Author Archives: Alieza Salzberg

Alieza Salzberg

About Alieza Salzberg

Alieza Salzberg is a graduate student at the Hebrew University where she studies Rabbinic Literature. She is a fellow at the Hartman Institute's Seder Nashim, Beit Midrash for Judaism and Gender. She lives, writes and studies in Jerusalem.

The Politics of Archeology in Israel

Tourists to Israel are often thrilled by the idea of traveling the land of Abraham, praying at the Western Wall, just a stone’s throw away from where King David‘s palace and Solomon’s Temple once stood. However, today’s archeologists are locked in a fierce debate over whether archeology can confirm biblical stories. The land of Israel has yielded many archeological finds, but what they mean is subject to interpretation: archeology is both influenced by politics and personal belief, and plays a role in shaping political discourse.

A Brief History of Archeology in Israel

In the mid-19th and early 20th centuries, British and American archeologists set out to test the truth of the Bible in a period where the “documentary hypothesis” had shaken the Bible’s previous authority. These explorers–some devout Christians, and others more skeptical–uncovered what seemed to be basic proof of Jewish, Canaanite, and Philistine settlements generally corresponding to the Biblical narrative.


Ruins at Masada.

With Israel’s independence in 1948, archeology continued to shape the Jewish national narrative. For example, the fortress at Masada, discovered in 1838 by British archeologists and further excavated by Yigal Yadin in the 1960s, was heralded as confirmation of the heart-wrenching story of Jewish zealots who committed mass suicide rather than surrender to the Romans. The story of that last stand, spoke to Israeli fighters looking for models of Jewish bravery and willingness to fight and die for autonomy.

After the Six-Day War in 1967, Israel gained access to the entirety of Jerusalem. With the renewed access to the Old City, Israeli archeologists discovered testaments to life during the Second Temple period. This included the southern entrance to the Temple complex, thought to have welcomed Jewish pilgrims three times a year and the remains of the homes of Jewish priests.

Post-Zionist Critique

The finds from the Second Temple period are relatively uncontested, however much debate now surrounds the beginnings of Jewish rule in Israel and the Davidic Kingdom in Judea. In the past two decades, scholars and activists have accused archeologists of being driven to prove the truth of the Bible when dating and interpreting their finds. Underlying some of these accusations is the insinuation that Zionist archeologists wish to bolster the Jewish right to the land by pushing Jewish political dominance in Israel to an earlier date.

Modern Midrash

“Not trying to be a prophet
but he who parted the sea,
is a part of me
and when I look in my heart I see
the same mystery.”

These opening lines of a song by Matt Bar, a contemporary Jewish rapper, describe his inspiration to dip into the waters of Jewish tradition, and interpret it through hip hop and folk rap. Like many contemporary Jewish artists, writers, and musicians, Bar sees himself as part of an unbroken chain of Jewish textual interpretation, and he views his enterprise as modern midrash.


From Storahtelling‘s original production of
Becoming Israel. Featuring Storahtelling artists
Sarah Sokolic, Emily Warshaw and Jon Riddleberger.

Many have been tempted to label all works of art inspired by traditional themes or biblical characters as midrash. While appreciating these diverse works of Jewish art, from Agnon‘s written words to Chagall‘s painted scenes, perhaps we can sketch a more circumscribed set of boundaries for the rabbinic genre of midrash and its modern counterpart.

Traditional midrash, written and compiled between the first and 11th centuries, are commentaries on the books of the Bible which often focus on specific words, verses, or chapters. In these works, which include Genesis Rabbah and Midrash Tehillim, a darshan, or interpreter, looks for unusual words, curious plot twists, or contradictions and uses these textual anomalies as a window for interpretation or re-imagination of the back-story to the brief biblical tales.

While Bar’s hip-hop beats are new to Torah study, many of his songs maintain the rabbinic method of close reading and a love of word play. For example, in Bar’s rap Exodus 5, he responds to an odd plot twist: The Israelite elders seem convinced that redemption is near at the end of Exodus 4, but in the next chapter Pharaoh’s decree for increased labor instantly crushes all their hope. Why this sudden loss of faith?

Bar fills in the gaps, putting these words into Pharaoh’s mouth: “Listen to me Moses because I know that you know my name…I don’t even know His name, I know you know my name.”

The Darker Side of Hanukkah

The most popular version of the Hanukkah story comes from the first book of Maccabees, which describes how the Seleucid Greeks forbade the observance of Shabbat, kashrut, and circumcision. Many Jews chose to martyr themselves rather than abandon their faith, as the story goes, but this was not yet cause for rebellion. According to this account, written in the first century BCE by a Jewish writer of the Hasmonean court, the revolt began with an act of passion against religious coercion: the Jewish priest Mattathias spontaneously kills a Greek officer who forces Jews to make sacrifices to pagan gods.

Imagination Centuries Later

An altogether different story appears in a commentary to Megillat Taanit, a list of festivals and fasts that was compiled in the Second Temple period. The commentary, called the Scholion, was composed in the talmudic period but edited sometime between the 9th and 11th centuries. It reports that the Greeks sent officials to the Land of Israel for the purpose of raping brides before their marriage, a legal ordinance also called jus primae noctis in medieval legal documents or “right of the first night,” in modern scholarship.

The rabbis who authored the Scholion report that the Jews, out of fear, responded to this Greek policy by abstaining from marriage, and then by engineering underground weddings. But the upcoming nuptials of the daughter of the high priest prove too prominent to conceal. When a Greek official comes to rape the maiden, the Maccabees defend their sister’s honor. This is what sparks the rebellion.
Scholars have questioned the historical validity of this story, as well as whether the “right of the first night” was ever perpetrated against the Jews. Still, anxieties about brides being raped were obviously embedded in the rabbinic psyche. Predating this story about the start of the Maccabean revolt, Midrash Bereshit Rabbah presents prenuptial rape as one of the sins perpetrated by the generation of the Flood, and the crime also makes a couple appearances in Tractate Ketubot as a legal scenario in marriage law.

Hair Coverings for Married Women

In many traditional Jewish communities, women wear head coverings after marriage. This practice takes many different forms: hats, scarves, and wigs all cover and reveal different lengths of hair. Many women only don the traditional covering when entering or praying in a synagogue, and still others have rejected hair covering altogether. What is the basis for this Jewish practice, and what are some of the legal and social reasons for its variations?

The Sources

jewish woman praying

The origin of the tradition lies in the Sotah ritual, a ceremony described in the Bible that tests the fidelity of a woman accused of adultery. According to the Torah, the priest uncovers or unbraids the accused woman’s hair as part of the humiliation that precedes the ceremony (Numbers 5:18). From this, the Talmud (Ketuboth 72) concludes that under normal circumstances hair covering is a biblical requirement for women.

The Mishnah in Ketuboth (7:6), however, implies that hair covering is not an obligation of biblical origin. It discusses behaviors that are grounds for divorce such as, “appearing in public with loose hair, weaving in the marketplace, and talking to any man” and calls these violations of Dat Yehudit, which means Jewish rule, as opposed to Dat Moshe, Mosaic rule. This categorization suggests that hair covering is not an absolute obligation originating from Moses at Sinai, but rather is a standard of modesty that was defined by the Jewish community.

Having first suggested that hair covering is a biblical requirement–rooted in the Sotah ritual–and then proposing that it is actually a product of communal norms, the Talmud (Ketuboth 72) presents a compromise position: minimal hair covering is a biblical obligation, while further standards of how and when to cover one’s hair are determined by the community.

Elsewhere in the Talmud (Berakhot 24a), the rabbis define hair as sexually erotic (ervah), and prohibit men from praying in sight of a woman’s hair. The rabbis base this estimation on a biblical verse: “Your hair is like a flock of goats” (Song of Songs 4:1), suggesting that this praise reflects the sensual nature of hair. However, it is significant to note that in this biblical context the lover also praises his beloved’s face, which the rabbis do not obligate women to cover. Though not all would agree, the late medieval commentator, the Mordecai, explains that these rabbinic definitions of modesty–even though they are derived from a biblical verse–are based on subjective communal norms that may change with time.

Judaism after the Temple

The Babylonian Talmud relates the dramatic story of Rabbi Johanan Ben Zakkai’s escape from the Roman siege of Jerusalem in the year 70 C.E. Before the Romans breach the walls of the city, Ben Zakkai abandons the spiritual and governmental capital of the Judean state, even while the Temple is still standing. He foresees the fall of Jerusalem, and so he has himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin. Through flattery, and by humbling himself before the Roman general, he is able to negotiate a deal, allowing him to establish a new center of learning in the city of Yavneh (Gittin 56b).

The historical veracity of this tale is questionable, but the talmudic narrative encapsulates an important shift in the political and religious life of the Jewish people following the destruction of the Second Temple. The story of the founding of Yavneh represents the birth of rabbinic Judaism, a way of life focused on Torah and Jewish law, rather than Temple worship or political sovereignty.

From a distance of 2,000 years, it appears that this shift in priorities enabled the spiritual wealth of Israel to become migratory, based on Torah study, not on the location of an altar or a King’s palace–Jerusalem to Yavneh, to the North of Israel, to Babylonia, and finally throughout the Diaspora. Were the rabbis willing to remodel the former Jewish kingdom into a wandering people unified only by a shared text? Were they enthusiastic about this shift, which empowered scholar over priest and King? Or was the founding of Yavneh a contingency plan, meant to preserve Jewish identity during the years of Roman rule, always awaiting a return to Jewish sovereignty in the Land of Israel?

The stories told in the Talmud and Midrash offer a window into the rabbis’ perspectives, many of whom were already living comfortably in the Diaspora at a distance of hundreds of years from the Temple’s destruction.

The Bar Kochba Rebellion

If the story of the founding of Yavneh suggests that the rabbis were content to leave the institutions of Statehood and Temple in the past, the figure of Rabbi Akiba–who lived two generations after Ben Zakkai–complicates this narrative.

Mishnah & Tosefta

Both the Mishnah and the Tosefta are anthologies that record laws attributed to sages from the tannaitic period (0-200 CE). The Tosefta (which literally means “addition”) has traditionally been characterized as a text that provides explanation for murky sections of the Mishnah–its more dominant and well-studied counterpart. But not all scholars accept this theory, and a few fundamental questions about these two texts remain up for debate: Why were both texts necessary? Which really came first and what was the purpose of the second? Literary comparisons of the Mishnah and Tosefta may shed light on the poetics and politics of their composition.

The Texts

The most obvious differences between the Mishnah and Tosefta are in their length and verbosity. The Mishnah is brief, composed in short sentences, and provides legal opinions with little explication. By contrast, the Tosefta often includes additional details, reasons for laws, or further permutations concerning their application.
While the Tosefta follows the Mishnah’s structure, adhering to the same six sedarim (orders) organized by topic, frequently the Tosefta veers away from the Mishnah’s arrangement to include entire sections by association, which do not appear in the Mishnah. For instance, in the opening of tractate Niddah (1:4), the mention of nursing as an indicator of menstrual purity leads the Tosefta (2:7) to include a collection of laws concerning nursing, remarriage, birth control, and other issues of sexual conduct which are entirely absent from the Mishnah.  

All the extra material in the Tosefta renders it three times as large as the Mishnah. This pattern has lead to the traditional explanation that the Tosefta was composed as a commentary or companion text to fill in details left out by the Mishnah–a theory advanced by rabbis and scholars ranging from Rav Sherirah Gaon (906-1006),  to 20th century Hanoch Albeck.  However, others have contested this belief, suggesting that additional material attests to the Tosefta’s independence from the Mishnah; if the Tosefta is not a simple commentary perhaps it predates the Mishnah.