Eilat Mazar (1956-2021) was born in Israel to a family of archaeologists, and grew up playing and learning on excavation sites. Her grandfather, Benjamin Mazar, was the State of Israel’s first official archaeologist, and was the president of the Hebrew University. Eilat studied archaeology at the same university, and began her field work in 1981. She made a big splash right away by discovering the Royal Quarter of the ancient City of David in Jerusalem, including what is thought to be the royal palace of King David himself. She went on to uncover some of the biggest finds of the last century, including parts of the walls built by King Solomon, the seal of King Hezekiah, and the seal of the Prophet Isaiah. Mazar was driven by her belief that the Tanakh records actual historical events (whereas many of her secular colleagues often viewed the Tanakh as mythology). She would say that “I work with the Bible in one hand and the tools of excavation in the other.” Over the decades, her work played a major role in helping to prove the authenticity of the Bible. Mazar discovered countless treasures from the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, and was a vocal activist trying to stop Palestinian and Jordanian authorities from destroying Jewish artifacts on the Temple Mount. (The worst case of this was in November 2000, when some 6000 tons of precious earth from the Temple Mount was illegally excavated by the Waqf and dumped in a landfill.) In 2013, Mazar discovered a large cache of treasure from the 7th century that contained a gold coin depicting a menorah, shofar, and Torah. She taught at the Hebrew University and published three books on archaeology, along with dozens of journal articles. She also paved the way for more female archaeologists to enter the field. Despite suffering from an illness, Mazar continued working and digging. Sadly, she passed away earlier this week. Israel Prize winner David Be’eri said that she “will forever be remembered as a pioneer standing shoulder to shoulder with the greatest scholars of Jerusalem throughout the ages.”
I fully understand that any minority would prefer to be a majority, it is quite understandable that the Arabs of Palestine would also prefer Palestine to be the Arab State No. 4, No. 5, No. 6 – that I quite understand; but when the Arab claim is confronted with our Jewish demand to be saved, it is like the claims of appetite versus the claims of starvation. – Ze’ev Jabotinsky
Some of Eilat Mazar’s biggest finds (clockwise from top left): gold medallion with menorah, shofar, and Torah scroll from the 7th century CE; seal of King Hezekiah, 7th century BCE; King Solomon’s walls, 10th century BCE; seal of the Prophet Isaiah, 7th century BCE.
Painting of the Ramban from the walls of the Akko Auditorium
Moshe “Bonastruc” ben Nachman (1194-1270) was born in Gerona (present-day Spain) to a deeply religious Sephardic Jewish family. From a young age he studied with some of the great Sephardic sages of the day, and by the time he was 16 was already recognized as a wise scholar in his own right. He also studied medicine and became a sought-after physician. He was soon the chief rabbi of Catalonia and published several highly-acclaimed works, including glosses on the Talmud and several legal texts. Rabbi Moshe would become known as the Ramban, based on the initials of his name, and also as Nahmanides to the wider world. (The Ramban should not be confused with the Rambam. In fact, the Ramban helped to settle a philosophical dispute that first began with the Rambam in the previous century.) In 1263, Ramban was summoned to publicly debate a group of Dominican friars, before King James I, to settle whether Christianity or Judaism was the true faith. Rabbi Moshe tried his best to avoid the debate, which he knew would be a setup where Judaism could never be shown to win. The king conferred royal protection to him, promising no retribution of any kind. The Ramban gently tore down all the arguments of the Christians, and expertly defended Judaism, later publishing a written account of this famous “Disputation of Barcelona”. As he predicted, the failed friars sought to have him executed for “blasphemy”. The king, however, proved wise and fair, decreeing only a two-year’s exile, and gave the Ramban a gift of 300 gold solidi. (The friars then took their cause to the pope, unsuccessfully.) The Ramban journeyed to the Holy Land and settled in Jerusalem. When he arrived, he found just two Jews left there, following the ravages of the Crusades. He resolved to reinvigorate Jewish life in the Eternal City, building a small synagogue (which still stands today) and re-establishing a vibrant Jewish presence. Henceforth, a Jewish community has never ceased from Jerusalem. The Ramban spent his last days in Acre, where he similarly rebuilt the Jewish community. While there, he wrote his most famous work, the Commentary on the Torah. The commentary is among the first to feature mystical interpretations, since the Ramban was also a renowned Kabbalist. He is considered among the greatest rabbis of all time. Tomorrow, the 11th of Nissan, is his yahrzeit.
Words of the Week
We must believe in freedom of will, we have no choice. – Isaac Bashevis Singer
Interior of the Ramban Synagogue in Jerusalem’s Old City
Eliyahu “Bachur” haLevi (1469-1549) was born near Nuremberg, the youngest of nine children. When the Jews were expelled from the region, his family settled in Venice. Throughout these years, Eliyahu spent most of his time in the study of Torah, Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), and Hebrew grammar. In 1504, he settled in Padua and took on a job as a teacher of Jewish studies. He wrote a textbook of Hebrew grammar for his students, and the book quickly spread far and wide. It became especially popular among Christian scholars, many of whom were then trying to learn Hebrew in order to understand the Bible in its original language. Meanwhile, inspired by other Renaissance authors, Eliyahu wrote a romance novel in Yiddish, the Bovo-Bukh, history’s first Yiddish novel. Hugely popular, it has been continuously published until this day, going through some 40 editions over the past five centuries. It was also translated to other languages, including German and Russian. The book’s title is the origin of the well-known Yiddish phrase, bube mayse, an “old wives’ tale”. Eliyahu wrote two satires in Italian as well. By the time he resettled in Rome in 1514, he was quite famous, and became close with Cardinal Egidio da Viterbo. The two made a deal in which Eliyahu and his family could live in the Cardinal’s palace, in exchange for Eliyahu teaching him Hebrew and Jewish mysticism. (At that time, Jewish mysticism was very popular in Europe, and had many famous non-Jewish students, too, including Michelangelo and Pico della Mirandola.) Eliyahu lived with the Cardinal for the next 13 years. During this time, he composed several more textbooks on the Hebrew language, including one of the first Hebrew dictionaries. He also translated various Jewish texts, mainly Kabbalistic ones, into Latin. Rome was sacked in 1527, so Eliyahu had to relocate again. King Francis I offered him to become a professor of Hebrew at the University of Paris, but Eliyahu declined because at that time Jews were banned from living in Paris and he refused to live in a city where his brethren were not welcome. Eliyahu would return to Venice and passed away there. Today is his yahrzeit. Former British Prime Minister David Cameron is one of his descendants.
Words of the Week
To have a second language is to have a second soul. – Charlemagne