On and Off the Beaten Track in . . . Ancient Places

by | in Israel

In Be’er Sheva, one can walk in the footsteps of our forefather Avraham.  Photos: www.sassontiram.com

Although the Bible can be studied anywhere, only in Israel can we walk in the footsteps of the personalities of the Tanach and stand in the places that figured in the narratives of their lives. Many locations in modern Israel are named after ancient places that we read about in the Tanach. To name a few: The Hebron of today is the same Hebron where Avraham purchases a burial plot for Sarah (Bereishit 23:1-20) and where King David establishes his first capital (II Shmuel 5:1-5). Similarly, Be’er Sheva is mentioned in the Torah when it recounts how Avraham makes a pact with Avimelech (Bereishit 21:30-32) and Yitzhak digs wells to find subterranean water (Bereishit 26:33).

We read about Shilo in the Book of Samuel. When the Jewish people return to the Land of Israel from enslavement in Egypt, the mishkan, the Tabernacle, remains in Shilo for 369 years. Moreover, Shilo is the site where Chanah prays for a son (I Shmuel 1:1- 28, the haftarah for the first day of Rosh Hashanah). Other modern-day sites that appear in Tanach include Mount Gilboa, mentioned when King Shaul is killed nearby in battle. His body is hung on the walls of Bet Shean (I Shmuel 31:1-10). King David, Saul’s successor, conquers Ir David, the City of David, in Jerusalem and reestablishes his capital there after seven years in Hebron (II Shmuel 51-58).

The Ein Gedi that tourists love to visit is also the site that served as the inspiration for some of the most magnificent verses in Shir HaShirim, written by King David’s successor, King Solomon (see Shir HaShirim 1:14).

Rabbinic literature also comes alive in places throughout the Land of Israel. After the Destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin, banished from Jerusalem, finds itself first in Yavneh, then in Usha, Shfaram, Bet Shearim, Tzippori and Teveria (Rosh Hashanah 31a-b). In Akko, Rabban Gamliel grapples with the presence of a statue of an Aphrodite in a bathhouse (Avodah Zarah 44b). One of my favorite references, as a former math teacher, is a discussion among the sages, the chachamim of Caesarea, on the length of the diagonal of a square (Sukkah 8a-b).

These are but a few examples of places in Israel that thousands of years ago served as the homes of various figures from Tanach as well as the Gemara and Mishnah. What I find even more fascinating, however, is the fact that many places in modern-day Israel only subtly allude to their historical significance. One such place is the junction of Road 40 and Road 25, just southeast of modern Be’er Sheva. Less than a mile to the east is the mound that archaeologists identify as the tel of ancient Be’er Sheva, home of Avraham and Sarah (itself a fascinating site to visit). Modern urban planners recognized the significance of the location. Travelers who approach the intersection from any of the four directions are informed by road signs that they are about to reach Tzomet Sarah, Sarah Junction, a tribute to the Matriarch who lived there almost 4,000 years ago.

The Ein Gedi that tourists love to visit is also the site that served as the inspiration for some of the most magnificent verses in Shir Hashirim.

Another interesting junction, Tzomet Mesubim, Mesubim Junction, is located on Road 4, near Bar-Ilan University and just south of Bnei Brak. What a strange name for a major intersection on a main highway, considering that the word mesubim seems to be related to the Mishnaic word “mesubin,” reclining. While most people probably don’t think about the name as they battle rush-hour traffic on their way to or from work, there may be a few who realize that they are near Bnei Brak where Rabbis Eliezer, Yehoshua, Elazar ben Azarya, Akiva and Tarfon “hayu mesubin b’Vnei Brak,” “were reclining in Bnei Brak,” recounting the story of the Exodus all night until their students came to apprise them that it was time to say Shema (Hagaddah).

My personal favorite, however, is Masua, the name of a settlement located in the Jordan Valley, in the shadow of a prominent mountain peak named Sartaba. The mishnah in Rosh Hashanah describes how signal fires were used to convey the news that Rosh Chodesh had been declared by the Sanhedrin in the Temple in Jerusalem. Mishnah 2:3 reads like a Boy Scout manual on how to build a signal fire.“Keitzad hayu masi’in masuot?” “How did they make the signal fires?” The mishnah tells of the chain of mountains upon which these signal fires would be lit on each Rosh Chodesh to announce the new month to the population who lived far from Jerusalem. “U’meiayin hayu masi’in masuot?” “From where would they light the signal fires?” The first peak mentioned is Har HaMishcha, the Mount of Olives, overlooking the Temple where the decision to declare Rosh Chodesh would have been made. People on the Mount of Olives would light a large fire (a “masua” in the language of the Mishnah) which would then be seen by people on the next mountain somewhere off in the distance. The next peak in the series that is mentioned is called Sartaba. At the foot of Sartaba is the modern Masua. For all those driving up the Jordan Valley, the sign for Masua is a clear reminder of the ancient practice described in the Mishnah.

Avraham is commanded “Kum hithalech ba’aretz leorkah ulerochbah,” “Get up and walk the land through its length and breadth” (Bereshit 13:17). We, the descendants of Avraham who are privileged to fulfill that mandate almost 4,000 years later, should do so with our eyes wide open as the unfolding history of the Jewish people in our ancient homeland comes alive on the roads and in the cities of modern Israel.

Jewish history comes alive on the roads and in the cities of Israel. After the Destruction of the Second Temple, the Sanhedrin, banished from Jerusalem, was located, at one point, in Teveria.

Peter Abelow is a licensed tour guide and the associate director of Keshet: The Center for Educational Tourism in Israel. Keshet specializes in creating and running inspiring family and group tours that make Israel come alive “Jewishly.” He can be reached at 011.972.2.671.3518 or at peter@keshetisrael.co.il.

This article was featured in Jewish Action Spring 2010.

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