Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Carob Trees, the Bible, and Righteous Gentiles

Sweet, nutritious carobs are a blessing in the bone-dry Holy Land summer. What’s more, they embody a message of hope and  striving for a higher level of humanity.

Following my recent video blog from “carob land” a few weeks ago, here are my promised further thoughts on the tasty, healthy summer fruit  Ceratonia siliqua a.k.a. the carob. Another name for the fruit is St. John’s bread, because it’s said to have nourished the baptizer in the wilderness. Or did it? Read on and find out more.

Carob pods. Aaron Vamosh.

According to 2 Kings 6:25 the besieged and hungry people of Samaria couldn’t even afford to buy “doves dung.” But a different reading of the Hebrew, instead of “doves dung” tells us  that “seed pods” – possibly of the carob – were the commodity in question. Arguing against that idea, however, botanists say carobs were too rare in Bible times to have been cited in that context and and carobs only became more common in the Roman era and then in modern times.

Let’s see where else carobs appear in the Bible. A biblical term recalling the carob – according to  ancient sages – is in 1 Sam. 2:36, appearing as a “piece of silver.”  Medieval scholar Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra said that the root of the word agora (translated as “piece” and  which came to mean “penny” in modern Hebrew) was in the word gera, which he surmised meant “carob seed.”  About 15 of these small, lightweight seeds are found in each 7-8-inch pod.  The gera, the carob seed, was quite standard in size and weight and so it apparently morphed into the word “carat,” which is now used to indicate the weight of a diamond.

Carobs might also appear in the New Testament as the “husk,” sometimes translated as “pods” in Luke 15:16. In Greek that word is keration, also reminding us of  the word carat.

But why is the carob tree called “St. John’s Bread” when the English New Testament (and the Greek) clearly say he was eating “locusts”?  The first question is whether John, who as a Jew would have taken his dietary cues from the Bible, would have eaten locusts? The answer is yes, and, well, even yum, at least according to some Jewish culinary tastes,  mainly in the old days – some species of these meaty bugs are kosher according to Deut. 14:20 and Lev. 11:21–22.

The Oxford English Dictionary weighed in on John’s diet too. It says that the carob tree was nicknamed “locust” akris (plural, akrides in Greek) because of the shape of the pods and the way they clustered on the tree, and so John was therefore indeed dining on carobs, not actual locusts, together with his wild honey.

St. John the Baptist , by Hieronymus Bosch, 15th century. Wikimedia Commons.

Later interpreters tried their hand at this linguistic mystery, noting that the writings of the Ebionites, an early Judeo-Christian sect (who were considered heretical and died out) may have influenced later church scholars who also pondered John’s diet. Ascetics and non-meat eaters, Ebionites, some scholars say, couldn’t abide the thought of John eating meat, so they substituted enkrides, honey cakes, for akrides (locusts).

And Why is a Righteous Gentile like a Carob?

Carobs grow throughout Israel these days. But botanists tell us they have only truly proliferated in recent centuries, after the land had become degraded and the forests denuded. That’s where connection between non-Jews who risked their lives to save Jews in the Holocaust – known as Righteous Gentiles – come in:

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem,  planted a carob tree in memory or in honor of each Righteous Gentile they could find. I’ve never seen an official explanation for the choice, but one day, I think I found out. I was guiding a group of British gardening enthusiasts, visiting formal gardens all over Israel. One of these is the magnificent Rothschild Gardens in Zichron Ya’akov. At one point our guide shared what she said was a horticultural mistake: “We planted carob trees on the lawns. Because we water the lawns regularly, the carobs get too much water and they don’t bear fruit – carobs only bear fruit under stress, where no other fruit will grow.” Right then and there, I connected to the Yad Vashem carobs: They symbolize the people who “bore fruit” in a desert of evil and immorality.

Avenue of the Righteous Gentiles. Wikimedia Commons.

I would like to end with another carob tale meaningful in our desire to lives a life of service. It’s about a sage and miracle worker named Honi, (known as the Circle Maker; remind me to tell you that story another time): Honi was walking on the road and saw a man planting a carob tree. “How long will it take for this tree to bear fruit?” Honi asked the man. The man replied, “Seventy years,” to which Honi replied:  “And do you think you will be around to eat its fruit?” The man answered: When I was born, I found carob trees planted by my father and grandfather. Just as they planted for me, I am planting for my children” (Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Ta’anit 23a).

 

 

I dedicate this blog to the memory of  my  sister, Lucy Weil Feinberg  (July 29, 1948–July 31, 2018), who loved nature and lived a life of service devoted to protection of all who are weak and at risk.  May the memory of her works inspire us all to do the same.

 

My thanks to Tova Dickstein and Susan Weingarten for sharing their carob knowledge with me.

Want to know more?

Brock, S. 1999. From Ephrem to Romanos: Interactions between Syriac and Greek in Late Antiquity. Variorum Collected Studies Series Brookfield, Vt. Chapter X: .The Baptist’s Diet in Syriac Sources. Pp. 114–124.

Kellhoffer, J.A. 2005. The Diet of John the Baptist: Locusts and Wild Honey in synoptic and patristic tradition Tuebingen 2005.

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. Goisrael.com.

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?http://www.biu.ac.il/JH/Parasha/eng/devarim/ber.htmlTdajudaics.com.

 

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!

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