News Digest — 9/21/21

How Did Jews Celebrate Sukkot 2,000 Years Ago? Archaeology Offers Answers

Some 2,000 years ago, as the festival of Sukkot approached, tens of thousands of Jews left their homes throughout the land of Israel and beyond and began a journey toward Jerusalem.  There they would encounter a monumental and flourishing city and take part in what likely was one of the most intense religious experiences in the entire Roman Empire.

Ancient remains might not represent the best tools to pinpoint what was happening in a very specific and short period of time – such as the seven day festival whose characterizing commandment is to build a temporary booth that would not leave anything permanent.

However, excavations in Jerusalem in conjunction with historic sources have revealed a grandiose picture of that heyday period just before the city and its Temple would be destroyed at the hands of the Romans.

“When one speaks about a pilgrimage in Hebrew, the expression is aliyah al-regel, which does not simply suggest the notion of a pilgrimage, but literally indicates climbing up using one’s feet,” said Dr. Guy Stiebel, a senior lecturer at Tel Aviv University.

“People took a break from ordinary life, left their houses and traveled toward Jerusalem, which they reached through the area located at the southern tip of what today is called the City of David,” he added.

Archaeological excavations have revealed the gate the pilgrims crossed.

“They would then purify themselves in the Siloam Pool and go straight up to the Temple Mount, through a stepped street which was previously believed to have been built at the time of King Herod,” Stiebel noted.  “Now we know that the project was actually carried out under Judean Governor Pontius Pilate.  In spite of his bad reputation, he built some of the most impressive monuments in Jerusalem.”

The commandment for Jews to go up to Jerusalem during Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot is included in the Torah.

“Based on Biblical texts, we can probably assume that some form of pilgrimage was already occurring during the First Temple Period,” said Dr. Yonatan Adler, a senior lecturer at Ariel University, referencing the time period between 1200 BCE and 586 BCE when the sanctuary in Jerusalem stood, before being destroyed by the Babylonians. 

By the First Century CE, Roman-Jewish historian Titus Flavius Josephus said that millions of people took part in the pilgrimages, bringing tens of thousands of sacrifices to the Holy Temple.

“At the time of Herod, the Temple Mount was known as one of the biggest religious compounds in the Roman world,” said Stiebel.

The Siloam Pool was only one of the many ritual baths that have been uncovered on the way or in the vicinity of the Temple Mount.

Adler, an expert on mikvaot (ritual baths) said that thousands of them were found in and around Jerusalem as Jews had to purify themselves not only for the pilgrimage but in their daily lives as well.  He said that some of the ritual baths were large enough to hold multiple people.

Jews from all backgrounds participated in these pilgrimages.

While no traces survive of the ancient booths that the ancient Jews built to celebrate the holiday of Sukkot, archeology provides other important evidence of the centrality of the festival.

“The Four Species were featured on the coins minted by the rebels against the Romans during the first Jewish revolt,” Adler said.

A palm tree bound with some leafy branches – likely the willow and the myrtle –  and one or two citrons appear on artifacts that were also a symbol of freedom and independence against the Romans.

“It is reasonable to think that the rebels considered the Four Species associated with Sukkot, symbols that anyone would recognize,” said Adler.

The festival of Sukkot is being celebrated in Jerusalem and around the world this year, 2021 from sundown Monday evening (20th), through next Monday evening, (27th).



Bennett Among World Leaders To Address UN General Assembly

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett will address the UN General Assembly that begins hearing world leaders on Tuesday (21st) in its annual conference, with a formidable agenda of escalating crises to tackle, including the COVID-19 Pandemic.

This will be Bennett’s first major international speech and will deal with matters of Israeli national security with an emphasis on the dangers to the Middle East and beyond, which are posed by Iran.

“UN Secretary-General Antonio Gutteres who will open the week-long event, will pull no punches in expressing his concern about the state of the world, and will lay out a vision to bridge the numerous divides that stand in the way of progress,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric said.

Iran’s newly-elected hardline President Ebrahim Raisi will address the diplomatic forum on Tuesday (21st).

Bennett will travel to New York on Saturday (25th) and address the international body on Monday (27th).

By tradition, the first country to speak is Brazil, whose president, Jair Bolsonaro, is not vaccinated.  He reiterated last Thursday (16th) that he does not plan to get the shot any time soon, justifying his refusal by saying he had COVID-19 and therefore has a high level of antibodies.

US President Joe Biden will appear on Tuesday (21st) at the UN for the first time since becoming president last November.

Other leaders scheduled to speak in person during the meeting, which ends Monday, September 27th, include King Abdullah II of Jordan, the president of Venezuela, and the prime ministers of Japan, India, and the United Kingdom.  Mahmoud Abbas head of the Palestinian Authority will also speak.  



Israel Upgrades Defenses Against Hezbollah On Lebanese Border – Amos Harel

Hezbollah has more than 70,000 rockets, and if mortars are included, the number is almost double.  The rockets cover every spot in Israel – and dozens are equipped for precision strikes within meters of the target.  Hezbollah has also upgraded its Radwan commando force, a unit of several thousand fighters with long combat experience in the Syrian civil war.  If war breaks out, its fighters will try to seize an Israeli town near the border.

In recent years, the IDF has taken steps to improve its defense against Hezbollah.  It has renovated segments of the border fence and has opened a new training ground near the border to field another unit on constant alert.  In addition, a new reserve unit is being formed to operate as a swift intervention force if Hezbollah attacks, composed of several hundred combat soldiers, all Galilee residents.  The soldiers will keep their guns and gear at home to be deployed quickly, so they can literally defend their homes in the Galilee area.



Lebanese PM Vows To Liberate ‘Territories Occupied By Israel’

Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati on Monday (20th) told the parliament that Lebanese citizens have the right to oppose Israel and respond to its attacks, Kan 11 News reported.

Speaking at a meeting intended to seek the confidence of parliament to form an official government, Mikati pledged to work “for the liberation of the Lebanon territories occupied by Israel.”

At the same time, according to the report, he also said that Lebanon intends to resume talks with Israel, through US mediation, on maritime borders.

A new Lebanese government headed by Mikati was formed just several days ago after a 13-month impasse as the country grapples with one of the worst crises in its history.

Mikati took on the task of forming a new government in late July, days after fellow veteran politician Saad Hariri quit.

Last year, official discussions began between representatives of Israel and Lebanon, with the aim of reaching an agreement on their maritime border.

A senior Israeli official involved in the negotiations stressed that the talks are not on normalization of ties between the countries and stated, “We are commencing negotiations with Lebanon with a pragmatic and realistic approach.  We have a limited goal – namely, to fix the maritime border between the two countries.”

The Iran-backed Hezbollah terrorist organization, which has a strong presence in the Lebanese parliament, stressed the US-backed talks with Israel did not signify “reconciliation” or “normalization” with the Jewish state.

The talks were initiated after Lebanon signed its first contract to drill for oil and gas off its coast with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek, included in a block disputed by Israel.

Israel says one of the two blocks in the eastern Mediterranean where Lebanon wants to drill for oil belongs to it, and denounced any exploration there by Beirut, as “provocative.”



Thieves Caught Trying To Steal 200 Headstones At Argentine Jewish Cemetery

Local Jewish leaders are fuming about repeated security breaches at a large Jewish cemetery in the Buenos Aires area.

Just before Yom Kippur last week, three vandals were caught trying to make off with 223 of the cemetery’s gravestones – the third such robbery in the past month.  Over 100 headstones were smashed at the Tablada cemetery the previous week.

One of last week’s vandals was caught while two others escaped.  An investigation is ongoing.

“We are very concerned about the lack of action by Argentine authorities to protect the Jewish cemetery,” Eliahu Hamra, secretary-general of BUR, the Orthodox bloc that rules the AMIA Jewish group, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

No anti-Semitic graffiti has been found in the cemetery after the repeated incidents, but Jewish groups still raised a high alarm.  They also praised cemetery workers, who stepped in to stop the robbery without police help.

“We expect that the authorities will give a definitive solution to the problem of insecurity and will provide the protection we need, and that the necessary measures be taken urgently.  It seems like there is a ‘free zone.’” AMIA President Ariel Eichbaum told JTA.

According to AMIA, the Tablada cemetery is the largest Jewish one in Latin America.

Inaugurated in 1936, it covers nearly 100 acres and contains more than 130,000 graves.  It is located 13 miles east of Buenos Aires.