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Beit Al Maqdas, The House of Prayer for All Nations that Omar Built– Part I



We have learned in Seder Eliyahu Rabbah (Chapter 28, ed. Friedman, p. 149):

Once Rabbi Zadok (late 1st c.) entered the Temple and saw it destroyed. He said: My father who is in heaven, You destroyed Your city and burned Your Temple and yet you sat by tranquilly and remained silent…on another occasion, Rabbi Natan (early 2nd c.) entered the Temple and found the Temple destroyed but for one wall still standing.

Tosefta Berakhot (6:2, ed. Lieberman, p. 33 and parallels):

Ben Zoma (early 2nd c.), when he saw a large mass of Jews on the Temple Mount, used to say: Blessed is He who created all the people to serve me….”

Yerushalmi (Pesahim 7:11, ed. Venice 35b):

Said R Yohanan ben Maryah (4th c. Israel) in the name of R Pinhas : From the fact that we see the sages removing their sandals under the portals of the wall (surrounding the) Temple Mount, we can drive that under the portal was not sanctified.

R Pinhas is saying that since the sages took off their sandals under the portal according to the law that it is forbidden to enter the Mount wearing shoes (Berakhot 9:5), the portal is therefore not part of the Temple Mount. From here we can deduce that the sages of that period did indeed enter the Temple Mount on a regular basis.


The Christian Pilgrim of Bordeaux, who was in Jerusalem around the year 333 CE, relates that the Jews used to come to the Temple Mount every year on the Ninth of Av in order to recite lamentations over the Temple ruins and to rend their garments. He adds that next to two monuments of Hadrian there was a perforated stone upon which the Jews used to pour oil 1].


The Muslim Conquest of Palestine

At the time of the Muslim conquest of the Levant, a large Jewish population still lived in Palestine (see for instance the question posed in JT Demai 22c on whether  most of Eretz Yisrael is in the hands of the gentiles  or whether the greater part is in the hands of Israel). We do not know whether they formed a majority but we may assume with some certainty that they did so when grouped with the Samaritans. Significant Jewish population in places like Acre, Haifa, Sephoris  and Eilat (Ayla) are attested to directly and indirectly by Christian and Muslim sources such as Procopius and the anonymous tract “The Didaskalia of Jacob, the Recently Baptized”  (On Sephorris, there is the famous statement that Muhammed is said to have made to Uqba b. Ali, a descendant of Umaya: “You are a Jew from the Jews of Sephoris”).

In the biography of the monk-soldier Bar Sawma who was active in the area in the 5th c., it is told that the Jews and Samaritans virtually governed the land and they persecuted the Christians. Bar Sawma led a campaign against this Jewish-Samaritan front, presumably with the assistance of a Byzantine army. The Jewish-Samaritan forces were said to have consisted of 15,000 armed men. The Jews were defeated and Bar Sawma describes the ensuing destruction on the Jewish towns and villages. On one Synagogue in the city of Reqem of Gaya (Petra) he remarks “it could bear comparison only to Solomon’s Temple”.

In about the year 425, the Jews of the Galilee and its surroundings applied to the empress Eudocia to permit them to pray on the ruins of Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem, as they had forbidden to do so since Constantine. The empress relented. The author of the aforementioned biography cites a letter purportedly written by the Jews of Galilee to the Jewish communities in Rome and Persia:

To the great and elevated nation of the Jews, from the Priest and Head of Galilee, many greetings. Ye shall know that the time of the dispersion of our people is at an end, and from now onwards the say of our congregation and salvation has come, for the Roman kings have written a decree to hand over our city of Jerusalem to us. Therefore come quickly to Jerusalem for the coming holiday of Sukkot, for our kingdom is established in Jerusalem.

And indeed 103,000 Jews came and gathered in Jerusalem but they were struck by calamity where –in the biographer’s version ‘big stones rained from the sky’ whereas the Jews complained to the empress that they were attacked by hostile monks.

Some historians have understandably cast doubt on the version of events cited there. Some have cast serious doubt on the stories relating to the Jews since he lived a century after the events described. Moshe Gil retorts that “this is a facile way of dismissing ancient sources. We must not disregard or refute their contents even if they appear legendary in character, they still retain a germ of historical truth” 2].

There were no less then four Samaritan revolts against Byzantine rule from the year 484 to 555.

The period preceding the Arab conquest was undoubtedly a period of decline and internal disintegration of the Byzantine Empire. After a series of assassinations and wars with Persians and Longobards, a new Emperor gained the throne of Byzantium in 610, Heraclius. But the longed for peace would be short-lived as the Persians renewed their campaign against the Empire. In this the Persians were aided in no small part by their Jews as well as the Jews they encountered along the way. Jews fought in the Persian army and according to one contemporary chronicle, they were so influential as to gain exemption from fighting on the Sabbath.

The Jews, both the locals and the ones who joined the Persians in the conquest of Jerusalem in 614 CE, did not treat the city’s Christians with magnanimity. According to Christian accounts Jews destroyed churches and put to death Christians who would not convert to Judaism. One of the more famous Jewish personages of that time and place was a certain wealthy Jews named Benjamin of Tiberias. The Jews exulted at the liberation of the city from Byzantine hands. A trove of artifacts were recently discovered dating back from that period. A verse from Isaiah was found scrawled on a stone on the mount. Jews cautiously celebrated their victory and as mentioned may have resumed Temple sacrifices for the first time since the Bar Kokhba revolt– but alas it was to be short-lived.

Heraclius eventually regrouped, forming powerful alliances with the sworn enemies of the Persians (such as the Khazars). A bloody battle ensued. It lasted from 622 to 628 with Byzantium once again in control of the Holy Land.

Revenge was swift and bloody. Heraclius’s edict of apostasy resulted in a wave of conversions and martyrdom (the Samaritan Chronicle The Tolida- a Samaritan Chronicle records a great number of people crucified among the Samaritans as well). Interestingly enough, Heraclius’ persecution of the Jews is still commemorated to this day by the Coptic Church which holds an official fast day of the carnival (that is the great fast before Easter). It is intended to beg God’s pardon for the Emperor Heraclius for having permitted the slaughter of the Jews in 628.

But the Byzantine sun was setting as the crescent  was ascending from the south.


It is erroneous to think that the natives of the levant in particular welcomed the Arabs with open arms as kindred brothers. Gil takes pains to point out that arguments as to racial affinity are exaggerated at best: “there are some among contemporary arab savants (although fanciful tales which clearly attempt to respresent this sentiment appear early, see for instance Baladhuri who relates that the Jews of Homs swore an oath on the Torah scrolls that they would not let Heraclius back into the city and pledged their loyalty to the Muslim forces) who see an ethnic motivation behind the conquests. They see Arabs everywhere…the Cannanites and Phillistines are Arabs according to their theories. This applies to an even greater degree to the population of Syria and Palestine in the seventh century, who were certainly Semites. Thus, according to their claims, the conquering Arab forces, in the course of their battles, actually encountered their own people or at least members of their own race who spoke the same language (see for instance Hitti, History, 143). This is of couse a very distorted view: Semitism is not a race and relates to the sphere of language. The populations in the cities and countryside along the route of battle were not arabs and neither did they speak Arabic. We do know of Bedouin tribes who inhabited the southern desert of Palestine, west of the Eurphrates in the Syrian desert, Palmyra and elsewhere, But the cultivated inner regions were inhabited by Jews and Christians who spoke Aramaic. They did not sense any special ties to the Beduin; of anything the opposite was true. The proximity and danger of an invasion from that quarter disturbed their peace of mind and this is amply reflected both in the writings of the Church Fathers and in Talmudic sources (on early Rabbinic attitudes towards Arabs, see BT Kettubot 66b and 72b; Taaniot ii 69b and Lamentations Rabba [Buber]108).

The first incursion commenced in 629. While in Arabia Muhammed often pursued a brutal policy of dispossession and wholesale slaughter against the ‘non-believers’ he quickly learned that it would do him well to adopt a wiser policy. He made treaties with towns in the south of Palestine. His treaty with the people of Maqna (a town near Eilat) explicitly references the Jews:

To the sons of Hanina, who are Jews of Maqna…your security is ensured and you are granted God’s protection and that of his one will do you injustice and harm.. you will owe a quarter of your date harvest and quarter of your fishing yield..if you will listen and obey, the messenger of God will respect the honorable amongst you…there will be no chief over you other than one of you or one of the messengers of God’s people. And peace.

At Mohammed’s death in June of 632, the campaign as continued by Abu Bakr and the leader of the forces Usama b Zayd.

In 638, the city of Jerusalem fell. The commander of the armies was the Caliph Umar Ibn Al Khattab who ascended to the throne four years earlier.

On who stood at the helm of the Muslim forces and why it may not have been Umar after all but rather an underling. Professor Moshe Sharon of Hebrew University writes in his work The Shape of the Holy:

Islamic tradition ascribes the conquest of Jerusalem to a number of glorified Muslim rulers, but in all likelihood this to be a fabrication, saying Jerusalem capitulated to a minor commander out of choice rather than necessity.

The tradition about its conquest was shaped at least a century after the event took place and it was no longer possible for the first association of Islam with Jerusalem to remain mundane.
On Jewish ascription of the fall of Jerusalem to a mighty ruler,  see BT gittin 56b

In Tabari, Umar is said to have granted the residents of Jerusalem (who were all Christians) a writ of protection which included the proviso continuing the ban on Jewish residence in Jerusalem. Goiten casts doubt on the veracity of that covenant (as we shall soon see).

Ibn Asaqir quotes a strange version from Waqidi, according to which an agreement was made with the Jews who were in Jerusalem, 20 in number, and their leader being Joseph bin Nun (?). The number 20 is interesting as it figures later with the number of Jews assigned for work on the Temple Mount. Other sources mention the clause in the treaty concluded between the conquering forces and the Christians, namely that no Jews should be able to reside in the city.


1.] All pre-Arab Rabbinic quotes are reproduced from Rabbi David Golinkin, A Responsum Regarding Entering the Temple Mount in Our Day, CONSERVATIVE JUDAISM, Volume XLVII, Number 3, Spring 1966

2] Moshe Gil, Palestine p. 3

That Time When The Kohen Gadol Was Pelted With Etrogim (to death?)

At my other blog

Sukkot, Bar Kokhba’s Favorite Holiday

elazarbarco coin  0 R kaysh

The coin on the right is of special interest and historical value. It was minted during the third and last year of the Jewish revolt against Rome (year 134/135 CE). Lulav holder with 3 Minim and Etrog on his left. Hebrew inscription around – For the Freedom of Jerusalem.

This arrangement follows (unsurprisingly) the opinion of Rabbi Akiva in the Mishna (1.

Also interesting to note, the sort of basket that is meant for holding all the species together. This is still followed by Ashkenazim.

The first coin depicts a palm tree and the legend: Elazar the High Priest. Many scholars identify him with Elazar Hamodai who was, according to the Talmud, an uncle of Bar Kokhba.

What’s interesting about this coin is that the writing is in Paleo-Hebrew while R’ Elazar championed the superiority of the ‘modern’ Assyrian script (2.

It seems that Jewish nationalists (this is evident from Maccabean coins as well) actually deemed the older script to be more authentic –and the reintroduction of this script, at such a late date, may have been part of a nationalist revival on the part of Bar Kokhba.

The fragment is part of a letter written by Bar Kokhba to a district commander requesting the immediate delivery of four species to supply his troops for the  upcoming Sukkot holiday.

This is the text of the letter:

ליהודה בר מנשה לקרית ערביה. שלחת לך תרי חמרין די תשלח עמהן תרי גברין לות יהונתן בר בעין ולות מסבלה די יעמרן, וישלחן למחניה לותך ללבין ואתרגין. ואת שלח אחרנין מלותך וימטון לך הדסין וערבין. ותקן יתהן ושלח יתהן למחניה בדיל די אכלסה סגי. הוא שלם.

וזה תרגומה העברי:

שורה א: ליהודה בר מנשה מקריית ערביה. שלחתי לך שני חמורים כדי שתשלח
שורה ב: עמהם שני אנשים אצל יהונתן בן בעיה ואצל מסבלה כדי שיעמיסו
שורה ג: וישלחו למחנה אצלך לולבים ואתרוגים. ואתה שלח אחרים מאצלך
שורה ד: ויביאו לך הדסים וערבות והתקן אותם ושלח אותם למחנה מפני
שורה ה: שהצבא רב(.) היה שלום


Shimeon to Yehudah bar Menashe in Qiryath ‘Arabaya.
I have sent to you two donkeys, and you must send with them two men to Yehonathan, son of Be’ayan and to Masabala, in order that they shall pack and send to the camp, towards you, palm branches and citrons. And you, from your place, send others who will bring you myrtles and willows. See that they are tithed and sent them to the camp. The request is made because the army is big. Be well.


במשנה סוכה פרק ג משנה ד אומר רבי ישמעאל שיש לקחת למצווה זו אתרוג אחד, לולב אחד, שלושה הדסים ושתי ערבות. רבי עקיבא חולק עליו וסובר שמכל מין יש לקחת אחד, אך דעתו של רבי ישמעאל נפסקה להלכה. מטבע עתיק מימי בר כוכבא מראה את ארבעת המינים לפי שיטתו של רבי עקיבא, שכנראה רווחה בזמנו

רבי שמעון בן אלעזר אומר משום רבי אליעזר בן פרטא שאמר משום רבי אלעזר המודעי: כתב זה לא נשתנה כל עיקר, שנאמר )שמות כ”ז( ווי העמודים; מה עמודים לא נשתנו – אף ווים לא נשתנו.
סנהדרין כב א

Was There Ever A Karaite Community in Hebron?

This past summer found me working on an archaeological dig in the West Bank Biblical city of Hebron. The actual dig took place right adjacent to an ancient run-down graveyard referred to as “the Karaite Cemetery”. The actual area is called Tel Rumeida and in hebrew אדמות ישי Because it is purported to the place where Jesse, father of King David, was buried (an admittedly not unbiased description of the archaeological project here).

Naturally, I ventured over to have a better look but noticed, to my dismay, that the graveyard is not well maintained; it is overgrown with weeds and littered with refuse. It seemed to have suffered the worst abuse while it lay under Jordanian Occupation (’48-’67). A road was paved over part of it and it was obvious that a significant section of it had been permanently eviscerated. In addition- and most importantly for  me-none of the gravestones contained any inscriptions. I looked further in the issue and posted about it here.

Any visitor to the modern Jewish sections of this sometimes tense city will notice a clearly marked legend on the large map -adjacent to Beit Haddasah. The map points to the חלקת הקראים in the ancient Jewish cemetery, referred to as בית העלמין היהודי העתיק.


While Karaites undoubtedly maintained a presence there for many generations very little mention of it is made in the literature describing the site. For instance, Noam Arnon- a leader of the local Jewish community, devotes less than a line to this phenomenon in his history of Hevron see here

At some point I began to look for any and all information about Karaite settlement in the area with scant results. We have substantial information on Karaite communities in Jerusalem but almost nothing that I’ve been able to dig up thus far on Hebron. Save for the following references-which in itself present some difficulty. First something I came across in Sepher Hevron:


The names and descriptions are very interesting to say the least. Sedaka and Shimron don’t seem like common Karaite or Rabbanite names (and even sound vaguely Samaritan…). However ‘Moshe Hasopher’ already sounds familiar. According to the scanty information that we have on the Tiberian Masoretes, one of the early members of the Ben Asher family was named Moshe. What’s more is that he is clearly identified as a scribe and of Tiberian provenance! (although he is also described as stemming from Crimea).

However, I did notice that Crimea is often referred to by its old Greek name, ‘tauris’ or ‘taurica’ which is phonetically similar to Tiberias.

This colophon (which seems to be of Firkovich provenance) doesn’t contribute much to our knowledge of a Karaite (or Rabbanite for that matter) community at Hevron but rather seems to be the handiwork of a Karaite scribe who visited (either from Crimea or Tiberias) the Cave of Machpela and wrote a scroll there to honor the occasion.

The second reference left me scratching my head even more.

This reference comes from Tevuot Haaretz by Rabbi Yosef Schwartz (1804-65):

בשנת 5300 היה שם הרב רבי מלכיאל אשכנזי והוא היה חכם גדול וכתב פסקים הרבה. גם חבר ספר קטן הנקרא על שמו “מלכיאל מגן עדן וגהנם”. (בתשובת מהו”ר שלמה נרבוני, הובא בתשובת מהר”י קאשטרו כ”י סימן קי”ד, כתוב וזה לשונו : ידיע ליהוי שהחכם השלם החסיד והקדוש כבוד מורינו הרב מלכיאל אשכנזי מצא קונטרס חיברו מורינו הרב שמשון ברבי אליעזר מכונה ברוך שאמר, שם הגדולים). והוא יסד ישוב אחינו בני ישראל בחברון וישבו שם אז קראים הרבה. וכל חצר היהודים (כי כמעט כל היהודים יושבי חברון יושבים בחצר אחד גדול מאוד ולו עליות תחתיים שניים ושלישים והבתים והחדרים זה על גבי זה וזה לפנים מזה), ובית הכנסת שעד היום קהל ספרדים, היה להם, וכמדומה שהרב מלכיאל הנזכר לעיל קנה מהם. זה כחמשה ועשרים שנה באו שלוחי קהל קראים מעיר קושטא לדון על בית הכנסת ועל החצר הנזכר לקחתו מיד יושבי העיר באמרם כי להם הוא והם בנוהו, אכן הלכו בפחי נפש ולא הועילו בעלילותיהם.

A.M. Luncz in his annotated edition of Tevuot Haaretz comments:

So It appears that in the year 1540, a Rabbi by the name of Malkiel Ashkenazi (According to Rabbi Yosef Sambari he was an Ashkenazic native of Safed. According to a Geniza fragment, he also had a brother and a sister who resided in Egypt. According to yet another source he was a native of Anatolia and came from a small town in Turkey) purchased properties in Hebron (which is said to have allegedly contained a large Karaite community) from the local Karaites. All was fine and well until the mid 1800s (according to the testimony given by Schwartz) when Karaites from Istanbul, Turkey attempted to reclaim those properties from its Rabbanite owners. They took their case to the local secular authorities who eventually ruled against them and the properties stayed in Rabbanites hands.

This is all exceedingly strange for several reasons:

  1. If there was ever a substantial Karaite community in Hebron, why don’t we hear anything about them? We have information about their brethren in Jerusalem but why do we know next to nothing about their co-religionists at Hebron?
  1. For close to 350 years the ownership of the former abode of the Karaites in Hebron went unchallenged. What made the Karaites suddenly put forth a claim after so much time had elapsed? More importantly, how accurate is Schwartz’s description of these events? Are there any secondary sources that corroborate this? Any documentation? Luncz (see above) calls the story a ‘legend’…

The eminent Genizah scholar, Simcha Assaf in his באהלי יעקב repeats the information first found in Schwartז’s Tevuot Haaretz, adding that when Obadiah of Berinoro (circa 1485) stopped over there there were only Rabbanites residing there. Therefore, coming to the conclusion, that the Karaite settlement there was short-lived:


Avraham Yaari is his seminal Mas`ot erets Yisra’el (Tel-Aviv, 1946) reprints three early modern Karaite travel accounts from an earlier publication by Gurland. These are as follows:
No. 14 Samuel b. David from the Crimea (1641-42), pp. 221ff.
No. 16. Moses b. Elijah Halevi from the Crimea (1654-55), pp. 305ff.
No. 21. Benjamin b. Elijah from the Crimea (1785-86), pp. 459ff.
All three traveler visited Hebron. See pp. 247ff. (Samuel), pp. 316ff. (Moses), and 473-74 (Benjamin). From all three accounts, it is clear that there were no Karaites in Hebron: our travelers dealt exclusively with the tiny Rabbanite community, upon whom they relied for hospitality. It seems that they were well treated and gave gifts/donations. But in Benjamin’s account, we finally get a tantalizing bit of evidence that may connect to Schwartz’s statement; see p. 474, 11 lines from the bottom:
וחנינו בבתי הרבנים, והם בתי הקראים מקודם.
(I am indebted to Prof. Daniel Frank, from Ohio State University, for bringing Ya’ari to my attention).
An additional source, which may of interest, comes from Rabbi Hayyim Yosef David Azulai, known as the HIDA. He writes:
“הרב מלכיאל שבא לחברון והיו מתים הקראים ונכנסים ישראל במקומם”. (זכרון מעשיות ונסים של החיד”א ע’ פג, בתוך ספר החיד”א – קובץ מאמרים ומחקרים. ירושלים תשי”ט).
Does this mean that the Karaite community was composed of elderly residents and as they died out, newly arrived Rabbanites came to take their place? Certainly a possibility, as Jerusalem became a haven for elderly Jews who came on aliya in order to spend their waning years in the holy city. Perhaps Hebron served the same purpose for Karaite Jews during that period?
I scoured through the two volume History of the Karaites תולדות היהדות הקראית by Hakham Yusef Elgamil (a Karaite historian) but only saw scant mention of a Karaite connection to Hebron:
The book also reproduces a photo of some Karaite Jews (it is unclear who the people in the photos are exactly) visiting the Karaite Cemetery in Hebron after its taking by Israeli troops in the ’67 war.
To be sure, Karaite Jews, like all other Jews, revered Hebron as a holy city. They regularly came on pilgrimage and recited special prayers at the Cave of Machpela (in itself interesting as Karaites traditionally shunned gravesite vigils). This for instance is a medieval Karaite prayer to be recited at the cave (from the Karaite Siddur):
A hypothesis may be proposed wherein the Karaite Graveyard does not indicate that there was a long-standing Karaite community in Hebron but rather that Karaites-like their Rabbanite brethren- interred their dead there because of a longstanding belief among Medieval Jews about the spiritual benefits of being buried next to the Cave of Machpela.
A. Avisar, from a family with roots in the city–and the editor of Sepher Hevron writes:
במכתבו לבנו כותב הרמב”ן על רצונו העז “ללכת לחברון, עיר קברות אבותינו, ולחצוב לי קבר בעזרת ה'”. ר’ פתחיה מרגשנבורג, שביקר בחברון בשנת 1180 לערך, מספר כי ראה באלוני ממרא, רחוק משם (ממקום המערה) יושב זקן נוטה למות וכשבא לשם ציווה הזקן לבנו להראות לו, לר’ פתחיה, העץ שנשענו בו המלאכים. מסתבר, שזקנים אשר חשו כי קרובים ימיהם למות, היו באים אל חברון ומצפים שם למותם, כשבניהם משמשים לפניהם, על מנת שיהא סיפק בידי בניהם לקברם בחברון.
עוד לפני ביקורו של ר’ פתחיה אנו עדים לן משפחה מיוחסת, הידוע בשם “גוליב הזקן הצדיק” אשר “מנוחתו עם אבות עולם”, היינו בקרבת מערת
המכפלה שבחברון. ומתוך קלופון למקרא כת הקראים שמסוף המאה י”ב מסתבר, כי הכמיהה להקבר בחברון הייתה נחלתם של רבים רחוקים. עדותו של הנוסע המהימן ר’ בנימין מטודילה, שביקר בחברון בשנת 1171, ואשר מעיד (כאשר ראה במו עיניו) כי ראה בתוך פנים מערת המכפלה “חביות מלאות עצמות מישראל, שהיו מביאים מתיהם בית ישראל, כל אחד ואחד עצמות אבותיו, והניחום שם עד היום הזה”, אך מחזקת את הידיעות הקדומות יותר, שהקבורה בחברון ובפרט בקרבת המערה או לידה, היתה זכות גדולה לכל יהודי, אם שמגוריו היו באר”י ואם מחוצה לה, לאחר שציווה בצוואתו שיביאו עצמותיו לקבורה בחברון. 

ר’ משה ירושלמי המספר ממסעו (תקכ”ט), מבהיר מעלת הקבורה שבחברון עד שהוא מדגיש: “חברון, תבנה ותכונן במהרה, שם היה בימי קדם בית החיים של ירושלים”. יתכן ובעדותו זו התכוון ר”מ ירושלמי לבית העלמין היהודי שהיה מצוי בחצר שמעל מערת המכפלה עד לכיבוש חברון בידי הצלבנים (1099), ואשר עליו אנו מוצאים אף עדות מוסלמית עתיקה, המתייחסת לתקופת כיבוש חברון בידי המוסלמים (638) והקובעת, כי כתמורה לעזרתם של יושבי חברון היהודים שנותרו במקום, על שהראו לכובש עומר את פתחי המערה, הרשה להם הכליף עומר לבנות בחצר שמעל המערה בית כנסת ובית קברות, ואך נתן להן רשיון בכתב על כך. עדות מסייעת להימצאותו של בית עלמין בחצר שמעל המערה, אם כי לא נאמר במפורש שבית עלמין זה היה של יהודים, אנו מוצאים אצל הנוסע הפרסי מוסלמי נאצר חוזארו, שביקר במקום (1047 לערך) וכתב בין השאר: “מחוץ לארבע החומות של המסגד נוטה הקרקע בשיפוע ובמדרון, וכאן, ממערב… במקום שהאדמה ישרה ושטוחה, נמצא בית קברות גדול ואליו מובאים המתים לקבורה מכל הארצות”

מיהה זו של בני האומה העברית בכל התקופות ובכל הדורות להיקבר בחברון, בקרבת מקום קבורתם של האבות, שלפי המסורת היהודית, ואח”כ ם המוסלמית, היתה מערת המכפלה פתחו של גן העדן, ואשר על הנקבר שם ניתן היה לומר: “מנוחתו עם אבות העולם”, לא באה אלא מתוך האמונה הצרופה לכתוב במקרא, כי בחברון, במערה שבשדה המכפלה, קבורים שלושה האבות: אברהם, יצחק ויעקב, ושלוש האמהות: שרה, רבקה ולאה. אמנם, אין בידינו כיום הוכחה מדעית לכך, כי במערת הקברים המשפחתית הזאת קבורים האבות והאמהות של האומה, אך לא מצאנו עד כה עדות אחרת איזו שהיא, אשר תפריך או תסתור, ולוא אף במעט שבמעט, כי מערת הקבורה המשפחתית המכונה “מערת המכפלה” אינה מקום קבורתם של האבות והאמהות. אין פלא איפוא, שבגלל הקדושה שנתקדשה המערה בזכות “ישניה”, פשטו דעות במסורת היהודית, עוד מתקופת בית שני- ולאחר מכן במסורות המוסלמיות ואף הנוצריות- כי עוד אישים קבורים בערה זו, וזאת חרף המפורש במקרא. וכך אנו מוצאים כי גם אדם הראשון וחוה קבורים שם: “ואמר ר’ יצחק: קרית ארבע זוגות: אדם וחוה, אברהם ושרה, יצחק ורבקה, יעקב ולאה”. ועוד: “שנקברו בה ארבע אמהות: חוה, שרה ורבקה ולאה”. ויש שהוסיפו וכינו המערה בשם “מערתא דאדם הראשון”. ר’ בנאה, שהיה ידוע כמציין המצבות, קובע אף הוא שגם אדם הראשון וחוה קבורים שם. על זאת משיב הרי”ף בתשובות (סימן שי”ג) ש”היה זה במראות החלום”. ועוד מסופר על אדה”ר שראה שם (במערת הממכפלה) אור דק היוצא מגן עדן ולכן בחר להיקבר שם. ובשעה שהגיע אברהם למקום ראה שם דמות דיוקנו של אדה”ר, בחר במקום זה לקבורת שרה. ור’ רחומאי אומר במפורש: “ושם (במערת המכפלה) חצב לו קבר ועשה מערה לפנים מערה”.

נוסף לפתקים, מעות, בשמים, וכד’ שנאגרו ונאספו בתוך המערות, אנו מוצאים, לפי עדותו של ר’ בנימין מטודילה (1171), שראה במו עיניו במערה השלישית, “חביות הרבה מלאות עצמות מישראל, שהיו מביאים מתיהן בימי ישראל, כל אחד עצמות אבותיו, ומניחין אותם שם, עד היום הזה”. עדות זו מעלה השערה, כי אכן היתה מערת הקברים המקודשת בקברי האבות, מקום מנוחתם של רבים מבני ישראל, יש להניח, כי עוד מתחילת הכיבוש המוסלמי היה בית עלמין יהודי בחצר שמעל מערת המכפלה ולידו בית כנסת יהודי. עדותו של הנוסע הפרסי-מוסלמי נאצר ח’וסארו המתאר, כי “במקום שהקרקע מתחילה להיות שטוחה (מחוץ לכותלי המסגד ובמקום שאין היא מרוצפת) נמצא בית קברות גדול”, אך מסייעת להנחתנו זו, ואילו העדויות הרבות שהבאנו על חשיבות הקבורה בחברון והזכות להיקבר ליד “אבות עולם”, וכן עדותו ש ר’ פתחיה מרגנזבורג על אותו זקן שחיכה למותו ולקבורתו בקרבת מנוחתם של אבות עולם, כל אלה נותנים מקום להערה, כי כחמש מאות שנה היה בית העלמין היהודי מצוי בחצר שליד המסגד. אולם מאחר שבית העלמין היה מוגבל בשטחו, ומאידך רבים היו הבאים להיקבר שם והמשלחים מתיהם לקבורה שם, לא הספיק שטחו לכל המתים והיו “שומרי קברי אבות” נאלצים להוציא את עצמות הקבורים שם משכבר ולהכניסן לתוך כדי חימר- “חביות”, כפי שמכנה אותן ר’ בנימין מטודילה- שתעשייתם היתה בחברון עוד מימים קדומים. לאחר שהיו מטמינים את עצמות המת בכד, יש להניח שהיו סותמים הכד, כמקובל, ואולי אף רושמים או חורתים שם המת על הכד, ומשלשלים הכד אל פנים המערה התחתית, וכך נתפנה המקום שבבית העלמין לקבורתם של אחרים, שבאו, או הובאו, להיקבר במקום מקודש זה.
כאמור, אין זו בלתי אם השערה המסתמכת על פירורי עדויות שונות ומתקופות שונות, אולם אין להוציא מכלל אפשרות, כי “גניזה” זו, של כדי קבורה רבים, מצויה בפנים המערה התחתית, המערה ששם קבורים שלושה האבות לשלוש האמהות.

This statement from Genesis Rabbah likely reflects a commonly held perception by Jews since antiquity. It is the reasons why piles of Jewish bones have been found in the cave (I have seen photographs of these bones, deep in the bowels of the cave, that have never been published to my knowledge). Benjamin of Tudela’s recounts how he witnessed Jews placing bones of their deceased loved ones in the Cave of Machpela:

שדה עפרון אשר במכפלה, מלמד שנכפלה בעיני כל אחד ואחד, דבר אחר, שכל מי שהוא קבור בתוכה בטוח ששכרו כפול ומכופל, אמר רבי אבהו שכפף הקב”ה קומתו של אדם הראשון וקברו בתוכה. (בראשית פרשה נח י)

However, to be fair, most of these testimonies refer to Jewish burials either in the cave itself or right next to it while our Karaite graveyard is located several hundred meters away in the neighborhood known as “Tel Rumeida”.

Avraham Firkovich;  the Adventures and Foibles of a Karaite Maskil in 19th century Eastern Europe PART I

Rare photo of Firkovich as a young Hakham

Avraham Firkovich is probably the best known Karaite of the 19th century (arguably, the last best-known Karaite of note). He was one of the more eccentric and colorful personalities of the 19th century. In his early years he was known as a passionate individual which could translate to either episodes of explosive rage or displays of genuine affection and fondness. He was an (underrated) poet and wrote some interesting poetry which to my knowledge has never been properly studied. He maintained close ties with his Rabbanite contemporaries who were known as Maskilim  (the enlightened Jews). Some of his books contain approbation from several of the best known Maskilim of his age. He is commonly accused of having forged tombstones and other antiquities in order to bolster his theory that the Eastern European Karaites lived in Crimea before the crucifixion of Jesus in Jerusalem, thus sparing the Karaites from the anti-semitic charge of deicide. His own Maskilic friends (even some Karaite ones!) concurred with this assessment that he engaged in forgery but I think the words of one famous maskil is very illustrative of the forgiving and understanding attitude exhibited in some enlightened quarters ( I stress the word ‘some’ because he was also at the receiving end of some very vitriolic attacks from maskilim who considered him a complete charlatan, e.g. Ephraim Deinard). The Maskil in question excused Firkovich’s forgeries by saying that he did what he did for the good of his community. In other words he was not engaging in forgery for financial or any other selfish end but rather the welfare of his community was at the forefront of his mind. Modern scholarship maintains that the extent of Firkovich’s forgeries were overstated. This from the excellent book Scripture and Schism (JTS, 2000)

firk bio jts

From תולדות היהדות הקראית ח”ב עמוד 46

(I am not sure who this  חוקר מהמאה ה19 is exactly).

Deinard, however, was a different story. He once worked closely with Firkovich before apparently having a severe falling out with him. Deinard is considered  to be one of the greatest ‘hebrew bookmen’ of all time and traveled extensively while amassing a large library of books and manuscripts which he put to use in his grotesque Hebrew work “Masa Qrim”. The latter purports to be a diary of his travels among the Karaites of Crimea. The work does not even pretend to be an objective account or anything close to an ethnographic study but is rather an undisguised attack against Karaites, Karaism and particularly his nemesis: Firkovich (about whom he devoted a seperate ‘biography’ called “Toldot Even Reshef”). To be sure Deinard himself was hardly a stellar individual of high integrity, but his “Masa Qrim “received approbations from maskilim who apparently felt torn between a sense of admiration for Firkovich (and an abiding interest in Karaism in general) on the one hand and their personal friendship with Deinard on the other. Illustrative of this ambivalent attitude is exhibited in several of the approbation to “Masa Qrim”. Equally interesting is the enthuastic aprobation of the Sephardic sage, Hayyim Hizkiyahu Medini, who served as a Rabbi in Karasubazar, Crimea for a period.

masa krim

Even more interesting is that Deinard continued to correspond with Firkovich even after the rift between the two. Firkovich’s responses do not seem to contain the slightest hint of resentment. One in particular is strange and seems to show that Firkovich suffered from onset dementia at that particular stage (the following is a part of a transcription of a correspondence between Firkovich and Deinard regarding the alleged grave of Rabbi Yitzchak Sangari in Chufut Kale, a personality that Firkovich seems to have invented).

frik reply to deinard 1     firk reply to deinard 2

He also exhibited paranoic behavior. An ex pupil of Firkovich named Tarkhov adressed an exceedingly strange episode, in his diary, where he claims Firkovich accused him of attempting to murder him.

firk delusional

Dan Shapira in his strangely titled biography of the man, “Avraham Firkowicz in Istanbul (1830–1832). Paving the Way for Turkic Nationalism” summed up Firkovich and the EE Karaites thusly:

In order to understand Firkowicz, we must first relinquish our Rabbanite-centric view of Qaraism seeing in the Qaraites merely a sect, and try to imagine what would happen if the situation was the opposite, i.e., not roughly 10,000 Karaites against 10,000,000 of Rabanites, but vice versa. Such modern phenomena like the Natorei Qarta, an ultra-orthodox and super anti-Israeli Jewish religious sect siding with the worst enemies of Israel, especially in the West in recent years, could serve a good parallel: here the need for inner cohesiveness, combined with a high degree of paradigm tension with the majority inert to the minority kerygma, push the minority group to pathetic, and sometimes almost suicidal, acts of protest It is important to put things in perspective.  A minority finding itself under suspicion at best and hostility at worst from two quarters: their rabbanite brethren and their gentile neighbors (a minority within a minority within a minority) will ultimately produce figures who may act quite strangely depending on circumstance (p. 88-9)

Firkovich was probably a disagreeable and quarrelsome individual by nature (Jewish history is replete with such individuals..). He did not get along with Rabbanites and Karaites alike. His fistfights in the Kenesa of Istanbul are quite illustrative of that. His violent quarrel with fellow Karaite Isaac Cohen deserves closer attention. His fist fight with the Hassidic Rebbe of Berditchev, Rabbi Moshe Zvi (later the Admor of Savran) is likewise indicative of his temperament. It is important to remember, as Shapira points out, that Firkovitch was not a Karaite ‘leader’ in the modern sense of the term but rather a very well-known individual and an inseparable part of the Maskilic circle of Eastern Europe who just happened to be Karaite. His last days in Chufut Kale in Crimea were marked by some bizarre behavior on his part. His marriage to a maiden half his age raised some eyebrows. Her ensuing pregnancy elicited some gossip among the townsfolk. Firkovich was aware of the talk and was not averse to issue threats. His last known portrait portrays him exactly as he wanted it to. It shows a venerable sage surrounded by his Rasputin looking son-in-law, Gavriel and his family. He fancied himself an old-testament like figure and he received visits from Jewish and non-Jewish notables at his residence up until his death there.

firk photo


In 1834 Firkovich gained particular notoriety when he published his explosive apologetic book Hotam Tokhnit. In it, he accused the Rabbanites of having crucified Jesus and the alleged murder of Anan ben David! (this seems to have been the first time such a charge was leveled). The implication was clear;  the Rabbanites were killers of prophets and it seemed an endorsement of traditional anti-Semitism. While at first glance these charges should give one pause and pass sentence on Firkovich as someone beyond the pale,  a virtual Jew-hater (perhaps even a self-hating Jew). One must keep in mind that Firkovich was writing his book as a polemical work. Not one known to control himself, Firkovich was merely reacting to the perhaps equally vicious things written about Karaites among Rabbanite circles. Two examples should suffice:

A Rabbi Pesach of Slutzk (Russia) was queried on whether the Halakhic categories of tam’e and tahara, purity/impurity apply to the Karaite dead. He replied that even though it is a great mitzvah to kill them (and adding for good measure that it’s permitted to practice usury on them), they are still metam’e b’ohel (their corpses render one impure inside an enclosure):


Lest one think that this sort of attitude was limited to Ashkenazi Rabbinic authorities only, this from Dan Shapira’s biography of Firkovich:

Towards the end of the 19th c. a Rabbi in Istanbul by the name of Shelomo Kimhi wrote a book called “Melekkhet Shlomo” where he called the Karaites ‘worse than animals and it is permitted to kill them” 
The Hakham Bashi Yaqir Geron came out against him and ordered all copied to be burned. See here

It should be pointed out that as with Meleketh Shelomo, senior religious figures got involved in the ensuing firestorm and convinced Firkovich to recall  all copies of the book which he promptly did (the influence of his maskilim friends also likely played a role in his decision). Firkovich was no fool or ignoramous. His writings exhibit a strong knowledge of both Karaite and Rabbanite literature. His flowery biblical Hebrew earned him the admiration of many maskilim and lovers of the Hebrew language and proponents of the revival of the Hebrew language when Yiddish stood as its strongest competitor among maskilic circles.

He was a prodigious writer as well as an indefatigable traveler and collector. His literary estate now forms the Firkovich collection at the St. Petersburg Russia’s National Library, which is a goldmine for scholars.

firk deicidefirk apology
I also found it interesting that he and his master/rival, Mordechai Sultanski sold leather for tefillin to Rabbanite merchants.

firk sultanski tefilin


His poetry, reproduced in Yosef Elgamil’s second volume on Karaite history (Heb.) תולדות היהדות הקראית, חלק ב עמוד 45 shows a tenderness otherwise not shown in his other writings. In a series of  paragraphs of rhymed prose recounts the history of the Karaite Jews and while he repeats the time-honored traditions of his forbears, his paean to the enlightened masklim is a fascinating window into a little known feature of the man.  His characterization of Mendelssohn  (affectionately referred to by the Maskilim as Ramabaman-which was both the acronym of his Hebrew name: Rabbi Moshe Ben Menachem as well as a hint as to his standing in their eyes, i.e. on the same plane as Rambam-Maimonides) as “the sage of our generations”  and his usage of the Rabbinic aphorism (taken from the epithet on the alleged tomb of Maimonides) that “from Moses to Moses, there arose none like Moses” abundantly illustrates that sentiment.  he had similar tender things to say about Naphatali Hirz Wessely Solomon Dubno and Marcus Jostfirk mendelson

His attitude however was decidedly violent when it came to Hassidim, whom he considered vulgar, unelightened and reprehensible (1). On the Hassidic Admor Rabbi Moshe Zvi of Savran, he wished a fate nothing less than death! (he appared to have had a run-in with Firkovich, when the latter moved to Berditchev in 1828, and an altercation ensued- in which the Savraner Rebbe called him an ignoramus).

firk savran

It is interesting to note also that Firkovich was a native of Poland and was proficient in Yiddish among other languages. In some of his correspondence with his teacher/rival Mordechai Sultansky he was not averse to utilize this language-especially when he had reason to believe that prying eyes were prying(~ I thank Prof. Golda Akhizer for making me aware of this interesting tidbit- see here and my comment there).

When he worked as a Hebrew school teacher in Istanbul, he comes across as a doting teacher; keeping exact notes about the condition and advancement of each pupil (though it should be pointed out that he also knew how to act the role of disciplinarian when he felt the need). As mentioned Firkovich was a transient scholar in his early days and did not posses the capacity to stay put in one place for too long. His stint in Istanbul did not last long. In 1834 we find him accompanying Simcha Babovich in his travels across the east, checking -and sometimes emptying  the archives of various Jewish communities in the Criman Peninsula (their protests notwithstanding. It should be pointed out that Jewish scholarship owes him a great deal of gratitude for doing this, as he there is no doubt that by doing so he ended up saving many of these archives from certain destruction by the Nazis a century later).

How Firkovich is Viewed by Contemporary Karaites

Firkovich continues to be a divisive figure even among certain Karaite circles. It should be remembered that certain sectors of the Middle Eastern Karaite community have often viewed their ‘brethren’ in the west (once referred to me as ‘ashkenazy karaites’ by a member of the Egyptian community) with suspicion due in part to, what they perceived as, their dissociation from world Jewry (the much made about ‘dejudaization’ (2) process attributed by many to Firkovich and especially to his succesor Seraya Szapshal deserves a closer look.  Shapira rightly points out

firk karaites real jews


(1) He corresponded however throughout his life with a wide variety of people, including prominent Hassidim, such as the third Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch (Mentioned in Shapira, p. 77).

(It should be pointed out that the Karaite approach to Kaballah -and presumably the movements it inspired, such as Hassidism, was allot more nuanced than commonly perceived, see for instance the biography and works of Simcha Yiztchak Lutzki, termed in this paper a “Karaite Kabbalist”).

Mordechai Sultansky actually met Rabbi Yisrael, the founder of the Ruzhin Hassidic dynasty. David Assaf gives an account of Sultansky’s less than charitable impression of the man:

Writing in 1841, Mordechai Sultansky of Chufut-Qale (Crimea), a prominent Karaite sage and historian recalled his encounter in Ruzhin with the young Israel, which probably took place around 1815

When I was young I had heard of the fame of the baal shem Israel, who was adored by his believers. I had a desire to see him and to assess his quality. I went there to the town of Ruzhin; however I could not see his face because of the crowd who flocked from all over the country to ask his assistance. Finally I had an idea. I wrote a letter of poems and phrases dedicated to his honor and delivered it to his attendant, and then he ordered that I be invited. That is how I came to see him, and he was then 18 years old. He said to me: my dear, you wrote your letter in vain, since I will not understand ay of it. That is because I haven’t any knowledge in wisdom or in books. I am devoted only to theoretical Kabbala. When I tested him, I realized that he had neither faith nor knowledge or sense, but he is one of Jezebel’s prophets, who merely consumes the remnants of the brainless Jews and strips them of their skin with his crazy tricks. However in their eyes he is as lofty as an angel. (Assaf, David “The Regal Way”)

(2) Shelomo ben Mordechai Kazaz, considered to be the leading sage of Chufut Kale, wrote  the book “Tuv Taam” in the Karaim language (the dialect spoken by the Karaim [not Krymchaks] of Crimea). It was published in 1835. This book was the first basic or elementary textbook on the Karaite faith for younger people. It can be classified as a book on basic Karaite ‘catechisms’. Professor Henryk Jankowski in a recent presentation (see here) on this particular tome shows how conscious Crimean Karaim were of their Hebrew/Israelite roots. For instance Kazaz teaches that the national language of the Karaim is Hebrew (unlike Szapszal who actually banned its study). See also Avraham Qanai’s transcription of a Hebrew poem by Hakham Shabbetai ben Mordechai Tiro (1861-1939), a resident of Gozleve (Eupatoria), where the latter strongly expresses his Jewish identity and proclaims that ‘kol yisrael achim’, literally: all Jews (clearly including himself and his kinsmen) are brothers. While most of Tiro’s poems are in Karaim language, this particular one is written in Biblical Hebrew and it was composed in the late 30s, a mere several years after the passing of the Nuremberg Laws in Germany..

Can a Convert Recite Some Portions of the Haggadah?


This is a seemingly simple question with a seemingly simple answer (yes…) but it wasn’t so a millenium ago. In the section of the Seder preceding the festive meal (which one hopes, almost in vain, to finally arrive;), there is a section that makes much mention of our forefathers. Specifically these passages come to mind:

לֹא אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ בִּלְבָד גָּאַל הַקָּדוֹשׁ בָּרוּךְ הוּא, אֶלָּא אַף אוֹתָנוּ גָּאַל עִמָּהֶם, שֶׁנֶּאֱמַר: (דברים ו כג): “וְאוֹתָנוּ הוֹצִיא מִשָׁם, לְמַעַן הָבִיא אֹתָנוּ, לָתֶת לָנוּ אֶת הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע לַאֲבֹתֵנוּ“.

Free Translation:

Not only our forefather did the Blessed one redeem (from Egypt),but also our very selves as the verse states…And he pulled us out from there etc. (Deut. 6:23)

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם, אֲשֶׁר גְּאָלָנוּ וְגָּאַל אֶת אֲבוֹתֵינוּ מִמִּצְרַיִם, וְהִגִּיעָנוּ לַלַּיְלָה הַזֶּה לֶאֱכָל בּוֹ מַצָּה וּמָרוֹר.


Blessed art thou our lord, who has redeemed us and redeemed our forefather from Egypt and we have arrived at this very night to consume the Massa and the Marror (the bitter herbs).

In the first quarter of the 12th c., a remarkable individual sent a query to the great Maimonides. The questioner was known as Obadiah and he was a Proselyte.

Obadiah wondered whether he was allowed to recite אלהינו ואלהי אבותנו “Our God and the God of our Fathers” in his prayers. After all his fathers were not only gentiles but may have even taken part in anti-Jewish persecutions..

Maimonides offered a particularly tender reply:

Thus says Moses, the son of Rabbi Maimon, one of the exiles from Jerusalem, who lived in Spain:

I received the question of the master Obadiah, the wise and learned proselyte, may the Lord reward him for his work, may a perfect recompense be bestowed upon him by the Lord of Israel, under whose wings he has sought cover.

You ask me if you, too, are allowed to say in the blessings and prayers you offer alone or in the congregation: “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” “You who have sanctified us through Your commandments,” “You who have separated us,” “You who have chosen us,” “You who have inherited us,” “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt,” “You who have worked miracles to our fathers,” and more of this kind.

Yes, you may say all this in the prescribed order and not change it in the least. In the same way as every Jew by birth says his blessing and prayer, you, too, shall bless and pray alike, whether you are alone or pray in the congregation. The reason for this is, that Abraham our Father taught the people, opened their minds, and revealed to them the true faith and the unity of God; he rejected the idols and abolished their adoration; he brought many children under the wings of the Divine Presence; he gave them counsel and advice, and ordered his sons and the members of his household after him to keep the ways of the Lord forever, as it is written, “For I have known him to the end that he may command his children and his household after him, that they may keep the way of the Lord, to do righteousness and justice” (Gen. 18:19). Ever since then whoever adopts Judaism and confesses the unity of the Divine Name, as it is prescribed in the Torah, is counted among the disciples of Abraham our Father, peace be with him. These men are Abraham’s household, and he it is who converted them to righteousness.

In the same way as he converted his contemporaries through his words and teaching, he converts future generations through the testament he left to his children and household after him. Thus Abraham our Father, peace be with him, is the father of his pious posterity who keep his ways, and the father of his disciples and of all proselytes who adopt Judaism.

Therefore you shall pray, “Our God” and “God of our fathers,” because Abraham, peace be with him, is your father. And you shall pray, “You who have taken for his own our fathers,” for the land has been given to Abraham, as it is said, “Arise, walk through the land in the length of it and in the breadth of it; for I will give to you” (Gen. 13:17). As to the words, “You who have brought us out of the land of Egypt” or “You who have done miracles to our fathers” – these you may change, if you will, and say, “You who have brought Israel out of the land of Egypt ” and “You who have done miracles to Israel.” If, however, you do not change them, it is no transgression, because since you have come under the wings of the Divine Presence and confessed the Lord, no difference exists between you and us, and all miracles done to us have been done as it were to us and to you. Thus is it said in the Book of Isaiah, “Neither let the son of the stranger, that has joined himself to the Lord, speak, saying, ‘The Lord has utterly separated me from His people’” (Is. 56:3). There is no difference whatever between you and us. You shall certainly say the blessing, “Who has chosen us,” “Who has given us,” “Who have taken us for Your own” and “Who has separated us”: for the Creator, may He be extolled, has indeed chosen you and separated you from the nations and given you the Torah. For the Torah has been given to us and to the proselytes, as it is said, “One ordinance shall be both for you of the congregation, and also for the stranger that sojourns with you, an ordinance for ever in your generations; as you are, so shall the stranger be before the Lord” (Num. 15:15). Know that our fathers, when they came out of Egypt, were mostly idolaters; they had mingled with the pagans in Egypt and imitated their way of life, until the Holy One, may He be blessed, sent Moses our Teacher, the master of all prophets, who separated us from the nations and brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence, us and all proselytes, and gave to all of us one Law.

Do not consider your origin as inferior. While we are the descendants of Abraham, Issac, and Jacob, you derive from Him through whose word the world was created. As is said by Isaiah: “One shall say, I am the Lord’s, and another shall call himself by the name of Jacob” (Is. 44:5). (1).


1). Letter to Obadiah the Proselyte (from A Maimonides Reader, ed. Isadore Twersky. West Orange: Behrman House, 1972)

*For a facsimile of Obadiah’s (although there seems to be some confusion regarding which Obadiah this belongs to, as the name was quite common among Proselytes esp. in the east) correspondence and writings (including fragments of a memoir he wrote) from the Cairo Genizah, see the Cambridge Genizah Collection online here

See also a Piyut he (possibly) composed here and here

Is the Tet. Offensive On a Tombstone?


The above are several photos taken from the ever-interesting collection of tombstones from the Protestant graveyard on Mt. Zion in Jerusalem. These appeared in the most recent addition of the Hebrew Journal ARIEL, August 2012 under the title חוקרי ארץ ישראל הקבורים בבית הקברות הפרוטסטנטי בהר ציון (Shiller, Barkai).

I will not and cannot reproduce and translate the lengthy and fascinating article here but I what caught my notice-and what I want to focus on is the presence of the hebrew tetragrammaton, the four letter name of God (known in hebrew as ‘shem hameforash’) on tombstones.

How common was this practice? Is it halachically permissible? Is this an anomaly because it is a non-Jewish graveyard or have Jewish gravestones likewise been adorned with the tet. in the not so distant past? {1}

First I think a brief history of the Protestant cemetery in in order.

It was purchased in the year, 1848 and it came to contain the remains of some of the most prolific scholars of Near Eastern Sudies; archaeologists, linguists, religious figures and many others of 19th c. Ottoman Palestine.

In 1916 it was also used to inter military casualties; 11 German soldiers, 5 Austrians and Two Britons who fell in battle were buried there. It was in use as late as the War of Independence in 1948. After 1967, the grounds were restored but it was no longer in active use. All in all, the graveyard contains the remains of 1,040 individuals but, with the vicissitudes of time and circumstance, quite a few graves defy identification.

Most interesting for my research are the graves of Jews. As you can see in the accompanying photo, not a few Jews found their final resting place there. These included converts to Christianity but also ordinary Jews who died while being treated in one of the hospitals in Jerusalem that were operated by Protestant Christian groups (whose aim was to missionize to the local Jewish community and whose services were often strictly forbidden by Jerusalem’s Rabbinate). These Jews were sometimes refused burial in a Jewish cemetery and therefore ended up there.

Hebrew inscriptions are usually a good indicator that the buried individual was a Jew- but not always as Protestant Hebreophiles often utilized the language as well (see here for instance).

The photo on the far left shows a tombstone with a phrase from Psalms, 116:13

כּוֹס יְשׁוּעוֹת אֶשָּׂא וּבְשֵׁם יְהוָה אֶקְרָא.

A cup of salvation I shall bear and in the name of the lord I shall call out.

Other names and details are left out of the description of that particular stone.

Back to our question about the Tetragrammaton.

Halachic logic might dictate that this would not be halachically permissible. The four letter name of God is censored in even benign content. A graveyard of the dead seems like an unlikely-perhaps even sacrilegious place to put it.

I recently came across an interesting epigraphic study; a study on a Jewish cemetery in a place called Argis in Southern Armenia, dating back to the 13th and 14th century. The paper is entitled בית קברות יהודי מימי הביניים בארגיס שבדרום ארמניה

דוד עמית ומיכאל סטון


It can be accessed here.


What caught my eye was this particular grave:


כתובת 10
מצבה -12 צד רוחב דרום תמונה 20
שמונה שורות קצרות הממלאות את כל שטח האבן בצדה הצר, שצורתו כאן מעוגלת
בחלק העליון.

על זה הקבר ויב א
עליו רחמים מלפני
הקדוש ברוך הוא יהי
באותו ברכה שעשה
אהרן כוהן גדול בבית
ה מקדש אמן נצח סלה

The name of the individual is somewhat difficult to decipher. The team hypothesizes that שואסתירו is a corruption of נסתר, literally (here is it is) ‘hidden’, commonly used in epithets. However the name defies explanation.

Of interest to us is the line I highlighted and underlined. This is what they have to say:


לא מן הנמנע שבשורה 5 , לאחר “הקדוש ברוך הוא”, מופיע השם המפורש ולא ” יהי” . איזכור השם
המפורש בצד הכינוי “הקדוש ברוך הוא” , הוא בעל משמעות מאגית ואפוטרופאית ברורה, הבולטת
כאן ביתר שאת בהקשרה הישיר לברכת כוהנים אשר השם המפורש חוזר בה שלוש פעמים. על השימוש
בברכת כוהנים כנוסחה מאגית אפוטרופאית כבר בימי בית ראשון ניתן ללמוד ממציאותה בשני קמיעות
הכסף שגילה גבריאל ברקאי באחת ממערות הקבורה שחפר בכתף הינום בירושלים, המתוארכות
למאה השביעית לפנה”ס, אף כי יש לציין כי מקום מציאתם של קמיעות אלה אינו מוכיח שיש להם
קשר לקבורה וסביר להניח שהמת נשא אותם על צווארו בהיותו בחיים – ראו ברקאי. בספרות קומראן,
בספרות חז”ל ובספרות ההיכלות, נמשך השימוש בשם המפורש בכלל ובברכת כוהנים בפרט כנוסחה
. מאגית – ראו: אשל, עמ’ 297-295 ; בר-אילן, עמ’ 42-41 ; נוה ושקד, עמ’ 27-25


While it seems inconclusive that the tetragrammaton in fact appears on this particular gravestone (the comment also includes a pretty mind-blowing theory about the Ketef Hinnom priestly plates [that they were buried along with an apparently prominent individual], Amit and Stone hold out for that [strong] possibility). Lest one think this was a Karaite or some other sectarian cemetery (Karaites themselves, though more liberal in their approach to the reproduction of the Tet., refrained from writing out the name outside of a liturgical context, see Fleicher, Ezra “סידור השם המפורש” in ,תפילות הקבע בישראל p. 304, n. 2), all other findings indicate otherwise; it was a cemetery used by Rabbinic Jews {2} (see also here). There are also several strong indications that they were semi-recent migrants to the area from mainland Persia.

However in מצבה 36  כתובת 15 in the same graveyard, we find a modified representation of the Tetragrammaton. Instead of Yud Heh Waw Heh, we found the commonly used Yud Waw Yud Waw יויו

(צורה מקובלת בקרב קהילות המזרח לציון השם המפורש)

The grave in question is that of a virgin girl. The restored inscription reads:

הרחמן יחון ויחמול וירח(ם) על נפש הנערה הבתולה

המאורשה אסתר בת מיכאל יהא חלקה עם אמנו ש'(=שרה)

(…על נשמתה) הק'(=הקדושה) על קבור'(=קבורתה) הטהורה קד'(=קדושה)


דכת’ שקר החן והבל היופי אשה יראת יויו

ועוד תנו לה ג/מ נכתב בשמונה עשר בתשרי


The inscription quotes the passage from Proverbs 31:30

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;

but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.

the Tetragammaton is clearly modified in the reproduction of that verse, perhaps lending credence to the theory that the aforementioned כתובת 10 מצבה 12 likewise does not contain the Tetragrammaton.

Hebrew Wikipedia (light years head of its english counterpart…) has a pretty good breakdown of Jewish attitudes throughout the ages towards the use of the Tet. See here (I found it particularly interesting that Maimonides does not prohibit pronouncing the tet. in its proper context. At least one tosafist concurs with this liberal view as well).

Here are some available photos from the Argis inscriptions. The bottom photo is of the gravestone of the virgin girl mentioned above.



Top with inscription under discussion



1. The ‘lesser sacred’ name ELOHIM and its variants are found in relative abundance on tombstones, see here for one example from several hundred years ago in Eastern Europe.  I also found Dr. Rami Arav’s incredulous statement here puzzling. Firstly it’s greek and not hebrew and secondly to say that for observant Jews to write ‘elohim’ on a burial would be be unthinkable seems to me an inaccurate observation (although probably a rare occurrence but not because it would have been considered sacrilegious but because in that era very little attention was paid, in Judea, to the receptacles containing the Jewish deceased. Other than inscribing the name and perhaps some Graeco-Roman or religious/pagan designs, nothing else was added).

Dr. Rami Arav:

טענתם ארבע המילים הן” “אלוהים” ביוונית, שמו המפורש של אלוהים בעברית, “קום” או “קם לתחייה” ביוונית ו”קום” או “קם לתחייה” בעברית. האפשרות שיהודי יחרוט את שם השם המפורש על גלוסקמה היא בלתי סבירה. כך גם חיבור מעין תפילה הוא דבר לא מוכר כלל על גבי ארונות הקבורה.

I am also puzzled by this statement by James Tabor here:

 that’s the opinion of Dr. Natalie Messika, an expert in archaeological mapping often under contract with the IAA. As for the linkage to early followers of Jesus, the fact is that whoever made those pictures and wrote that inscription was sectarian and not normative. Jews did not–and do not–write the Tetragrammaton on a bone box filled with “tumah” or impurity. I know that there is an attempt to re-read the second line in the inscription, but the reading was confirmed repeatedly by major scholars, including Prof. Rollston who is now revising his opinion. It’s OK to change one’s mind. All I’m saying is that the vast majority of scholars see the ineffable name inscribed in the second line.

As far as I know these putative Christian tombs DO NOT CONTAIN THE HEBREW TETRAGRAMMATON but rather a possible Greek reference to God.

For a relatively simple-to-understand breakdown of this particular discovery see here
f you’re a bit more scholarly inclined and aware see here

How Jews in the Graeco-Roman world (decidedly more assimilated than their Judean co-religionists) often utilized God’s name (and I use that term loosely) in Greek funerary inscriptions, see here  and here

2). Of particular interest is MS TS 20.57 from the Cambridge collection. The MS is one of the earliest liturgical documents from the Cairo Genizah (from the Eretz Israel rite). It was studied and published by Ezra Fleicher (see “מגילה קדומה “לתפילת יום חול כמנהג ארץ ישראל in his תפילות הקבע בישראל. On the second folio of the MS there appears a curious inscription, someone rather clumsily scribbled:

כל השומע הזכרת השם מפי חברו ואינו מקללו הוא בעצמו יהא בנידוי

Literally, One who hears his friend utter the Tet. and does not curse him, he himself shall be in excommunication.

This harsh proscription is repeated again in larger and bolder letters, perhaps to underscore the severity of the deed (as perceived by the anonymous writer). It is unclear what this is doing in a manuscript that otherwise records weekday prayers according to the EY rite. Perhaps it was written in the midst of a firestorm of anti-Karaite polemics against pronouncing the Tet. (see there pp. 530-31).