tell them:

The Scroll is a multi-generational historical novel about the survivors of the famous last stand of the Jewish rebels of Masada against the Roman army. Its story line is drawn from a real archaeological find – the divorce document of a real-life woman named Miriam, issued at Masada. The story begins on Masada’s final, horrific day. Over the three generations that follow, its characters must choose between nation and family, and finally, between life and death. Will they learn the lesson of Masada’s downfall, or will enemies – within and without – rob it from them? Though it deals with events that took place two millennia ago, The Scroll will help you make sense of the complexities of today’s Israel and the choices its leaders make. It is chock full of meticulously researched, colorful details of ancient daily life, religion, politics and society, which will stir the imagination of readers fascinated by those times.

This Easter and Passover I hope you’ll make The Scroll your holiday reading. And consider purchasing The Scroll  as a gift for participants on your upcoming Israel tour or your book club. Please contact me for discounts on bulk orders. Order here, through Koren Books, or Amazon.

Happy Holidays!

 

 

Interview About The Scroll on Hebrew Nation Radio

Click here to listen to my recent radio interview! Thanks to the hosts on the Hebrew Nation Radio morning show “The Remnant Road,” who gave me an opportunity to discuss my books, especially The Scroll. The audience at Hebrew Nation Radio wants to learn more about the Jewish roots of their faith, and so I was able to tell interviewers Mike Clayton, Al McCarn and Barry Philips about episodes in The Scroll where I brought Jews and early Judeo-Christians together. The interview was a golden opportunity to discuss all the subjects I love to write about, including the strong women of the Bible. But best of all, I was able not only to discuss the women survivors of Masada and the future I imagined for them and their descendants, but also the Hebrew roots of Christianity and the beginnings of Christianity,  My aim in bringing Jews and early Christians together in The Scroll,  as I told the interviewers, was to show how each community faced the harsh challenges of  its times.  To this day, we can and must face the enormous challenges of our times together, celebrating and building upon what unites us rather than what divides us.

Chanel No. 5 A.D.

By Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

When I brought the young woman I called Rebecca in The Scroll to the Dead Sea oasis of Ein Gedi, I wanted to make her fate spring from the pages. And thanks to archaeologists and historians, I  believe I found the perfect backdrop – the balsam industry.

Balsam was a mysterious ancient plant whose sap exuded from its shrubs “like tears”* and whose scent and salve sold for double its weight in silver**

In a strange twist of history, the plant the ancients knew as commiphora opobalsamum became extinct. But a subspecies, commiphora gileadensis, is now being raised in the Erlich family orchard in the Dead Sea Valley in the hopes of producing the precious substance once again in our region!

Balsam production factory, artist’s rendering (Daily Life at the Time of Jesus, p. 77, courtesy of Palphot).

Balsam production factory, artist’s rendering (Daily Life at the Time of Jesus, p. 77, courtesy of Palphot)

Fascination with balsam goes back millennia, and the discoveries don’t stop. Recently, a two millennia-old water system was unearthed in a new Israel Antiquities Authority excavation of a site first found in the 1960s near Ein Bokek near the Dead Sea.

Balsam production pool at En Bokek (photo: Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Balsam production pool at En Bokek (photo: Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

The English Bible translates the Hebrew name – afarsimon – as “balm” (Genesis 37:25). For Jeremiah, afarsimon symbolized hopelessness:  “There is no balm in Gilead.” The opposite message is conveyed in the traditional spiritual “There is a Balm in Gilead.”

Artist’s rendering of what may be a balsam factory at Enot Tsukim on the Dead Sea (courtesy of Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Artist’s rendering of what may be a balsam factory at Enot Tsukim on the Dead Sea (photo courtesy of Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Scent and the City

I recall a story about a man with a sign on his desk that said: “my job is so secret even I don’t know what I’m doing.” The people of Ein Gedi knew what they were doing alright (making balsam products); they just didn’t want anybody else to know. They kept their secret so well that nobody actually does. At Ein Gedi National Park, the mosaic floor of the ancient synagogue has an inscription cursing anyone who revealed “the secret of the town” –   “He whose eyes range through the whole earth and who sees hidden things will set his face on that man and on his seed and will uproot him from under the heavens.”

Inscription on the mosaic floor of the Ein Gedi synagogue containing the “curse of the secret” (photo courtesy of Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Inscription on the mosaic floor of the Ein Gedi synagogue containing the “curse of the secret” (photo courtesy of Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

I hope that in The Scroll, I’m able to give readers even a whiff of what I imagine was the ancient aroma’s allure, so powerful that robbers in Sodom could sniff it out in the homes of the wealthy and steal it at night (Talmud, Sanhedrin 109a). As for the plant-to-perfume process, I believe I moved my plot to a peak by showing how some scholars say the sap was made into the costly unguent, and the branches boiled in tubs and mixed with olive oil for a less expensive product.

At Arugot Fort, near Ein Gedi, a fourth-century AD tower dating to the preserved to a height of 18 ft (and probably originally three stories high, with thick with thick walls and a rolling stone to seal the door, was probably a balsam factory. It served as inspiration for scenes in “The Scroll.” (courtesy of Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

At Arugot Fort, near Ein Gedi, a fourth-century AD tower preserved to a height of 18 ft (and probably originally three stories high), with thick walls and a rolling stone to seal the door, was probably a balsam factory. It served as inspiration for scenes in The Scroll. (Photo: Dr. Tsvika Tsuk, Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

But balsam in The Scroll is more than a plot device. Just as ancient balsam production began with the “tears” of the sap and ended (hopefully) with “reaping in gladness” – those very words from Psalm 126:5 encapsulate hope, across the generations, in the story I tell.

 

Want to know more? 

“Three Chapters of Balsamon History,” by the Erlich family. www.jerichovalley.com

“A Balsam Factory” in: Daily Life at the Time of Jesus, by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh (Palphot) p. 77.

“The Balm of Gilead.” Biblical Archaeological Review. October 1996, pp. 18–20.

“Balsam Perfume” – the ancient juglet in the Israel Museum. http://www.imj.org.il/exhibitions/2013/Herod/en/balsam.html

Qumran in Context, Yizhar Hirschfeld (Hendrickson 2004) pp. 207–209, 216–220, and see index for many more references to balsam. (The late Prof. Hirschfeld, scientific adviser on some of my books, told me he hoped that original balsam plant material could still be found at Ein Gedi and that some day  a finished product would be produced jointly by all the countries in our region.)

*Josephus, The Jewish War 1, 1, 6.

**Pliny, Natural History 12, 54.

 

 

 

 

 

Riding the Lion

What was – what is – the siren call of the rebel movement that began at Masada and effectively ended with the Bar Kokhba war, but continues to evolve to this day?

Bar Kokhba the fearsome warrior, by Arthur Scyzk. Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

Bar Kokhba the fearsome warrior, by Arthur Scyzk (1927). Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

What would you do if you were there, on the last, catastrophic day of the Roman siege of Masada, with your enemy at your gates? Would you have taken the lives of your family, as commanded by the Jewish rebel leader Elazar, to spare them captivity? And what of the generations that followed? Surely their forebears’ crushing defeat taught them that the sanctity of life outweighed all other considerations. These are some of the questions I explore in my historical novel “The Scroll.” And there they were – the very same, old-new questions that challenged me in “The Scroll” – in a striking new exhibit at the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv, “Bar Kokhba: A Historical Memory and the Myth of Heroism.”

The ancient Jewish sages are thunderously silent about Masada, on whose final moments the plot of “The Scroll” takes off on a multi-generational trajectory. And yet today, Masada is one of Israel’s flagship Israeli tourist sites and a UNESCO World Heritage Site to boot.

Aerial view of Masada. Courtesy of the Israel Tourism Ministry, www.goisrael.com

Aerial view of Masada. Courtesy of the Israel Tourism Ministry, www.goisrael.com

In contrast, the leader of the second revolt, some 60 years later, Bar Kosiba, has been a controversial figure, from his day to ours. You might know him better as Bar Kokbha, which means “son of a star” – to Rabbi Akiva he was the messiah himself. But the sages’ consensus about Bar Kokhba is best encapsulated in a Talmudic pun on his name – Bar Koziba – “son of a deceiver.”

And yet as the exhibit shows, as a symbol, Bar Kokhba, like Masada, was transformed over the generations. From the mid-19th century, in the hands of Jewish ideologues, artists, poets and playwrights he morphed into a musclebound, quintessential model of Jewish heroism. An 1840 novel published in Germany by Rabbi Shmuel Meir even depicted him defeating and riding a lion. The establishment of the State of Israel saw that symbol become even more deeply ingrained.

 

 

Archaeological finds from the Bar Kokhba period in Judean Desert caves. Notice the basket at right. Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

Archaeological finds from the Bar Kokhba period in Judean Desert caves. Notice the basket at right. Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv

View of ther Eretz Irael Museum exhibit. The sculpture of the musclebound Bar Kokhba in the center is by 20th-century sculptor Chanoch Glicenstein. Courtesy Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.

View of ther Eretz Irael Museum exhibit. The sculpture of the musclebound Bar Kokhba in the center is by 20th-century sculptor Chanoch Glicenstein. Courtesy Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Like “The Scroll,” the Bar Kokhba exhibit explores the idea that if your hero can ride a lion, the final outcome notwithstanding, words like “victory” and “freedom” take on new meanings.

The exhibit features rare film footage of the moments of discovery of human bones, in the Judean Desert “Cave of Horrors.” According to scholars the remains, carefully placed in woven baskets, were those of Bar Kokhba’s rebels and their families, starved to death by the Romans. But if the rebels all died, who put those skulls and bones in those baskets? That is a question asked – and answered – in “The Scroll.”

Shomer Hatzair Youth Movement Bar Kokhba Troop banner celebrating their hero, painting on silk. Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.

Vintage Shomer Hatzair Youth Movement Bar Kokhba Troop banner celebrating their hero, painting on silk. Courtesy of the Eretz Israel Museum, Tel Aviv.

Please visit the Menorah Books website to order your copy of The Scroll, and for a special 20% discount for friends and subscribers, please contact me. Thank you!

Beyond The Dovekeepers

 

The Dovekeepers by Alice Hoffman tells the story, according to its blurb, of what four women brought to Masada. Its premier last month as a miniseries gives me the perfect opportunity to tell you more about my novel, The Scroll, a unique take on events as I imagine them, not only on that tragic, barren Judean plateau – but far, far beyond; events that continue to impact our lives to this day.

 

My book cover, showing the Judean Desert where the actual scroll on was discovered, and the writing on the scroll Warning! Spoiler! Notice the hint of the woman’s figure over which the scroll is superimposed...as she leaves the cave.

My book cover, showing the Judean Desert where the actual scroll  the book is about was discovered, and the writing on the scroll. Warning: Spoiler! Notice the hint of the woman’s figure over which the scroll is superimposed…as she leaves the cave. Design: Emotive studio

Two weeks ago I visited daughter Nili and her husband Ami for the first time in their new home in the veteran community of Kfar Yehezkel in the Jezreel Valley. Thrilled is the word – at the birth of their first baby, and our first grandson, that they’ve come back to live in Israel after eight years in the wilds of Tucson Arizona and…of course, thrilled that from their back porch I can see the heights of Mount Gilboa where the Israelites battled the Philistines, Tel Jezreel, where Queen Jezebel preened and died, the spring where Gideon chose his few good men; in short, Scripture-steeped scenery wherever I look.

 

But when the sun dipped behind Jezreel and night fell at Nili and Ami’s little home…I admit it, the charms of their new, big-screen TV beckoned.  And Nili, one of my most loyal fans, said to me: “Ima, guess what’s on! That miniseries about that other book about women from Masada! Let’s watch!”

 

“That other book” – only the unofficial president of The Scroll’s unofficial fan club would call it that – is The Dovekeepers, Alice Hoffman’s novel about women and Masada. Lately I’ve seen it on the reading list of tour groups who visit Masada as, I’m pleased to say, so is The Scroll, my novel about one particular woman of Masada, her fateful choices and those of her descendants.

In The Scroll, a fateful document speaks differently to each generation. Detail of a drawing by Amelia Verbeke.

In The Scroll, a fateful document speaks differently to each generation. Detail of a drawing by Amelia Verbeke.

 

The historian Josephus’ enigmatic mention of the women survivors of Masada has given rise to several books over the years. The first one I ever read, back in the ‘70s, was called “The Voices of Masada,” and I never forgot it. Authors who have explored this theme usually tour Masada in preparation for using its archaeological remains as a backdrop. I feel particularly blessed to have visited Masada hundreds upon hundreds of times, studied it for decades and told its story to thousands of people right on the spot where it all happened. But it was once I learned about the amazing discovery of an ancient scroll in the 1950s in a Judean Desert cave – not at Masada and years before the Masada excavation – that I knew this was the story I wanted to put down in writing.

The actual ancient document on which my novel, The Scroll, is based. Dateline, Masada, just before its fall. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The actual ancient document on which my novel, The Scroll, is based. Dateline, Masada, just before its fall. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The document discovered is a divorce decree, which mentions the name of Masada, a date – before its fall – and the names of the husband and wife. My book is based on that scroll and on these people – real people! Who were they? Why did they divorce? What happened to them afterward, and how in the world did that document get from Masada to a cave east of Bethlehem were it was eventually unearthed?

The Dovekeepers, its PR says, tells about what certain women brought to Masada. The Scroll is about what other women took away with them – and that’s only the beginning. The Scroll will introduce you to the three generations I imagine descended from one of the women who survived the inferno and how she – and her descendants – faced the cruel and unremitting challenges of those times, all the way down to the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

As you read The Scroll, you’ll be right there in your mind’s eye with my heroine (I had a different visual image in my mind before The Dovekeepers movie…I think it was actress Jenifer Connolly… but fine, now I can only picture her as Cote de Pablo) – from holy Jerusalem to Masada, to the worldly ports of Caesarea and Alexandria, to the bustling, multicultural metropolis of Beit Guvrin in the Judean lowlands, to tiny Bethlehem and magnificent Sepphoris,  back to Jerusalem and on to the oasis of Ein Gedi. You will get to know not only the heroine, her mother, her son, and her granddaughter, but the world as it was then, peopled by Jews, pagans and the first Christians with all the vastly complex interactions that so profoundly affects who we are today.

Click here to purchase

 

Cote de Pablo – as in NCIS, she plays a nice Jewish girl who ends up in an unexpected role…and thanks to this casting coup in The Dovekeepers, she’s inside my head as the heroines of The Scroll – all three generations of them!

Cote de Pablo – as in NCIS, she plays a nice Jewish girl who ends up in an unexpected role…and thanks to this casting coup in The Dovekeepers, she’s inside my head as the heroines of The Scroll – all three generations of them!

What “a Mother” Wants: Tale of Darkness – Season of Light

Blog Hannah courage of a mother Gustave Dore

Hannah, Gustave Dore

On this, the seventh night of Hanukkah, I would like to jump into the debate on the meaning of the festival – admiration for the fight against tyranny, esteem/excoriation of cultural separatism, paganism at midwinter  – the sky’s the limit. For my part, at the risk of being considered the Grinch who stole Hanukkah, I would like first to focus on a tragic heroine, Hannah.

This is not the Hannah whose fervent prayers at Shiloh were rewarded with the birth of a son who served the sacred and grew up to lead Israel through war, peace, and extreme regime change. This Hannah is still nameless when she appears in 2 Macc. 7:1 as “mother” and later in that chapter, “the woman,” who watched her seven sons tortured and executed one after the other, and who triumphed in their sacrifice to a higher cause.

Yes, I admit, I’m feeling more than a bit grinchy these days, in light of Arik’s and his mother’s ongoing medical challenges since their car was struck in May. And so I’d better quickly tell you that our little family, from great-grandma Tamar herself down to seven-month old Elia, enjoyed our holiday very much, lighting the candles, singing the blessings, eating jelly donuts we made and thinking of Nili and Ami who will be home with us soon. In the photos at the end of this post, you’ll see the Vamosh-Dubinsky family celebrating Hanukkah from generation to generation. Below is a teaser.

Hope of the future - Hanukkah 2014

“In the candles’ rays I see”* – the face of hope in the future.

But bear with me as I return to a tale of darkness at this season of light. We  learn that the story of this mother evolved as it wended its way from the Book of Maccabees to rabbinic tradition and on into Christian tradition. Scholars say that “the woman” of 2 Maccabees and in the version told by Rab Judah in the Babylonian Talmud (Gittin 57b) becomes Miriam in other rabbinic literature, and Maryam in Syriac Christian sources.

It was only in an early 16-century revision of a 10th-century work, “Josippon,” that she received the name that came down in history. There, the author apparently could not resist a connection with 1 Sam. 2:5, where the biblical Hannah praises her miraculous reversal of fortune: “Those who were full go out to work for bread. But those who were hungry are filled. She who could not give birth has given birth to seven.” Scripture teaches, by the way, that seven sons are the ultimate symbol of divine blessing (Ruth 4:15, Jeremiah 15:9, Job 1:2).

According to 2 Macc. 7: 20-23: “…the mother was marvelous above all, and worthy of honorable memory: for when she saw her seven sons slain within the space of one day, she bare it with a good courage, because of the hope that she had in the Lord. Yea, she exhorted every one of them in her own language, filled with courageous spirits; and stirring up her womanish thoughts with a manly stomach, she said unto them, I cannot tell how ye came into my womb: for I neither gave you breath nor life, neither was it I that formed the members of every one of you; But doubtless the Creator of the world, who formed the generation of man, and found out the beginning of all things, will also of his own mercy give you breath and life again, as ye now regard not your own selves for his laws’ sake.”

To the narrator, this horrific tale seems to be not much more than a human interest angle, because right after he completes his account with the death of the mother, like a news anchor pressed to get everything in before the commercial, in a meanwhile-in-other-news tone, he says: “Let this be enough now to have spoken concerning the idolatrous feasts, and the extreme tortures” (2 Macc. 7:42). He then moves on to a security-related story – Judah Maccabee’s draft efforts and subsequent battles, where his victories as a guerrilla warrior lionized him for all time.

I’ve learned in studying about daily life of women in the Bible that the convoluted family ties of the patriarchs and the matriarchs, with their subterfuge, violence, humiliation and other dysfunctions, were about the perpetuation of family lines at a time when so many died young. But martyrdom is a very different call, one whose circumstances I am fortunate not to be able to imagine.

Some people point out that the lessons of Hanukkah are best served not by glorifying the battles of Judah the Maccabee, but by focusing on the achievements of his brother Jonathan who succeeded him, and is said to have excelled at treaties. But eventually, “us against them” was supplanted (again) by “us against us.” Jonathan’s great-great grandnephews, the sons of Queen Alexandra (Salome) and her second husband, divided the nation in a deadly feud. It can be said that their unceasing and bloody machinations were what eventually brought on Rome’s conquest of our land.

In Gittin 57b Rab Judah intersperses his instances of martyrdom (interestingly, the story of Masada is not among them) with, as was the norm, appropriate biblical proof texts. Transforming the mother’s death at the hands of the tyrants into suicide in his retelling, Rab Judah says: “the woman went up on to a roof and threw herself down and was killed. A voice thereupon came forth from heaven saying, A joyful mother of children.”

“A joyful mother of children”: That reference to Psalm 113:9 is simply chilling. It forces us to ask when death might be perceived as a preferable alternative, even a glorious one. And thus, it forces us to demand of our leaders and those of our neighbors – in our “own language, filled with courageous spirits” – everything possible to rein in extremists, a task we must undertake in honor of the exhortation of Deuteronomy 30:19: “Choose life, that that thou mayest live, thou and thy seed.”

Hanukkah 1985

Our own little seeds, candle-lighting on Nili’s first Hanukkah, December 1985.

 

Hanukkah 2014

Maya, at right, now with her own seeds, Tamar and Elia, lighting the candles with us, Hanukkah 2014.

* “In the Candles’ Rays I see,” by Elma Ehrlich Levinger, a Hanukkah hymn written in 1960.

The “Fourbears” of Jewish Dispute and That’s No Typo

Façade of our synagogue in Har Adar. The doors feature the symbols of the Twelve Tribes; a theme of unity that we strive for today (“unity in diversity” would do just fine if we could get there).

Façade of our synagogue in Har Adar. The doors feature the symbols of the Twelve Tribes; a theme of unity that we strive for today (“unity in diversity” would do just fine if we could get there).

No that’s not a typo – I didn’t intend to write “forebears.”  And I’m not referring to a quartet of big furry animals either. That was just to get your attention. Seriously, these are the four groups in Jewish society in the days of Jesus that were the intellectual and spiritual ancestors of the Jewish People, and they knew how to be ferocious. Some of their roaring echoes right down to us today .  To be fair, scholars usually say only one of these four groups gave rise to modern Judaism, but I believe we can see them all among us today.

 

I haven’t followed the usual order  in which you  see these groups presented. Instead, you’ll see I’ve sandwiched the two most familiar groups between the lesser known, smaller sects – the Essenes and the Zealots – and as you read on, you’ll see why.

I’ve taken the descriptions mainly from the way the ancient Jewish historian Josephus describes these groups. You’ll find these in Josephus famous work,  Jewish Wars, II, 8.

The Sadducees

Alright, let’s start with what is perhaps the most famous of their beliefs because of the pun it gave rise to: The Sadducees did not believe in the afterlife, and so they were…”sad, u cee” (and this was invented before our texting kids thought “u” was the right spelling and would correct the spelling of the last word to “c”). The reason the Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife was because they rejected the interpretations of the Five Books of Moses that the other main group, the Pharisees based much of their belief on, and it is in these interpretations that believe in the afterlife becomes most prominent.

“You are quite wrong”

On this score, Jesus tells the Sadducees: “and as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about the bush, how God said to him ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ He is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong” (Matt. 22:32).

The word “Sadduccee” is the Greek form of the Hebrew root tzadak which also gives us the name Tzadok (Zadok). That’s the name of the High Priest who annointed Solomon (1 Kings 1:39) and many scholars say this group traced its origin to him. Indeed, many of the Sadducees were priests and high officials in the Temple. As such, they controlled the worship, had access to enormous resources, and consequently were the high society of the day. They were educated folk, hence their association with the “scribes” – people who knew how to write and were therefore in charge of copying the Holy Scriptures as well as letters and other important documents that gave them a great deal of power. The Hebrew root word tzedek gives us all the words connected with righteous, including the word tzadkani, which we use today to mean “self-righteous.” Given the power that they wielded, perhaps they considered themselves “righteous.” Scholars also say that the Hebrew name for this group Tzdukim also comes from the way they viewed themselves – as the most righteous of all the Jews.

The Essenes

This group is most famous for living in the desert (scholars often say they are the ones who lived in the famous site of Qumran near the Dead Sea, and who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls), but according to Josephus, they also lived in cities, but in their own small groups. In the communities in which they lived they shared and shared alike, much like the early Christians.  The origin of their name is much less clear than any of the others. Many scholars connect it with the word “humble” or “pious” if it comes from Greek. If it comes from Hebrew, some connect it with the word “silent” or “secret” hashai. Particularly interesting is the idea that their name comes from an Aramaic word for healer, asa, viewing them as knowledgeble in this field. This is the way you will meet them in “The Scroll,  where imagine them as living on a slope above that ancient town, based on the Roman historian Pliny’s description of where they lived. However, most scholars interpret the words “above Ein Gedi” as meaning Qumran, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. The people who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls clearly believed in the resurrection of the dead, which associates this group with the Pharisees (see below).

The Dead Sea Scrolls also show us how the way the people who wrote them, as many scholars presume, the Essenes, interpreted Scripture had a connection with the way the Gospels did. One example of this can be found in the “Habakkuk Commentary” one of the Dead Sea Scrolls on exhibit in the Shrine of the Book in Jerusalem.  This commentary on the biblical words of the prophet by that name quotes from the biblical text and then, basically, says “this is what it means, how it will be fulfilled in our time.” That is strikingly similar to the way Matthew interprets scripture, for example, Matthew 4:13–16. Perhaps the most significant example of this way of interpretation can be found in Luke 4:14-18, Jesus in the synagogue at Nazareth (see below).

Moving ahead of myself for a moment, this was also the way the Pharisees interpreted Scripture, and, of course, the way both Jews and Christians interpret Scripture to this very day.

The Essenes, according to the Dead Sea Scrolls, also practiced ritual immersion to a greater extent than other Jewish people. Scholars have often pointed out that John the Baptist’s emphasis on water baptism may have come through his stay with this group at some time in his life.

The Essenes had a solar calendar, which was different from other Jews at the time, who observed the passage of the weeks and months, and the holidays, according to the lunar lunar cycle, as Jews do today.

The Zealots

This group, which was vehemently opposed to Roman rule, was founded by one Judas the Galilean, who is actually believed to have come from Gamla in the Golan Heights. Judas began a revolt against Roman rule following its demand for the censusRome demanded in the time of GoverorQuirinius (CITE). This Judas is also mentioned in Acts 5:36–38 as a failed messianic leader.  One of the early leaders of the Great Revolt of the Jews against the Romans (66-73 CE) Menahem, may have been a descendent of Judas; a cousin of Menahem was the leader of the rebels at Masada. There were many offshoots of this sect, including apparently the most extreme of them all, the Sicari, whose name means something like “dagger-wieldersThese people sometimes even killed other Jews who disagreed with their view of how Roman rule had to be cast off by any means, as soon as possible. Becausethis was the group who lived and died at Masada.“The Scroll” talks about them extensively.

The Pharisees

I have left this group until last because they are the stream of Jewish thought and practice from which all of us, Jews and Christians are the descendants. Sometimes it is hard for Christians to imagine that the first Christians came from this group, because Jesus criticizes them so harshly (Matt. 23:1-7 is one of the milder references), perhaps even more than the Sadducees. But everything we read in the New Testament about the method Jesus used to interpret Scripture and the way he engaged others in debate about it, is precisely the way the Pharisees believed was the way to go. For the Pharisees,  after the destruction of the Temple, when Jews sought new spiritual understanding, Scripture should not belong only to the Scribes, to the educated class. Everyone who goes to synagogue should be able to hear the words, be helped to understand them by teachers and preachers, and be able to respond if they disagreed. Perhaps the best example of this type of discourse is to be found in the abovementioned verses of Luke (4:14-28). Jesus reads a portion from the Prophets (the way we still do in synagogue in the Sabbath morning service today), in this case (Isaiah 61:1-2), and then comments on it, what today we would call the sermon.  Some people then begin commenting on Jesus’ words, first, apparently in a positive way, and then, with violent, uncontained anger.

This kind of challenge to Jesus’ words, appears elsewhere in the Gospels, one notable example being the query to Jesus as teacher that gave rise to the parable of the Good Samaritan.  Not only is teaching in this manner still part and parcel of the way we interpret Scripture, in Jewish tradition, challenging authority, one’s peers, debate and downright knock-down drag-out arguing, is part and parcel of Jewish culture.

To conclude this foray into Judaism’s ancient opposing sects, while I yearn for coexistence, I recognize that internal strife is part and parcel of Jewish culture. The eminent historian Prof. Yehuda Bauer said recently in a newspaper article: “Jewish culture is based on these internal conflicts…between the true prophets and the false prophets, in the splitting of the united kingdom into two rival kingdoms that fought each otherl in the disputes between Sadducees and Pharisees; between Hellenizers and Hasmoneias; between the religious establishment and the various Zeolots before the Great Revolt…The endless debates, from the Middle Ages to our own time, constitute the vitality of this people.”*