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Visiting the Holy City of Jericho


Ari Z. Zivotofsky & Yosef N. Zivotofsky

When it was built, the synagogue was probably the pride of the not-insignificant local Jewish community. The best artisans were brought in to design a magnificent mosaic, and in order to help defray the costs a separate mosaic was placed near the entrance that lists the donors. It has now been about 1500 years since those benefactors made their contributions, but Jews are still drawn to the site. It is located in the Palestinian controlled city of Jericho and is today known as the Shalom Al Yisrael Synagogue after an inscription at the center of its well-preserved 10 x 13 meter mosaic.

Shalom al Israel synagogue in Jericho Shalom al Israel mosaic
Shalom al Israel synagogue in Jericho - Jewish Jericho photo album The mosaic - Jewish Jericho photo album

Shalom al Israel Mosaic inscription

Shalom al Israel Mosaic centrepiece
The inscription on the mosaic - Jewish Jericho photo album The centrepiece of the mosaic - Jewish Jericho photo album

Accessing the site today is unfortunately politically complicated, but thanks to the efforts of one devoted woman, Erna Covos, we were fortunate to be able to visit and pray there this past Chanukah. After a decades long absence, it was a profoundly emotional experience for me to visit both Jericho and its most well known synagogue.

The shul was probably used for hundred of years during the 6th and 7th centuries, and then the Yericho Jewish community disappeared and the shul was forgotten. The world’s eyes and in particular those of the Jews turned again to Zion in the 19th century and in 1936 this shul was re-discovered by DC Baramki of the Antiquities Authority. Jews were denied access to it from 1948 until 1967, when Israel liberated the area and Jews returned to the site. In an unusual twist, for the first years following its liberation, visitors, including Jewish worshippers, were charged admission by a clever Arab who built his house atop the archeological site. Finally, in 1986 the National Parks Authority purchased (!) the building and allowed free access which led to regular prayers and eventually the sprouting of a small yeshiva at the site.

Then in1994 as part of the Oslo Peace Accords, Jericho became the first city in Judea and Samaria to be handed over to Palestinian Authority control. Owing to the sanctity of the city and the uniqueness of the synagogue site, then Chief Rabbi Lau and MK Chanan Porat persuaded PM Rabin to negotiate a special status for the synagogue, and unhindered Jewish access and prayer continued. That all came to an explosive halt with the igniting of the Oslo War on September 27, 2000. Shortly thereafter Jews were barred from Jericho, and then on the night of October 12, 2000, the synagogue was vandalized by Palestinians who torched and destroyed most of the building, burned holy books and relics, and damaged the mosaic. For over 8 years no Jew was permitted to set foot in the Shalom al Yisrael synagogue. Then, on February 25, 2009, a joint patrol of Israeli and Palestinian soldiers escorted a high ranking delegation of rabbis and military officials to inspect the site. In anticipation of the visit the PA painted and cleaned the site. Although there were no official plans to allow continued visits, that visit broke the ice and now escorted visits are permitted approximately once per month, thanks to Erna.

Having heard about the possibility of praying in the ancient Jericho synagogue, I contacted Erna about arranging a family trip for our son’s pre-Bar-Mitzva first hanachat teffilin experience. Unfortunately the army cancelled the trip that month and another year would pass before we were able to make the pilgrimage this past Chanukah. The bus begins its journey at 6:30 am from Binyanei haUma in Jerusalem. We, three generations of Zivotofsky men, boarded the almost empty bus and were surprised to find only a handful of other passengers, mostly young charedi type yeshiva boys. We picked up a few more yeshiva boys at the French Hill junction and then headed out towards the Dead Sea. We were going to be circling around and entering Jericho from the north, but we first had to pass the southern entrance. As we did, we saw the one modern, tall building, the casino that many remember. The building is today the five-star Inter Continental Jericho that was built at a cost of $300 million and opened in September 1998, essentially as a hotel built around a casino. Before the renewed Palestinian violence in late 2000, the casino serviced approximately 6,000 patrons a day, almost all Israelis. The hotel and casino shut down in October 2000 and just the hotel reopened in 2005 with the 181 rooms costing about $70 a night.

After passing the southern entrance of Jericho (Yericho) we continued until route 90, where we turned north for a few kilometers and then stopped at the entrance to Beit Hogla, where Erna lives. It is she who, coordinating with Zahal, for the past year or so has been arranging the Jewish visits approximately once a month, usually on Rosh Chodesh. From there we continued around to the north of Yericho. Our last stop before picking up military escorts was the small town of Mevo'ot Yericho which was founded in 1999 as a station for agricultural experiments known as Havat HaIklum and became a farm community in 2000.

The road leading to Mevoot Yericho Mevoot Yericho agriculture
The road leading to Mevoot Yericho - Jewish Jericho photo album Mevoot Yericho agriculture - Jewish Jericho photo album

It is home to 24 families, who grow lemons, dates, figs, grapes, sweet potatoes, passion fruit, and other crops and are also the guardians of the Torah Scroll that used to be housed in the Shalom al Yisrael synagogue before 2000 They are also the final outpost before the entrance to Jericho. We picked up the Torah and some additional people for the bus. These included a large group from the Shilo Hesder Yeshiva and a US reporter. At this point our bus was full to capacity.

We then met our tzahal escort and crossed into PA territory where we were able to see in the distance to our right an additional shul in the area, the Na'aran synagogue, but were not permitted to visit. It was discovered in 1918 after the Ottoman Turks fired a shell at a British army unit camped at the site and it was dated to the Byzantine period, i.e. 5th or 6th century CE. There is a mosaic which is even larger than the one in Shalom al Yisrael and has several sections including a large wheel of the Zodiac, the story of Daniel in the lion’s den, and drawings of utensils from the Temple. In recent years the area has been effectively abandoned by the State and the mosaic is deteriorating, although there are groups of youth who visit regularly. The modern Israeli settlement of Niran is named after the ancient city of that name, although it is located several kilometers to the north. It was established in 1971 as a Nahal settlement, was converted to a civilian kibbutz in 1977 and as of 2006 had a population of 52. It has an industrial area which includes factories for producing stretch films and other plastic films. Information about Na’aran and many of the other sites were explained to us by Erna during the bus trip into and out of Jericho.

The Naaran synagogue - Photo: Ela Koblenz

There is possibly an even older shul in the Jericho area, but we were not successful in visiting it either on that day. It was discovered in 1998 and is today known as the Wadi Qelt Synagogue or the Jericho Synagogue. If the archeological remains are indeed a shul, as the lead archeologist at the site, the recently deceased Ehud Netzer, asserts, this is the oldest shul in the world. It was found as part of the Maccabean Jericho royal winter palaces complex just west of Jericho, and is dated to the first century BCE, about 50 years older than the next oldest shul, found in Gamla in the Golan Heights. The remains suggest a simple, small structure unlike the large, artistic Shalom al Yisrael synagogue. Netzer claims to have identified within the small area the main hall, a niche for the Torahs, a mikveh, and a dining hall. Others archeologists are not convinced that it is indeed a synagogue. Also unlike Shalom al Yisael, It was short-lived, being destroyed together with the palace in an earthquake in 31 BCE.

One of the first things that one notices upon entering Yericho is the cable car. It seems out of place in the otherwise sleepy, ancient town and did not exist the last time I was in the city. The cable car links Tel Jericho to the Mount of Temptation, site of a 19th century Greek-Orthodox monastery still occupied by 6 monks. Built as a result of post-Oslo investments at a cost $12 million the 12 car system opened in September 1999 and offers a five minute ride along its 1330 meter length.

Cable car in Jericho
Cable car in Jericho - Jewish Jericho photo album

We made our way to the synagogue at which point the IDF entered the shul, made sure it was safe and then formed an armed inner perimeter around the building. The PA soldiers, looking significantly more relaxed, formed an armed outer perimeter. We disembarked and made our way into the PA built structure that stands atop the ancient mosaic. After a short hiatus in which we had a chance to take in our surroundings, a joyous Chanukah/Rosh Chodesh prayer service led by the Shilo students commenced. It was truly an inspirational event in which Hallel was recited to song and dance, and Yosef received an aliyah to the Torah.

The prayer services were followed by a short history lesson in the now unused second story Beit midrash (study hall), which included interesting details about the founding of Petach Tikva. Petach Tikva was founded in 1878 by religious settlers from Europe as the first modern Jewish agricultural settlement in the Land of Israel. The original intent was to establish the settlement in the Jericho area, and the group originally purchased land in that area. The name was chosen based on the verse (Hosea 2:17) "And I will give her vineyards from thence, and the Valley of Achor [an area near Jericho] for an opening of hope [Petach Tikva], and she shall sing there, as in the days of her youth, and as in the day when she came up out of the land of Egypt." However, the Turkish Sultan cancelled the purchase and forbade them from settling there. They were eventually permitted to purchase swamp lands near the source of the Yarkon River, the current location of the city, but the name Petah Tikva was retained.

See a movie of the prayer service - best seen in "full-screen" mode.

The second half of the movie contains a Torah talk in Hebrew. What follows explains some of the ideas of the Torah talk, and also goes more into depth with regard Jericho's Jewish and historical contexts:

It is not only the synagogue, but the city as well that has special significance and motivated us in wanting to visit, or more accurately, make a pilgrimage. Jericho is one of the oldest and lowest (244 meter below sea level) cities in the world, and the Jewish history of Jericho dates all the way back to the famous Biblical story of its miraculous capture by Joshua. In response to a Divine command, the Israelites encircled the city once a day for six days and seven times on the seventh day, in a procession that was led by seven priests with seven ram's horns and the Holy Ark. After the final encirclement on the seventh day, they blew trumpets and the people issued a great shout; the city's wall sank and the Israelites entered the city, burned and destroyed it and its contents, and killed its inhabitants (Joshua 6:1-21).

Ancient Jericho
Remains of the city which Joshua conquered - Jewish Jericho photo album

Also known as as "Ir haTemarim" - city of palm-trees, Yericho is blessed with the abundant waters of the Jordan River a mere 6 kilometers to the east and its own underground springs that feed its famous oasis. The result is a lush green patch in the midst of an otherwise barren desert. Its natural resources, beauty, and climate made it a favorite for rulers throughout history, and its strategic location along trade routes and desirable location commanding a fjord across the Jordan River, led to continuous competition for its control.

A reading of the conquest of Yericho in Tanach presents a puzzle: Immediately following the "battle" for Jericho, Joshua issued two proclamations, the second of which is a curse upon any person who would rebuilt the city: "And Joshua charged the people with an oath at that time, saying: 'Cursed be the man before the Lord, who rises up and builds this city, Jericho; with the loss of his first-born shall he lay the foundation, and with his youngest son shall he set up the gates of it'" (Joshua 6:26). This is a most enigmatic and unexpected conclusion to the prolonged description of the preparations for this military conquest of the first city in the land where the Jews are destined to live. Joshua's curse on rebuilding Jericho was eventually fulfilled when, some 500 years later, Hiel rebuilt Jericho and all of his children died (I Kings 16:34), starting with Abiram his first-born and concluding with his youngest son Segib. The motive and parameters behind this curse have been the subject of much discussion, but however it is understood, the puzzle is clear: Was there not a Jewish presence in the city throughout the biblical and Talmudic periods, and what were the Jews doing there when they built the magnificent synagogue that we visited?

The Talmud (Sanhedrin 113a) codifies the curse and even seems to have expanded it by stating that the prohibition includes "building Jericho, even if it is called by another name, or building any other city and calling it Jericho.” This second half led me to ask then chief rabbi Shlomo Goren in 1981 about the propriety of the name "Mitzpeh Yeriho" that was being used for a new town being built overlooking the Jordan Valley. He responded that it was not a problem because Jericho was not to be the name of the city but merely a geographical reference as part of a larger name.

Various rationales are offered for the absence of the building prohibition from all the religious legal codes such as Maimonides’. The 19th century Rabbi Chaim Berlin explained that once Jericho was rebuilt there is no longer a prohibition to live there. Similar explanations were given by Rabbi Meir Simcha haKohen of Dvinsk and Rabbi Eliezar Waldenberg. Rabbi Sternbuch said that only building a complete city is prohibited. Others suggest that only an individual may not built the city, but the Jewish community may.

Taking note of the significance of Yericho in Jewish national tradition as evidenced in the Joshua story, the miracles of Elisha, the continuous Jewish presence there for millennium, and the special synagogues, the Talmudic sages saw fit to highlight the special holiness to the city its intimate link to Jerusalem. Although the city lies 30 miles east of and about 3600 feet lower than Jerusalem, many of the rituals taking place in the Temple in Jerusalem were said to have been sensed in Jericho. We are informed that the sounds of the flute, cymbals, magrefa, and shofar and the Levites' daily song, were heard in Jericho. In Jericho was also heard the voice of Gavinni, the Temple sexton, as he roused the priests with his cry of: "Arise, priests, to your service; Levites to your pulpits, and Israelites to your stands." And after he finished, the sound of the opening of the great gate of the Temple was heard in Jericho. Some say that even the voice of the high priest as he intoned the Divine Name on Yom Kippur was heard in Jericho. The link between the two cities was olfactory as well; the scent of the incense burning in the Temple was not only perceptible, but was all-pervasive in Jericho. It is said that the goats in Jericho would sneeze from the smell of the incense. In addition, the women of >Jericho, even brides, had no need for perfume, for the same reason.

Ra'avad explained that Jericho, just like all "firsts," be they grain, fruits, shearings or male children, are consecrated. Thus, Joshua consecrated the first section of the Land of Israel he captured. And to emphasize this point, G-d performs these daily miracles which produce a tangible link between Jericho and >Jerusalem.

An amazing rabbinic teaching says that when the Land of Israel was originally divided among the various tribes, it had not yet been revealed where the Temple would be constructed, and hence which tribe would have to give up some of its land for that purpose. Since the site of the Temple Mount in the second Temple period was 500 x 500 amot, a 500 x 500 amah area was set aside as part of the original allocation in the outskirts of Jericho and would be given to the tribe in whose territory the Temple would eventually be built, in exchange for the land they would give up for the Temple site. It therefore turns out that the original land for the Bet haMikdash was set aside not in Jerusalem but in Jericho!

I recall visiting Jericho years ago. The first stop was the national park at the site of the tel where 23 strata have been identified by archeologists, principally the British Kathleen Kenyon in the 1950s. The site has yielded pottery and building samples spanning millennia. There are ancient cemeteries which have provided human remains for study, and also shed light on ancient burial practices including those of early Jews. Documents and mikvaot (ritual baths) from the Biblical and Talmudic period have been unearthed.

The tel is not the middle of the city because unlike pre-Roman settlers who constructed their new cities on the ruins of previous cities, after the Romans destroyed the city in the first century the Christian Byzantines, to whom it was also holy, relocated in to its present location about one mile east. Nearby is the Spring of Elisha, where Elisha the Prophet is said to have sweetened the water (II Kings 2). This is the source of the water for the oasis.

As in much of Israel, earthquakes have played a role in the history of Yericho. For example, in 743, during the Umayyad Period, Caliph Hisham Ibn Abd el-Malik built his winter palace there. But just 4 years later a massive earthquake leveled the entire city and he did not rebuild it, leaving it deserted for centuries. The last major earthquake in Israel was on July 12, 1927 and its epicenter was right near Jericho. Current estimates are that over 200 people died, mostly in Yericho.

The Jewish community seems to have disappeared after the Roman destruction of the city, but a Jewish community was reestablished in the city in the seventh century, possibly by Jews fleeing from Muhammad. The Shalom al Yisrael synagogue, oriented towards Jerusalem and containing the mosaic floor with the Jewish symbols of the time, i.e. menorah, shofar, and lulav, is from that period. The Jewish presence dwindled in the early middle ages, during which time the town was fought over by the Crusaders and Muslims. After Jericho was entirely burned by the Crusaders, the town was practically uninhabited until the 19th century. The most recent destruction of Jericho, or Al-Rihad as it is now called, was in 1840 by Ibrahim Pasha in a punitive expedition against the Bedouins. At the beginning of the last century only 40 to 50 Muslim families lived in Al-Rihad, while by the 1940s the town has expanded to about 3000 residents. In 1967 the Israeli census indicated a population of almost 7000, with another 2000 living in the surrounding areas. Its current population is estimated at about 15,000.

On the day that we visited Yericho we were not the only ones in the region. About 50 teenagers marched in the region and visited the Herodian palaces without army permission or coordination in a protest to demand that Jews be permitted to live in the region. Many of them were members of the Garin Yericho, which advocates the renewal of Jewish settlement in the city.

It is truly a special city. Much credit goes to Erna for arranging these trips and it is important that Jericho not fall off of the Jewish and Israel radar screen. Rabbi Eliezer Valdenberg, one of this generation's greatest sages and known for his work, Tzitz Eliezer, wrote forty years ago: "There is no prohibition from Joshua to weaken our efforts to do all we can to prevent this important city from leaving our authority, ... All this [the many connections between Jerusalem and Jericho] teaches us that Jericho should never again leave our possession, just as, G-d willing, the holy city of Jerusalem will never again leave our possession."

Photos: Yonathan Gormezano, movie: Erna Kovos

Jewish Jericho

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