Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Qumran - How Tan is My Mountain

I noticed that my previous posts mentioned the colors that stood out in the different spots that I visited this week, so I guess talking about Qumran is talking about tan and tan and tan - the mountains, the caves, the walkways.
Qumran, we know, is the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the most important archaelogical finds of the 20th century.
The Qumran Caves national park is highly visited, mostly by Christians who are intrigued by its many mikvaot (ritual baths) and the notion that one of their saints, John the Baptist, might have been an Essene (one of the folks who lived a ascetic life in Qumran). According to our terrific tour guide Eve Harow, "For Christians, Qumran is a must-see, and for Jews, it's a 'Well, I saw the Dead Sea Scrolls in the Israel Museum.'" We were on a tour of the area by the One Israel Fund.
The story of the discovery of the scrolls by Bedouin is well known. In 1947 while pasturing their flocks, Bedouin sheperds came across a cave in which they found large jars standing. Inside the jars, they found pieces of leather, some of which were wrapped in cloth - the first of the scrolls. The scrolls, hidden for nearly 2000 years, were preserved B"H, because of the area's arid climate. They included the Bible, the Apocrypha and some of their own works. French archaeologists began excavating the area, and in 1951 as the Bedouin sifted through the cave, they unearthed 14,000 fragments of scrolls. Archaeologists later uncovered anothe 1,000. Fragments of these scrolls were pieced together to produce 530 different scrolls. Their publication was completed in 2001.
Why were there so many torn pieces? Scholars believe Roman soldiers tore apart the Jewish scrolls - in vengence against the Jews? in hopes of destroying the Jewish people by destroying their holy works? other reasons?
Well, we know where the Roman Legion is today - dust, like the dust of Qumran...and B"H, we know where the Jewish people are - still vital, still creating, B"H and still improving the world.
Ancient Industry in the Desert
You might wonder how the Essenes could survive in such an unhospitable environment. Well, one of the curious places we saw in Qumran was a workroom where the residents worked with date pits.
Eve recalled the verse, "Tzaddik k'tamar yifrach," a righteous person is like a date palm tree. A date palm tree is beneficial in so many ways. "Tall and straight, every part of the palm tree is valuable." You can eat its fruit, use its fronds for roofing, etc.
She reminded us that a few years ago, Ben Gurion University began growing a date pit from 2,000 years ago. The "Methuselah" date palm tree is now growing at Kibbutz Ketura. That, she noted, gives the verse added meaning. Even after 2,000 years, the influence of a tzaddik sprouts again through his words or deeds.

The Perfume of Queens
Another industry of the area was balsam, a legendary bush of the Second Temple period, a prestigious and royal perfume. It's hard for us to believe that a tree could be so powerful, but balsam was such an important industry in ancient times that it is said that Cleopatra and Herod contested the ownership of a balsam grove near Jericho, not far from Qumran. The grove was a gift to her from Mark Antony. Herod leased them back.
Eve said that at one point in time, balsam was the most expensive commodity in the world, and that Herod possibly made his fortune from the sale of balsam. The industry was so important that during the Great Revolt of 70 CE, the balsam trees were uprooted, taken to Rome, and paraded through the streets along with the Menorah, as proof that Judea was indeed captured.
Eve said that when the Jewish people were taken into exile, two groups of people were left behind. In Kings II: 25:12, it says that the chormim and the yogvim were left behind. These are translated as simple people to tend the fields and the vineyards. Eve said she believes they were the people who knew how to grow the balsam and those who could harvest the trunculus snail for purple and blue dye - two industries coveted by the kings of the surrounded countries.
The industry was so secret, so specialized and so special that Israel hasn't been able to recreate it since.
Today, scientists in Ein Gedi are trying to grow what they believe is the balsam and reintroduce it into the Dead Sea area, where it once thrived.
So, in addition to our hopes for the Redemption, or perhaps along with it (hm, interesting thought), we've got two great things to look forward to, IY"H - the growth of a 2,000 year old date palm and the return of the balsam.

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