Mount Sartava

Smoke signals from the top of Sartava

What do yom tov sheni, smoke signals, and Samaritans have in common? The answer is Sartava, a very pronounced mountain that rises dramatically from the floor of the Jordan valley.

We learn in the Mishnah that originally before we had the set calendar that we have to today; the Sanhedrin would only declare the month after it had received and accepted the testimony of 2 witnesses. Once it was shown that the testimony cooberated with the facts. The Beis Din would send out the word to the Jewish world. For six months of the year they would send out messengers on Rosh Chodesh to announce its findings. They were the months of Nisan in which Pesach falls, the month of Av because of Tisha B’Av, Elul because of Rosh Hashanah, Tishrei to tell over when the first of the month was, and to set Succos in its proper time, Kislev for Chanukah, and on Adar for Purim. During the times that the Beis Hamikdash was still standing they would also send in the month of Iyar for Pesach Sheni. This was done to ensure that everyone would keep the holidays on the same day. These messengers could not travel on Shabbat or Yom Tov.

Another method was also employed, that was via smoke signals. This was done when the previous month was lacking, IE it had 29 days instead of 30. The people living outside Jerusalem were not aware that the month was a short month, and since they had not heard differently kept the next day as the thirtieth. In order to rectify this, the Beis Din would make smoke signals traveling north of Jerusalem, via the mountains. This system enabled the population centers in Bavel to get the information in real time, thus enabling them to keep up with their counter parts in Eretz Yisrael. Sartava was one of the stops according to the Mishnah.

One day seeing an opportunity at hand the Kuthim (Samaritans) ascended the mountains and lit the fire on the wrong day. The Beis Din declared that smoke signals were no longer a viable option and stopped them all together. From that point on, Jews in exile had to be dependent only on the messengers. Any community that was more than 10 days outside Jerusalem would have to keep 2 days of Yom Tov out of doubt.

As this mountain was located in the heart of the area where the Kuthim came from (the area is still called Samaria today) it is tempting to suggest that the drama unfolded on this very mountain.

Today one can ascend this wind swept mountain and see remains of what was once one of the mightiest fortresses in the land of Israel. The fortress was called Alexandrium after its builder Alexander Yani. After his death his wife Shlomit ruled together with the Sages in what would be come the golden age of the Second Temple Period. She gave the Pharisees all but three of her fortresses: Alexandrium, Hyrcania (just south of Jericho), and Macherus (located on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea). It was at these installations that she stored her wealth.

After her death the kingdom was mired by civil war between her two sons Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. The two of them were Sadducees through and through. They sidelined the sages and ultimately brought the end to Jewish autonomy in Israel by asking Rome to arbitrate between them. Pompey chose the weaker brother Hyrcanus and his wily advisor the Edomite slave Antipater (who was the father of Herod). Aristobulus was taken to Rome.

Aristobulus’s son Alexander escaped from Pompey and sought to gain back Jewish independence. He mustered 10,000 footmen and 1,500 horsemen and fortified 3 fortresses, one of them Alexandrium. War ensued and things did not go well for the Jewish side. The defenders of Alexandrium surrendered after a long siege, and were allowed to leave unharmed. The Romans ascended and dismantled the fortress.

Remains of the Hasmonean era fort on the top of the mountain.

Sometime later Aristobulus escaped from Rome and tried to fight as his son had before him. He set about rebuilding Alexandrium. Aristobulus went out from here with an expedition of 6,000 men to take Macherus. They were attacked, and although they fought valiantly (5,000 died) they were defeated. Aristobulus made it to Macherus with the remainder of his army. After two days he surrendered and was deported back to Rome.

Alexander would try again and fail. This time it was by Mt. Tabor in the Galilee. Roman rule was established, Jewish autonomy lay in ruins like those at the top of Sartava.

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Southern Mikveh on Masada

One of the most exciting discoveries on Masada was that of the Mikvahs. They were the first pools to be identified as Mikvahs in Israeli archeology by Yigal Yadin, during his expedition in 1963. Since then hundreds of Mikvahs have been found or re-identified as such, through out Israel. This particular mikvah is almost 2,000 years old, but probably the most fascinating thing about this Mikvah was that it was constructed according to the standards of the Mishnah, about 120 years before Rebbi Yehuda HaNasi compiled it.

The news that Yadin had discovered a mikveh from the Second Temple period spread like wild fire throughout the country, arousing particular interest in the religious world specifically among Talmudic scholars. The laws relating to the ritual bath are quite complex and no mikveh had so far been discovered belonging to that period.

This special interest in the mikveh led to what Yadin later termed “one of my strangest meetings on the Masada summit.” They had received information one day that Rabbi David Munzberg, a specialist in the laws of the mikveh, and Rabbi Eliezer Alter, were anxious to visit Masada and see the mikveh for themselves. Yadin signaled that he would be pleased to receive them. Then on one hot summer day, the two Rabbis arrived on the summit. They had ascended via the treacherous “snake path” on the east face under the broiling sun wearing their full rabbinic attire (hats and jackets), and accompanied by a group of their Talmidim (students).

Think about what a feat that was. Today most people who wish to climb the widened snake path usually do so in the early morning. Despite the fact they were not young, neither agreed to rest when they finally reached the top; nor did they have any desire to see the impressive structures of King Herod. They wanted only one thing: to be led directly to the mikveh. The aged Rabbi Munzberg immediately went into one of the pools; a tape-measure in his hand. What was he measuring? He was essentially checking for three things:

•According to our sources any person or vessel which has become ritually impure must immerse in water that has gathered on the ground. In the language of the Mishnah any body of water that fits this description is called a Mikvah. We derive this from 2 verses in the Torah, the first verse is found in Genesis 1:10 says: “and the gathering (Mikvah) of waters He called seas.” The second verse is found in Leviticus 11:36 it says: “only a spring or a pit of a gathering (Mikvah) of water shall be pure.”

•The second condition to validate it is that a Mikvah is only fit for immersion if it contains enough water to immerse the entire body. The sages estimated that the area of 3 amot by 1 amah square would be the minimum amount of water for the averaged sized person to immerse. This amount of water came out to the measurement of 40 se’ah. Opinions vary on what the exact amount would equate to in modern measurements, but it would range from 648 liters to approx. 455 liters . Once this minimum measure had been attained it is permissible to add as much drawn water as one would like to the pool.

•The third condition was that the waters used in the Mikvah could not be drawn manually using vessels. They had to either be from stationary rain water, or come from a spring. The Midrash Torat Cohanim states: You might think that a Mikvah that was filled manually would also be pure; however it says (in our verse) “a spring”, which comes to teach you that just as a spring is made by heaven so must a Mikvah be filled by Heaven. There is a debate in the Poskim as to whether this is a Torah rule or Rabbinic in nature. Most Poskim hold that it is rabbinic.

These conditions are prerequisites for any Mikvah. It was for these facts which Rabbi Munzberg checked for, and found, ultimately he concurred with Yadin’s premise.

This mikvah as well as the 5 others that have subsequently been found bear silent testament to the religious observance of the people. They knew that they would ultimately fall under Roman dominion, and most likely be killed in the process. Yet, they went out of their way to keep Jewish law in the most stringent manner (they were shomer on Tumah and Taharah). These relics scream out defiantly to the world that Jews can be killed physically, but their spirit and Torah live forever!

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The Ancient Egyptians Worshiped Sheep

The Abomination of Egypt; the Miracle of the Passover Sacrifice
After the fourth plague, Pharaoh offered Moses a compromise – the Israelites could worship God in Egypt without going to the wilderness. Moses replied, “We are going to sacrifice the gods of Egypt in honor of our God. Could we possibly slaughter the Egyptians’ gods right in front of their eyes, and they not stone us?” According to the Torah, the Egyptians held sheep to be sacred, as the image of their deity.

Ultimately, the Torah tells us, God commanded the Israelites to take a lamb or a kid for each household. They were to hold it for four days, from the tenth until the fourteenth of the first month, and slaughter it on the fourteenth. This was done in Egypt, despite the Egyptians’ religious beliefs. To this day Jews commemorate this event, calling the Sabbath preceding Passover Shabbat Hagadol – “The Great Sabbath” – for the Egyptians were powerless to do anything to harm them or to prevent them from sacrificing the Egyptian gods.

Egyptian mythology confirms this. The god Khnum was one of the principal gods of Egypt, and one of the oldest. Khnum’s temple was located on the island of Elephantine, today known as Aswan. He was said to be responsible for the level of the Nile and the silt that was deposited from the river’s flooding. He was also portrayed as the creator of mankind. His image is of that of a man with a ram’s head. Remains of mummified rams have been found in Khnum’s temple.

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The Origins of the Jewish Etrog

Tu BiShvat has come and gone. One of the customs of the day is to pray that one will find a beautiful etrog – a citron – to be used during the upcoming holiday of Sukkot, the feast of Tabernacles. The Torah commands us to take the fruit of a “tree of splendor” (Leviticus 23:40), together with the lulav and other items needed to fulfill the mitzvah of the “four species.” The Talmud (Succah 35a) defines this “tree of splendor”: One opinion is that the wood of this tree must taste like its fruit. Another opinion is that the tree grows new fruits while full-grown fruits are still attached to its branches. A third opinion is that the fruit must remain on the tree even into its second and third year. These criteria put the etrog in a class by itself.

When was the etrog first used by the Jewish people? This question has piqued the curiosity of many. For a believing Jew, the answer is obvious – the mitzvah of using the etrog on Sukkot was commanded to the Jews at Sinai, along with all the other mitzvot. However, some secular scholars maintain that the etrog tree – along with its name – reached the Land of Israel only during the Second Temple period, when it was brought to Greece from its native land, India, after the campaigns of Alexander the Great. Proponents of this theory believe that the national use of the etrog was implemented by Shimon Bar Kochva (132 C.E.-136 C.E.). As evidence, they cite the fact that Shimon minted a coin that featured a representation of an etrog. They rationalize that since this is one of the oldest representation of an etrog among Jewish artifacts that archeologists have found, and that since he was in a position of authority, it must be that he made the custom of using an etrog on Sukkot widespread. It should be noted that there were etrog coins minted earlier during the time of the Great Revolt (66 C.E.-70 C.E.), and both the Talmud and Josephus mention Alexander Yannai (103 B.C.E. – 76 B.C.E.) being pelted by Pharisee’s during a purposely botched water libation of the Sukkot Festival.

This assumption does not take in to account Jewish tradition, nor does it recognize older archeological evidence from Egypt. In 1891 archeologist Victor Loret found what appears to be etrogs depicted on the walls of a botanical garden in the Temple of Karnak, dated to the time of Pharaoh Thutmosis III (1479 B.C.E.-1425 B.C.E.), who, according to Josephus, was most likely the pharaoh of the Exodus.

This evidence found in the Temple of Karnak shows that it is altogether logical that the Jewish use of the etrog originated at Sinai, as Jewish tradition tells us.

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The Ancient Boundary of Gezer

The ancient city of Gezer was located in the coastal plain of Israel southwest of Jerusalem. Archeologists have unearthed at least 11 stones imbedded in the outskirts of the site, each one with the inscription “Techum Gezer” (Boundary of Gezer) etched in Hebrew and Greek. Archeologist Ronny Reich dates these stones to the time of Shimon the Hasmonean who according to the book of Maccabees I 13:43-48 re-conquered this city from the Greeks. Shimon died in the year 135 B.C.E., meaning that these stones predate the writing of the Mishnah by 325 years! These stones surround the border of the ancient city at distances ranging from 1,200 meters to 2,000 meters. The halachic Techum of a city regarding Shabbat observance is 2,000 amot, cubits – about a kilometer (Sotah 27b). Although some of these rocks seem to be much further than Techum Shabbat; the halachah teaches us to measure the Techum, not necessarily from the city wall but from the last house built on the outskirts of the town, even though it is outside the wall (Eiruvin 21a; Shulchan Aruch 398:6). This can explain why in different places the marker stones are found at varying distances from the city walls. The discovery itself seems to be empirical evidence that the halachah of techum Shabbat was known and observed before the Oral Torah was written down or even organized in preparation for its publication.

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The Monument known as the “tomb of Zechariah”

It was named for the Prophet Zechariah who was killed in the Temple. (2 Chronicles 24:20-21). The Talmud Yerushalmi relates that this not only happened in the Temple, but it was Yom Kippur that coincided with Shabbat. The Talmud Bavli relates that his blood was unable to be cleaned from the Temple floor, and when the Babylonians came it began to boil. It was not appeased until many Jews lost their lives. It is not know for how long the site has been associated with the grave of Zechariah ben Yehoiada, but the earliest known source are the writings of Menachem HaChevroni in 1215.

Despite this the site has played a major role in the history of the Jewish people of Jerusalem. The site became associated with the destruction of the First Temple, Jews would go to mourn on the 9th of Av and read the the book of Lamentations there.  This site was also a focal point for prayers for assistance. There are two documented stories that told of Jews  congregating at the “tomb” to pray for rain during drought years (in the years 1651 and 1690) which succeeded in stopping the drought.

Designs in the structure would seem to indicate that the monument was constructed some time during the Hellenistic period. The structure is actually not a tomb but a monument called a “Nefesh” (Tomb stone) next to a tomb. It is thought to be associated with tombs of the Benei Hezir (2nd Chronicles 26:21) located adjacent to the monument.

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Ancient Synagogue of Meron

According to tradition this door way although cracked will stand until the Mashiach comes.

Tradition has it that this is the Beit Midrash of Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The Talmud tells us in several places that Rebbi Shimon Bar Yochai set up a Beit Midrash in Tekoa after he left the cave (in which he and his son Rebbi Eliezer had to hid from the Romans for 13 years see Shabbat 33b) and that Rebbi Yehuda HaNassi learned by him. The Talmud (Menachot 85b) mentions the Biblical story of Yoav sending for a wise woman in Tekoa, and concludes that the Tekoa mentioned in this verse is not referring to the Tekoa in Yehuda, but to Tekoa located in the land of Asher. The Talmud then proceeds to tell a story of a man who was sent by his village to buy oil and ended up in Gush Chalav just north of Meron. The Tosefta Shvi’it (7:12) mentions Tekoa in the same region as Gush Chalav. The Yerushalmi (Shvi’it 26a 9:2) mentions the same statement as the aforementioned Tosefta, but inserts Meron instead of Tekoa. So it was most likely from this very door (or at least the site of the door, as the synagogue may post date Rebbi Shimon) that Rebbi Shimon and his students saw a former student return from a very successful business trip to Rome. The student had made a fortune. Rebbi Shimon noticed that some of his students were also contemplating leaving full time Torah learning to seek out their fortune as well . He thereupon called out “Valley, Valley , I command that you fill up with gold coins”, whereupon the entire valley suddenly sparkled with gold coins. He now turned to his students and told them that they could take all the gold they wanted to. “But remember” he warned them. “It will all be deducted from your share in the world to come.” Not a single student moved from his place.

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