Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Moonrise over Mazkeret Batya

As I began to pray the Afternoon Service (Mincha) today (incidentally, the secular anniversary of the founding of the State of Israel in 1948), I looked up, and saw a beautiful sight. Moonrise over our town of Mazkeret Batya. Enjoy!






Monday, November 11, 2013

WalkingDaf - Shekalim 21a: Is it pure? Is it impure? Well, where did you find it in the mikveh?

(Shekalim 21a was studied on Friday, November 8, 2013 / 5 Kislev 5774.)

From the Koren Talmud Bavli (Steinsaltz translation, pp. 191, 195; literal translation in bold):

The mishna discusses the ritual purity of items found either in the Temple or in Jerusalem and its environs...All the vessels that are found in Jerusalem on the way down into the bathhouse, wherein one purifies vessels in a ritual bath, are ritually impure, and those found on the way up are ritually pure.  The mishna explains: Their descent into the bathhouse is not by the same route as their ascent out of it, and it can be assumed that those found on the way down have not yet been immersed, while those found on the way up have been.  This is the statement of Rabbi Meir.

WalkingDaf commentary

At the southern end of the Temple Mount's Western Wall (Kotel) in Jerusalem's Old City, as well as in the area of the Southern Wall, there were many ritual baths (mikva'ot, sing. mikveh) found.  They were dug here for the use of the tremendous numbers of Jewish pilgrims who would come to Jerusalem to sacrifice at the Temple, in particular during the Three Pilgrimage Festivals: Passover (Pesach), the Feast of Weeks / Pentecost (Shavuot), and Feast of Booths (Sukkot).  One needed to be ritually pure before he entered the Temple precincts, in order to offer any sacrifices.

Below: A typical mikveh, from the water, looking up towards the entrance.



Below: An excavated mikveh opposite Robinson's Arch, at the corner of the Western- and Southern Wall, from the top looking down at the "water" (non-extant, of course).  Note the railing between the two sides.  Impure people would go down the right side, immerse, and come up the left side, purified.  Hence, vessels found on the right (i.e. descent) side of the mikveh would be considered impure, while vessels found on the left (i.e. ascent) side would be considered pure.  This is what the mishna means when it discusses the descent to, and ascent from, the mikveh.




Below: From the area of the mikveh towards Robinson's Arch (protruding stones in the middle), above which would have been an entry to the Temple courtyard.


Introducing WalkingDaf - See Israel through the lens of the daily study of Talmud (Daf Yomi)

Since August 2012, I have been participating in the worldwide, daily study of the Talmud, known as the Daf Yomi (Daily Page).  Started in the 1920s in Europe by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, it is a program where all around the world, every single day of the year, every participant learns the same page of Talmud.  If followed faithfully, a person can make it through the entire Babylonian Talmud (the most important Jewish literary work after the Bible, with over 2,700 double-sided pages), in a bit under seven-and-a-half years (!).  Needless to say, it takes a tremendous amount of self-discipline.  I hope that I can keep up with it.  I have fallen behind several times, and still need to make up some pages from a few past volumes (known as "tractates"), but I have basically kept up with the program.

Throughout my study, I have kept a color-coded system in my Talmud: red flags for editing mistakes (I am using the new and excellent Koren Publications edition of the Steinsaltz Talmud; publication is ongoing, following the Daf Yomi schedule), yellow, blue, or purple flags (whatever I have lying around) for general, interesting points, and green flags for guiding points.  It is on these guiding points which WalkingDaf posts will be based.  After presenting the Talmud's statement, I will present a collection of pictures, videos, maps, and diagrams to better illustrate what the Talmud is discussing.  In this way, I hope that the Talmud will be exciting and practical for many people.

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Israeli and Chinese scientists collaborate on catching stomach cancer early

Israeli and Chinese scientists at the Technion in Haifa have been working on a test to detect and distinguish stomach cancer from other stomach ailments.  Hopefully, this research will be able to save the lives of many people who would otherwise have a painful death.  May God bless these researchers in their important, holy work. 

Sunday, February 10, 2013

Even Roman soldiers needed to have some fun now and then

When we think of Roman soldiers, we usually think of helmeted, gladiator-looking, sandal-wearing, spear-thrusting conquerors.  But it was not always like that.  Roman soldiers did not only conquer, pillage, and kill.   (Though they certainly did plenty of that.)  They also needed to pass the time when they were on watch, patrols, or just when they had nothing better to do.

Enter board games.  Not Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit, but simple games, their boards carved into stone for future generations to find.  Among other places, as Nir Hasson of HaAretz reports, such game boards have been found in the back of the Western Wall plaza.  Using such artifacts, we can learn many things about people who lived so many thousands of years ago, just as future generations will learn about us.

Come visit Israel, take a tour with me, and let's visit some places where we can actually play these ancient games, where the original creators of the games first played them.  It will make for an experience to be remembered for a long time.

Here is the full text of the article, since HaAretz sometimes restricts online articles to subscribers:

A few years ago, a striking street from the Roman period was discovered in the back part of the Western Wall Square. This eastern cardo area features a wide lane, sidewalks, and entryways for stores. Archaeologists, led by Shlomit Wexler-Bedolah from the Israel Antiquities Authority, discovered an inscription in one of the sidewalk areas − the engraving stretches across two quadrants, each divided into squares, and has a large X in its center.

In another area, an engraving features a rectangle divided into 42 squares. An intensive search uncovered another six inscriptions of various types; and searches in other parts of Jerusalem’s Old City uncovered another 21 engravings − in the Damascus Gate square, around the Dung Gate, at the Jewish quarter’s cardo, and elsewhere. Each is actually a public game-board, dating from the Roman period, similar to public chessboards that can sometimes be found in public parks in Europe. Jerusalem in Roman times − Aelia Capitolina − is not unusual in this respect. Archaeologist Dr. Michael Saban, who investigates ancient games artifacts, alludes to hundreds of game boards of different types, from all historical periods. The oldest such board dates to the 7th century [sic] B.C.E., 9,000 years ago.


Archaeology established that residents of this country started to play games immediately after they built the land’s first settlements; and, apparently, hunter-gatherers were also games players. A circumstance in which two seated game players sit on opposite sides of a board with dozens of spectators looking on, in a competition that is a social event and perhaps also a business contest, characterizes human society in this country no less than familiar situations of wars, conquests and catastrophes.

“A game represents an integral part of human life,” says Saban. “It is what enables conversation between people.”

Saban, who directs the Antiquities Authority’s artifacts storage facility, is in charge of a huge industrial operation. The storehouse, whose exact location is a type of state secret, holds more than a million archaeological items discovered in excavations throughout the country. The artifacts range from carved flint tens of thousands of years old to huge iron anchors dating from the Crusader period, and from Second Temple period ossuaries ‏(bone depositories‏) to clay pipes from the Ottoman era.

Out of all these items, Saban − who describes himself as an “artifactologist” − cultivated a special interest in the ancient game equivalents of the likes of Monopoly, backgammon, checkers and chess. In an article ‏(“Ancient Board Games in the Land of Israel”‏) published recently in the Qadmoniot journal ‏(vol. 45 no. 144‏), he summarizes 20 years of research of game boards discovered in Eretz Israel.

Saban started his research of ancient games during excavations at Tel Arad, directed by Prof. Ruth Amiran. This excavation of ancient Arad yielded a bountiful collection of game boards from the Bronze Age, 4,500 years ago. Some 55 boards, or fragments of game boards, were uncovered at the ancient Canaanite city. The expansive but precise character of the excavation conducted at the site yielded these ample finds, Saban believes.

Saban claims that relics of games can be found at virtually every archaeological site in the country, or around the world. Generally, crude engravings were made on stone, or simple, shallow holes were drilled on surfaces. Sometimes, excavators uncover more sophisticated game boards, which were used by persons of higher status and were crafted by artisans. The most famous example is the carved Senet game board found alongside the grave of the pharaoh, King Tutankhamun, in Egypt.

An ornate ivory game board from the Bronze Age was found at Tel Megiddo in the north; it was used for a game called “Dogs and Jackals.” Archaeologists were also able to find stone dice and other small items used for this game.

Saban divides the board games into four types:

1. Position games, akin to tic-tac-toe. These are games in which a player tries to position his pieces in a winning position over his opponent’s pieces;

2. Race games, as in the ancient Egyptian Senet game, or backgammon, in which a player tries to advance all of his pieces to a defined finish line;

3. War games, such as chess or checkers

4. Forms of Mancala games − a group of logic games originating in Africa, and which spread around the world together with the slave trade. The game hones tactics of moving seeds into holes.

The common denominator linking these games is the gap between the primitive instruments used for playing, and the sophisticated gamesmanship required for victory. In most cases, players needed no more than half a minute to set up the game, by digging a few holes in the sand and collecting a few small stones or twigs that could be used as dice. Some of the games put a premium on luck, but even in these cases the more experienced player who followed a better strategy was more likely to win.

Intersection where games meet

Apart from the oldest games, whose names and rules have long since disappeared, Saban and other researchers have been able to recreate rules and features of ancient games. Senet is the oldest game whose rules are known conclusively to Saban. It was clearly the national pastime of ancient Egypt. The game also had a spiritual component because the last five squares on the board represented the soul’s journey after death, and the game’s conclusion symbolized the longed-for union between the deceased person’s soul and the god, Ra. As years passed the game lost its religious character, but it was never forgotten in the hearts of the region’s residents. Today, Bedouin in the Sinai and Negev deserts still play the game, albeit under the name Tab.

Eretz Israel was a crossroads where two games enjoyed by two regional empires intersected: the Egyptian Senet and a royal game, of the race game variety mentioned above, which originated in Mesopotamia. Proof of this game-playing cross-fertilization is furnished by two-sided boards: Senet can be found on one side of such boards, and the royal game is on the other. Such double-sided boards, dating to the Bronze Age ‏(3,600 years ago‏), have been uncovered in this country − for instance, at Tel Hazor and Beit Shemesh. In the case of the latter board, archaeologists from Tel Aviv University even found the name of the game’s owner, Hanan, engraved on it.

The engraved boards from the Roman period discovered in Jerusalem are a version of a game that came to be known as Nine Men’s Morris. This is a sophisticated positioning game, whose most primitive version is Tic-Tac-Toe. The game was popular in the Roman Empire, and remained a favorite in Europe during the Middle Ages. Centuries after soldiers from the Roman Legion played on the boards near the Western Wall, the game returned to Eretz Israel with the Crusaders; and boards engraved for the game by Crusader knights can be found at Atlit and Kochav Hayarden.

Game-playing in ancient times was so widespread that artifacts researched by Saban constitute just a fraction of the phenomenon, and most game artifacts have been lost. “Games are an integral part of being human,” Saban says. “Were you to have wandered around Aelia Capitolina, you would have seen hundreds of such game boards on streets, on sidewalks leading to temples, alongside wells; two people would play each game, with dozens of spectators looking on. It was a kind of encounter. People spoke, made business deals. A game was only for adults − children weren’t involved in these [ancient] eras. Today, adults can be heard saying ‘I have no time for games,’ but they also play games. The biggest religion in the world today is soccer. How many people watch the World Cup final? And all of the spectators are really playing. It’s not 11 men against 11 others on the field if everyone else is watching, cursing − if they are involved, they are playing.”

As Saban sees it, board games also retain their vitality. “There isn’t a person on earth who hasn’t played some sort of board game,” he says. He has taught his own children and their friends some of the ancient games, much to their enjoyment. “The need to play, and to watch a game, is branded deep within us, and represents a basic component of human culture,” Saban writes in his article.

Monday, February 4, 2013

At the North American Jewish Day School Conference in Washington

Yesterday was the first day of the North American Jewish Day School Conference, held at the Hyatt Regency hotel, just over the Virginia border, south of Washington, DC. I have a vendor booth, promoting my Virtual Tours of Israel. I have a terrific location at the fair, just inside the entrance, opposite the food station (!). The response has been very good so far, as those who have stopped by have been very interested in my idea, and open to my teaching a complimentary lesson to their schools. Now I need to follow up with them, impress them, and sign them up for sessions.

I have also been able to make a connection with some Israel touring companies, including IsraelWay, and the Israel Experience. I am confident this trip, with all of its accompanying investments of time and money, will be more than worth it.

Thank you, Shanie Cooper, and the Virtual Paintbrush, for making incredibly professional and eye-catching promotional materials!

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Archaeology gets nasty in Jerusalem

It may sound odd, but archaeology can be a testy business - a contact sport, if you will.  It's not just digging up artifacts and ancient sites.  Scholars' reputations are constantly on the line, as they try to interpret new discoveries in the light of previous discoveries.  See this article from Time magazine about a recent controversy about new finds related to Jesus and his family members.  Behave, gentlemen!  Behave!