Herodian Mansions and Southern Wall Excavations

By Lila Herzig, Fall 2019 student

When learning about Jewish history in religious school, a majority of my education focused on the Torah and the Holocaust. All of that space between the two was only covered in my seventh-grade year. I knew two things: the Torah is stories, and the Holocaust is living-memory history. The in-between stuff? Well, let’s just say that I had no idea when the anecdotes ended and historical fact (or at least archaeological corroboration) began.

A few years ago, my parents mentioned the City of David, an archeological excavation of biblical Jerusalem, to me and my mind was blown. I had honestly never thought that King David was real. My lack of knowledge about the ancient Jewish presence in the Middle East meant that I thought that the only claim Jews had to Eretz Yisrael (the land of Israel) was the promised land as outlined by G-d in the Torah. Suffice it to say, I was very skeptical of the validity of a Jewish state in this region. Were Jews really native to this land?

If I only got one thing out of my entire Jewish History class at Heller High, it would be that I now believe that Jews have a right to live in Israel. Sure, the modern politics of it are very complicated, but I can now confidently say to my friends at home that the creation of Israel as a modern nation was not just white colonialism. I think that’s the most important thing, really: because of this class, I have a true understanding of Jewish history, and feel more confident in my views about Israel.

Archaeological evidence of Biblical events is called historicity. This particular trip, or tiyul, focuses on one of the first events that is explicitly documented by historians and is corroborated by archaeological findings: the Second Temple and its destruction. This is when there is obvious proof that Jews were living in the land of Israel. I didn’t know anything about the Second Temple era before this class, except for the fact that there had been a temple. This tiyul gave me context for a history that I hadn’t known anything about just a few days ago – I got to see the sites of the events we are learning about.

This trip was a full-day trip in Jerusalem’s Old City, mostly focused on archaeological findings. Our first stop of the day was to an excavation of homes of Sadducees. The Sadducees were a sect of Judaism in Judea (the Roman territory which contained Israel) during the Second Temple Period. They were Cohenim (priests) who took care of the Beit HaMikdash (the Second Temple) and made sacrifices there. They were wealthy, got along well with the Romans who ruled over Judea, and lived in the upper city of Jerusalem (which was prime real estate at the time). So unsurprisingly, their homes were very impressive.

One of the big signs that a mansion that was uncovered belonged to Cohen and not some wealthy Roman, besides its location in the upper city, is that the Cohenim had personal mikvehs (ritual baths) in their homes. There were always seven steps leading down to a small bath, where the Cohenim could immerse privately, a luxury not afforded to the common Jews of this time.

Another sign of a Jewish home was the presence of carvings of menorahs. If a menorah was found in an excavation, that meant that Jew lived there. But despite these Jewish symbols, the houses of the Sadducees were very Roman in style. This reflected the aesthetic of the whole of Jerusalem, which began to resemble a Roman city. The Sadducees were wealthy, so their mansions resembled the villas of Italy, complete with Roman columns and tiled floors. These Cohenim prospered in Roman society but needed the Beit HaMikdash to maintain power in Jewish life.

After seeing these mansions, we took a break to eat in the old city. The area was bustling with tour groups as well as people going to work. Shops were selling hand-woven tallit (prayer shawls), rosaries, and t-shirts. The dusty stones encasing the whole area impressed me more than any shop or cheap restaurant. This place really felt like an ancient  city. It felt like a place where there had been great temples and a place from which more great things would emerge. However, going to our next location, the Western Wall, made me realize how new the Old City is compared to the history it contains.

Second Temple Judaism was very different than the Rabbinic Judaism that we practice to this day. This is mainly because Jews were applied the law of the Tanach (Hebrew Bible) without interpretation, as practiced by the Cohenim. Instructions on how Jews should act in Jerusalem, what they should do at the Temple, and laws about food and agriculture that specifically apply to Eretz Yisrael were all relevant at the time. Once the Second Temple was destroyed, rabbinic Judaism prevailed, mainly because the Jews had left Jerusalem and they had no temple, so the halacha (Jewish law) had to be re-invented for a world without the Temple.

As modern Jews, we can still visit the site of the Temple Mount. We spent the second half of our class at the Western Wall. there, we talked about its archaeological history and the significance of different areas of the wall. During the era of the Second Temple, before any destruction had occurred, the Beit HaMikdash was the center of all Jewish life, regardless of where each Jew lived. A huge mass of Jews from near and far would make the pilgrimage to Jerusalem (the aliyat regel), often on foot. The three pilgrimage holidays, known as the shaloshet haregalim, are Pesach (Passover), Shavuot, and Sukkot. During these holy days, Jews from all over would gather in Jerusalem to offer sacrifices at the Beit HaMikdash. As this pilgrimage was holy, there was a process to it:

  1. Once he arrived in Jerusalem, the pilgrim would exchange his local money for a half shekel, which he would give as tax to the Temple.
  2. The pilgrim would buy an animal ready to sacrifice (unblemished). The cheapest animal was a pigeon.
  3. The pilgrim would bathe in the public mikveh to inaugurate this special moment.
  4. The pilgrim would walk up the steps of the Temple, donate his half-shekel, and hand off his sacrifice to be given to the priests.

The walk that the pilgrims took up the steps was, in itself, an important experience. We got to walk these steps and put our hands against the wall that these pilgrims touched. This reminded me of why I am here in Israel and why I am a Jew. The fact that I can walk the steps that my ancestors did remind me of the importance of upholding this culture and religion that has existed for millennia. I wouldn’t call the moment spiritual, but it was certainly powerful. In the days of the Temple Mount, there were certain ways to enter depending on the pilgrim’s situation. The ordinary way to enter was to walk up the right side of the stairs and exit down the left. However, those who were in mourning or had been excommunicated walked up and down on the left side, so that others would see that they needed comfort and would offer them words of reassurance.

I love this idea of demonstrating your struggles quietly so that those who notice can comfort you. Jews do this all the time. In some synagogues, mourners stand up first during the Kaddish Yatom (Mourner’s Kaddish) and/or wear torn black ribbons on their clothing. These quiet symbols ensure that there is a community around you in times of need. This method of climbing the steps shows that the Beit HaMikdash was a place of unity for Jews. A Jew from Jerusalem might be comforted by a Babylonian Jew who they will never see again, but their culture brings them together, just as synagogues today do, but on a larger scale.

The Second Temple era lasted through many empires. It was the last time that Jews sacrificed animals to G-d or applied every halacha to Temple life. Even in the days of the Second Temple, Jews were not unified (one of the many reasons why we could not hold our own against the Romans), but the Beit HaMikdash was agreed upon as a place of great importance by most Jews and was treated as such. When the Temple was destroyed again, it became the most significant event in Jewish history. It marked a turning point from written law to oral law, from Cohenim to Rabbis. It was also simply a great loss for the Jews. Judaism changed after Tisha B’Av, 70 CE, the 9th day of the Hebrew month of Av, the day that the Temple was destroyed – it is now observed as a day of mourning for the loss of both ancient Temples, as well as other tragedies. At the time of the fall of the Temple, some groups became closer together, others became even more fragmented beyond comprehension. Tens of thousands of Jews were lost and with them, their stories and their memories of the Second Temple Era. Those who survived had to learn to move on, and that is what Jews are still doing to this day.

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