A view of Old Jaffa and its beach from the self guided jaffa walking tour

Self Guided Jaffa Walking Tour

Self Guided Jaffa Walking Tour

Here is a free, complete self guided Jaffa walking tour. In the following map I’ve charted my usual route when guiding in Old Jaffa, so that anyone can follow these instructions and get a pretty comprehensive experience. Zoom in for more comfortable reading. There are 3 types of location markers, which toggle a little window when clicked: The red alphabetical markers are stops along the tour, starting with “A” and progressing from there. The green star markers point to other places of interest off the route. The brown arrow markers contain the walking instructions. Below the map is the information section, with a summary about each stop. The entire self guided Jaffa walking tour can take about 1.5-2 hours. Make sure to wear comfortable shoes and bring water and sun protection ūüôā

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Jaffa Tour Directions

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Jaffa Tour Directions: 32.053335, 34.752223

1. Start/Finish – The Clock Tower

Begin your tour Old Jaffa's Clock Towerunder the most central landmark in Jaffa, the old Clock Tower. Ottoman sultan Abdul Hameed II built the tower in the year 1900, to mark his 25th anniversary on the throne. The guy loved these towers and built dozens of them all around his empire. For most of Jaffa’s history there was a fortified wall surrounding it, and this spot used to be the main gate, dubbed “Jerusalem Gate”. Here was the starting point of the most important road in the Holy Land – the one leading up to Jerusalem. In later years the city expanded so far beyond the walls that they became useless, and were taken apart for construction material.

As one of the oldest port cities in the world, Jaffa is said to be named after Jaffeth, son of Noah (yes, the one who built the arc). Throughout most of history it was the main port of entry into this land, and was mentioned in the bible when Solomon had some cedar trees from the Lebanon shipped over to build the first Temple, and when prophet Jonah attempted to escape God’s will by boat. Pilgrims making the journey by sea would have had to come through here, and catch a carriage leaving for Jerusalem from this very spot.¬† For this reason, whenever along history Jerusalem was enjoying a golden age – Jaffa would flourish. Whenever Jerusalem was forgotten – Jaffa would sink into a slump.

* The New Seraya

The remaining facade of the new Seraya of JaffaThis facade is clearly visible from where you stand under the Clock Tower.¬† There were several “Serayas” built around this land (this Seraya is from 1897), as administrative centers for the Ottoman government (the Turkish word¬†saray¬†means “palace”).

During the turbulent days leading up to the Jewish-Arab war in 1948, Jaffa’s Seraya became a center for the local Arab paramilitary organizations, orchestrating armed operations against the Jewish city of Tel Aviv. Therefor, on January 1948, in the midst of a civil war between the Jews and Arabs of Palestine, the Jewish paramilitary organization “Lehi” blew it up with a truck bomb, killing and injuring dozens. The building’s southern wing (the governor’s house) was restored and reopened recently as a center for Turkish culture. The northern wing only had its facade partially restored as a monument.

2. Mahmudia Mosque

An ornate door and the minaret of the Mahmudia Mosque in JaffaJaffa’s most important mosque is also Israel’s 3rd largest one. It was renovated in the early 1800’s by Jaffa’s Ottoman governor, Muhammad Aga A-Shaami, aka “Abu Naboot” (literally: “Father of the Mace”, as he was always carrying one with him). He named the mosque after his late son Mahmud.

Abu Naboot also built an impressive water fountain, dedicated to the ruler of Akko and his superior,¬†Sulayman Pasha. It’s attached to the front the mosque facing the street, as free water was a ruler’s gracious gift to his people.

Legend has it that he built the fountain after getting stuck outside the city gates one night, tired and thirsty, and refused entrance in by his own guards, who couldn’t identify him in the dark. Next morning he returned home, and declared that last night’s guards will be rewarded for doing such a good job, not succumbing to his pleas and threats. However, since he had to spend the night out there, he overheard them badmouthing him, so now they’ll also be put to death… The fountain was built in an area accessible from outside the walls, so that no one will ever go thirsty while the gates were closed for the night.

3. The Old Seraya

Bats hanging from the ceiling of the old Seraya in JaffaThis used to be the Ottoman governor’s residence, up until the dedication of the new Seraya down by the city gates. Built in the 18th century on the remains of a crusader fortress, it originally served as an inn. Then ruler Abu Naboot made it his administrative center, complete with a post office, a jail, a well, a mosque and a Turkish bath. After the inauguration of the new Seraya, it became a soap factory, until it was deserted in 1948.

Today it contains Jaffa’s archaeological museum (not open to the public), Jaffa’s Hebrew-Arabic theater, and quite a boisterous colony of fruit bats, visible through a barred doorway facing the street (just follow the noise!).

4. The Gate of Faith

The Gate of Promise sculpture at the top of Old Jaffa hillDaniel Kafri’s sculpture stands at the top of Old Jaffa hill, overlooking the entire coastline of Tel Aviv. Its gate shape symbolizes Jaffa’s historic role as the main port of entry into the country. The gate depicts three biblical stories, all dealing with God’s promise of the land to the Jewish people: the binding of Isaac by his father Abraham, Jacob’s dream ladder, and on the top part, the conquest of Jericho.

The park all around us used to be covered with the narrow, winding alleys just we’d expect to find in a place like Old Jaffa. Unfortunately, the British blew it all up in the 30’s. This was done to allow for better military control over rioting Arabs, during the Great Arab Revolt (1936-1939). The place sat in ruins for years, until finally getting a restoration as part of Jaffa’s renewal, and planted with salt-and-wind resistant plants.

* The Zodiac Bridge

As part of Jaffa’s rehabilitation, some legends and traditions were polished off and put on display. Such is the case of this bridge: stand on it near your zodiac sign, face the sea and make a wish.

5. Ramses II Gate

Ramses II Gate in Old JaffaWe’re looking into an archaeological excavation, where an impressive gate bears hieroglyphics praising Pharaoh Ramses II, who ruled during the 13th century BC. This is a replica; the originals are kept in the Jaffa Museum. The top beam is not a replica because they never found the original.

What are ancient Egyptians even doing here? For the past several millennia, this region has had significant strategic importance. Israel was a bottleneck, connecting the two superpowers of the ancient world: Mesopotamia and Egypt. Whenever one became more powerful than the other, it would expand and take over this area; this is why we find archaeological remains from both empires over several historic periods. Think of Jaffa hill as a layer cake, containing remains from many different versions of the city, stacked on top of each other. The Hebrew term for this is “Tel”, which is a word you’ll see often if you travel around Israel.

There is an Egyptian tale of the conquest of Jaffa around 200 years prior, by Pharoah Thutmose III. The Egyptians brought over “gift baskets” as a sign of surrender and the city accepted. Later that night, Egyptian warriors hiding in the baskets sprang out, opened the gates and allowed their army to move in and take over. This was all a couple of centuries before the famous Trojan horse!

6. Alley Entrance

Old Buildings in Old JaffaOld buildings in JaffaRemember the British blowing up the top of Jaffa hill so they could take over when the Arabs rebelled? This was as far as the damage from that operation reached, and we can now start to enjoy Jaffa’s typical alleys.

The Old City was built on a coastal ridge of calcareous sandstone (think of it as a petrified sand dune), and that’s what all of these buildings are made of. You can see the rock is light and porous, so in order to achieve good insulation they had to cover it in plaster and maintain it constantly. The Old City was abandoned during the 1948 war, and rehabilitated throughout the late 20th century as an artist colony. It even has a fringe theater, which you’ll see on your way to the next stop. During the restoration of the buildings, they removed the old plaster to reveal the beautiful original stone. They replaced the plaster with modern materials, to fix the insulation problem once and for all.

7. The Floating Orange Tree

Old Jaffa's Floating Orange TreeSculptor Ran Morin’s suspended orange tree is an homage to the now bygone Jaffa oranges, which used to be the pillars of the local economy.¬† To create his art installations, Morin has worked with the¬†Volcani¬†Agriculture¬†Institute to develop methods of sustaining full size trees in unusual locations, such as suspended in midair, or on top of some 50 ft¬† tall columns.

This statue is meant to symbolize mankind’s disconnect from nature. You can also look at it the other way around – how nature always finds a way.

8. Ilana Goor Museum

The top of Ilana Gur Museum, with its sign and a plastic horse on the roofThis impressive 18th century building served as an inn for Jewish pilgrims who arrived to Jaffa by sea. After long years of neglect, successful artist, designer and sculptor Ilana Goor bought the building and restored it, reopening as a museum. The place contains Goor’s own creations in different contemporary mediums, as well as her private art collection, comprising of over 400 pieces. This covers painting, sculpting, video, ethnic and tribal art, antiques, sketches, high concept designs and everyday appliances. She acquired all of these on her journeys in Israel and abroad, spanning 50 years. This is also her private home, which makes a visit even more unique. On top of 3 floors of this “artistic jungle”, there is a sculpture garden on the roof, overlooking the coast.

For more information, visit their site.

* House of Simon the Tanner

This site is not open to the public and not on the way to anything else. I put the marker up for those of you who are interested in just seeing the location according to Armenian tradition. The locked premises contains a lighthouse and a small mosque, and belongs to a Christian Armenian family.

In the Book of Acts we read that Saint Peter was staying in the house of a tanner named Simon in Jaffa. One day he was praying on the roof while awaiting dinner, and had a vision with many animals that were unfit for consumption according to Jewish law. Then a voice told him to¬†‚ÄúRise, Peter; kill and eat.‚Ä̬†But Peter said, ‚ÄúNot so, Lord!¬†For I have never eaten anything common or unclean.‚Ä̬†And a voice¬†spoke¬†to him again the second time,¬†‚ÄúWhat God has¬†cleansed you must not call common.‚Ä̬†(Acts 10:13-15).¬†

This is one of the earliest signs of Christianity starting to break away from Judaism. Judaism sees great importance in separation – holy vs.unholy, kosher vs. non-kosher, Jews vs. non-Jews. With this story we start to see a shift through the character of the strict, Jewish Peter, being told that the time of separation is done. The very next thing he does is go to Caesarea and baptize the first non-Jew, Cornelius.

9. The Zodiac Fountain

A fountain featuring the 12 zodiac signs in Old JaffaYou’re now in a square called Kikar Kedumim (“Square of the Ancient Ones”). Underneath your feet lies the main archaeological excavation of Old Jaffa. There’s a visitor center here, featuring remains from different time periods and fun audio visual presentations. For visits, go to their website.

Among other things discovered on the excavation was a wishing well. To keep the tradition going, they added a fountain right above that spot on the square’s last renovation. You may have noticed that Jaffa has a bit of a theme going on, namely the zodiac star signs. You see them in the street names, the Wishing Bridge and of course, this fountain. This is due to Jaffa’s connection to Greek mythology, which we’ll talk about near Andromeda’s Rocks. You have all 12 signs here, depicted in very unique (and some might say trippy) designs. Try to identify them all.

One last thing to note – do you see the Napoleon figures strewn around? Those are here to remind us that Napoleon Bonaparte himself conquered Jaffa in 1799, during his attempt at getting to Turkey via Egypt. He was stopped in Akko and had to retreat, leaving behind some of his soldiers who’ve contracted the plague, at the care of the monasteries. There are rumors that he couldn’t take them back with him so he had them killed, but a famous painting in the Louvre (see it here) claims it never happened. Guess who commissioned the painting….¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬† ¬†(Napoleon. It was Napoleon.)

10. Saint Peter’s Church

Saint Peter's Catholic Church in Old JaffaAs we’ve seen in the story of Simon the Tanner, Jaffa holds a respectable place in Christianity, as a center of transformation. Thus the Catholic order of Franciscan monks (representing the Vatican in the region for the past few centuries) established a monastery and church here, dedicated to St. Peter. This was where Catholic pilgrims used to come and stay when first arriving by sea. Today the church is still in regular use, mostly by local Christian Arabs, work immigrants and foreign diplomats.

The church faces west instead of the east, to symbolize the change in the attitude of Jesus’ followers, who started addressing the pagans from the West rather than Jews exclusively. Above the altar there’s an art piece depicting a dove drenched in warm light. This is a direct reference to a similar (albeit much more intricate) piece above the alter, in the Papal¬†Basilica¬†of St.¬†Peter¬†in the¬†Vatican. The idea is that any worshiper who enters this church will symbolically leave Jaffa behind and¬†arrive at the Vatican.¬†Catholics believe that Peter was the first pope, so the connection is clear.¬†There’s also art depicting Peter’s dream and other stories from his life.

Outside, if you look to the very top of the facade, right under the cross, you’ll see a chunk of natural rock. This was brought here from Caesarea Philippi in the north, where according to tradition Jesus told Peter “you are Peter, and¬†on this rock I will build My church” (Matthew 16:18).¬†

11. The Port

Pld Jaffa's historic port with fishing boatsThis small, sleepy port used to be an explosion of people, traffic and noise. As you can clearly see, the advent of large sailing vessels made docking impossible. Thus, ships would lay anchor out at sea, and porters would make their way back and forth in little dinghies.

Many a pilgrim have described in vivid detail the experience of being hoisted by those hulking porters into their flimsy boats, sitting there shivering on a pile of other travelers belongings, terrified at the boatmen maneuvering ever so close to the rocks. Then they would stagger through the chaotic harbor, looking for their belongings and the correct paperwork in the blistering heat, until they could finally enter the city and find an inn to recover in.

During the Great Arab Revolt of the 30’s, the Arabs shut down the port for a while. Unfortunately, that only drew its end nearer, as naval traffic was¬†diverted to the competition – the new port in the Jewish city Tel Aviv. Today this port serves fishermen, boat owners and naval scouts, with a mix of art and dining spaces, a music venue (“The Container“) and fishing gear storage.

* Andromeda’s Rocks

Andromeda's Rocks at Jaffa's harborThese are clearly visible from the shore as you’re walking back towards the Clock Tower. In Greek mythology, Andromeda was the beautiful daughter of king Cepheus and queen Cassiopeia. Her mother boasted that Andromeda was more beautiful then the daughters of Poseidon, god of the sea, which naturally made these ladies angry. At their behest, Poseidon sent the terrible sea monster Cetus to lay waste to the kingdom. The only way to appease the beast was to tie Andromeda to the rocks by the coast of Jaffa as a sacrifice. She was saved at the last minute by the hero Perseus, and together they sired the Persian nation.

The whole story appears in the night sky, as the constellations Cepheus, Cassiopeia, Cetus and Andromeda. The latter contains a whole galaxy by the same name, which is the closest one to earth and clearly seen by the naked eye. This constellation connection was the reason behind the modern rebranding of Jaffa around the zodiac.

 

So here we are, back at the clock tower. I sincerely hope you found this self guided Jaffa walking tour helpful and fun. Feel free to use and share it for all to enjoy!

 

 

 

Light entering a sea grotto at Rosh Hanikra

Rosh Hanikra

(Click on any image to enlarge)

There is a secret hiding away in the cliffs of Rosh Hanikra, on the western edge of the border between Israel and Lebanon. There, under the "Ladder Ridge" - named for the ancient stairs carved into it in times past - the sea has been inching away at the soft chalk for millennia, creating natural caverns.

Israel's northern coastline viewed from above Rosh Hanikra

A yellow border sign on the gate of the IDF base at Rosh Hanikra

Fishermen on the beach near Rosh Hanikra

After taking in the wonderful view from the top, take "The World's Steepest Cable Car" down to the main platform. A great tunnel with an old train track is used as a screening room for a brief overview of the natural and historical aspects of this unique place.

The tracks were precariously laid here by the British for the same reason the stairs were, many centuries earlier: as a way to get past the great barrier of Ladder Ridge. This tunnel allowed the British to have an unbroken train line all the way from Egypt, through Jordan, Syria and Turkey, and on to Europe.  In 1948, the Jewish resistance forces blew up the tracks, and they remained out of order ever since.

The craggy beach near Rosh Hanikra

Lower terminus of the cable car at Rosh Hanikra with the white cliff behind it

From the main platform begins a short tunnel, connecting the natural sea grottoes. Inside you get a different show every time; on summer days the water is still and flat, and you can see every detail of the seabed in the vivid turquoise water. On winter days, the dark waves smash against the rocks with all their might and foam, their thunder echoing through the caves.

Turquoise water in a sea grotto at Rosh Hanikra

Turquoise sea water at Rosh Hanikra

There are many unique plants and wildlife in this nature reserve, such as rock conies, monk seals and sea turtles, but the ones you're most likely to encounter are rock doves and fruit bats. These guys reside in the caves, and can be seen flying around (the doves) and heard screeching loudly over the waves (the bats).

Bat colony in a grotto at Rosh Hanikra

A dove in a grotto at Rosh Hanikra

“O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, In the secret places of the cliff..." (Song of Solomon 2:14)

Rosh Hanikra is a great spot, offering very impressive sights on a quick and easy visit. It's a must on any private tour I guide in the area, plus we can arrange for activities and events here as well - anything from scubadiving, kayaking and powerboating to weddings and Bar Mitzvas.

For Rosh Hanikra's official website, visit www.rosh-hanikra.com.

The Elephant's Foot formation at Rosh Hanikra

Sunset over the sea from the cable car at Rosh Hanikra

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 absfreepic.com

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: ‚ÄėJeremiah, what seest thou?‚Äô And I said: ‚ÄėI see a rod of an almond-tree.‚Äô Then said the LORD unto me: ‚ÄėThou 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: ‚ÄėWhat seest thou?‚Äô And I said: ‚ÄėI 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.‚Äô And I answered and spoke to the angel that spoke with me, saying: ‚ÄėWhat are these, my lord?‚Äô Then the angel that spoke with me answered and said unto me: ‚ÄėKnowest thou not what these are?‚Äô And I said: ‚ÄėNo, my lord.‚Äô Then he answered and spoke unto me, saying: ‚ÄėThis 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‚ÄĒa 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: ‚ÄėWe 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: ‚ÄėThese are my hire that my lovers have given me‚Äô; 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