An Ancient Find – is it Authentic?
By Avraham Dov Greenbaum
One day in Teves of 5740/1979, a motley group began climbing the bare slope of Mount Eival. It was cold and windy, but the sun shone brightly in the clear sky over the heads of the men, who sported wide-brimmed safari hats. The men progressed slowly, their eyes studying the ground, and every so often one would move a stone or dig a bit in the hard ground. They worked in silence; they did not converse at all.
The leader of the group was a man in his 40s, much older than the others. He limped his way along using two crutches, but he often outpaced his companions. Every few minutes someone would point something out to him, and he would pause and study it. The younger men occasionally asked for a rest break, but he would not hear of it.
Suddenly, the men spied a large mound of stones of a color lighter than those of the surroundings. The expedition stopped to survey it, while the leader instructed the others to mark its borders and to measure it. The following day, they returned with heavier equipment and began digging carefully through the mound. Taking care over many months not to destroy any archaeological evidence, they unearthed a square structure with no doors or windows, but with a ramp leading to its roof, which was made of a different type of stone altogether.
At the time, this was arguably the biggest and most exciting discovery for the world of archaeology in Eretz Yisrael and it triggered an emotional debate that remains unresolved even today, over 40 years later. For Adam Zertal, the man who led the expedition, it changed his entire life.
Adam Zertal was born in 5697/1937 on the kibbutz of Ein Shemer. His father, Moshe Zertal, was one of the leaders of the Shomer Hatza’ir movement. Adam never showed any interest in the field of archaeology until he was 30, after the Six Day War. An archaeologist named Yosef Porath invited Adam to join a group of volunteers to scout the newly conquered territories.
“It was incredible,” Adam related years later. “We rode through the land of the Tanach. The mountains of Shomron were covered with olive trees and Arab villages. Every once in a while, the jeep stopped by some ruin or mound, and we examined the bits of pottery on the ground. Each level told the story of a different era of history, a different culture, a different nation.”
Adam’s budding career was cut short by the Yom Kippur War, when he was badly injured by an Egyptian shell along the Suez Canal. He spent a full year in a hospital, and several more years in physical rehabilitation therapy. It was only in 5738/1978 that he began to walk again, but only with the help of the two crutches that became his trademark. It was then that he set out on an excursion to scout the area of Har Menashe. Little did he know that the project would take 37 years and would cover 3,000 square kilometers. He would map more than 1,500 historical sites, of which 90% were unknown until then.
The hike on Mount Eival took place in 5740/1980, and Zertal’s team finished excavating his find two years later. The time had come to identify what they had found. Zertal’s friend Benny Katzover, an observant Jew, suggested that he had found the mizbe’ach built by Yehoshua Bin Nun when he first entered Eretz Yisrael. Kibbutz-bred Zertal, who didn’t even believe that such an event ever took place, waved his hand in dismissal. “You religious Jews are quick to jump to conclusions,” he said. “A true archaeologist believes only what he sees.”
At that time, Benny Katzover was the head of the Shomron regional council, and he followed the research on this discovery excitedly. Whatever it was they had found, it was 9 meters long, 7 meters wide and 4 meters high (approximately 30 feet long, 24 feet wide and 13 feet high). Its wall rose at a slant to its center.
One day, Zertal and his men took a break from their field work and went to the nearby settlement of Shavei Shomron. He sat at a desk in the local seminary and put together a sketch of the excavated site. A local resident, Tzvi Koenigsberg, passed by and saw the drawing. With a loud exclamation he ran out and came back with a copy of Maseches Middos. He opened it to the third chapter and showed Zertal a picture of the Mizbe’ach in the Beis HaMikdash drawn according to the specifications described in the Mishnayos. The professor’s sketch was a scale model of the picture in the sefer. For once, he was speechless.
Zertal later related that the description of the Mizbe’ach in the Mishnah matched his discovery perfectly, and it explained all the parts that he could not figure out. Now he saw that the instep halfway up the Mizbe’ach as the soveiv upon which a person walked around the altar, and that the triangular structure was a kevesh, a ramp leading up to the top of the Mizbe’ach.
Suddenly, the entire team erupted in excited screams. They jumped up and down, and tears welled up in the eyes of some. Everything became so clear all at once.
It was obvious that they had found an altar that Jews had constructed according to the Torah’s dictates. They had already noted that the stones were not hewn, and this was something that exists only in the Torah. Also, the ramp leading up to the top had no steps, just as the Torah dictates. No other culture followed this rule.
Adam Zertal, born and raised on a Shomer Hatza’ir kibbutz, eventually became the loudest voice claiming that his findings verified the account of the Torah and the early Nevi’im of the Jewish presence in the Shomron. Secular scholars from many universities at first scoffed, and later they struggled to disprove Zertal’s claims, but no one succeeded in refuting them conclusively.
It must be pointed out that Torah-believing Jews have never relied on archaeology to prove anything of our history. Even when the evidence is compelling, no one among us would declare something to be absolutely true based on archaeological science unless it has already been accepted as such by the Gedolim of past generations. For example, we know of many sacred sites based on the testimony of the Arizal. Without that, we would never trust the opinion of an archaeologist.
Benny Katzover was born 5707/1947 in Petach Tikva. He served in the IDF during the Six Day War and afterward became a founder and leader of the settlement movement. He participated in the Pesach Seder of 5728/1968 in Hebron’s Park Hotel. The Jewish guests rented 14 hotel rooms from the Arab manager for the duration of Pesach. They celebrated in high spirits, and on Chol Hamoed they sent a telegram to Defense Minister Moshe Dayan, saying, “A good Yom Tov from the settlers in Chevron.” Dayan’s terse response was, “Thank you and good Yom Tov.” Katzover and his friends took this to mean that the government agreed to their activities.
A month later, the Cabinet convened to discuss the phenomenon of settlements in the conquered territories. Prime Minister Levi Eshkol could not give his outright approval to the establishment of settlements because of pressure from the political left and from the United States. On the other hand, he did not wish to expel the settlers from the homes that Jews had occupied until they were forcibly removed by Arab marauders in 1929. As a compromise, he proposed establishing a yeshivah in Chevron.
The compromise allowed 32 families to remain living in Chevron, but for their own safety they had to relocate to the campus of the army. Soon afterward Benny Katzover got married. It was the first Jewish wedding in Chevron in more than 40 years. He was one of the first residents of Kiryat Arba, and after the Yom Kippur War he led a group of settlers to establish the town of Kedumim, the first Jewish settlement in Shomron.
Katzover turned to the Labor-led government and sought a license to establish a settlement on the mountain between Yerushalayim and Afula, near Shechem. The ministers were embarrassed to refuse the request outright — how could they tell Jews that they could not settle in a part of Eretz Yisrael? Instead, they responded with, “This is not our most urgent need at this time,” and other such excuses.
The IDF was the master in practice of Yehuda and Shomron during those years, and the settlers depended on them for their successes. The chief officer in central Israel was Rehavam Ze’evi, Hy”d. He gave his full support to the settler movement and he promised to wield his influence on its behalf in the government, but he gave a stern warning to the young activists not to take action without his authorization.
The chief officer of the southern command was Ariel Sharon. He questioned why they wanted in particular to build settlements near Shechem. They told him, “Jewish history begins in Shechem. When Avraham Avinu first came to Eretz Yisrael, his first stop was Shechem.”
Ariel read the passuk that they showed him and he quipped, “Ah, the very first Jew’s very first outpost.”
Katzover and company continued their speech: “Yaakov Avinu fled from Eretz Yisrael, and when he returned 20 years later, his first stop was Shechem. He even bought property there, and this is where Yosef was buried centuries later.
“We left Egypt and wandered about for 40 years. When we finally entered Eretz Yisrael, our inaugural event was — not in Yerushalayim, Chevron, or even Tel Aviv — but in Shechem at Mount Eival.”
“Okay, I got it,” Ariel said. “There is no greater Zionist goal than to repopulate the Shomron.”
Then he waved his finger at the settlers, who held their breath to hear what was coming.
“Don’t you dare be afraid to bother me whenever you need me,” he said, surprising everyone. “I don’t care what time of day or night it is. I am at your service.”
Later, Ariel Sharon introduced them to an officer in Israel’s Secret Service, explaining that he had orders to help them out. Later on, Ariel asked them to buy him a home in Shechem, but this never materialized.
Back to the Altar
Now that Zertal was convinced that everything recorded in Tanach actually took place, he directed all his energies to identifying the places named in Tanach. He mapped the natural border between Menashe and Ephraim, and discovered the site of ancient Aroma, the capital city of Avimelech the shofet. He suggested the route Yehoshua took from Yericho to Shechem, the site where Avimelech was assassinated, and the site of ancient Shechem.
Zertal asserted that Mount Gerizim is not the mountain known by that name today, but rather it is east of Shechem and known today as Mount Kabir. He blamed the ancient Samaritans (Cusim) for the mix-up.
Professor Zertal passed away during Cheshvan of 5776/2015. Had he lived a few more years, he would have witnessed an even more striking discovery on Mount Eival. In Kislev of 5780/2019, American archeologist Scott Stripling took the soil and rocks unearthed by Zertal’s excavations and carefully sifted them. He discovered a two-centimeter-square, folded lead tablet. They tried to open the tablet to see what was engraved inside, but they couldn’t manage without destroying it. Instead, they sent it to Prague, where it was scanned with computerized tomography. The scan revealed 40 ancient Hebrew letters, but no one knew what to make of them or what words they formed. The mission was assigned to Professor Gershon Galil.
The professor dated the inscription to be over 3,000 years old, from the time our ancestors first came to Eretz Yisrael. This makes it the most ancient Hebrew inscription in existence. What is more amazing is the content of the inscription. Mount Eival is the location where those who sin in secret were cursed. This tablet, found on Mount Eival, reads: “Arur arur arur. He is arur to Hashem. You will die; you are cursed. You will surely die; you are cursed by Hashem. Arur arur arur.”
Professor Galil comments, “This is a death knell to the argument that the Torah is an invention from later in history. It proves conclusively that the Torah was in the hands of the Jews over 3,000 years ago!”
Today, the IDF controls the peak of Mount Eival, but Zertal’s altar is accessible only to Palestinians. They once tried to destroy it, but luckily they were stopped in time. Benny Katzover hopes for the day when the site will be returned to its rightful owners.
Dismantling a Myth
By Avraham Y. Heschel
Claims made by archaeologists, even those who exhibit respect toward the eternal truth of the Torah, should always be met with a healthy dose of skepticism. The science of archaeology comprises highly debatable theories and conjectures and often has no connection to facts. This, however, should not suffice to rule out the possibility that on occasion, an archaeologist can be on target. As the saying goes, even a stopped clock is right twice a day.
The assertion made by the late Professor Adam Zertal that a pile of rocks found in the Shomron is the mizbe’ach that Yehoshua bin Nun built on Har Eival is almost certainly inaccurate.
First of all, the Mishnah in Sotah (7:5), as explained by Rabbeinu Ovadiah Bartenura, and the Talmud Bavli (Sotah 32a-32b) as explained by Rashi, unambiguously states that after the korbanos were offered on that Mizbe’ach, it was dismantled, and the stones were brought to the Gilgal where they were erected anew.
The defenders of the claim that the stones of that Mizbe’ach are still on Har Eival in the Shomron refer to a Braisa quoted by the Yerushalmi 7:5, which disagrees with the Mishnah. A look into the words of the Yerushalmi reveal a far more complex situation.
For one thing, there are different viewpoints as how to interpret the words of the Yerushalmi.
The Korban Ha’eidah explains that the Yerushalmi also holds that the stones of the Mizbe’ach were dismantled and taken to Gilgal, which once again rules out the possibility that the stones are still located in Shomron.
It is only according to the explanation of the Pnei Moshe — who says that the Yerushalmi differs with the viewpoint that the stones were taken to Gilgal — did the stones stay in Shomron, and possibly according to the Yefei Mareh, who leaves out mention of the stones being transported to Gilgal.
However, even according to the Pnei Moshe, the claim that the stones of the Mizbe’ach have been found by archaeologists is almost certainly inaccurate.
The very same Yerushalmi states that immediately after the korbanos were offered, the stones of the Mizbe’ach were nignaz. The Pnei Moshe explains that this was because the stones were tashmishei kedushah and so “they could not be left there.”
Those seeking to defend the theory advanced by Professor Zertal claim that instead of burying the stones — which would have involved dismantling a mizbe’ach — the Bnei Yisrael led by Yehoshua decided to cover it with another layer of stones. They seek proof for this theory from the fact that the Chasam Sofer rules that the prohibition against destroying a mizbe’ach also applies to a bamah that was built during the time periods when this was permissible. If the mizbe’ach was indeed not transported to and re-erected in Gilgal, Bnei Yisrael wanted to keep it whole.
For several reasons, this is implausible. For one thing, when Chazal describe something as nignaz (hidden), it is assumed that it will stay hidden until Moshiach will come. (See the sefer, Daas Notah, which contains the rulings of Hagaon Harav Cham Kanievsky, zt”l, Vol. 2, Teshuvah 273.)
In addition, it is difficult to imagine that simply adding another layer of stones on top of the mizbe’ach would suffice to be described as nignazu. In fact, there would be no need to dismantle the stones in order to properly bury them, all one had to do is carefully excavate the ground under the mizbe’ach and lower it into the ground. The very same daf in the Yerushalmi describes the miracles that occurred in regard to the mizbe’ach; certainly Yehoshua ben Nun found a way to place it properly in genizah, and not in a manner which would allow the elevated structure to be used for any secular purpose, or ever discovered by archaeologists.
Though no further proofs are needed, it is striking that even Zertal’s own descriptions of the site totally negate the possibility of its really being the mizbe’ach of Yehoshua ben Nun. According to an essay by the very same Zvi Koenigsberg who told Zertal about the mishnah in Middos — Zertal dates the initial “settlement” of the site on Har Eival to the year 2510 from Creation (1250 B.C.E.). While this is several decades after the real year in which Yehoshua built the Mizbe’ach on Har Eival, this is presumably close enough in the guessing-game known as archaeology. But what can’t be reconciled is that Zertal’s analysis of the site led him to conclude that it was used for close to a century, and the supposed burying of the site took place more than eighty years after the petirah of Yehoshua ben Nun. From the words of the Yerushlami it is clear that the Mizbe’ach stood very briefly — presumably only a matter of hours — before it was nignaz.
In addition, Koenigsberg reveals that among the items found buried at the site were “two Egyptian scarabs, one of which was a royal scarab… The royal scarab appears to be “foundation deposit” or votive offering, i.e., a valuable item buried as a gift to a god.”
This latter claim reinforces the theory that if this site was indeed an altar — an assertion that in itself is controversial — it appears to have been an altar of avodah zarah.
While the practical halachic aspects of this topic is something to be addressed by Poskim and is outside the realm of this article, it would appear that according to the theorists who claim that this is the mizbe’ach of Yehoshua ben Nun, they had no right to uncover what was purposely put in genizah, and there presumably is an obligation to promptly cover it.
If, as the archaeological research seems to indicate, this is an altar of idol worshipers, it should promptly be destroyed.
On a related note, the recent findings of a supposed “curse amulet,” a piece of lead said to be containing part of the name of Hashem and nine times the word cursed, may be making headlines but it does not seem to be of significance from a Torah perspective. No such passuk exists. Therefore, there is no reason to think that this has any connection to identifying the pile of stones Zertal found.
One of the foremost defenders of the mizbe’ach-theory explained in a conversation, that his motivation is the notion that it helps prove the truth of the Torah to the uninitiated.
Whether it is appropriate to use archaeological theories as a kiruv tool in the first place is debatable, but it can be even considered only when the theory is consistent with Torah teachings. This one isn’t.
To Read The Full Story
Are you already a subscriber?
Click "Sign In" to log in!
Become a Web Subscriber
Click “Subscribe” below to begin the process of becoming a new subscriber.
Become a Print + Web Subscriber
Click “Subscribe” below to begin the process of becoming a new subscriber.
Renew Print + Web Subscription
Click “Renew Subscription” below to begin the process of renewing your subscription.