Sunday 23 July 2023

438) Seeking an interface between Halacha and archaeology

Rabbi Dr Yonatan Adler at an archaeological site.

This article, based extensively on the research by Rabbi Professor Yonatan Adler of the Institute of Archaeology at Ariel University,[1] deals with Halacha (Jewish ritual and civil law) viewed from an unusual perspective through archaeology, in addition to the written text. Of course, the legal rabbinic texts provide the indisputable and authoritative approach to the keeping of Halacha today, but our purpose here is to see to what extent archaeological evidence indicates how laws may have been observed in earlier times. It is only through this archaeological record that we can glimpse at details that are not apparent in the texts. 

The 'history of Halacha'

While many would argue that Halacha has always remained unchanged since the time of Moshe and even before, it is clear from a study of written Halachic works over the ages, that some significant developmental processes took place. Besides studying Halachic texts themselves, as one would by attending a Halacha class or shiur, some scholars are also interested in studying the Halachic process. 

The first to do so in modern times were the 19th-century members of the Wissenschaft des Judentums, during the Haskala or Enlightenment period. The common perception that they were all secular Jews is contradicted by the fact that many orthodox rabbis and religious Jews were also part of the movement [see: Kotzk Blog: 095) TALMUDIC COMMENTATORS WHO EMBRACED THE ENLIGHTENMENT:]. 

The problem, however, with 19th-century scholarship on the history and contextualisation of Halacha, was that they only had written rabbinic texts on which to rely, because “[m]aterial evidence provided by archaeology was unavailable to the earlier researchers” (Adler 2017:28). This was remedied in more recent times by the emergence of Halachic archaeological evidence which provided the first opportunity to understand how prevalent certain practices were, and how, or how not, they may have differed from Halachic norms today. 

It is interesting to note that in 2011, Yeshiva University hosted a conference dedicated to the use of archaeology for a better understanding of the rabbinic tradition. Notwithstanding, Adler ironically notes the inescapable reality that: 

“archaeology was unavailable to the earlier researchers, and mostly ignored by later ones“ (Adler 2017:28). 

This study primarily focuses on the archaeological traces of three Halachic issues, Mikvaot (ritual baths), chalkstone vessels and Tefilin. 

Mikvaot (ritual baths)

That Jews were commonly concerned with their observance of ritual purity is evidenced by the relatively large numbers of ancient Mikvaot that have been uncovered in recent times. Over 180 ritual baths had been identified, dating from 100 BCE to the 7th century CE. 

Yaakov Sussmann (1990: 61–64)[2] has shown that the widespread need for ritual purity was of such a priority for Jews during the late Second Temple period, that it was this obsession that actually gave rise to the numerous religious sects that abounded at that time. Each group had its own version of the Halachot pertaining to Mikvaot, and they could no longer live together for fear of contamination. Therefore, they split into the various sects that notoriously defined that era. This is very significant and may even change our previous understanding of these early sects and cults, because the divisions may have been based more on Halacha, than on ideology or theology. 

Another example of how the strong archaeological record of Mikvaot can offer information we would never have known from a textual study of Halacha alone, is the use of artificially constructed pools as opposed to natural water courses: 

“[I]ncredibly enough, nowhere in the writings which have come down to us from this period is any mention made of where ritual immersions actually took place. It is exclusively the archaeological finds which teach us that by the first century B.C.E., Jews were immersing themselves in artificial stepped pools’ (Adler 2017:30). 

Written Halachic texts often reflect the views of those on the leading edges of society, usually the “literary elites or religious pietists.” On the other hand, archaeology exposes the stratum of society comprising the average individuals who “make up the majority of society but whose voices often go silent in the texts” (Adler 2017:30). Furthermore, one can also ascertain with a fair degree of accuracy when particular practices began, peaked and waned. This information would not have been clear from written texts. 

Stone vessels

Relating to the matter of ritual purity something the Jews during the Early Roman period were very concerned with are the archaeological findings of numerous chalkstone vessels. These stone vessels were commonly used on domestic tables for eating, drinking and storage. Amazingly, these vessels were found only in areas where Jews lived and not elsewhere. The reason for this anomaly is that: 

“[t]he Tannaitic rabbis assume that stone vessels cannot contract ritual impurity and, as such, never have need for purification…Vessels made of stone were used on various occasions when the ritual purity of a vessel was to be ensured” (Adler 2017:31). 

Here again, as with the case of Mikvaot, the Halachic literature makes no mention of the widespread nature and ubiquitous observance of this aspect of what we might call early "Kashrut," certainly as it pertained to the purity of these chalkstone vessels which were found all over the early Jewish settlements. And these vessels were still in use even after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE, which seems to indicate that: 

“the observance of purity laws in general may have had very little to do with the Temple…and much more with concerns over personal piety” (Adler 2017:32). 


Tefilin is another example of how archaeology helps our understanding of ancient Halacha. It is not possible to find really old pairs of Tefilin because, being organic, they eventually disintegrate. The only place where relatively old fragments of Tefilin can be found is in Qumran, alongside the Dead Sea, where they are preserved for a longer time because of the arid conditions present there. Twenty-three leather Tefilin boxes and thirty-four scroll fragments have been found, which seem to predate 70 CE when the Second Temple was destroyed. 

Compared to the numerous ancient Mikvaot and chalkstone vessels, the number of Tefilin discovered is relatively smaller. This does not necessarily mean that Tefilin were less observed in those early times,[3] because there are no equally well-preserved Tefilin found elsewhere, and: 

“there is really no way of knowing to what extent the Judean Desert tefillin finds might be representative of general practices throughout the country” (Adler 2017:32). 

Still, once again, the archaeological record provides information that the written rabbinic texts do not offer and that is concerning what pre-rabbinic Tefilin (i.e., pre-Mishnaic, or perhaps Tefilin worn in areas not under rabbinic influence), would have looked like. We notice that while some of the scrolls in the early Tefilin do correspond to the rabbinic model, others include different sections of the Torah, like the Ten Commandments. Some of the housings for the scrolls were solid structures divided into four cells into which the parchments were inserted. This is very different from the structure of our contemporary Tefilin. Perhaps some of these discrepancies are the result of earlier models of Tefilin or they may be the product of sectarianism within the same time period, “ – differences never openly discussed in the literature of the later rabbis” (Adler 2017:33).[4] 

These discrepancies bring into question the range and scope of rabbinic influence during the Mishnaic period: 

“It is thought that during the first centuries of the Common Era, no more than a few dozen rabbis would have been active in Roman Palestine at any given time (Levine 1989: 66–69;[5] Lapin 2012: 65–67[6]). To what extent these rabbis and their halakhic ideas had any influence at all over other Jews during this time is not really known. It is completely unwarranted to simply assume that everyone living at the time of the rabbis would have abided by their halakhic rulings, or would even have been aware of what these rulings may have been” (Adler 2017:34). 

Caution against Anachronisms

When consulting the archaeological record, we must be careful not to adopt an anachronistic approach, where one imposes present conditions on ancient events. In other words, if we want to know how certain laws were kept in praxis and reality (in the places where archaeological finds were made), we must not impose what we now know from written sources, onto the findings but rather allow the findings to speak for themselves. This is what Adler (2017:33) refers to as those who “proverbially hold the spade in one hand and the Mishnah in the other.” Again, this is not to minimise or sidestep Halacha, but to simply attempt to gauge how Halacha was observed in practice, during certain periods of Jewish history. 

Adler has a positive approach to both Halacha and Halachic archaeology: 

“Archaeology and texts tend to provide very different kinds of information, and if brought together prudently, hold the potential to offer a much more comprehensive and accurate understanding of how halakhah was observed in the ancient past” (Adler 2017:27). 

Adler thus advocates for an approach where the study of Halacha is sometimes assisted by the study of Halachic archaeology, to gain a fuller picture. 

But he cautions that we don’t work backwards and interpret archaeological finds through the eyes of medieval or even modern Jewish Halacha. He draws our attention to cases where such methodologies have been adopted by some, and the Halacha as we know it today is extrapolated back into the past as if no distance in time separates the ‘now’ from the ‘then.’ 

Reflecting backwards has resulted in actual instances of anachronistic interpretations of the stone bowls, not as vessels made from a material impervious to impurity, but as “vassing cups” used to wash the hands before the meal; or alternatively, as “Havadalah spice boxes” used to bid farewell to the Sabbath. Similarly, ancient Mikvaot in Hasmonean and Roman Judea have been interpreted in light of practices which first appeared in 18th-century Europe. 

Thus, using archaeology to enhance our understanding of ancient Halacha, only becomes meaningful if we are prepared to view the findings within the context of earlier times, even if  that context may differ from ours.

Earliest archaeological evidence of Halachic observances

The burning question is, then, when do we find the earliest record of Halachic observances? In an interview, Adler's clinical response is:

"[T]he earliest evidence that I find is during the Hasmonean period, so around the middle of the second century, before the Common Era. We’re talking about 200 years before the destruction of the Second Temple. There’s no evidence of Jewish practices related to Torah observance prior to that." 

This does not mean that Halacha, as we know it, was not observed before that time, because, as Adler points out, "absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," but technically, the archaeological record of Halachic observances begins around 200 BCE. Adler qualifies this even further:

"[W]hat I’m looking at here is the question of social history. I’m looking at the question of what people are actually doing. I’m not looking at the question of from when does the Torah exist? So we can have a Torah that exists for many centuries before the regular people, the common people, are actually practicing it. And my interest is very specifically not in the question of when the Torah was written, when the Torah came to be. My question is when did the ordinary people, the people you would meet on the street, the farmers, the craftsmen, the homemakers...come to know about the Torah and actually put it into practice in their daily lives?" 

A theory of 'popularisation' the Torah during the 2nd-century BCE 

Adler hypothesises that it was the Hasmoneans who promoted the Torah, which had long being neglected, as the popular and prescribed law of the land:  

"We don’t have evidence for this...[b]ut what we do have evidence for is that the Hasmoneans did this with peoples that they conquered. We know, for example, that the Hasmoneans conquered the Idumeans in the south of the country...and...conquered them around the year 112 BCE and enforced the laws of the Torah on the domains. We would today say that they forced conversion on the Idumeans... [T]he Hasmoneans forced them to circumcise and to keep the laws of the Torah.

We [also] know that...Judah Aristobulus I conquered a people in the north called the Iturians. And he did the same thing. He forced them to circumcise and to keep the laws of the Torah. This is a sort of modus operandi of the Hasmoneans that they’re enforcing the laws of the Torah on the peoples that they conquered.

I think it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to suggest that perhaps earlier Hasmoneans, let’s say, perhaps Simon or Jonathan or Judah Maccabee...did this very thing with the Judeans themselves and brought the laws of the Torah to the Judeans [and] enforced the laws of the Torah on the[m]... 

And with that we would have the emergence of what I would call 'Judaism.'”[7]

Further Reading

[1] Adler, Y., 2017, ‘Toward an "Archaeology of Halakhah": Prospects and Pitfalls of Reading Early Jewish Ritual Law into the Ancient Material Record’, Archaeology and Text: A Journal for the Integration of Material Culture with Written Documents in the Ancient Mediterranean and Near East, vol. 1, 27-38. 

[2] Sussmann, Y., 1990, ‘The History of Halakha and the Dead Sea Scrolls: Preliminary Observations on Miqṣat Ma‘ase Ha-Torah (4QMMT), Tarbiẓ 59: 11–76 (Hebrew).

[3] For a study on the later neglect of Tefilin, see Kotzk Blog: 437) The historical neglect of Tefilin.

[4] One thousand years later, Maimonides was warning against those who inserted angels names into the scrolls of the Tefilin, for what they belived was for protection.

[5] Levine, L. I., 1989, ‘The Rabbinic Class of Roman Palestine in Late Antiquity’,  Yad Izhak Ben-Zvi and The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, Jerusalem and New York.

[6] Lapin, H., 2012, ‘Rabbis as Romans: The Rabbinic Movement in Palestine, 100-400 C.E.’, Oxford University Press, Oxford.

[7] Interview with Times of Israel, 05 April 2023.

1 comment:

  1. When discussing this topic, you need to see Rav Yehuda Landy, a massive Talmud Chacham who also had an honorary doctorate in Arciology.
    Was a real pleasure going on tours with him, bridging these 2 topics together beautifully!