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Even the Shattered Fragments of the Tablets Contain Meaning

Moses breaking the tablets, Gustav Dora (1832-1883).

Yesterday was the 17th day of Tammuz, which is considered one of the four fasts observed by the Jewish People in order to commemorate the destruction of Jerusalem and the First and Second Temples. According to our Sages, five events occurred on that day:

The tablets were broken, the daily sacrifices ceased, and the city was breached, Apostamus burned the Torah and an idol was erected in the Temple (Mishnah, Ta’anit 46).

Usually, the emphasis on this day is on the breaching of the walls of Jerusalem, an event that ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple. But the words of the Sages, who attribute this day to breaking of the Tablets of the Ten Commandments imply a substantial connection between them.

The author of the book Meshech Chochma, Rabbi Meir Simcha HaCohen of Dvinsk (1843–1926), explains the act of breaking the tablets by saying that Moses feared that after his departure from the world, the people of Israel would begin to attribute inherent holiness to the Temple, to the Tabernacle, and especially to the tablets, which are the ‘Letter of God ‘. All these are means for us to worship God , who is the sole holy entity in his own right. (Meshech Chochma, Ki Tissa 22 ).

This bold interpretation of the Meshech Chochma is not an innovative idea, but rather very consistent with the biblical meaning of the concept of Kodesh (holiness/sacredness), which is related to role and purpose. That is to say that the level of holiness ascribed to something is directly related to the role it performs in the service of the Divine.

Accordingly, one would expect that once an object no longer fulfils its intended purpose in the service of the Divine that it would accordingly lose its sanctity. But surprisingly the Sages taught that: “the tablets and fragments of tablets were placed in the holy ark” (Berachot 8:2; Menehot 7:11). In other words, the broken tablets were not thrown away but were kept in the Ark next to the second tablets.

For years now we too have been engaged on a daily basis in collecting fragments from the site of the holy Temple. Dr. Gabriel Barkay likens the soil that was removed from the Temple Mount to a corpse. That is, even though it no longer has the value it had when it was alive (and life is sacred), it must still be treated with the proper respect and dignity.

For this reason, we not only collect the pottery shards and various other artifacts that come up in the sifting, but also meticulously sort, document and conduct in-depth research on them. This, despite the fact that they were found out of their stratified context and exact location. If found in any other location, they would have likely be considered as having little archaeological significance and no efforts would have been put forward to salvage them. In our case however, since these are fragments of artifacts originating from the Temple Mount, they indeed have meaning. And moreover, with the proper effort, these small fragments we uncover can reveal a more comprehensive archaeological and historical meaning that wouldn’t have been revealed had we conducted a traditional archeological excavation upon the Mount.

The initial collection and sorting of the finds from the wet sifting. This is done by the visitors to the site and supervised by the Project’s team of professionals.

Perhaps this sounds a bit vague and complicated… so let’s clarify. There is a claim that is heard from time to time that what we are sifting is without context and therefore there is not much archaeological value to the research we are conducting. But this claim is wrong and misleading. First, there is indeed a context, only that it is a wide and imprecise one. It is the Temple Mount. Where exactly on the Temple Mount? From which layer? We really don’t know this, but even in a normal archaeological dig, most of the excavated material comes from fills and accumulation of dirt and debris and not from sealed layers. Thus, most of the finds are not discovered in their primary deposit. Yet nevertheless these finds teach a lot about the material culture that existed at the site.

There is an entire branch of research in archeology known as the ‘archaeological survey’ in which finds are collected from the surface of a site, and provide a great deal of information regarding the nature of the activity and material culture that took place throughout the site’s history, and this without actually excavating.

Finds collected in an archaeological survey and finds that are discovered in the context of fills and dump accumulations in a regular systematic archaeological dig, may constitute a representative sample that teaches us about the nature of the material culture that existed in the wide proximity of the location they were gathered from. This is in contrast to finds that are found in-situ from which one can primarily learn about activities that took place only at specific location and time. It is needless to say that when studying a large quantity of finds that were found in in-situ it is also possible to gain a wider perspective regarding the area they were found, but statistically speaking they have a lower sampling value.

Let us return to the finds from the sifting of the soil from the Temple Mount. As mentioned, we have no doubt that this is dirt indeed originated from the Temple Mount and does not merely consist of a fill that came from outside the Mount it in the Middle Ages, as was claimed in the past by some researchers. In fact, it is an accumulation of dumps from renovations and construction works that took place on the Temple Mount starting from the Mamluk period. We wrote about this in the past in our initial reports and we gave a detailed explanation at the Temple Mount Research Conference that took place last year and in an article that will be published in the future (in a collection of articles from the conference). You can watch our lecture here.

However, regarding the finds from the First Temple period, over the years we had some doubts about them due to the fact that in the days of the Second Temple earth was brought into the Temple Mount area in order to expand the inner Sacred Compound- the Temple and the courtyards that surrounded it (the fills did not encompass the entire Temple Mount platform, contrary to what the tour guides often say). Thus, the primary question was where these fillings came from. If they were brought from areas that contained ruins from the First Temple Period, then there is indeed a possibility that the dirt from the Temple Mount will contain finds from the First Temple period that did not originate from the Temple Mount.

Another possibility is that they were brought from an area with virgin soil, free of archaeological material. Such a case rules out the possibility of a disturbance to the original archaeological material of the Temple Mount. A third possibility is that the earth was imported from the eastern slopes of the Temple Mount, which is also the nearest and most accessible location from which to import soil. In recent years we have learned that the slopes of the Old City were used throughout the centuries as Jerusalem’s refuse dump. The eastern slope of the Temple Mount in particular was apparently used as the Mount’s refuse dump. Indeed, in 2009 we uncovered refuse aggregates there from the First and Second Temple periods. See a special publication about this.

The Eastern slope of the Temple Mount. The estimated origin of the fills that were brought to the Temple Mount during the days of the Second Temple (photographed in 2008).

The fact that we’ve collected a huge amount of finds (millions of pottery shards, fragments of glassware, animal bones, fragments of plaster, and tens of thousands of special finds), allows us to conduct more in-depth statistical studies than those usually conducted in archaeological surveys or excavations. But for that we must finish the job of sorting and cataloging the finds. It can be likened to assembling a puzzle of about half a million pieces (this is the amount of finds that were kept from everything we collected).

Sorting and counting pottery of different types of pottery from the First Temple period to the Iron Age

In addition to this, it is important to note that we also sampled landfills from various places in the Old City area for the purpose of a comparative study between the common finds we have from the Temple Mount and other areas in Jerusalem. Often archaeologists tend to attribute a lot of meaning to a find based on ‘abundance’ or ‘scarcity’, but without any point of reference. After all, there are so many variables and factors that affect the quantity of the finds that end up in the hands of archaeologists, so it is very difficult to attribute meaning to quantities without using control groups that were sampled in the same way as the finds that are studied.

Sampling Soil from the Mount Zion excavations (August 2008) .

All this so far has been an introduction to the main discovery we would like to tell you about, which would have been difficult to understand without the preceding introduction – that is, without the “context”. The full details will be published in a forthcoming article on the subject , though now that were are in the final stages of comprehensive research of the pottery of Iron Age IIB and IIC (8th to 6th centuries BCE), which corresponds to the period of the First Temple, we can already at this stage state that we recognize pottery types that are typical of the Temple Mount as they appear specifically there and not in the other locations we sampled in Jerusalem. In contrast, there are also pottery types that are frequent in all the other places we sampled in Jerusalem, but we hardly find them on the Temple Mount soil.

Moreover, some pottery types that were common only in the Temple Mount and not at other sites in Jerusalem, some of which do not even appear in excavation reports from Jerusalem, actually do appear in the Ophel excavations conducted by E. Mazar (the area located just outside of the Temple Mount’s southern wall).

Let us recall that the southern border of the Temple Mount today, which is actually from the time of Herod, is not the southern border of the Temple Mount in the days of the First Temple. To the south of the Temple was the royal compound, whose southern border is a wall that was uncovered in Mazar’s excavations at the southern end of the Ophel park.

All this implies that the First Temple period pottery found in the Temple Mount soil indeed originates from the Mount and not from any other place. We also received confirmation of this conclusion following a study we conducted on clay sealings from the Temple Mount and Ophel excavations, where we found similar patterns indicative of sealings utilized in the management of ancient near eastern treasuries (storehouses) – the Temple Treasury and the treasuries of the Royal Palace.

A comparison between the distribution of jug types from the Temple Mount and jugs from soil samples from different areas of Jerusalem.

This post is already long enough, so we will not elaborate here on the details of the pottery types from the First Temple period that are characteristic of the Temple Mount – that will be done in a later post and publications. The main message of this post is that while the broken tablets may no longer hold sacredness, they still have meaning and significance. Even if they cannot be pieced together (in the archaeological sense), they must be preserved, researched, published and eventually made available to the public. The first tablets were an act of God, that is, a revelation that did not require man’s effort, while the second tablets were fashioned by Moses. In a sense, we all share a part in them and have all endeavored for them, and therefore, perhaps they posses even greater meaning and holiness.

Similarly, one can uncover much significance even from artifacts found out of context, that is, if sufficient effort is applied to the task.

A rare white washed cooking pot that was used on the Temple Mount and the Ophel. Perhaps it was used for ritual purposes.

Discover more from The Temple Mount Sifting Project

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