The Origins of the Hanukkah Menorah He-IL

נופי ישראל המשתקפים בסיפור חנוכה ובעיצוב מנורת המקדש

 

מדי שנה, בחשכת החורף המוקדמת, מדליקים יהודים ברחבי העולם חנוכייה לכבוד חג האורות. שם החג מנציח את חנוכת המזבח של בית המקדש לאחר שהמכבים הצליחו לכבוש אותו מידי היוונים בשנת 164 לפנה"ס, ואז טיהרו אותו וחידשו את עבודת הפולחן.

 

אין עדויות ברורות לגבי קיומו של חג מקראי מפורסם כלשהו, שנהגו לציין בשיא החורף (כמו חג המולד למשל), ויש הסבורים כי אכן לא היה שום חג כזה, מפני שבעונה זו לא מתרחש שום דבר הטומן בחובו השלכות מכרעות על האיכרים - לעומת חגים חקלאיים מובהקים כמו פסח ושבועות. מצד שני יש הטוענים שבדווקא כן היה חג כזה, לציון עונת מסיק הזיתים, אבל שסיפור המכבים העפיל עליו עד כדי כך שנשכח ונעלם.

 

הסיפור מופיע בספר מכבים (מהספרים החיצוניים שלא נכללו בנוסח הסופי של התנ"ך היהודי, אך כן בנוסח הברית הישנה בתנ"ך הנוצרי):

"ורוח ה' צלחה על יהודה המכבי ועל אנשיו, וילכדו את העיר ואת המקדש. ויהרסו את המזבחות ואת בתי הגילולים אשר הקימו הגויים בחוצות העיר. ויהי אחרי טהרם את הבית, ויעשו מזבח חדש, ויוציאו אש מן האבנים אשר ליקטו, ויקריבו את קורבנם לה' מקץ שנתיים ימים. ויקטירו ויערכו את הנרות, ויתנו את לחם הפנים על שולחן ה'. וככלות כל אלה נפלו על פניהם ויתחננו אל ה' אלוהים לאמור: אנא ה' שומרנו לנצח מצרה כזאת אשר באתנו. ואם חטאנו לך, יסרנו כחסדך, ואל תתננו עוד בידי זרים המחרפים את שם קודשך. ומאת ה' הייתה זאת לחטא את הבית בעצם היום ההוא אשר טימאו אתו הגויים, והוא יום העשרים וחמשה לירח כסלו. ויחוגו חג לה' שמונת ימים כימי חג הסוכות, ויזכרו את הימים מקדם בחגגם את חג הסוכות בהרים ובמערות, ויתעו בישימון כבהמות שדה." - מקבים ב', י' 1-9

אנו למדים שהחג החדש ארך 8 ימים מפני שהמכבים היו להוטים לחגוג כמו שצריך את חג סוכות ואת שמיני עצרת, לאחר שהיו עסוקים במלחמה באותה תקופה, שבועות מספר קודם לכן. לאחר מכן חזר חג סוכות למקומו והחג החדש התבסס להנצחת חנוכת המזבח.

 

Shira Elazary - Israeli Tour Guide - Almond Blossom

שמונת הנרות של החנוכייה

חז"ל מספרים שני סיפורים אודות מקור החנוכייה ומספר הנרות שבה.

על פי הסיפור הראשון, כאשר כבשו המכבים את הר הבית המנורה המקורית כבר אבדה אולם הם הצליחו למצוא במקום שמונה מוטות מתכת, שמהם אילתרו מנורה חלופית עד שהזדמן להם לצקת מנורה חדשה מזהב. על פי הסיפור השני והמפורסם ביותר, המכבים מצאו בכל מתחם המקדש רק פך שמן אחד קטן שלא טומא, והיה בו מספיק כדי להדליק את המנורה רק יום אחד. התרחש נס גדול, והשמן במיכל הספיק לשמונת ימי החג המלאים.

ברור ששתי המסורות הללו מתמקדות בחידוש מנהג הדלקת המנורה במקדש ובשמן זית טהור.

אנו יודעים גם שלאחר חורבן הבית ונפילת מנורת המקדש לידי הרומאים - אירועים שהתרחשו כמאתיים שנה מאוחר יותר - נאסר לייצר מנורות נוספות בצלם המנורות הקדושות שאבדו. מכיוון שלחנוכייה יש 8 נרות ולא 7, אין בעיה לחגוג את אירועי החג ואפילו לחקות את פעולות המכבים במקדש ולהדליק אורות כמוהם, מבלי להפר את האיסור.

 

 

Menorah Clipart

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איך נראתה מנורת המקדש?

מנורת המקדש המקורית המופיעה בתנ"ך אבדה במהלך מרד החשמונאים, ולאחר שהשתלטו המכבים על הר הבית וטיהרו אותו, יצקו מחדש את כל הכלים ששימשו לעבודת הקודש, כולל המנורה. סביר להניח שאותה מנורה חדשה דמתה פחות או יותר לאופן שבו היא מוצגת בתבליט המפורסם על שער טיטוס ברומא, המנציח את ביזת כלי המקדש בידי הרומאים לאחר תבוסת יהודה. אבל יש גם בעיות עם הסברה הזו, מפני שבסיס המנורה שעל התבליט מעוטר בסמלים פגאניים, וידוע לנו שהחשמונאים בשום אופן לא היו עושים כזה דבר. ניתן להסביר זאת בכל מיני צורות - אולי בסיס המנורה נשבר או אולי המנורה הוצבה בתוך ארגז נשיאה שהיה מעוטר בסמלים האופנתיים בתקופה.

אבל אנו יודעים לא מעט על עיצובה של המנורה המקורית:

"וַיַּעַשׂ אֶת-הַמְּנֹרָה, זָהָב טָהוֹר; מִקְשָׁה עָשָׂה אֶת-הַמְּנֹרָה, יְרֵכָהּ וְקָנָהּ--גְּבִיעֶיהָ כַּפְתֹּרֶיהָ וּפְרָחֶיהָ, מִמֶּנָּה הָיוּ. וְשִׁשָּׁה קָנִים, יֹצְאִים מִצִּדֶּיהָ:  שְׁלֹשָׁה קְנֵי מְנֹרָה, מִצִּדָּהּ הָאֶחָד, וּשְׁלֹשָׁה קְנֵי מְנֹרָה, מִצִּדָּהּ הַשֵּׁנִי. שְׁלֹשָׁה גְבִעִים מְשֻׁקָּדִים בַּקָּנֶה הָאֶחָד, כַּפְתֹּר וָפֶרַח, וּשְׁלֹשָׁה גְבִעִים מְשֻׁקָּדִים בְּקָנֶה אֶחָד, כַּפְתֹּר וָפָרַח; כֵּן לְשֵׁשֶׁת הַקָּנִים, הַיֹּצְאִים מִן-הַמְּנֹרָה. וּבַמְּנֹרָה, אַרְבָּעָה גְבִעִים:  מְשֻׁקָּדִים--כַּפְתֹּרֶיהָ, וּפְרָחֶיהָ. וְכַפְתֹּר תַּחַת שְׁנֵי הַקָּנִים מִמֶּנָּה, וְכַפְתֹּר תַּחַת שְׁנֵי הַקָּנִים מִמֶּנָּה, וְכַפְתֹּר, תַּחַת-שְׁנֵי הַקָּנִים מִמֶּנָּה--לְשֵׁשֶׁת, הַקָּנִים, הַיֹּצְאִים, מִמֶּנָּה. כַּפְתֹּרֵיהֶם וּקְנֹתָם, מִמֶּנָּה הָיוּ; כֻּלָּהּ מִקְשָׁה אַחַת, זָהָב טָהוֹר. וַיַּעַשׂ אֶת-נֵרֹתֶיהָ, שִׁבְעָה; וּמַלְקָחֶיהָ וּמַחְתֹּתֶיהָ, זָהָב טָהוֹר. כִּכָּר זָהָב טָהוֹר, עָשָׂה אֹתָהּ, וְאֵת, כָּל-כֵּלֶיהָ." - שמות ל"ז 17-24

זה תיאור מפורט ביותר, הכולל יסודות רבים מעולם הצומח. מסתבר שבארץ ישראל אכן קיימים צמחים שגם דומים לה במראה, וגם ניחנים בתכונות מרפא, שהקנו להם מעמד מקודש בקרב עמי האזור. שמם הלטיני Salvia, נגזר מהמילה Salvar - להציל, להושיע. שמם בעברית מודרנית הוא מרווה, על בסיס השם הערבי מרימיה, אולם יש חוקרים הסבורים כי השם הערבי נגזר משם עברי קדום יותר - מוריה. כן, כמו "ארץ המוריה" (כינוי לארץ ישראל) ו"הר המוריה" (כינוי להר הבית). 

 

צמח מרווה שנראה ממש כמו חנוכייה (התמונה לקוחה מ"עץ ונוף במורשת ישראל" מאת נגה הראובני)

עפץ בקצה גבעול של מרווה (התמונה לקוחה מ"עץ ונוף במורשת ישראל" מאת נגה הראובני)

בכל הסתעפות יוצא הענף החדש מחיקו של עלה - במנורת המקדש, אלה המקומות שנקראים "כפתורים". חז"ל סיפרו שכפתורים אלה מזכירים "תפוחים כרתיים". מסתבר שאכן קיים מין של מרווה הגדל בכרתים, ולו נטייה לגדל עפצים - גידולים על גוף הצמח שנוצרים עקב עקיצת חרק, ומשמשים מחסה לצאצאיו. עפצי המרווה הכרתית טעימים למדי כשהם צעירים, עד כדי כך שזכו לכינוי "תפוחים".

אצלנו בארץ גדלה המרווה המשולשת - קרובת משפחה של המרווה הכרתית, שגם היא נושאת עליה עפצים. זו כנראה הסיבה ששמה המדעי הוא Salvia fruticosa. בדיוק כפי שכתוב בתנ"ך, נראה כאילו הגבעול נכנס לתוך העפץ ואז ממשיך החוצה ממנו. ייתכן שכפתורי המנורה עוצבו על פי עפצי המרווה, וכאשר האמוראים שישבו בבבל ביקשו להמחיש את התמונה, נעזרו במרווה הכרתית, המפורסמת יותר בחו"ל.

אחרי כל זה, בהחלט נחמד לשים לב שהשם התנ"כי לאי כרתים הוא... כפתור.

גְבִעִים מְשֻׁקָּדִים

כאשר השקדים הצעירים מתחילים להתפתח תחת שאריות הפרח שעוד לא נשרו, הם נראים ממש כמו גביעים, ומתאימים מאוד לתיאור המקראי.

בספר ירמיהו מסמל השקד את דבקותו של ה' בהבטחות שהבטיח:

"וַיְהִי דְבַר-יְהוָה אֵלַי לֵאמֹר, מָה-אַתָּה רֹאֶה יִרְמְיָהוּ; וָאֹמַר, מַקֵּל שָׁקֵד אֲנִי רֹאֶה. וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֵלַי, הֵיטַבְתָּ לִרְאוֹת:  כִּי-שֹׁקֵד אֲנִי עַל-דְּבָרִי, לַעֲשֹׂתוֹ." - ירמיהו א' 11-12.

השקדיה היא העץ הראשון שמתנער מהחורף ומתפרץ בפריחה לבנה מרהיבה, לפני שגידל לעצמו אפילו עלה ירוק אחד (העלים מלבלבים מאוחר יותר). כך הפך שמו של השקד למילה נרדפת לחריצות ודבקות במטרה.

אם כך השקד אינו רק ההשראה לצורה הפיזית של הגביעים בקצה ענפי המנורה, אלא גם הסמל לשקידה על עבודת האל.

"גביעים משוקדים" (התמונה לקוחה מ"עץ ונוף במורשת ישראל" מאת נגה הראובני)

מאור ובשמים

המנורה תמיד מוזכרת בצמוד לבשמים ולקטורת:

" וְהִקְטִיר עָלָיו אַהֲרֹן, קְטֹרֶת סַמִּים; בַּבֹּקֶר בַּבֹּקֶר, בְּהֵיטִיבוֹ אֶת-הַנֵּרֹת--יַקְטִירֶנָּה. וּבְהַעֲלֹת אַהֲרֹן אֶת-הַנֵּרֹת בֵּין הָעַרְבַּיִם, יַקְטִירֶנָּה--קְטֹרֶת תָּמִיד לִפְנֵי יְהוָה, לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם." - שמות ל' 7-8

כשהשמש לוהטת בשמי בצהריים ברחבי ארץ ישראל, מתבשמים כולם מניחוח השמנים האתריים שמפיצים צמחי המרווה. חז"ל סיפרו שבעת מתן התורה, כל דיבר ודיבר ירד מהשמיים מלווה בענן בושם, ורעיון זה משתקף עד היום בטקס ההבדלה. אנו עורכים הבדלה כחיקוי למעשה האלוהי - כפי שאנו שובתים ביום השביעי, כך אנו מפרידים בין קודש לחול בסופו, וזאת אנו עושים תוך קידוש על מיני הבשמים ועל מאורי האש.

 

זית למאור

מנורת המקדש דלקה על "שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית--לַמָּאוֹר" (שמות כ"ז 20), שיוצר על ידי פועלים שטבלו לפני כן במקווה, במיוחד עבור השימוש במקדש בטהרה.

העץ עצמו מאיר את הנוף - לעלים יש צד אחד ירוק כהה וצד אחד כסוף, וכשהרוח מניעה אותם נראה שהם ממש מנצנצים. לא מפתיע שזה המראה שהנביא זכריה רואה בחזיונו לאחר שיבת ציון מגלות בבל:

"וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי, מָה אַתָּה רֹאֶה; ויאמר (וָאֹמַר) רָאִיתִי וְהִנֵּה מְנוֹרַת זָהָב כֻּלָּהּ וְגֻלָּהּ עַל-רֹאשָׁהּ, וְשִׁבְעָה נֵרֹתֶיהָ עָלֶיהָ--שִׁבְעָה וְשִׁבְעָה מוּצָקוֹת, לַנֵּרוֹת אֲשֶׁר עַל-רֹאשָׁהּ. וּשְׁנַיִם זֵיתִים, עָלֶיהָ:  אֶחָד מִימִין הַגֻּלָּה, וְאֶחָד עַל-שְׂמֹאלָהּ. וָאַעַן, וָאֹמַר, אֶל-הַמַּלְאָךְ הַדֹּבֵר בִּי, לֵאמֹר:  מָה-אֵלֶּה, אֲדֹנִי. וַיַּעַן הַמַּלְאָךְ הַדֹּבֵר בִּי, וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי, הֲלוֹא יָדַעְתָּ, מָה-הֵמָּה אֵלֶּה; וָאֹמַר, לֹא אֲדֹנִי. וַיַּעַן וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלַי, לֵאמֹר, זֶה דְּבַר-יְהוָה, אֶל-זְרֻבָּבֶל לֵאמֹר:  לֹא בְחַיִל, וְלֹא בְכֹחַ--כִּי אִם-בְּרוּחִי, אָמַר יְהוָה צְבָאוֹת." - זכריה ד' 2-6

חשיבות הזית בעולם העתיק והתיאולוגיה הכרוכה בו הן נושא מרתק, עליו אני נהנית להרחיב בטיוליי. לענייננו כאן, די לסכם בכך שאור המנורה לא היה רק מאור פיזי לצרכי תאורה וגם לא רק סמל לתפילה שקדנית על הצלחת מסיק הזיתים, אלא גם אורו של עץ הזית עצמו.

 

 

 

חנוכייה לי יש

חנוכה הוא החג היחיד בלוח השנה היהודי, המבוסס כולו על ארוע היסטורי. אף על פי כן, הוא כרוך בנופי ארץ ישראל, המשתקפים בחנוכיות הדולקות בבתים יהודיים ברחבי העולם.

מנורת המקדש נוצקה בצלמם ובניחוחם של צמחי המרווה הגדלים בכל חלקי הארץ, ואורה הוא אורם של עצי הזית. בתוכה משולבים כפתורים ופרחים וגביעים משוקדים, המסמלים את החתירה היומיומית לשלום ואיזון. מנורה זו הוצבה במרכזו של סמל מדינת ישראל בדיוק כפי שהופיעה בשער טיטוס, אך היא מוקפת בענפי הזית מחזונו של זכריה, לאחר שהובאה בחזרה ארצה מהגלות על מנת לבסס בה חיים של אורה ושלום.

 

The Origins of the Hanukkah Menorah

 

Every year, in the early darkness of winter, Jews around the world light a Hanukkah Menorah to celebrate the Holiday of Light. The word "Menorah" is Hebrew for "lamp", and "Hanukkah" is Hebrew for "consecration". The holiday was named after the re-dedication of the sacred alter at the Jewish Temple, by the Hasmonean Maccabees, who took it back in 164 BC, during their successful rebellion against the Greeks.

 

We actually don't know of any famous biblical holidays taking place in the peak of winter (like in the case of Christmas), and some think that's because nothing happens during that time period, that bears any crucial consequences for the average farmer, as opposed to Passover for example, or Pentecost. But others claim that there was such a holiday, marking the season of the olive harvest, and that it was overshadowed by the dramatic battle story and finally forgotten.

 

 

We can read the story in the 2nd Book of Maccabees:

"Judas Maccabeus and his followers, under the leadership of the Lord, recaptured the Temple and the city of Jerusalem.  They tore down the altars which foreigners had set up in the marketplace and destroyed the other places of worship that had been built. They purified the Temple and built a new altar. Then, with new fire started by striking flint, they offered sacrifice for the first time in two years, burned incense, lighted the lamps, and set out the sacred loaves. After they had done all this, they lay face down on the ground and prayed that the Lord would never again let such disasters strike them. They begged him to be merciful when he punished them for future sins and not hand them over any more to barbaric, pagan Gentiles. They rededicated the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev, the same day of the same month on which the Temple had been desecrated by the Gentiles. The happy celebration lasted eight days, like the Festival of Shelters, and the people remembered how only a short time before, they had spent the Festival of Shelters wandering like wild animals in the mountains and living in caves. But now, carrying green palm branches and sticks decorated with ivy, they paraded around, singing grateful praises to him who had brought about the purification of his own Temple. Everyone agreed that the entire Jewish nation should celebrate this festival each year." - 2 Maccabees 10:1-9

We understand that the new holiday lasted 8 days because the Maccabees were eager to properly celebrate Tabernacles ("the Festival of Shelters") and its Eighth Day (Shemini Atzeret), after being wrapped up in the war during the appropriate time, several weeks earlier. Later on the holiday came into its own to perpetuate this historical event.

 

Shira Elazary - Israeli Tour Guide - Almond Blossom

 

The Eight Candles of the Hanukkah Menorah

The Jewish sages tell two stories about the origin of the Hanukkah Menorah ("Hanukkiah") and reason for its particular number of candles.

The first tells of eight metal rods that were found in the Temple, and since the original, biblical Menorah, was lost during the rebellion, they used those rods to improvise a substitude, before getting around to re-casting one out of gold. The other story tells of them finding a small can of pure olive oil, which was the only remaining one that was not tainted by the desecration caused by the Greeks. There was only enough oil there to last a single day of lighting the Menorah, but by some miracle, it lasted through all eight days of the holiday.

It is clear that both these traditions center around the renewal of the lighting of the Menorah, and around pure olive oil.

We also know that following the destruction of the Temple and the taking of its Menorah, which occurred a couple of centuries later, it was forbidden to create anymore Menorahs mimicking the ones that were lost. Therefor, the fact that the Hanukkah Menorah has 8 candles (plus a 9th, used to light all the rest) and not 7, means we can commemorate the events of the holiday and even mimic the actions of the Maccabees at the Temple, without actually breaking the taboo. 

 

 

 

Titus Gate, image from absfreepic.com

What did the Temple Menorah look like?

The original Menorah mentioned in the Bible was lost during the Hasmonean rebellion, so when the Maccabees took the Temple back, after re-sanctifying it they re-cast all the items used in its rituals, including the Menorah. We have a reasonable guess as to the appearance of that one from Titus Gate in Rome, where it is shown being carried in triumph by the Roman army. There are problems with this depiction however, because the base of the Menorah is decorated with pagan imagery, which is highly unlikely to have been the case in real life. This can be explained in several manners - either the base of the Menorah broke off, or maybe it was simply carried in a decorated box. 

What we do know a lot about however, is the appearance of the original Menorah:

"And he made the candlestick of pure gold: of beaten work made he the candlestick, even its base, and its shaft; its cups, its knops, and its flowers, were of one piece with it. And there were six branches going out of the sides thereof: three branches of the candlestick out of the one side thereof, and three branches of the candlestick out of the other side thereof; three cups made like almond-blossoms in one branch, a knop and a flower; and three cups made like almond-blossoms in the other branch, a knop and a flower. So for the six branches going out of the candlestick. And in the candlestick were four cups made like almond-blossoms, the knops thereof, and the flowers thereof; and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, and a knop under two branches of one piece with it, for the six branches going out of it. Their knops and their branches were of one piece with it; the whole of it was one beaten work of pure gold. And he made the lamps thereof, seven, and the tongs thereof, and the snuffdishes thereof, of pure gold. Of a talent of pure gold made he it, and all the vessels thereof." - Exodus 37:17-24

This detailed description mentions many elements from the natural world, and as it turns out, the Land of Israel also has some very widespread plants that look very similar, and have medicinal qualities that have earned them a sanctified status among the region's ancient civilizations. They're called Salvia in Latin, based on the verb "salvar" - "to save". Their English name is Sage and in Arabic name it's Maryameyee, which some scholars believe was based on the ancient Hebrew name of Moriah. Yes, like the name of the Land and the name of its most important mountain, Temple Mount.

 

A flowering sage unfolds its stems, looking just like a Jewish Menorah

A flowering sage unfolds its stems, looking just like a Menorah (photo taken from "Nature and Landscape in Jewish Heritage", by Noga HaReuveny)

A gall at the end of a sage stem (photo taken from "Nature and Landscape in Jewish Heritage", by Noga HaReuveny)

Wherever a new branch grows out of an older branch, it's at the base of a leaf - on the Menorah, these would be the "knops". The Jewish sages have likened these knops to "Apples of Crete". There actually does exist a type of sage plant, that grows in Crete, which tends to grow galls - little growths caused be insect bites, that shelter their next generation. Those galls are edible and apparently quite tasty, so much so that they're actually nicknamed "apples".

That species has a close relative here in Israel, known as "Three Lobed Sage". It also grows edible galls, which is probably why its Latin name is Salvia fruticosa. Just like the Bible says, the sage's branch appears to go into the gall and come out its other side. It's possible that the Menorah's knops imitated the shape of the galls, and when the Jewish sages - who in this case were located in Babylon - wanted to convey that, they used the much more famous Crete Sage.

A nice touch: the Biblical name for the Island of Crete is Kaphtor - which happens to be the very word in Hebrew for knop.

"Cups Made like Almond Blossoms"

Young almond fruit, just starting to swell under the still-attached petals, look a lot like goblets. This fits well with this Biblical description.

In the Book of Jeremiah, the almond is used to emphasize how much God intends to keep His word and make sure it comes true:

"Moreover the word of the LORD came unto me, saying: ‘Jeremiah, what seest thou?’ And I said: ‘I see a rod of an almond-tree.’ Then said the LORD unto me: ‘Thou hast well seen; for I watch over My word to perform it." - Jeremiah 1:11-12

The almond is the very first tree that shakes off winter and puts forth a magnificent display of white flowers, before even growing one green leaf (those grow only some time later). The Hebrew name for the almond - Shakéd - was thus turned into a verb, describing diligent hard work.

As we can see, the almond wasn't only meaningful for the shape of the cups at the end of the Menorah's branches, but also for its symbolic meaning of perseverance and hard work. 

Young almonds crowned with dried petals

Young almonds crowned with dried petals (photo taken from "Nature and Landscape in Jewish Heritage", by Noga HaReuveny)

 

Light and Scent

The Menorah is always mentioned together with perfumes and incense:

"And Aaron shall burn thereon incense of sweet spices; every morning, when he dresseth the lamps, he shall burn it. And when Aaron lighteth the lamps at dusk, he shall burn it, a perpetual incense before the LORD throughout your generations." - Exodus 30:7-8

All over the Land of Israel, when the sun burns bright, the sage plants and their relatives put out a perfumed scent for everyone to enjoy, as a result of the essential oils they contain . The Jewish sages have told that when the Torah was given to Moses on Mt. Sinai, every Commandment came down from heaven accompanied with the scent of perfumes, and this resonates to this day in the Havdalah ceremony, where the people bid farewell to the Sabbath by blessing over the light of fire and the scented spices (in Hebrew: perfumes).

 Olives for Light

The Temple Menorah was lit using "pure olive oil beaten for the light" (Exodus 27:20), made by workers who were ritually cleansed, especially for the purpose of lighting the Temple.

This is a type of tree that illuminates the landscape - the leaves have a dark green side and a silvery side, and when the wind blows they move and seem to sparkle. It is no surprise that this is what Prophet Zechariah sees in his vision after the nation's return to Jerusalem from the exile in Babylon:

"And he said unto me: ‘What seest thou?’ And I said: ‘I have seen, and behold a candlestick all of gold, with a bowl upon the top of it, and its seven lamps thereon; there are seven pipes, yea, seven, to the lamps, which are upon the top thereof; and two olive-trees by it, one upon the right side of the bowl, and the other upon the left side thereof.’ And I answered and spoke to the angel that spoke with me, saying: ‘What are these, my lord?’ Then the angel that spoke with me answered and said unto me: ‘Knowest thou not what these are?’ And I said: ‘No, my lord.’ Then he answered and spoke unto me, saying: ‘This is the word of the LORD unto Zerubbabel, saying: Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit, saith the LORD of hosts." - Zechariah 4:2-6

The significance of the olive in the ancient world is a fascinating topic I love to elaborate on during private tours with my clients. For now, suffice it to say that the light of the Menorah was not just the physical light for the practical use of illuminating the Temple, and not just a symbol for the diligent prayer over the olive crops, but also the light of the olive tree itself.

 

 

 

 

Of Hanukkah

This is the only holiday in the Jewish calender, based solely on historical events. Nevertheless, it is a reflection of the Land of Israel, in the Hanukkah Menorahs burning bright in Jewish homes worldwide.

In its image, the Temple Menorah carries the shape and scent of the sage plants that grow all over the country, and its light is the light of the olive trees. It brings together knops and flowers and cups made like almond blossoms, signifying the daily striving for balance. This is the item that was placed at the center of the official symbol of the State of Israel, just as it appeared in Zechariah's vision, after having been brought back from exile to establish a life of peace and light.

 

Brown sheep grazing in a sun-lit forest after the rains

What is the Land Flowing with Milk and Honey?

The phrase "A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey" appears in the bible more than 20 times, always in a very favorable context, as a land rich and nurturing beyond imagination.

"And I am come down to deliver them out of the hand of the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land unto a good land and a large, unto a land flowing with milk and honey..." - Exodus 3:8

"Hear therefore, O Israel, and observe to do it; that it may be well with thee, and that ye may increase mightily, as the LORD, the God of thy fathers, hath promised unto thee—a land flowing with milk and honey." - Deuteronomy 6:3

 

Blossoming trees on a grassy, tarraced hillside

 

And then there's Isaiah. 

When he talks about an abundance of milk and honey, in his prophecy about the Assyrian attack on the Holy Land, it's clear that he's referencing this famous idiom, but the context is completely backwards:

"In that day shall the Lord shave with a razor that is hired in the parts beyond the River, even with the king of Assyria, the head and the hair of the feet; and it shall also sweep away the beard. And it shall come to pass in that day, that a man shall rear a young cow, and two sheep; and it shall come to pass, for the abundance of milk that they shall give, he shall eat curd; for curd and honey shall every one eat that is left in the midst of the land. And it shall come to pass in that day, that every place, where there were a thousand vines at a thousand silverlings, shall even be for briers and thorns. With arrows and with bow shall one come thither; because all the land shall become briers and thorns." - Isaiah 7:20-24

 

Fuzzy looking brown sheep looking calmly at camera

 

What kind of milk? What kind of honey?

To understand Isaiah's reference we must first understand these two products in biblical terms: both were naturally occurring and have been forming way before mankind realized it can regulate its manufacturing, and not just gather it when it's available.

When man realized he too can enjoy animal milk, he started to maintain herds, and to figure out the right conditions to make their milk flow abundantly, i.e. lush vegetation. Bees produce honey in order to nourish their next generation, and keep it in hives, hidden deep in the wild, in hollow trees and crevices. They also need to settle in the vicinity of some flowering plants, from which to collect nectar. In other words, the same conditions apply in areas that make both the milk and the honey flow: wild and rich in vegetation.

The Jewish sages from the first few centuries C.E. tell of bee-keeping, but in the Bible it's never mentioned, probably because people haven't figured it out yet. Back then, honey was considered a treat you might stumble upon, a kind of "finders keepers":

"Hast thou found honey? eat so much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it." - Proverbs 25:16

Or after Samson's fight with the lion: 

"And after a while he returned to take her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion; and, behold, there was a swarm of bees in the body of the lion, and honey. And he scraped it out into his hands, and went on, eating as he went, and he came to his father and mother, and gave unto them, and they did eat..." - Judges 14:8-9

These describe honey  as something that does not belong in well-manicured farms and fields but in the wild outdoors.

Bee vs. Date

There is an interesting question here, regarding the source of the honey. In several instances it seems more plausible that the Bible is referring to honey  made from dates, and not bee honey. Opinions differ to this day, both among modern researchers and the ancient sages. Rabbi Akiva for example, was certain that the "flowing honey" belonged to bees, but he had quite an opposition.

Deuteronomy 8:8 counts the seven native crops of the Promised Land: "a land of wheat and barley, and vines and fig-trees and pomegranates; a land of olive-trees and honey." Other than the first two grains, all the rest are fruit, and since these are all cultured crops and we know people weren't keeping any bees at the time, it makes sense the "honey" is also a fruit.

Another example is the report made by the tribal leaders Moses sent out to survey the Promised Land before entering:

"And they told him, and said: ‘We came unto the land whither thou sentest us, and surely it floweth with milk and honey; and this is the fruit of it." - Numbers 13:27

The proximity of the words "honey" and "fruit" may suggest that they are in fact related.

 

 

Ripe yellow dates on a palm tree

 

One of the things I like most about text studies, is that you don't really need to come up with a definitive answer; both versions have value in telling a story. If indeed the "land flowing with milk and honey" was referring to goat milk and date honey, then it's a way of saying the land has both lush wild areas for shepherding AND areas that allow for agriculture. I like this reading very much, and in my personal opinion, the description of the seven crops indeed refers to dates.

However, if it were the case across the board, than why would Isaiah use a symbol of agriculture and prosperity to paint his prophecy of a land that "shall become briers and thorns."?

 

Dry yellow thorns mixed with star-shaped, bluish thorns

Forest vs. Civilization

If we go with bee honey, this makes more sense: Isaiah is talking about the destruction of civilizations as a result of the Assyrian invasion, and the subsequent takeover of wild vegetation. Other prophets have used this image as well:

"... And Jerusalem shall become heaps, and the mountain of the house as the high places of a forest." - Micah 3:12

"And I will lay waste her vines and her fig-trees, whereof she hath said: ‘These are my hire that my lovers have given me’; And I will make them a forest, and the beasts of the field shall eat them." - Hosea 2:14

And also in a historic depiction in the Book of Maccabees, when the Jewish rebels discover what had happened to their temple:

"There they found the sanctuary deserted, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt down, and vegetation growing in the courts as it might in a wood or on some mountain, while the storerooms were in ruins." - 1 Maccabees 4:38

We see that as far as these prophets were concerned, a forest (the place we know to be flowing with animal milk and bee honey) is really a symbol of great destruction and the doom of civilization.

How does that settle with the magnificent descriptions of the Promised Land?

Let's take a closer look at the story of the tribal leaders Moses sent into the land to survey it. The report, as we have just seen, was full of amazement: finally, a green, lush land after 40 years of scarce desert thorns. But along with that came great fear: 

"The land, through which we have passed to spy it out, is a land that eateth up the inhabitants thereof; and all the people that we saw in it are men of great stature." - Numbers 13:32

Where did this creepy "land that eats up its inhabitants" come from? Actually it may well be a direct description, since we know the forests at the time were crawling with predators.

 

"...And there came forth two she-bears out of the wood, and tore forty and two children of them." - 2 Kings 2:24

An impressive male lion looking alert

"My heritage is become unto me as a lion in the forest..." - Jeremiah 12:8

A wild boar with a bird on its back walking through tall grass

"The boar out of the wood doth ravage it…" - Psalms 80:13

Forest dwelling animals - bears, lions and boars - would occasionally come out to hunt, and a number of famous biblical figures have encountered them. The tribal leaders sent by Moses may have heard or even seen these animals, and felt as if the land might literally devour them, and that only giants might have a chance to survive in such a wild territory, a land flowing with milk and honey.

We must remember that in those days, the fertile valleys were already inhabited by pagans, so the area available for the Israelites to settle was the rough, wild mountain range. Eventually they established a flourishing agricultural society up there, and pushed the predators away.

 

Following the destruction, the Assyrians brought over foreigners, to settle the deserted Israelite cities:

"And the king of Assyria brought men from Babylon, and from Cuthah, and from Avva, and from Hamath and Sepharvaim, and placed them in the cities of Samaria instead of the children of Israel; and they possessed Samaria, and dwelt in the cities thereof. And so it was, at the beginning of their dwelling there, that they feared not the LORD; therefore the LORD sent lions among them, which killed some of them." - 2 Kings 17:24-25

After the Assyrians destroyed the towns and fields, and the land reverted to "briers and thorns", the predators returned and were able to pick off the occasional newcomer. No wonder Isaiah said in his vision that "With arrows and with bow shall one come thither" - for fear of the roaming predators.

And so, according to Isaiah, the land flowing with milk and honey is also the land that devours its inhabitants.

 

Dry thorns standing proudly in a clearing, surrounded by wild vegetation

  

Thick, mysterious-looking woods

A Note on Egypt

Another strange use of "a land flowing with milk and honey" appears during the long years in the desert, when the people complain to Moses:

"...is it a small thing that thou hast brought us up out of a land flowing with milk and honey, to kill us in the wilderness..." - Numbers 16:13

They are claiming that he has taken them AWAY from a land flowing with milk and honey, i.e. a land full of thick wild woods, but as we all know, Egypt, with its Nile and its delta, was the very embodiment of agriculture. 

The answer lies in the instructions Josef gave his brothers, when they came down from the famine-stricken Canaan to seek refuge in Egypt:

 "... when Pharaoh shall call you, and shall say: What is your occupation? that ye shall say: Thy servants have been keepers of cattle from our youth even until now, both we, and our fathers; that ye may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination unto the Egyptians." - Genesis 46:33-34

The Egyptians hated shepherds because of the damage their animals cause their fields, so it followed that the historically herd-owning Israelites would be allotted a place like Goshen - a distant piece of land, away from the fields, that would have plenty of natural vegetation for the animals; a land flowing with milk and honey.

 

Final Thoughts

The phrase "A Land Flowing with Milk and Honey" describes areas that are untended by man and covered in wild vegetation. So long as the Israelites made their living off of animal husbandry, it signified the promise of a rich, comfortable life. But once the forests were cleared and the people settled and started working the land, it became a dire warning.

 

 

Young goat with white-brown coat and pale blue eyes looking curiously at the camera with grass in its mouth

Mosaic of a white pelican feeding its young on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Calvary Hill Mosaics

(Click on any image to enlarge)

The church of the Holy Sepulcher is one of the most unique and impressive sites in Israel, with an appeal transcends any religious definitions. Most Christian denominations mark this place as the site of Jesus' crucifixion, burial and resurrection, but even non-Christians find themselves marveling at the Escher-esque architecture and colorful stories from its long history.

 

Inside the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with light coming in from above

Upon entering the church, one immediately encounters the structure that covers Calvary Hill, the modest limestone mound on top of which Jesus was crucified. Atop the winding flight of stairs lie three (out of the fourteen) Stations of the Cross - stops along the path of that fateful day. This essay will focus on the intricate mosaics covering the ceiling of the 11th station, a small Catholic chapel dedicated to Jesus' nailing to the cross.

The mosaics were the creation of Antonio Barluzzi (1884–1960), an Italian Franciscan monk and architect, known as "the Architect of the Holy Land". Throughout the 1930's he designed many of the Catholic churches in the most important holy locations, always striving to connect with ancient relics found on site and stay true to their style. Here he based all of his work on this exceptional medallion, which has survived from the Crusader period (it is very rare to find such ancient ceilings still in tact).

Crusader ceiling mosaic with the inscription "Ascensio" on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

The arch leading into the chapel is decorated with two verses in Latin, taken not from the New Testament but from the Old, as if saying: if you want to understand what happened here, you must start at the very beginning. The first verse, where the words Ovis (lamb) and Occisionem (slaughter) can be seen, is taken from Isaiah 53:7 : "He was led as a lamb to the slaughter". The second, including the words Dolores Nostros (our suffering) is Isaiah 53:4 : "Surely He has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted."

These two verses stress that the drama here arises not from victimization by some enemy but from voluntary self sacrifice. This is in accordance with the Nostra Aetate, the Vatican's declaration from 1965 on the relation of the Catholic Church with non-Christian religions, stating among other things that the Jews should not be condemned for their role in bringing about the death of Jesus.

Calvary Hill Mosaics

Calvary Hill Mosaics

The arch leads to the first vaulted ceiling, depicting the four Old Testament prophets who have hinted at the eventual coming of Jesus, with quotes from their books that relate strongly to the topics of this chapel, the nailing in particular and the theme of sacrifice in general.

Calvary Hill mosaics

This is Isaiah, closest to the arch that bears his words, with a quote mentioning the word Oblatus (an offering). This is a different section from the same verse as the arch (53:7) : "He was oppressed and He was afflicted, yet He opened not His mouth.

Calvary Hill mosaics

Zechariah appears with a quote from his book, including the words aspicient ad me - look at me. "Then they will look on Me whom they pierced."  (12:10). The original reading is that the nation has paid a hefty price, and the Christian reading is that it was Jesus who paid.

Mosaic of Prophet Daniel on the dome of Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Daniel's apocalyptic book was very popular during the 2nd Temple period. The quote, the most prominent word of which is Christus (Christ), is taken from his Seventy Weeks prophecy, describing the coming of the Messiah and the rebuilding of Jerusalem (9:26) : "And after the sixty-two weeks Messiah shall be cut off". In his consecration speech in 335AD, the great Eusebius quoted this prophecy, stating that this very church was the "new Jerusalem" it was foreseeing.

Calvary Hill Mosaics

King David is depicted here as one of the prophets, quoting Psalms 22:16 : "They pierced My hands and My feet". Easily identifiable are the words manus (hands) and pedes (feet). This is a lion, all tied up and surrounded with a pack of hungry dogs.

The four prophets are surrounded with circles, portraying relevant stories from the Old Testament, all springing from the roots of a rich, fruit laden vine (representing wine, a recurring symbol for Christ). 

The large mosaic on the wall (below to the left) depicts the Binding of Isaac. Like Jesus, this boy is lying quietly, allowing his own sacrifice. This story has always symbolized the boundless love between the Lord and mankind, but here the Lord wished to spare Abraham the pain of losing his beloved son for this love, and provided a ram to take his place - thus distinguishing Judaism from the pagan world at the time, in which child sacrifice was commonplace.

This connects us to the mosaic in the far end of the chapel (below to the right), showing Jesus, looking very similar to Isaac, being bound (with nails this time) to the cross. Note the small thorn bush in the back - but this time there is no ram caught in it. God does not spare himself the pain of sacrificing his own beloved son for his love of mankind.

Also in this mosaic we see Mary, mother of Jesus, standing in black above him. The woman crying over him is Mary Magdalene, who can always be identified by her unruly red hair, bursting out of her head cover, hinting at her strong personality and emotions.

Calvary Hill Mosaics

Mosaic of the nailing of Jesus to the Cross with Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene, on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

The adjoining wall is dominated by Mary Magdalene in her grief. Again her hair/emotions cannot be held back, with Mary the mother of Jesus and Mary of Cleopas silent and reserved by her side. The man in red is John, Jesus' favorite disciple, whose beardless face show he must be very young here. According to tradition, the very same man grew up to write (among other things) the Gospel of John and the Book of Revelations, near the end of the 1st century. In the background we see the walled city of Jerusalem, reminding us that this place, now in the heart of the busy city, used to be an empty, wild wasteland.

Mosaic of grieving Mary Magdelene on Calvary Hill

As we advance to the next vaulted ceiling, we also advance in time into the New Testament. In the center there is a decorated circle. Inside are a Christogram, a combination of letters that forms an abbreviation for the name of Jesus Christ (in this case the letters chi (Χ) and rho (Ρ), the first two letters of "Christ" in Greek), and the letters alpha (A) and omega (ω), first and last letters of the Greek alphabet (mentioned in Revelations 22:13 : "I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last." ).

Dome covered in mosaics on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Mosaic of Alpha and Omega with a christogram on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Saint Peter

Mosaic of Saint Peter on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

 Saint Paul

Mosaic of Saint Paul on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

This fruit laden vine is as rich and plentiful as the one depicted on the previous ceiling, but among the baskets of abundance hide other symbols: the cup of agony (below to the left) and a reed with a vinegar-soaked sponge next to a spear (below to the right), reminding us of the price that was paid. 

In the middle we see that the cross has became the tool by which Christ can redeem the world - an idea dubbed salus mundi. It is surrounded by 12 white doves, representing the apostles of course, but also the dozen tribes, signifying the universal nature of this idea.

Mosaic of vines, fruit and the Cup of Agony on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Mosaic of a Salus Mundi style cross, with a face in the middle and 12 white doves on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Mosaic of vines, fruit, a spear, two whips and a hammer, on Calvary Hill, 11th Station of the Cross

Thus ends the story of this little chapel, which has led us from the first sin and away from heaven's Tree of Life, through prophecies, failures and hopes of redemption, all the way to the cross on Calvary hill - literally a Tree of Death - by which all humanity can to be saved.

A view of Jaffa Gate and the Tower of David, all lit up with art installations that resemble a garden, at the Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival 2015

The Jerusalem light festival (a.k.a "Light in Jerusalem") is celebrated every June since 2009.

Every night for a whole week, parts of the Old city are turned into a glowing garden, with installations by local and international artists, street performers, music, all free of charge, and of course, stalls selling snacks and all manner of glowy  things.

This is a compilation of photos I took that night - click on the images to see a pop up of a large version.

This year I had the perfect chance - I was ascending to Jerusalem anyway for a full day of study in the Church of the Holy Sepulcher (more on that in a future entry), so I recruited a good friend and we stayed in town until darkness set in. 

At 8pm sharp we exited the church to find that even though it wasn't quite dark yet, the Muristan fountain in the Christian quarter was already lit.

There was some wonderful music playing, and the view was completely different from every angle you looked.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Along the alleys2013-03-02-11.34.43.jpg there were glowing lines, denoting the different trails leading through the installations. In the photo above you can see we were on the blue trail, but soon left it to find the information center at Jaffa gate.

Before we actually got there though, we were stopped by some wonderful jellyfish.

 

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

When we got there, the place was swarming with crowds, and set up like a somewhat psychedelic Alice in Wonderland garden.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

We picked up some maps and decided to follow the green trail. 

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

The green trail hugged the outer walls, and after climbing along for a while I turned around to look back to see this view.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

There was a French installation here, called Fish Forest.  

I admit that to my clearly un-artistic eyes, it looked a bit more like fish shish-kebabs.

Then we arrived at the Field of Light Flowers, an Israeli piece that kept reacting to the music, and everything else was forgotten...

Jerusalem Light Festival

Along the trail there was also this Singaporean bench called C/Ͻ, where strangers could sit together and enjoy the changing colors.

We finally arrived at Damascus Gate, and sat down to enjoy the exhibition of drawings on the subject of gates. The work was done by children of all ages from schools around the country, and  projected on a most lovely canvass.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

Also... Yes, this happened too.

Jerusalem Light Festival

From the gate we cut straight through the alleys of the Muslim quarter, to rejoin the blue trail inside the Cardo, where we saw this exhibition of shadow sculptures.

Jerusalem Light Festival

The Cardo kept going with two more installments: "Sea Level" by Brazillian artists, and the Japanese/French "Daydream".

Jerusalem Light Festival

Jerusalem Light Festival

I took a quick detour through the main plaza of the Jewish quarter, to check out the giant Pendulum (Netherlands) placed outside "The Ruin" synagogue. Click on the video to see it in action.

Jerusalem Light Festival

It was getting late so we decided to head out, picking up the white trail. Near Zion Gate we saw a live sand animation show...

Jerusalem Light Festival

... And another light & movement show, called Light Trickeries, performed by Pyromania Group.

Here we saw another favorite of mine: Dialogue in Color, by Israeli artists, so fitting to the region we live in.

Jerusalem Light Festival

The ramparts of David's Citadel were covered with a French installation, called Variations.

Jerusalem Light Festival

... And that was my experience in the Jerusalem Light Festival 2015. There were many more installations I didn't even visit and many I didn't photograph, lots of people, lots of music and lots of light. 

What a wonderful way to infuse these old, old stones with new life, color and joy.

Jerusalem Light Festival

Heads of the Church of the Holy Land, waiting to continue marching

A Field Guide to Christian Clerical Clothing

Since my tour-guide school days I have been deeply baffled by all the different colors, textures, styles and symbols of the Christian clergy's garments, knowing full well that there were codes and meaning to every little detail, but never quite figuring them out. I could tell Catholic from Orthodox just fine, but the subtle differences between the headpieces of say, Russians and Greeks, were just lost on me.

This problem was somehow avoidable until this Easter, when I found myself preparing to guide in Jerusalem during the celebrations (which I wrote about here), and realized that I'd be marching with countless people of all denominations in their formal vestments, and I had no idea what almost any of them meant. However, unlike tour-guide school, this time I won't have my teacher there to decipher everything, but instead be myself the source of that information.

After shaking off the horrifying imaginings of clients tapping my shoulder again and again with questions about the people they were seeing, only to be met every time with "uhh, I donno", I took to Google Photos to try and learn, but met with some confusion there as well. It turns out you really need to know what you're looking for, or you can get even more lost. If only I'd had some sort of comprehensive guide to help me make heads or tails of the various garments and denominations....

Well.

When it became clear that there wasn't anything like that, I thought I might as well be the one to make it, and after some revisions and suggestions by my esteemed teacher and colleague Bat-Zion Ziv, I'm happy to make available to anyone interested my Field Guide to the Christian Clerical Clothing of Denominations Found in Israel. The last page also has a section about the heads of the church in the Holy Land, so you can know their names and faces if you happen to run into one of them. I claim no ownership to any of the photos - I only organized them in context. Feel free to print them out and use to deepen your understanding of what you see along your travels in this fascinating land.

Images of priests and monks from different denominations, demonstrating their typical attire

Images of priests and monks from different denominations, demonstrating their typical attire

Images of priests and monks from different denominations, demonstrating their typical attire

Images of the typical attire of Eatern Orthodox Christian priests

Images of nuns from different denominations, demonstrating their typical attire

Images of monks and nuns from different denominations, demonstrating their typical attire, plus images of important Christian figures in Israel

Catholic Palm Sunday Procession 2015

Palm Sunday Procession in Jerusalem, 2015

"12 The next day a great multitude that had come to the feast, when they heard that Jesus was coming to Jerusalem, 13 took branches of palm trees and went out to meet Him, and cried out:

“Hosanna!
‘Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!’
The King of Israel!” (John 12: 12-13)

On the last Sunday before Easter, the Christian world celebrates Jesus' triumphant entrance into Jerusalem, starting the final week of His life prior to the Resurrection. This year I was lucky enough to experience this celebration at the very place it all happened - the Catholic Palm Sunday procession on Mount of Olives.

(Press on any image to see a large version.)

 

A view over the Old City from Palm Sunday Road - the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount and the double domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

A view over the Old City from Palm Sunday Road - the Dome of the Rock on Temple Mount and the double domes of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

Russian Orthodox church and convent of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives

Russian Orthodox church and convent of Mary Magdalene on the Mount of Olives.

On that Sunday Jesus leaves the house of Lazarus at Betfage, a village on the Eastern slopes of the Mount of Olives. His disciples find a donkey's colt that's never been ridden - maybe the donkey serves as a symbol of peace and humility, as opposed to the horse which tends to symbolize war and pride. Jesus rides down the hill, seeing Jerusalem in all its splendor of the 2nd Temple period, knowing full well it won't last much longer. As he makes his way down, the locals throw down at his feet tree branches (palms, according to John, possibly insinuating the Roman Empire's downfall), and greet him with calls of Hosanna.

In Jewish liturgy, Hosanna is pronounced Hosha-Na, meaning "Save, I pray". It first appears in Psalm 118 (which incidentally also includes the important verse "The stone which the builders rejected has become the chief cornerstone", used by Jesus in his teachings). The term is applied specifically to the Hoshana Service, a cycle of prayers from which a selection is sung each morning during Sukkot, the Feast of Booths or Tabernacles. The complete cycle is sung on the seventh day of the festival, which is called Hoshana Rabbah (Great Hosanna). When the ritual was held in the Temple it incorporated the use of willow branches, so it's no surprise that the masses who greeted Jesus using this salutation did the same. 

Some time after the destruction of the Temple, the Hoshana tradition came full circle, where on Hoshana Rabbah some Jews commemorated the Temple ritual with a pilgrimage to none other than the Mount of Olives...

Catholic Palm Sunday Procession 2015

Catholic Palm Sunday Procession 2015

Palm Sunday Procession 2015

On Palm Sunday (March 29 this year), my tourists and I joined the thousands of Catholic and Protestant pilgrims who came streaming down the Mount of Olives, singing hymns and bearing palm fronds and olive branches. The procession took place in the afternoon, beginning at the Bethfage Church, following the so called "Palm Sunday Road" which descends into Gethsemane, ascending into the Old City via the Lions' Gate and ending at the Church of St. Anne's.

The procession was led by local Arab Christian Scouts groups from all over the country, waving their flags and banners, marching in their uniforms and singing. After them marched a never ending stream of pilgrim groups from what seemed like every country in the world - people of all colors and ages, all walks of life, singing songs of all languages - all united in the festive atmosphere. At the back of the line walked the leaders of the Catholic Patriarchate: Head of the Custody of the Holy Land (the Custos) in the brown robes of the Franciscan monks, the Latin Patriarch in purple robes and a Greek bishop in black robes, representing the large Orthodox communities of Israel, who celebrate on a different date.

 Finally the marchers gathered at the Church of Saint Ann where the Christian Scouts bands played their music, and then the bands left one by one, the ceremony ended and the crowds dispersed.

If you are in Israel around Easter, by all means, this is a fascinating event to take part in. Leave your valuables at home (yes, there are pickpockets around, unfortunately), bring a bottle of water, take a taxi to the top of Mount of Olives and hop in line.

 

... and here are Some Beautiful Faces:

The Carmel Disaster – Post Wildfire Photos

In December of 2010 I was living in a tiny kibbutz called Beit Oren ("House of Pines"), nestled deep in the Carmel ridge by Haifa. I was studying to be a tour guide and my single room flat was small, quiet and offered no distractions other than forest pathways and wild flowers hidden in the undergrowth.

Post Wildfire Photos

But December that year saw no flowers, since the rains had still not come. Everything was crackling and dry after nine months without a drop, and then it happened. I was loading my groceries in a parking lot in Haifa when I looked up and saw a beautiful, strange-looking cloud, hanging above the mountain. Quickly I realized that was no ordinary cloud, and that it was located just where home was. By that time the road had already been closed, and I was stuck there with nothing but my wallet and phone.

The fire raged for five days, and already on its first day it was the worst fire disaster in the history of Israel. 17,000 people were evacuated, 74 buildings were destroyed and nearly 10,000 acres of the Carmel National Park's forest were burnt. A lot of those trees were planted throughout the last century by the Jewish National Fund, who in its eagerness to "make the land green again" missed the fact that pine trees were not exactly native to the eco-system, extremely flammable and terrible at post-fire rehabilitation. The flames were quick and vicious, and took the lives of 44 people, mostly prison service cadets, sent to help in the evacuation of the local prison.

On the third day everyone was still in the dark as to the status of our homes. No one was allowed up there, and judging by the constant news broadcasts, Beit Oren was burnt to the ground. All day long they would show long sweeping camera shots of the scorched landscape, landscape I used to look at every day, taken from the ruined paths of Beit Oren.

Post Wildfire Photos

Then, at one point in the endless broadcasts, my eye caught a patch of green leaves on a bush, right in the corner of the screen. Gradually my tired brain put together that if those leaves were still green, there must be some areas that the fire hadn't reached after all. I almost shouted at the TV to show me more of that green, to see what was left - but they just cut back to the studio, and then back to more long shots of blackened hills.

In my frustration I suddenly had a strange realization - why would they show the green parts? They were sent there to cover the fire and its damages, not "the places that looked exactly the same as they did before".

Eventually a whole week passed and we were allowed to return to our homes. Beit Oren was badly damaged, that much was true, but only in 10% of its area. The rest was just fine, mostly thanks to several brave, stubborn natives who refused to evacuate the first couple of days and fought the fire manually wherever it tried to take hold.

Post Wildfire Photos

Fire damage in Beit Oren. The sign directs to the kindergartens.

Surprisingly, that sad week had taught me a lesson that I share with my tourists to this day: when world media presents Israel as a place that's all war, controversy, suffering and madness, it is only doing its job. It is sent here to cover exactly those topics, and it delivers. Whether it does so in a fair and balanced way is a matter of ongoing debate, but regardless, all of the "green" parts - the vast majority of people who live normal lives with normal routines, joys and hardships - those are always out of the frame. It's just not in the job description, but like the green parts of Beit Oren, it is nevertheless the living 90%.

I realized that the only way for people to really grasp it is to simply come here and "see the green" for themselves.

Post Wildfire Photos

 

Magdala Center

Magdala Center

One cold winter morning I drove over to Magdala Center by the Sea of Galilee, to finally learn about the exciting findings that were excavated there. I've been hearing about the place for years, but since it only opened for visitors on May 2014, I was itching to find out what the fuss was about. I brought my camera and many, many clothing items, and set out to explore Magdala, led by one of the archaeologists who've been digging there and a nice staff member named Jennifer.

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