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 during that time period, nothing happens that bears any crucial consequences for the average farmer, as opposed to Passover for example, or Pentecost. But others claim that there actually was such a holiday, marking the season of the olive harvest, but 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 busy fighting the war several weeks earlier, during the appropriate time. 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, these rods were used as a makeshift Menorah, before getting around to re-casting one out of gold. The other story tells of a small can of pure olive oil, the one and only remaining can that was not tainted by the Greeks. There was only enough oil in there to light the Menorah for one single day, but by some miracle, it lasted throughout all eight days of celebration.

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 loss of its Menorah, a couple of centuries later, it was forbidden to create any more Menorahs mimicking the ones that were lost. Therefor, the Hanukkah Menorah having 8 candles (plus a 9th, used to light all the rest) and not 7, means we can celebrate the events of the holiday and even mimic the actions of the Maccabees at the Temple, without actually breaking that taboo. 

Titus Gate, image from

What did the Temple Menorah look like?

The original Menorah mentioned in the Bible was lost during the Hasmonean rebellion, so after the Maccabees took the Temple back and re-sanctified it, they also re-cast all of its holy items, including the Menorah. We have a reasonable guess as to the appearance of that version of the Menorah, based on Titus Gate in Rome, where it is shown being carried in triumph by the Roman army. There are problems with that depiction however, as the base of the Menorah is decorated with pagan imagery, and is a different shape than what appears in many archaeological depictions. 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. 

We also get a detailed account of 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 natural elements. As a matter of fact, in the Land of Israel there is a common plant that looks very much like it, and also has medicinal properties, rendering it sacred among the region's ancient civilizations. In Latin it's called Salvia, based on "salvar" - "to save". The English name is Sage and in Arabic it's Maryameyee, which some scholars believe was based on the ancient Hebrew name of Moriah. Yes, like the name of the Holy Land and the name of its holiest 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)

The sage's joints, where a new branch grows out of an older branch, are always located at the base of the leaves. In the Menorah, these would be the "knops". The Jewish sages have likened these knops to "Apples of Crete". Crete actually does have a type of sage, which tends to grow galls (little growths caused be insect bites, that shelter their next generation). These galls are edible and apparently quite tasty, as 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 lead into the gall and come out the other side. It's possible that the Menorah's knops were shaped after the galls, and when the Jewish sages - who in this case were located in Babylon - wanted to illustrate that idea, they named the much more famous Crete Sage.

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

"Cups Made like Almond Blossoms"

Young almonds, 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 illustrate God intent to keep His word:

"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 to shake off winter and burst into a magnificent flurry of white flowers, before producing single green leaf. The Hebrew name for the almond - Shakéd - was aptly turned into a verb, describing diligence and hard work.

The almond's purpose wasn't just to physically embody the shape of the Menorah's cups, but also to allude to 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 in conjunction 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 exude 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 people bid farewell to the Sabbath by blessing 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.

The significance of the olive in the ancient world is a topic I love to elaborate on during private tours with my clients. This tree 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 saw 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

So the light of the Menorah was not just 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 calendar 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 land, and its light is the light of the olive trees. It brings together knops and flowers and cups made like almond blossoms, signifying the everyday quest 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:

" 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

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....


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:

‘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.

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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