On Holy Ground — As Seen in Southern Writers Magazine

On Holy Ground — Southern Writers

Faith in Frightening Times: Counting of the Omer

“Count Your Blessings”

Don’t we all try to count our blessings every day? We sure do! In Jewish tradition there’s even a special time to do so. It’s a period that comes from the very special agricultural traditions of the Holy Land and it’s called “the Counting of the Omer.” An omer is an ancient quantity of grain equal to about 6 gallons. The origins of the count can be found in Leviticus 23:9–16 (and Deuteronomy 16:9). Here’s what it says in Leviticus: “When you enter the land which I am giving to you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the first sheaf of your harvest to the priest… the priest shall wave it on the day after the sabbath…And you shall count for yourselves from the day after the Sabbath, from the day that you brought the sheaf of the wave offering: seven Sabbaths shall be completed. Count fifty days to the day after the seventh Sabbath; then you shall offer a new grain offering to the LORD. ”


Depiction of a basket of First Fruits, Zippori Synagogue mosaic, 5th century

Depiction of a basket of First Fruits, Zippori Synagogue mosaic, 5th century

When this count should begin was, like everything else, it seems, a matter of controversy in Jesus’ day. Finally, the ancient tradition prevailed that the count was to begin on the first day after the Passover holiday, and continue for 49 days (seven weeks). On the 50th day, the Feast of Weeks is celebrated. That’s none other than Pentecost, mentioned by name in Acts 2 as the holiday when the speaking in tongues took place.

We all know that there’s anticipation in counting. Whether it’s my granddaughter going down the sliding board at the end of a joyful “one-two-three – wheee!” to the fateful countdown before a space shuttle takes off and lots of other examples I’m sure you can think of. There’s a kind of tension in that count too. And that’s where we come to the agricultural traditions of the Holy Land.

Budding pomegranate fruit

Budding pomegranate fruit

“For, lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone; The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land; The fig-tree putteth forth her green figs, and the vines in blossom give forth their fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.” (Song of Songs 2:11-13) We have rainless summers here in the Holy Land. On the other hand, especially in the mountains, where I live, we can have very rainy (and sometimes even snowy) winters.

But what happens between rain and shine?

Tiny grapes on the vine - here's "counting on" good weather so no rainstorms will knock them off!

Tiny grapes on the vine – here’s “counting on” good weather so no rainstorms will knock them off!

It’s that in-between time, between the rainy season and the dry season, which worries farmers, and not only in the Holy Land or in ancient times. But in the Holy Land, it’s the time between Passover and Pentecost, when the seasons haven’t quite settled down yet. It’s the time when an “unseasonable” rainstorm can knock the fruit and grain, at a critical stage in their development, off the stalks, ancient farmers prayerfully counted each day that brought them closer to a successful harvest. As I did research for my book Food in the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper, I loved learning about what the ancient sages taught about the various spring harvests – barley, wheat and summer fruits. Since barley was ready for harvest at Passover and wheat at Pentecost, this meant that at the barley harvest, wheat was at a fragile stage, and during the Pentecost, when the wheat was to be harvested, the summer fruits were at a critical stage. The ancient Jewish sages said the next of these harvests would be blessed if you gave the “first fruits” of the previous one as offering in the Temple. But I’ve also been taught that we are blessed if we’ve been able to watch our spiritual p’s and q’s all the time – no matter what the weather!

At the end of the counting of the Omer comes Pentecost, as commanded in Lev. 23:15–16 and Deut. 16:9. Giving it added meaning, the sages taught that Moses told the Children of Israel that they would be given the Torah days after their liberation from slavery. And so the people began to count the days and sure enough, the Ten Commandments came down on that day!

May this season be a blessing to you and yours.


Italian gladiola or sword lily - a wildflower of the Omer season grows in the forest near my home

Italian gladiola or sword lily – a wildflower of the Omer season grows in the forest near my home

What is the Talmud?

When some people hear the word “Talmud” they immediately picture a bunch ofmen sitting around in ancient times thinking up laws that made life hard for everyone else. The first part – the who and the when – is true enough. When it comes to the third part – the why – let’s start over. Let’s discover what the Talmud really is.

After the destruction of the Second Temple and Jerusalem, the spiritual and physical magnet of the Jewish People, the sages began to seek ways of binding the people together by expounding on the laws of the Bible so that everyone would know exactly how to “follow the rules.”


Jewish Prayer – An Overview

I’m sure my good friend Pastor Terry Dawson will not mind me referring (yet again) to the story of how a Christian and Jewish prayer traditions met – in the response of my two daughters when they heard Pastor Terry recite beautiful words of thanksgiving from the heart  before a meal at our home.

They heard Pastor Terry thank God for the blessings of friendship and fellowship around the table, the wonderful touring day we had just shared, the beauties of the Land of Israel, and finally, for the food we were about to eat. Amen. Oh, alright Terry, I exaggerate slightly for dramatic purposes, but as I recall it, our girls were quite amazed you went on for quite a while more than we were used to in our own prayer before meals. When the prayer ended, I was just getting up to serve when one of the girls (whose requested to remain anonymous because she was not authorized to speak to her elders in this way) looked up at Pastor Terry and asked wide-eyed: “Did you make that up?”

“Yes…” he responded.

“The whole thing?”


“Wow,” came the response.

In short, Pastor Terry’s pre-dining extemporaneous exaltations of God’s goodness is very different from our traditional our 11-word blessing (including the Amen) – not a word more or less, by the way, for the past 2,000 years or so.

Traditionally, Jewish prayer relies on existing formulations, which have become so powerful over thousands of years that some of us seem to feel less comfortable reciting an original prayer from the heart out loud in public (although silent prayer is part and parcel of our prayer service, see below). My favorite example of an uncomfortable Jewish character unexpectedly called upon to pray out loud, right in front of everybody, is Greg in the film “Meet the Parents.”

But seriously now, in the Hebrew Scriptures,prayer was very much like Pastor Terry’s prayer at our table. Suffice it to look at Daniel’s prayer in Daniel Chapter 9 or Hannah’s prayer in her hour of need (which reminds us of the prayer in Psalm 107:28-30) or Hannah’s prayer of thanksgiving (1 Sam. 2: 1-10), so marvelously mirrored in Mary’s words in Luke 1:46-55).

Jewish prayer originated in the heart’s desire of ordinary people over the centuries. In the Talmud the rabbis discussed in detail blessings that individuals might be moved to utter when the spirit moved them. For example, “It is the custom among the people that one beholds a fresh loaf of bread will say ‘blessed is he who created this wheat” (Jerusalem Talmud,  Nedarim 6, 40a). Although this particular blessing sounds simple and fine (and not that different from the prayer we now say before meals), Jewish sages did not sanction some such blessings. That’s because Jews at the time were living among pagans, and some of these prayers apparently reminded the ancient leaders too much of pagan practice, which they were trying to keep their people away from.

Other ancient passages indicate that worshippers had a variety of texts they could choose from (Mishnah, Rosh Hashanah 4, 6). Eventually, the sages began to support prayers with fixed wording. They did this, to make sure, in their minds, that people gave homage and glory to God in a dignified, unified way when they worshipped – with not everyone familiar with the same blessings, there might be no one present who could “properly” lead worship, the sages worried (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 50a).

Prayer can be a Call to Act

In Judaism, with its strong component of action (when the Second Temple was destroyed, the sages deemed that along with study of God’s word, prayer and deeds of lovingkindness were to replace sacrifice), prayer also has an element of a call to act.

“Prayer was established by the patriarchs” the Talmud teaches, and calls upon Genesis 19:27 to illustrate this idea. After Lot’s wife had turned into a pillar of salt, and Abraham beheld the smoking ruins of the cities of Sodom and Gomorroah,  “Abraham got up early in the morning to the place where he had stood before the Lord.” Rabbi Ari Hart of New York City pointed out in a sermon he gave in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy in 2012, that only a chapter later (Gen. 20:17), in the strange story of Abimelech falling ill after taking Sarah as his wife, the Bible says: “And Abraham prayed unto God.” If we want to prove that Abraham “invented” prayer, why not go to that verse? Especially because Abraham’s prayer was answered and Abimelech was healed – mission accomplished! Wouldn’t the model of successful prayer? But, Rabbi Hart teaches, prayer comes “out of the depths,” to borrow a phrase from Psalms. In Abraham’s case, it was after God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, after Abraham had demanded “shall not the judge of all the earth do justly” (Gen. 18:25). “Prayer is the place where we, like Abraham, struggle with a God who loves righteousness and justice but allows suffering. Prayer’s place is where we, like Abraham, stand and see the distance between the world as it is and the world as it could be.” Prayer, is a call to action, to make our corner of the world a better place, our service to others, beginning with our loved ones, more meaningful.

Prayer from the Heart

In the Jewish prayer service, we have a special time for prayer from the heart, which we say silently just after we recite what is known as the Amidah which consists of 18 separate blessings. By the way, this is recited once to ourselves and then, when everyone is finished, it is recited aloud by the congregation as a whole. When we finish the silent prayer, the congregation says or sings together the words of Psalm 19:15 Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable before Thee, O LORD, my Rock, and my Redeemer.*

But, you might ask, doesn’t saying the traditional words over and over again run the risk of making them meaningless?  Indeed they can. But our sages, ancient and modern teach that this is precisely the reason we must always try to imbue them with new meaning. It’s like that other frequently repeated utterance – “I love you.” To make the words mean something, we have to work to understand what they mean to us and put them to work in our lives. And sometimes people find that they are in such a spiritual or emotional state that they don’t feel very prayerful.

At those times, if we run out of our own words, there is great comfort in reciting age-old words that help us focus on God’s will – the words of the Psalms.

This is what I did when I once (and thankfully only once) found my life and the life of my husband Arik in real danger. It was when we had taken a safari in Kenya, in the wrong season and on the cheap (luckily, at least God suffers fools kindly). We were caught in a flash flood, and water was rising round our van. The other people had already had to abandon their vans, and there were 17 of us in a van meant to seat 8. The only Psalm I knew by heart was Psalm 23, which I repeated again and again. I then found myself reiterating the first of the 18 blessings. These are the words: “Blessed are You, Lord our God and God of our fathers, God of Abraham, God of Isaac and God of Jacob, God of Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel and Leah, the great, mighty and awesome God, exalted G‑d, who bestows bountiful kindness, who creates all things, who remembers the piety of the Patriarchs, and who, in love, brings redemption to their children’s children, for the sake of His name.”

In further articles about Jewish prayer I look forward to sharing with you a different prayer from time to time, explained according to the Jewish sources. They are Jewish in the sense that Jewish tradition has adopted them, but universal in that these prayers – in whatever form they come to our lips of remain in our hearts are the poetry and the lifeline of the lives of all people of faith.


Baumel, Avi. The Poetry of Prayer.(Jerusalem 2009).

Hart, Ari. “Of prayer and deeds.” Haaretz, n.d. 2012.

Heinemann, Joseph. Prayer in the Talmud, Forms and Patterns (Berlin 1977).



*Verse number is according to the Masoretic Text. In Christian Bibles the verse is 19:14.

What is Baseless Hatred? The Story of Kamza and Bar Kamza

A Retelling

The story you are about to read appears in two ancient Jewish sources: Lamentations Rabbah (4:3) and in the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Gittin 55b-56a). That talmudic tractate discusses divorce.*Indeed, it has been pointed out that the period in Jewish history described in the story of Kamza and Bar Kamza – around the time of the destruction of the Temple – can be considered as one of “divorce” –one in which the Jewish people’s core concept of community was threatened from within and without, and in which the Romans, by destroying the Temple, attempted to divorce the Jews from their spiritual center on earth, the Jerusalem Temple and their holy city.

This story has many morals. Most significantly for modern times, the story is often quoted as the prime example of “baseless hatred” which ancient Jewish sages said was the prime reason for the destruction of the Temple.  (Talmud, tractate Yoma, 9b).

This, then, is the story:

There were two men living in Jerusalem in the first century CE, one named Kamza and the other named Bar Kamza. The names are clearly very similar. (“Bar” by the way, means “son of” in Aramaic.) When the story opens we know nothing about these two men except that Kamza was a friend of a wealthy man in Jerusalem. We also are told little about that man, except that his rigid, unforgiving nature led to disaster. Perhaps that right there is all we need to know to impart the story’s lesson.

The story goes on to tell us that Bar Kamza was the wealthy man’s enemy. One day, the wealthy man decided to hold a banquet. As was the custom in those days (and to this day in traditional culture in the Holy Land) everyone got a personal, verbal invitation. The wealthy man sent his servant house to house to everyone on the guest list. Kamza was on it and of course, Bar Kamza was not.

But by mistake, the servant went to Bar Kamza’s house instead of Kamza’s! To make matters worse, Bar Kamza never questioned the invitation from his enemy, but showed up at the wealthy man’s door. Who knows why – perhaps he thought the invitation meant reconciliation was in the offing. In any case, the wealthy host was enraged when he discovered that his sworn enemy Bar Kamza was at his door and about to crash his party.

“Be gone!” he bellowed to Bar Kamza.But Bar Kamza begged to be allowed in, just to save face. He even offers to pay for the banquet!But the wealthy man refused and physically pushed Bar Kamza out the door. Now, there were several sages at Kamza’s table – men who knew full well that in Jewish tradition, humiliating a person is said to be as bad as murdering that person.

Fuming, the humiliated Bar Kamza, plans his revenge. He went to the Roman governor and lied that the Jews were eating the sacrifices the Romans had been sending to the Jerusalem Temple for sacrifice, and were substituting animals that were not ritually proper for sacrifice inferior animal on the altar.


But the governor did not believe Bar Kamza. And so, as his anger mounted, he decided to entrap his fellow Jews.This is what he did: “If you do not believe me, send an officer and some sacrificial animals with me, and you will immediately know that I am not a liar.”According to the story, Bar Kamza himself accompanied the Roman officer and the animals to Jerusalem and at night, while the officer was asleep, Bar Kamza secretly made all the animals “blemished” (ritually impure). According to Jewish law this meant they could not be offered to God as a sacrifice. When the animals reached the Temple, the priest in charge saw that they were blemished and indeed, he substituted others for them. The king’s official, watching closely, asked the priest why the animals he had brought in the name of the Roman emperor were not being sacrificed. The priest tried a delay tactic: ‘‘I will do so to-morrow,” he told the Roman.


After this happened three days in a row, the officer reported to the emperor that Bar Kamza had told him the truth.  That, according to the story was all the emperor had to hear. He then sent his legions to Jerusalem to destroy the Temple.


“Hence the popular saying,” goes the version in Lamentations Rabbah: “Because of the difference between [the names] Kamza and Bar Kamza was  was the Temple destroyed.’”


But of course, the destruction of Temple was due to more than just a three-letter difference between the names of two of the protagonists.


In the Lamentations Rabbah version of the story, one sage, Rabbi Jose said: “The meekness of Zechariah b. Abkulas burnt the Temple.” By this the sages meant that this rabbi, was present and the feast, could have exerted his moral authority to stop the host from treating Bar Kamza so meanly, but he chose not to intervene.


The other version of the story, in the Talmudic Tractate Gittin presents it 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.” The fames late 11th-century Jewish scholar Rashi tells us that the outcome of the story of Kamza and Bar Kamza teaches us that being “anxious always” should means –always be aware of what may be the ultimate outcome of your decisions and actions.


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


*The word get, which means divorce document, is related to the Aramaic word gittin. This word appears frequently in The Scroll because this very type of document is key to the plot.

My Judean Mountains Home

I live in Har Adar, a community of approximately 1,100 families (about 4,000 people) in the Judean Mountains about 8 miles northwest of Jerusalem. It doesn’t appear on most maps, but you can find the nearest two communities, the Arab town of Abu Ghosh (see more below) and Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamisha.

My husband Arik and I moved to Har Adar from Jerusalem about 25 years ago with our two little girls when the community was just getting started. In those days it was still called Givat Ha-Radar – that’s Hebrew for Radar Hill, which got its name because there was a radar station here during the British Mandate. The community chose the name Har Adar because it sounded something the previous name, but also had a nice ring to it in that Har means mountain and Adar comes from a root meaning “grand.”

Har Adar was a battle site in two of Israel’s wars, in 1948, when Israel failed to capture the site (which was a military outpost) and in 1967, when we did. Israel tried so hard to capture the site because it is one of the high points along a strategic ridge north of the Jerusalem. When we had the dedication ceremony of the community in around 1985, the late Maj. Gen. Uri Ben-Ari, who fought at Har Adar in both wars, moved the audience very much when he told us he never could have dreamed that children would be playing where once there was only the thick smoke of battle. Har Adar is located very close to the Green Line, the pre-1967 border. Our closest Palestinian neighbors are the villages of Bidu, Beit Suriq, Katana and el-Qubeiba. Har Adar’s old Arabic name is Jebel Kawqab, which means “Mount of the Star.”

My biblical neighborhood

I wish I could take you on a guided tour around my neighborhood,  so I could show you how we can see a biblical landscape or archaeological site from almost any vantage point. Looking west, across the mountains we can see the Valley of Ayalon, near where Joshua defeated the five kings of the Amorites, when Joshua made his immortal call: “Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ayalon” (Josh. 11:12). We can also see the Beth Horon Valley down which Joshua chased his enemies to the Coastal Plain. Beyond the Valley of Ayalon, by the way, is the sea the Bible calls the Great Sea, and of course we now call the Mediterranean. On a clear day we can see ships in the port of Ashdod and as far south as Ashkelon and the outskirts of Gaza from our porch. But that’s cheating just a little bit. The country’s so small you can see just about anything from anywhere!

So, let’s get much closer to home. Still looking west of Har Adar, the tell (archaeological mound) of Chephirah stands out. That might not sound familiar to most folks, but I bet you do remember the trick the Gibeonites played on Joshua, pretending they had come from far away and making a treaty with them under false pretenses (Joshua 9). The cities of the Gibeonites are mentioned there Gibeon and Chephirah and Beeroth and Kiriath-jearim (Josh 9:17).

Another Gibeonite city, Kiriath-jearim, is nearby too. It’s probably more familiar to you though as the city where the Ark of the Covenant was moved to after it returned from Philistine captivity (1 Sam. 6:21–7:1). Kiriath-jearim is now a town where our Israeli Arab neighbors live, called Abu Ghosh, and a 19th-century church stands on the hill where tradition says the house of Abinadab (1 Sam. 7:1) stood in ancient times. There is a magnificent Crusader church in Abu Ghosh as well.

On to the New Testament, Abu Ghosh is also one of the possible sites for Emmaus, where Jesus appeared to the disciples after the resurrection (Luke 24:13–35).

Questions the ancients had as to the exact distance Emmaus was from Jerusalem gave rise to several sites. Another is also a stone’s throw from my home, the site called el-Qubeiba west of Har Adar, with a beautiful little church and archaeological excavations nestled in an old pine grove.

Moving back once again in time, north of el-Qubeiba is Nebi Samuel, the traditional burial place of Samuel the prophet. Some scholars believe this is also the site called Mizpah, where Samuel gathered the people to confirm Saul as king, and the site of several other biblical stories.

Sometimes when I stand and look out at Nebi Samuel I think about my favorite tradition about it – that it is the “great high place,” above Gibeon where the Lord appeared to King Solomon in a dream right after he became king, and told Solomon he could ask for anything he wanted. And Solomon replied: “Give Thy servant therefore an understanding heart to judge Thy people, that I may discern between good and evil.” (1 Kings 3:9). I would like to start a new tradition – that after being sworn in, the prime minister of Israel and the entire cabinet will be required before entering their offices for their first day’s work to go up to what is now Nebi Samuel and have a little prayer time, beseeching god for that all-important “understanding heart.”

But I digress…

To conclude, I’d like to tell you about the ancient history of Har Adar itself. The archaeologist Michael Dadon, who excavated it, wrote people first began living here in the fifth century BC – a time when the Persians ruled this land. They built a fort, probably one of a series of such forts were built along Judah’s northern border. Dadon and his team also found a courtyard and a rock-cut cistern from this period. Our town created a little archaeological park where we can still see the cistern; a very beautiful little fountain now emerges from it. They found a bronze ring from this period depicting an altar and a seated figure, perhaps a deity. During the Hellenistic period (the time when the Greeks ruled the land), they found this area was used as a farmhouse. Later on, in the Ottoman period (beginning in the 16th century) they found stoves, a furnace for melting metals, a house and a wine press. We can still see the treading floor of this wine press in the little archaeological park.

The fountain at our archaeological park

The fountain at our archaeological park

In future articles I look forward to telling you about Abu Ghosh and the special bond that developed between this Arab-Israeli town and the surrounding Jewish communities from the time of Israel’s War of Independence to this day.


Our synagogue; the doors contain the symbols of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

Our synagogue; the doors contain the symbols of the Twelve Tribes of Israel

The famous snowstorm of December 2013...the snowplow cometh...finally!

The famous snowstorm of December 2013…the snowplow cometh…finally!





Purim: Queen Esther of Har Adar and her kindergarten friends

Purim: Queen Esther of Har Adar and her kindergarten friends

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?