The Fury Next Door

Har Adar, my home town, suffered a terror attack two weeks ago today. 

Plenty of pundits have put in their two cents since the terror attack in my community, Har Adar, on September 26. Las Vegas overshadows us all, but in our community, we’re still dealing with the aftermath of that awful Tuesday morning. Confident commentators are sure they know why a terrorist opened fire at the gate of our community, who precisely is to blame, and precisely what steps to take. And what I lay before you here also has its whys and whats.  But in the spirit of the season, it looks both inward as we do on Yom Kippur, and outward, as the Feast of Tabernacles teaches us.

“Are you alright?” The text messages started beeping in at 7:45 a.m. on September 26.

I was on my second cup of coffee and had already sat down at my desk. About 30 minutes earlier, I heard the sirens. One siren. I guess someone had a heart attack.

Two. That’s strange. Three. I opened my news websites.

The first reports said three Israelis had been shot and killed by a terrorist on the patrol road at Har Adar. That makes sense in my world. There are plenty of guns aimed at us all the time. If it’s on the patrol road, I told myself that morning as the news broke, the “Israelis” (the euphemism for security personnel before the authorities allow any more information to be released) are soldiers, and a terrorist must have opened fire on a patrol vehicle. I’m fine, I text back.

This yellow gate slides open to admit Palestinian workers to Har Adar. It’s been closed since the Sept. 26 attack. Behind it is the Palestinian village of Bidu.

Then the news came into focus. At the gate of Har Adar. More text messages. A terror attack at the gate? I began to think in terms of our front gate, and civilians. West of that gate, in the wadi on the other side of the security fence is the village of Qatana in Palestinian territory we had learned to fear. When our girls were younger, when we’d drive up the main road from the entrance toward home, which parallels the forest, the wadi and the road down to Qatana, we’d follow protocol to be able to escape the car in case an incendiary device was thrown at it. Time to undo your seatbelts girls, we’d call out with false cheer. Why? They’d ask. Well, we’re almost home, we’d say.

The entrance to Har Adar. On the right, is a banner dedicated to the three men who lost their lives protecting the community. On the window ledge of the guard post are three potted plants each marked with the name of one of the dead.

Next I heard, it’s not the entrance gate, it’s the big yellow gate where Har Adar ends and the Palestinian Authority begins, down the street from our sports center, elementary school and library, where the Palestinian workers come and go every day. On a weekday I see their cars parked on the Palestinian side of the barrier. They come in on foot. The gate is locked and no one’s ever there whenever I pass it on my walks around the community.

And then, everyone knew. The casualties were two civilian security guards and a Border Police officer. From Wikipedia, where the attack now has its own entry: “Border policeman Solomon Gavriyah (20), civilian security guards Youssef Ottman (25) of nearby Abu Ghosh and Or Arish (25), who lived in Har Adar. A fourth man, the head civilian security officer of Har Adar, is injured. The attacker was shot and killed.”

Our community security coordinator, Amit Steinhart, was seriously injured.

Our community bulletin board looked surreal to me. At left, a row of the three death notices, one for each guard. The turquoise sign next to them announces prayer times for Yom Kippur, amid various and sundry other community notices like houses for rent and a macrobiotic sukkah.

Later, on his release from the hospital, Steinhart told the media that Or Arish’s last words were “Amit, I saved you.” Meaning that Amit could now do what was needed to save others. And with our schoolchildren streaming into their classrooms at that very hour, only 200 yards up the road, that meant everything.

8:30 a.m.: I phoned Abed. I don’t know his last name. I can’t remember where he lives. Bidu, I think, northeast of us. That’s where the men came from who built our home 30 years ago. (The murderer came from Beit Suriq, farther along the ridge east of Bidu.) Old Abu Ghazi, who was in charge of the laborers who built our home, was from Bidu. When construction was done, he came with his whole family with gifts for us. A bucket of apricots from his trees. Toys for the girls. He brought a grapevine from his own vineyard and planted it in our garden. It gives us tiny, sweet, green grapes every summer. As for Abed, he planted the rose bushes in my garden 25 years ago. He’s been working at somebody’s house right down the street from us so I’ve seen him every day recently. He has a tractor with a Palestinian Authority license plate. When he first got the tractor, when it was shiny and new, 25 years ago, I saw it had a Palestinian Authority license plate and I thought, that’s a good sign, the Palestinian Authority has license plates. Over the years after the rose bushes, he’d greet me with shalom Miriam, what’s up, and I’d say shalom. But by then I had forgotten his first name too.

I’m not sure why I phoned Abed on the morning of the attack. Maybe because when I went outside to see if I could figure out where the sirens were coming from, and to watch the helicopters hovering, I saw Abed drive up the street in his tractor, as usual.  Passing him in the opposite direction, from the end of our cul-de-sac, without a second glance, were two security officers of some kind, on motorcycles.

I saw a contingent of four heavily armed Border Police officers, three young men and a woman, going from house to house. One of them, a young woman, asked me gruffly: Everything OK?  Yes, everything’s OK, I responded. Why are you going from house to house, I asked, is there a terrorist loose?  No, we’re just making sure you’re OK, they answered.

Oh yes, I’m fine. Thank you for your service, please accept my condolences, I said. Their faces were impassive, as if I hadn’t spoken.

Abed wasn’t down at the house where he’d been working. But he picked up my call. Abed, what’s up? Hakor beseder, everything’s OK, Miriam, what’s up with you, he responded, automatically. I ask him: Where are you? I saw you driving up the street. He answers, I was there but then I left. They’ve got us up here together, by the offices, he said. I’m sorry, I said to him. And in my mind, I enumerated my reasons for being sorry. Sorry for the three of our own killed, and our security officer seriously injured. Sorry that I wondered for a second whether you had done it, Abed. Sorry for living in a place where such a thing could happen. Sorry for living in a world where some version of this now happens all the time.

A shopping basket at our minimarket with a sign saying “Place your goodies for the soldiers, and kids letters and drawings here. The top drawing, in the heart, wishes a speedy recovery to Amit, our security chief.

Four days later, Erev Yom Kippur. Before Kol Nidre services began I was sitting in the vestibule of the Har Adar synagogue, talking to my brother Paul, who also lives in Har Adar. He said he saw the Palestinian workers sitting there when he went to buy milk, on the morning of the attack. I wondered if they had rounded them up for their own safety, I said. That was after I saw the venom spewed forth on our private community Facebook page.

The fury began on Facebook that same day. They’re all terrorists, wrote some. Don’t let them in your house, said several others; if you do, you’re risking your life and the lives of your children. Betwixt and between, arrangements were discussed to visit the houses of mourning, one in Be’er Ya’akov down near Rishon LeTzion, one in our neighboring Muslim town of Abu Ghosh and one in our own Har Adar. A long, emotional post by one neighbor said that with such great gaps between them and us, despite seemingly warm personal ties for years between the murderer and people in whose homes he worked, despite the money they make working here, despite how fair and kind we believe we are to them, their frustration, fury and envy will find its expression in religious ideology, she wrote.

Our neighboring town of Abu Ghosh, which is Muslim, and is also the biblical site of Kiryat Yearim where the Ark once rested.

And then she went too far, for people who had lost loved ones and friends here that day. She wrote that all the deaths where tragedies, even one not usually counted in such attacks. The responses grew furious at that. You’re insane. You disgust me. You’re sewage. You’re filth. Etcetera. Out of about 77 replies to her comment at that point, I only saw two that showed understanding of her viewpoint. I wondered about that, given what I know of our community. Apparently so did one neighbor who went as far as to post, in response to those posts, the official distribution of Knesset votes in our community, which is a West Bank settlement just over the pre-1967 line  – 47. 77 percent of our votes went to center-left or left-wing parties. And the posts continued to pour in. The woman with too much sympathy eventually retracted her post, with apologies.

Our community rabbi also posted on our community Facebook page. Ah, he’ll have an answer for me, I thought. OK, Let’s see now. He quoted from Psalm 130, the one that begins, famously: “Out of the depths I called Thee O Lord.”  One I’m sure families and people of faith are reading these days, especially across the United States. The verses he quoted were 6–8: “My soul waiteth for the Lord, more than the watchmen for the morning; yea, more than the watchmen for the morning. O Israel, hope is in the Lord; for with the Lord there is mercy, and with Him is plenteous redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” I can relate to that, I thought, noting how poetic that the verse the rabbi found was about watchmen. What do you think of that, I asked my husband Arik, who, not by the way, is a wounded warrior who this Yom Kippur marks 44 years as a paraplegic. That puts it on God, he said in his usual cryptic manner.

At Kol Nidre services, in the women’s section, I told a neighbor I had come because I was hoping to hear the rabbi speak out about the need for unity in the face of the disaster that had struck the families of the fallen and the community. Indeed, his sermon began with the same verse he had quoted in his post: “Waiting for redemption ‘like the guards wait for the morning’. That’s something almost everyone here can relate to, he said. “Who here hasn’t done guard duty at night and waited for the morning, for the shift to be over, giving thanks for having stayed awake,” he continued. But when morning came for Solomon Gavriyah, Youssef Othman and Or Arish, the rabbi reminded us, it was their last. He spoke of their heroism and camaraderie, of the light they brought to the world. He spoke of his personal acquaintance with Or and Youssef, and the heroism of Solomon and his family, who had come to Israel from Ethiopia. He didn’t counsel us as to what we should do now. Perhaps he wanted to leave it up to each of us to know what’s right. Perhaps he wants us to realize that we should trust in God, like the Psalm says.

After the sermon came the haunting chant of Kol Nidre. This includes Numbers 15:26: “And all the congregation of the children of Israel shall be forgiven, and the stranger that sojouneth among them; for in respect of all the people it was done in error.”

Forgiveness for “all the people”…I’m not that noble. I can’t find any forgiveness for the perpetrator. I haven’t even forgiven the neighbor down our street, who in his carelessness rammed his car into Arik’s car three and a half years ago, seriously injuring Arik and his mom, who never fully recovered (Arik’s mom died last month). But I’ve got a new vow. It’s one I don’t intend to seek release from next year on Yom Kippur. It’s an anti-venom vow. I vow to speak out when an entire group is incriminated and condemned for the actions of damnable individuals. I vow to continue to see every person as just that: a person, not a threat, not part of a nameless, fearsome mob of others. I vow to hold on to what makes me a member, above and beyond any other group, of the human race.

Further reading about Har Adar: My Judean Mountains Home.

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh is the author of several non-fiction books about daily life in Bible days and a historical novel, The Scroll.


Flashback and Flashpoint: What’s Going on with the Temple Mount?

Sometimes it seems like I must have dreamed it; that before the year 2000, I used to lead my tour groups around Jerusalem’s Temple Mount, and into the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque. Those were days when the Mount often seemed strangely tranquil, amid unrest elsewhere in the country and even in the city. This was the eye of the hurricane, I used to tell people.

The Temple Mount and the Western Wall. Courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism; photo: Noam Chen.

But over the years, beliefs about the Temple Mount’s sanctity have been gathering into what seems like a tidal wave of fury and hatred. Now the Mount has become a flashpoint again. The recent spate of violence was sparked in mid-July by the killing by terrorists of two Israeli policemen on duty outside the Mount, followed by the killing of the terrorists on the Mount and the killing of three Israelis in their home in Samaria by a terrorist. In the wake of clashes with security forces over these past two weeks, hundreds of Palestinians were injured and at least six Palestinians have been killed in the midst of clashes, mainly in the West Bank and Gaza.

What I’d like to do here is to help illuminate a little of what the Mount means to the different religions that sanctify it. There is so much to read on the subject that one lifetime isn’t enough. But at the end of this article, you’ll find a small assortment of less familiar sources, some of which I quote here and which I’ve found helpful.

Flash back 2,000 years, and you’ll find ancient texts that extol the Temple, and by extension the Mount, as the embodiment of peace and unity, the very antithesis of bloodshed. Truly, it is a great idea and ideal – a uniquely perceived sacred intersection of space and time. And it has been disastrously diminished by self-serving small-mindedness, especially of late, into a wicked scrummage over a piece of real estate.

Debate swirls about virtually everything involving the Temple Mount. It’s the place where Abraham offered Isaac, you’ve probably been taught. Then you discover that Muslims believe it was the patriarch of the Arabs, Ishmael, who was offered by his and Isaac’s father, Abraham. You’ve only begun to digest that when you discover that the traditional site of the offering, which the Bible names as Mount Moriah, actually defies the inner geographical logic of the biblical story.  Be that as it may, Solomon, the Bible says, built the Temple at “Jerusalem, Mount Moriah, where the Lord had appeared unto David his father” (2 Chron. 3:1). And as Prof. Dan Bahat told me many years ago in an interview: “I believe that when David founded Jerusalem as his capital, he created a formula: Jerusalem equals city plus people plus God plus dynasty.”

The Temple was the intense focus of Israelite/Jewish practice – notwithstanding the thwarted desire for decentralized worship and the railing of the prophets against sacrifice in the midst of corruption and deceit . The Roman destruction of the Temple sparked a crisis in Jewish faith and practice that was turned into a fateful crossroads by sages like Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakkai, who said that Temple sacrifice and worship could be represented by “deeds of love, as it is said [Hosea 6:6] for I desire loving-kindness, and not sacrifice” (Avot de Rabbi Natan 4). And yet, the rebuilding of the Temple continued to flicker in various sources over the centuries.

Stones that fell from the Western Wall at the moment of its destruction by the Romans. Photo: Wikimedia Commons.

Fast forward to the modern era, and the secular Zionist movement, which espoused an essentially practical project – the return of the Jewish people to their ancestral land. Even so, it couched its philosophy in messianic terms of redemption. According to comparative-religion expert Dr. Tomer Persico, Israel’s visionary first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, believed that Jewish sovereignty over the Temple Mount would preclude “the fulfillment of Zionism’s progressive worldview.” Persico, among others, has noted that Zionism sought to make use of the idea of a rebuilt Temple, but to clothe it in secularity –  national home, yes; Temple, no. The relatively recent movement by nationalist Orthodox people to ascend to the Temple Mount, and the outcry in those selfsame circles about the method of the government’s resolution of the current crisis, are a sign – which can be either worrisome or joyful depending on who you ask – that this dichotomy may be failing.

Christian pilgrims devoted to the site often ask me why Moshe Dayan “gave up” the Temple Mount after capturing it in the Six-Day War. “What do I need all this Vatican for,” is one version of a statement widely quoted as Dayan’s answer to that question. Indeed, after the Six-Day War, with Israel in virtual possession of the holiest place in Judaism and third holiest place in Islam, and as a political decision rather than a purely religious one, the Chief Rabbinate of Israel forbade Jews to visit the Temple Mount. The reason given: we are currently in too impure a state to set foot on the holy ground. Mainstream Orthodoxy still holds to this view, although the debate in the nationalist Orthodox milieu has grown heated in recent years. Actually, the decision was meant to keep the lid on an clearly volatile religious powder keg. As Dr. Sarina Chen, an expert on this issue, has pointed out: “Both camps believe the Temple Mount possesses cosmic sanctity stemming from the place itself, and both sides call upon ancient rabbinic sources, regarding the hierarchy of sanctity and impurity…”

As for Christianity and the Temple Mount, Jesus’ relationship with the Temple spanned literally his entire life according to the New Testament. As the first-born son he was presented in the Temple; at age 12 he accompanied his parents there on the Passover pilgrimage; the devil dared Jesus to jump from the Temple’s “pinnacle”; on Hanukkah he taught in the temple courts; he prophesied the Temple’s destruction and perhaps most famously of all, he overturned the tables of the moneychangers in the Temple courts. Christian texts, John 4:21 for example, seem to regard the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross as replacing sacrifice in the Temple and the Temple itself. Yet over time, many Christians have come to look forward to the rebuilding of the temple as an essential harbinger of Jesus’ return; some see political unrest as part of that process. This is but one example of the complexities of Christian views on the Temple, surveyed in an article by Oded Irshay that you’ll find in the reading list below. According to legend, when Christians first ruled Jerusalem they maintained the Temple Mount as a heap of garbage and rubble. But as time went on, Jerusalem was seen as key to the End of Days, and the rebuilt Temple actually became essential to that vision. Over the past two decades or so, this has led to a confluence of interests that brings thousands of Christians annually to the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, which teaches about the laws regarding the rebuilding of the Temple and hints broadly of its desire to bring that about. Ironically, the Temple Institute might be one of the few places anywhere where a devout Christian and an Orthodox Jew might meet, both geographically and ideologically.

And what about Islam’s views of the Temple Mount? The rock where Abraham offered his son, and from which in Islamic tradition Mohammed ascended to heaven, now crowned with the Dome of the Rock, is their third holiest site after Mecca and Medina. One of their many names for the esplanade is Al Aqsa, after the eponymous mosque on the Mount.

The devotion of Islam to Jerusalem and the Temple Mount has been in evidence for centuries. Islamic tradition has a specific genre of praise literature going back to the seventh and eight centuries called Fada’il Bayt al-Maqdis (“Praises of Jerusalem”). Jerusalem is not mentioned specifically by that name in the Koran, yet in this genre and in other literature it holds an essential place in the Islamic view of final judgement, redemption, resurrection, heaven and hell.  And speaking of names, one of Islam’s names for Jerusalem is Bayt al-Maqdes, from the Hebrew Beit Hamikdash, which means Temple.

One such tradition, cited by the 11th-century  Ibn al-Muragga, and quoted by Ofer Livne-Kafri (another source in the list below), clearly links up to Christian beliefs. It expresses the idea that the hour of resurrection “will not come until seven walls of precious stones, gold, silver, clouds, and light are set around Jerusalem.” In another place, Ibn al-Muragga writes that God will send winds that will “uncover every stone and building and they will purify them from all the damages of men. Then he will build around it seven walls: a wall of light, upon which are the angels of holiness, and a wall of clouds and a wall of topaz and a wall of sapphire and a wall of pearls and a wall of silver and a wall of gold,” going on to mention that at that time Jesus will appear in Jerusalem.

From the same source, Livne-Kafri shows us inspiration from Judaism: “Rejoice, Jerusalem and the Rock … and it is called the Temple…and I shall restore bayta l-maqdisto its former sovereignty (mulk) and I shall crown it with gold and silver and pearls, and I shall send to you my people, and I shall place my throne on the Rock, and I am God, the Lord, and David is the king of the sons of Israel.”

It’s all so complicated and so fraught that I can only end with hope, and a return to sources of spiritual sustenance of my own faith. In the words of Isaiah 2:1-3: “Now it shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established on the top of the mountains…and all nations shall flow to it …” and Micah 4:3-4: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”




Recommended Reading


Chen, S. “Visiting the Temple Mount: Taboo or Mitzvah” Modern Judaism 34, 1. February 2014, pp. 27–41.


Feinberg Vamosh, M. 2010. “Meaning of the Mount.”


Grabar, O. and Kedar, B.Z. 2009. Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Jerusalem’s Sacred Esplanade. Jerusalem.


Irshay. O. 1996.  “The New Testament Temple.” Eretz. May–June 1996, pp. 30–35.  


Livne-Kafri, O. “Jerusalem in Early Islam: the Eschatological Aspect,”

Arabica, T. 53, Fasc. 3 (Jul., 2006), pp. 382-403.


Marx, D. “The Missing Temple: The Status of the Temple in Jerusalem in Jewish Culture following Its Destruction. European Judaism 46, 2: 2013: 61–78.


Persico, T. 2014. “Why rebuilding the Temple Would be the End of Judaism as we Know It.”


“Tunnel Visions.” 1996. An interview with Prof. Dan Bahat. Eretz, May–June 1996, pp. 7–8.



The Ghost Writing of All Time

“What is history? Wars, victory, and wars. So many dead. So many tears. So little regret, so many fears”  – Abraham Joshua Heschel

A recent discovery in the laboratories of Tel Aviv University has revealed ancient Hebrew words hiding on an already famous piece of pottery, the university announced last month in a story picked up by media worldwide. Kudos to the scientists who brought those words to light, using multispectral image acquisition. Or, to quote that ancient sherd’s writer – greetings to their households and blessings on them.

Arad ostracon no. 16 with the new lines of text newly discovered by a Tel Aviv University team. Courtesy of Tel Aviv University.

The newly discovered words – about 17 of them – were found on a potsherd, part of a group known as the Elyashiv ostraca, discovered 50 years ago in the Negev desert fortress of Arad and inked some 2,600 years ago. The article announcing the discovery, published last month in the journal PLoS 1, says the revelation shows how important it is to thoroughly document such finds with the advanced technique the team used, rather than a standard digital camera or even by infrared. They are so fragile, and we may not always have them with us.

Soon I’ll ask you to don your mind’s multispectral lens to read between the lines, too. But first, a little about what the sherd is and what we now know it says. Known to scholars as sherd no. 16, it’s one of over 100 Hebrew inscriptions, written during the sixth-century BCE Babylonian siege of Judah, which included the city of Arad where it was found a half-century ago. A name they mention more than once is Elyashiv, commander or quartermaster of the Arad fortress; they mostly bear instructions from his superiors to supply grain, wine, oil and even military reinforcements.

Tel Arad, view of the ruins. Courtesy of the Israel Ministry of Tourism

According to the Tel Aviv University research team, the three new lines, found on the back of the sherd, were written to Elyashiv from one Hananyahu, asking about wine, oil and silver (money), offering to send anything Elyashiv needs, and mentioning a measure of sparkling (!) wine transported by a man named Ge’aliyahu.

A new reading, made possible by the Tel Aviv team, of two words in the first line on the sherd’s front side, thought to have been fully deciphered by earlier scholars, shows that Hananyahu and Elyashiv were not only superior and underling as previously surmised, but also personally close: “Your friend Hananyahu send greetings to (you) Elyashiv and to your household. I bless (you) by Yahweh.”

Scholars say the sherds were written just before the destruction of Judah and the Jerusalem Temple by the Babylonians – during one of Nebuchadnezzar’s incursions, possibly in 598 BCE or 587 BCE, or as late as the time of the Temple’s destruction a decade later.

When I take visitors to the Judahite sanctuary in the desert at Arad, there’s all that history to cover (hopefully in the shade) – and now, even more to tell. But a high point is when we open our Bibles to Psalm 137:7. “Remember, O Lord, against the sons of Edom, The day of Jerusalem, who said, “Raze it, raze it, to its very foundation!”

Boundaries of biblical kingdoms in the Holy Land. Wikipedia.

It’s believed that Psalm 137 was written right after Judah’s destruction by the Babylonians, an event in which scholars tell us the Edomites took part, possibly even destroying Arad itself. The Edomites then occupied Judah, and the region to the south eventually became what the Romans called Idumaea, from the word Edom.

The Edomites and the Israelites were closely related through their ancestors, twin brothers Jacob and Esau – Esau became Edom and Jacob became Israel. And as it turns out they despised each other even before the famous mess-of-pottage and birthright fiasco – right back in Rebekkah’s womb. Because of their relationship, the Israelites were forbidden to hate the Edomites (Deut. 23:7). You wouldn’t know it, though, with all the furious and vengeful verses the Bible flings at them (among them Psalms 60:8 and 108:9, Obadiah 1:1–16; Ezek 35:15). And Edom gave Israel plenty of cause over the centuries (Num. 20:17, 2 Chron. 28:17, 2 Kings 24:2). But there’s nothing worse than a feuding family; we need the Bible for many things, but not to tell us that. Eventually “Edom” morphed into the most convenient name for “the enemy,” back in the day, whether Romans or ancient Christianity.

The Arad sherds are a treasure trove to scholars for many reasons. And now, the  recent study’s highlighting of sherd no. 16  can lead back to consideration of the names it bears, known from before and particularly significant because of their Hebrew meanings: Hananyahu (“God grant mercy”), Elyashiv (“God restore”), Azaryahu (“God help”), (Ge’alyahu “God redeem”). All soldiers or servants of soldiers. All no doubt hoping someday to go home to their families.

In “Tourists,” the Israeli poet Yehuda Amichai urges us to think of modern-day Jerusalemites when we marvel at the antiquities among which they live. Let’s take his advice and ponder the ancients behind the stones as well. This landscape is so thickly littered with remnants of the past. The builders of the ramparts, fortresses, palaces and temples, and their destroyers, are all ghosts now. Specters, now brought alive by multispectral screening. Unfortunately, there’s no cutting-edge technology to screen our souls to find something ghost-written there, other than the enmity in which we so stubbornly persist, for others and even for our own. If there were, that right there might be our mercy, our restoration, our help, our redemption. And our Independence Day as well.


To learn more, check out these sources

Yohanan Aharoni. Three Hebrew Ostraca from Arad. Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research No. 197, Feb.; 1970, pp. 16–42.

Yehuda Amichai. “Tourists.”

Elie Assis, Why Edom? On hostilility towards Jacob’s brother in Prophetic Sources, Vetus Testamentum Vol. 56, Fasc. 1 (Jan., 2006), pp. 1–20.

Shira Faigenbaum-Golovin Anat Mendel-Geberovich, Arie Shaus, Barak Sober, Michael Cordonsky, David Levin, Murray Moinester, Benjamin Sass, Eli Turkel, Eli Piasetzky Israel Finkelstein. Multispectral imaging reveals biblical-period inscription unnoticed for half a century,

Feinberg-Vamosh, Miriam, The Scroll.,

Heschel, Abraham Joshua, The Prophets, Vol. 1. New York: Harper Colophon, 1962.

Schuster, Ruth, Inscription Found on First Temple-era Pottery in Jerusalem, Ruth Schuster, Haaretz English Edition,


It’s About Then, it’s About Now, it’s About Time



Disaster, success, gleaning, growing


How will this turn out? Will some cataclysmic event occur while it’s underway? What will it mean for our future? Those are the questions we’ve been asking ourselves these days, that’s for sure, but no, they have nothing to do with the recent presidential visit. They are the same questions people have been asking themselves at this season in this part of the world (and not only) for thousands of years. The season? Between Passover and Pentecost, the time of the Counting of the Omer. Omer is the Hebrew word for a measure of grain – equal to about six gallons. In the Holy Land spring, barley and wheat are harvested in the season between Passover and Pentecost. The counting took place over seven weeks, 49 days (Pentecost means “weeks” in Greek).

A grain field at harvest time, near the Yarkon Springs, Israel. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Hope, anticipation, almost unbearable tension, dread – sound familiar?  We all experience them, but they were hallmarks of this season in that biblical counting of the passing days. In later times, mourning rituals became associated with this period, although no one can say for certain why . Nogah Hareuveni, founder of Neot Kedumim Biblical Landscape Reserve, wrote that it was because the weather in the Holy Land is very capricious around now. With everything from the “latter rains” to hail storms and heat waves, these 49 days of the Omer were “ripe” with potential for either disaster or success of the harvest, putting people into a very somber state of mind. That’s why the Bible commands sacrificing part of a successful harvest in thanksgiving.

Granddaughter Eliah, all decked out with her basket of fruits to take to pre-school to celebrate Shavuot/Pentecost. Photo: Maya Dubinsky

According to a fifteenth-century scholar, Rabbi Yitzhak Arama, Psalm 67, which in Hebrew is said to have 49 words – one for each day of the counting – should be recited each day of the Omer. Have a look at this beautiful piece of Hebrew poetry and notice the universalist sentiment it shares.

And speaking of sharing, like Passover, Pentecost is a holiday Judaism and Christianity share – according to Acts 2, the Holy Spirit descended on a group of Jerusalemites from all over the world during this very festival. If you study more about Pentecost/Shavuot in the Hebrew Scriptures, you will doing one of my favorite things: focusing on what unites us instead of what divides us.

Enlargements of Israeli children’s drawings on the walls of Dizengoff Center in Tel Aviv, under the motto: “Embracing our Differences.” Psalm 67 tells us that whatever our differences, we’re all in this together. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Eventually, Jews began associating the Feast of Weeks with the giving of the Ten Commandments on Mt. Sinai, based on the opening verse of Exodus 19, where the words “that same day” seem to mean  the “festival of the giving of the Torah” and the Feast of Weeks/Shavuot/Pentecost coincided on the calendar.


On Shavuot, we read the Book of Ruth in synagogue. Why? One tradition says Ruth and Naomi came from Moab to Bethlehem around this time of year, and Ruth’s accepting the Israelites as her own people recalls the Israelites’ acceptance of the Torah at Mt. Sinai.

The story of Ruth is, among many things, the saga of a widow – one of the most disenfranchised and at-risk members of biblical society – who  leaves home and everything familiar, accompanies her mother-in-law Naomi all the way through the burning desert (a feat in itself, and not only because of the weather…) from Moab east of the Jordan to Naomi’s home in Bethlehem, to embark on a new life.  It is Ruth’s courage and conviction that propel her forward through history, an example to us down to this very day: She  is the ancestress of King David (who, tradition says, died on Shavuot) and as such, earns her place in the genealogy of Jesus (Matt. 1:5).

And as we read of Ruth gleaning in the fields of Boaz, we learn how Boaz obeyed the biblical injunction to leave the corners of his field unshorn so the poor could take this part of the harvest home (Lev. 23:22). “Why are you so kind to me, to single me out, when I am a foreigner?” (Ruth 2:10), Ruth asks Boaz. In expounding on the connection between this story and Leviticus 23:22, Prof. Judith A. Kates says in the wonderful book Reading Ruth: “Ruth is relying on one of the fundamental principles of Torah law…Leviticus makes it clear that we should understand this obligation as a mode of connection to God…acknowledging that what we have is ultimately a gift to be shared.”

Don’t you agree?

Happy Shavuot/Happy Pentecost!


Recommended Reading

Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, Food at the Time of the Bible: From Adam’s Apple to the Last Supper (Herzliya, Israel: Palphot, n.d.)

Nogah Hareuveni, Nature in our Biblical Heritage (Kiryat Ono, Israel: Neot Kedumim, 1980)

Judith A. Kates and Gail Twersky Reimer (eds.), Reading Ruth (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994)

Bench-pressing a Buick and other Strengths

Ten Tips to Getting Through a Medical Crisis

On May 10, 2014, we entered a long, dark tunnel, after a careless driver rammed head-on into Arik’s car as he was taking his mom home. In the aftermath, we found ourselves clinging to the tunnel walls with every light in the distance presaging another oncoming train. You can read some of the details, in my blog post “Of Almonds and Analgesics.”  Suffice it to say it included several departments at two different hospitals for both Arik and his mom. And since Arik is already a wounded warrior, well, use your imagination to fill in the blanks.

My usual blog is filled with biblical references. This time, I’m keeping it to one: “consider the ant” (Prov. 6:6). When you get to the end of this blog, see how the ant I filmed helped me interpret those words. Wow, did she know a thing or two about bearing a burden.

It’s been 28 months, two surgeries and several crises since the accident and Arik is on the road to recovery. I hope others in our situation, working toward recovery, will find these ten tips helpful. But don’t think we consistently did the things on the list below – most are things we wished we had done, or done better.

I don't know first said this, but it went right on our "encouragement wall" (see below)

I don’t know who first said this, but it went right on our “encouragement wall” (see below)

  1. Vent

Tell everyone who’ll listen what happened – family, neighbors you know and those you don’t, friends near and far. It helps.  One of my friends said I complain all the time, and another one said I don’t complain enough. Both were true. But stoic, silent suffering – definitely out.


  1. Connect and Delegate

Reach out for practical help! Among the above mentioned neighbors, friends, family etc., find the experts – especially those with either professional or personal experience – to rely on for advice. And among them find people your beloved patient feels at home with who can provide comfort and/or casseroles, do errands and even spell you for a few hours.


  1. You know yourselves best

Do you want visitors? If so, make sure you tell people to come – some won’t know otherwise. I posted on our community Facebook page, and it worked! But you’ll have to be able to set limits. For 18 months or so, Arik was only allowed to be up for two hours a day. That was hard when he was having a good time with friends.  Caregiver: you might have to be the sergeant at arms.


  1. Speak up

As a long-time paraplegic, Arik knew he should have been more insistent when asking about external fixation for his broken legs. But it was a short trip from the emergency room to the operating room on the night of the accident, and we weren’t exactly focused. Sure enough, there they were sticking out of his legs the next morning. That led to other complications. The nurse’s cheerful announcement the day after the fixations were installed that he could “get up and sit in a chair today!” was somewhat ironic, as he’s been sitting in a chair (a wheelchair) for 42 years.


  1. Acquire your own expertise

We can’t all invent Lorenzo’s Oil. But I would never have found Dr. Moti, the plastic surgeon who cared so skillfully for Arik’s pressure sore and brought him back from quite a dangerous place, if not for Google. And when you find an expert, don’t be afraid to cold-call him/her. Seeking out online support groups is one of the many pieces of good advice given by Constance Gustke in her recent New York Times article, “Love and Burnout” about the risk of caregiver burnout.


  1. Bite your tongue

You’re closer to the patient than anyone. Mostly that will put you directly in the line of fire of your patient’s frustration and anger (and him/her in yours). Remember, they don’t mean it. One day, maybe after a long night in the emergency room or after a long wait for the home-care nurse, Arik said to me: “@#$*$#^#&@!.” Well, you can imagine, that was unacceptable, and so I said right back:  “#^%*%**@#^$%~@+!”  What a toxic waste of energy for both of us.


  1. Say what you think

That might seem like a contradiction with No. 5, but the boundaries of civility have got to be maintained. Someday he/she will get better, and you don’t want too much to be sorry for. If your beloved patient exceeds those boundaries, tell them. Just try not to say: “#^%*%**@#^$%~@+!”


  1. The new normal

At some point around the end of month 14, things began to look particularly bleak for moi, the caregiver-spouse, what with the daily bandaging, a full-time job (thankfully, I was able to  work from home), grandmother stuff, cooking and serving three meals a day to the patient, etc. Even with the help of Lea, the incomparable caregiver the Israeli government provides Arik as a wounded warrior, some days it seemed like too much. Our family doctor referred me for a talk with our community social worker. “This is your new normal. You have to make a new contract,” she said.  And that’s what we did. It doesn’t have to be written out or even spoken. But it does have to be the goal.


  1. Baby steps – don’t knock them

On the road to recovery, “small” achievements are so important: On our first Hanukkah after the accident Arik wanted to make latkes and he did! As a writer I know I should use more exciting verbs than “make” and “wanted.” But after spending most of the first 8 months in bed, making latkes is a wonderful achievement. So is building Lego with your granddaughter and a million other little things we take for granted.

Month 7 of recuperation; enjoying everything important in life at that moment.

Month 8 of recuperation; enjoying everything important in life at that moment.


  1. Ommm….

As a caregiver stress is a constant companion. Send it packing by doing whatever works for you: prayer, meditation, reading Psalms, exercise, breathe, walk, run, swim, watch NatGeo Wild, the waves or the sunset. This is not pampering; it’s essential for your health; as Gustke pointed out, caregivers can suffer from a weakened immune system and the results can be disastrous. I didn’t really know what whooping cough or pleuritis even were…until I got them. One thing I liked for us to do is focus on the pictures of family and words of love on the encouragement wall I placed opposite Arik’s bed.

Our encouragement wall opposite Arik's bed. Sometimes it helped just to focus on the messages we placed there.

Our encouragement wall opposite Arik’s bed. Sometimes it helped just to focus on the messages we placed there.

  1. Tomorrow

In our situation, where recovery was a matter of months – oops, we thought it was going to be months, now we’re more open-ended in our expectations ­– at the end of the particularly bad days, I try to close the day by sharing with Arik what became one of our most valuable, and empirical, lessons: Tomorrow will be better.



And now, as promised, below: click on the clip and consider… the ant

Point Taken

A Defiant, Prickly, Holy Land Plant with a Message for Then and Now


Let’s start with a riddle for cooks: What biblical plant might you use regularly without knowing it appears in the Bible? If you saw it in a jar, you’d probably recognize it, I tell people when I point it out, for example on a hike up to the David Spring at En Gedi. It thrives among the rock terraces around my Judean Mountains home of Har Adar, in the desert and among the stones in the Western Wall, and makes a perfect end-of-summer botanical tale. The answer is – the caper.

Capers as most people know them best...pickled in a bottle.

Capers as most people know them best…pickled in a bottle.

The caper (Capparis spinosa), appears by name only once in Scripture, in Ecclesiastes 12:5, in a dour reference to old age, when “the caperberry shall fail.” But Rabbi Gamaliel, Paul’s teacher, was otherwise inspired by the caper. Looking at Ezekiel’s vision of messianic times when “trees will put out branches and bear fruit” (Ezek. 17:23), he deduced that “not only would it put out a new branch every day, but new fruit every day as well (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 30b). His example? The caper. True, Rabbi G.! The caper bushes I passed on my summer morning walks produced new flowers every day. A single hot summer day is enough to shrivel them, leaving behind a nascent fruit.

A caper bush growing out of a wall in my neighborhood.

A caper bush growing out of a wall in my neighborhood.

The caper bush is also known for its small, mean thorns, the source of one of the plant’s Hebrew names: tzalaf. That brings us to another intriguing connection.  Numbers 27:1–8 tells us about the five brother-less daughters of Zelophahad, who came to Moses asking that they be allowed to inherit land just as sons could. In making their case to Moses, the women mention that their father had “died in his own sins” (Num. 27:1).

Wilting caper flowers

Wilting caper flowers.

What were these? The Bible doesn’t say, but leave it to Rabbi Akiva to fill in the blank. Zelophahad – Tzalaf-khad in Hebrew, he says, means “sharp caper.”  Nogah Hareuveni, founder of Neot Kedumim, the Biblical Landscape Reserve, explained that Rabbi Akiva (Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 96b)  believed Zelophahad’s name identified him as the man God ordered put to death for gathering kindling on the Sabbath (Num. 15:32–36). That’s because Rabbi Akiva, a shepherd before his career change, would have spent more than his share of rainy winter days in pastures where dry kindling was hard to come by. But nearby would have been plenty of capers, which thrive  in the dry summer, go bone dry in the winter.


The downward thorns that flank each caper leaf appear in an allegory in the ancient Jewish source Genesis Rabba and in various versions in other cultures. They starred in the coded message second-century leader Rabbi Joshua Ben Hananyah gave to his people, to stick to moderation despite growing Roman oppression. He told a story about a lion gagging on a caper stalk, which the king  of beasts cannily persuades a passing crane to extract using its long beak. What was in it for the crane? Suffice it to say that no version of this allegory ends well for the bird.

Sculpture, wolf playing the part of the lion, by Stefan Horota, 1968, in the Berlin's Treptower Park. Wikipedia.

Sculpture, wolf playing the part of the lion, by Stefan Horota, 1968, in Berlin’s Treptower Park. Wikipedia.

My favorite caper image comes from another second-career, second-century sage: the former gladiator Resh Lakish. He said:  “Three are distinguished in strength: Israel among the nations, a dog among the animals, a rooster among the birds, and some say the goat among cattle, and some say even the caper among the trees” (Babylonian Talmud, Beitza 25b).

And from the metaphorical point to literal and back again: May all among us  facing the shallow soil of challenge and adversity these days bloom and thrive through it all, like a caper out of the rock.

Caper fruit and thorns.

Caper fruit and thorns.










More reading:

Chana Bracha Siegelbaum

Noga Hareuveni, Trees and Shrubs in our Biblical Heritage. 



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.

“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.

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.






Review of The Scroll by David Bivin of Jerusalem Perspective

Honored to have The Scroll featured on Jerusalem Perspective.  Subscribers to my website are entitled to a 20% discount on purchase through the publisher. Please contact me and I’ll send you a discount code to insert when purchasing!

A Gripping New Novel about Jews and Christians in First-century Israel