Walk through tour of the Brooklyn Museum

Posted on Updated on

A spontaneous get-together between Brooklinian friends, celebrating a birthday on a Saturday night. And what better place to celebrate than – the Brooklyn Museum!

On the first Saturday of the month, the Brooklyn Museum is open – and free – until 11PM. It’s all a buzz, with DJs, dancing, music and lots of noise – and vibrance. We chose this need to do a casual walk-through tour, highlighting anything from #InfiniteBlue – and Lapis Lazuli, to Ancient Near East: Assyria and Egypt.

More pictures coming later. And meanwhile:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The Age of Empires Strikes Back

Posted on Updated on

Returning customers, especially for the same tour, is very encouraging. Both pictures are of today’s group at the Metropolitan Museum.

The right-hand picture is of returning customers from last year. Mrs. Gitta Neufeld, head of educational development at Allegra Franco School of Educational Leadership (second from right) attended my tour in June 2017, and hired me as a teacher at Allegra Franco. I am looking forward to beginning my second year teaching there.

Take it from her:

(amidst the hustle and bustle of the Met’s closing hours – this is being cleaned up slightly, but bear with us for 22 seconds!)


How Lost are the Ten Tribes? Rebirth of Shomron 2/3

Posted on Updated on

Screenshot 2018-01-01 09.14.59.png
Photo from – Title reads: “The Shomron: The Land of Wine, Panoramas and Heritage”

“And in that day…the strayed who are in the land of Assyria…shall come and worship G-d on the holy mount, in Jerusalem (Isaiah 27:13)”

The mystery surrounding the vanishing of the Ten Tribes and their current whereabouts is nowhere near unraveled. Although recent studies into the topic have picked up the gauntlet, it is still shrouded in mystery.

Even the legends we have about their whereabouts are mysterious, or perhaps even mystical: Somewhere beyond the magical Sambation River [1], named for its impassable torrential currents which only settle on the Sabbath, effectually undermining any attempt to cross it during the week as the Lost Tribes beyond it are all Sabbath-observant. Thus, they are in effect cut off from the rest of civilization. Google Earth, anyone?

While I cannot comment on that tradition, I would like to revisit the story of the exile itself, and raise some questions and usable aspects for a conversation about the Ten Lost Tribes.

In my first article in this series, “Wine and Prophecy: The Rebirth of Shomron”, I discussed the basic biblical narrative. From passages of Assyrian and Babylonian chronologies, as well as verses in Jeremiah and in the Talmud, it appears that the story isn’t as simple as it seems.

In this article, I will explore three areas:

  1. Factoids from Assyrian and Babylonian records.
  2. Lost or amongst us?
  3. What hat did they wear? Implications towards religious practice.


Assyrian and Babylonian Records

First Waves of Assyria

The appearance of Assyria on the Biblical scene is very early on, and helps us relate to the names of important cities pertinent to excavations in Ancient Near Eastern archaeology: Babylon, Akkad (Akkadian), Nineveh, Kalah (Calah, Kalhu, etc), Uruk (Erekh), etc:

Kush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth.

He was a mighty hunter by the grace of G-d; hence the saying, “Like Nimrod a mighty hunter by the grace of G-d.”

The mainstays of his kingdom were Babylon, Erech, Akkad, and Kalneh in the land of Shinar.

From that land Asshur went forth and built Nineveh, Rehoboth-ir, Kalah, and Resen between Nineveh and Kalah, that is the great city. (Gen 10:8-12)

A visit to any major museum containing Assyrian or Babylonian artifacts is bound to have references to some of these cities, which are the biblical setting of many stories.

First Mention of the Kings of Israel

The Assyrian Empire came on the scene before the Kingdom of Israel became subjugated to, and ultimately destroyed by, the Assyrian Empire in stages. For example, King Menahem, who ruled in Samaria a few years before the first exile, paid tribute to Tiglath Pileser III (II Kings 15:19-20), which appears on a royal stele in the Israel Museum. But this is from when the Assyrian Empire started expanding quickly and aggressively, of what is called the Neo-Assyrian Empire period.

In Assyrian record, earlier kings of Israel are mentioned paying tribute to the kings Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III, when Assyria was not in this expansion phase, but merely had dominance over some areas in Syria, which was short-lived (Van de Mieroop, M. p. 242-244).

In the Assyrian Kurkh Monolith, attributed to Ashurnasirpal II and Shalmaneser III, currently in the British Museum, Ahab King of Israel appears, and the House of Omri.

In the Black Obelisk of Shalmaneser III, also in the British Museum, King Yehu prostrates before the king (image below), escorted by tribute bearers. Both these kings lived roughly a century before the Neo-Assyrian Empire came on the scene.

Yehu Shalmaneser III
Photo by: Steven G. Johnson (Own work), CC BY-SA 3.0,

Phoenicia and the Rebellion of Israel

The Neo-Assyrian involvement with Israel and Judah came when, according to II Kings 16:5, Kings Rezin of Aram (Damascus) and Pekah of Israel formed a coalition against King Ahaz of Judah. Their coalition was intended to block Ahaz from joining the Assyrian Empire and to keep out its foreign influence, a move which had devastating consequences to both Aram and Israel.

Ahaz became vassal to Assyria (ibid, 7), and thus saved his skin from the attack of the former two kings. However, what is not mentioned in the Biblical account is that there was another king involved in this coalition (Cogan, M. p. 67-72): Hiram of Tyre. [2]

The Phoenician King, bearing a similar name to the earlier Hiram who assisted Solomon in the building of the Temple in Jerusalem (I Kings 5:15), was no newcomer on the scene. The kingdoms of Israel and Phoenicia were allies since back in Ahab’s time, who married Jezebel daughter of Ethbaal of Tyre (I Kings 12:31). Besides building a house of worship for the Phoenician god Baal (ibid), Ahab also built himself an ivory house (II Kings 22:39). Fragments of ivory have been excavated in Ahab’s capital in ancient Samaria, known as the “Samaria Ivories”.

Stag samaria ivories
A stag from the Samaria Ivories. Photo: Erich Lessing/Art Resource, NY.

Back to our story – King Pekah of Israel is killed in a coup, and Hoshea assumed the throne (II Kings 15:30). According to Assyrian records, Hoshea was confirmed by Tiglath Pileser as king and vassal (Cogan M. p.72-76).

Hoshea rules Samaria for nine years (II Kings 17:1-6), while subjugated to Shalmaneser V. He is later caught sending an envoy to Egypt – a clear act of rebellion against Assyria – and is ultimately destroyed along with the deportation of the remainder of the Ten Tribes.

The surprise is that there was another king who takes credit for the capturing of Samaria. A king who is only mentioned once in the Bible, in relation to a campaign to Ashdod (Isaiah 20:1): Sargon II.

Sargon, who assumed the throne after Shalmaneser V, claims to have captured Samaria and been involved in the deportation process (Cogan p. 90-102). Even Babylonian chronicles attribute this capturing to him (Cogan, M. p. 209-211, 214). The subject of Sargon’s involvement in the region, and the way he records his campaign, is fascinating. For this article, as a segue into the next topic, I note just one point. While the initial campaign of Assyria Samaria, and its deportation, was initiated by Shalmaneser, it was clearly taking place over a prolonged period of time, in which at least one more king, if not several, were involved.

Lost or Amongst Us?

How long did it take to deport the Ten Tribes?

Mass deportation, while having existed earlier in Assyria, is a hallmark of Neo-Assyrian conquests. Different levels existed, from the deportation of specialist craftspeople to assist in various building projects, to deportation of entire regions – depending on its level of defiance (Van de Mieroop, M. p. 230-236).

This practice had several strategic benefits to the Assyrian Empire, while providing labour and people to build and inhabit its new cities. It reduced the opposition in the peripheral territories, as rebellious populations were resettled in foreign environments where they needed imperial protection against local hostility. Moreover, they would not escape, as they were unfamiliar with the country. Nor did they have the territorial imperative of fighting for their homeland. Nor did they have an organic group of their countrymen who would band together, as they were dispersed over wide areas, to either side of the Assyrian Empire’s homeland (according to Prof. Ran  Zadok of Tel Aviv U.).

Furthermore, the territories of deported people were selectively resettled with other groups when they were crucial for trade or for the production of goods. This means that deportation was done very strategically, based on the skills of the deportees, and the necessities of the empire. For example, an area best suited for agriculture would be settled by agrarian peoples, and not by nomads.

And lastly, the supervision and feeding of large numbers of people during a voyage of several months must have required enormous organization, surprisingly not recorded for us.

All of this points to an important fact: Deportation was a gradual, and expensive, bureaucratic and administrative process. The deportation of the Ten Tribes could not have been carried out all at once, and while the area was being repopulated with foreigners who will come to be known as the Samaritans (II Kings 17:24-34), it is highly likely that members of the Ten Tribes continued to inhabit their homeland for decades after the destruction.

As mentioned in my previous article, the Seder Olam attributes the deportation to Sennacherib.

The book of Ezra describes how, during the rebuilding of the Second Temple in Jerusalem, Samaritans requested to assist in its building, noting that they have been integral to this land from the time of Esarhaddon (Ezra 4:2) – the successor of Sennacherib; while other nations’ presence is attributed to the last of the mighty Assyrian Kings – Ashurbanipal (ibid. 10)

All of this may help us understand how Jeremiah could fathomably have identified members of the Ten Tribes, and brought some of them back.

Jeremiah (3:6-26) describes a mission in which the prophet was sent to the north to bring back the lost tribes.

“Go, make this proclamation toward the North, and say: Turn back, O Rebel Israel—declares G-d. I will not look on you in anger, for I am compassionate—declares G-d; I do not bear a grudge for all time.”

Rav Yehuda Landy suggests that this was possible during the reign of Josiah King of Judah [3], since the Assyrian Empire was on a decline (p. 111). But this all points to a curious discussion about the preservation of some of the tribes in the nick of time. [4]

Are the Ten Tribes completely lost?

Apparently not.

It is possible that those who remained suspended, awaiting deportation, had some interaction with, or influence from, Judea.

King Hezekiah (II Chro. ch. 30) sent invitations to Ephraim and Manasseh to join him in the Passover celebrations in Jerusalem, and some accepted the invitation, even staying in Judea.  


Tribal Jargon

The Talmud in Pesachim 4a [5] discusses how a person’s manner of speech may reveal an innate tribal association. (Writing this right after the public Torah reading of Vayechi, which describes the blessings of the various tribes, this seems quite timely.)

A certain man would regularly say whenever involved in conflict: Adjudicate my case [dunu dini]. The Sages said: Learn from it that he descends from the tribe of Dan, as it is written: “Dan will judge [ya-din] his people like one of the tribes of Israel” (Genesis 49:16).

The tribe of Dan was one of those exiled, as was Zebulun:

A certain man would regularly walk and say: The bushes on the seashore are cypresses, i.e., items located by the sea are more beautiful than those found in other places. They examined his lineage and found that he descends from the tribe of Zebulun, as it is written: “Zebulun shall dwell by the seashore” (Genesis 49:13).

And what of the Jews of Ethiopia (Beta Israel)? Or Bnei Menashe (Sons of Manasseh)?

All of these reveal some cracks in the notion that they are completely gone. But the mystery of the vanishing of the majority of their contingencies, still remains one of the big mysteries of Jewish History.

Walking hassid

What Hat did They Wear? Implications towards Religious Practice

If you were to go on an expedition to find the Lost Tribes, what would you look for? What traditions, rituals or stories would you expect to find, that might shed light on Jewish origins?

Wait, Jewish origins?

After 2,000 years, we have grown used to identifying ourselves as Jewsof Judah.

What would the other Ten Tribes think of that?

Remember that the Ten Tribes succeeded from the Kingdom of Judah, actively denouncing any association with the Kingdom of Judah (I Kings 12:16). In fact, a member of the Kingdom of Israel would have probably taken offense at being called “Jew”.

“Are you talking to me?”

“I’m not from Judahhow dare you? I’m from Zebulun / Dan / Naphtali / Gad / Asher…”

Two kingdoms, geographically separated, ideologically unassociated, and often at warfor over two centuries. We are talking about different entities. And speaking of religion, the Kingdom of Israel on the surface seems to be a largely secular-oriented kingdom [Disclaimer: The Talmud and Midrashic literature record many significant interactions, discussions and events from the Kings of Israel, and the populace of Northern Israel demonstrating how they were very much in dialogue with tradition and religious practice. I would not dare subtract from that, and hope to do it better justice in the future]. The foreign influences, political marriages—the subject of much prophetic rebuke—and far-reaching trade and conquests, distinguished Israel from the more traditional Judah, with the Temple of Solomon in its capital, Jerusalem.

As for the Temple: For a long period of time, the kingdom of Israel forbade the pilgrimage to the Temple, seeing it as a threat to its own stability. [6]

And what is Judaism, if not a ritualistic “survival kit” for Jews in the diaspora, maintaining its adherers’ association with their land and tradition while in exile, with no land nor sovereignty. Most of what we would call religion, be it standardized prayers, blessings or rituals, and even the codification of the Oral Law into the Mishna and Talmud, were created after the Assyrian Exile, primarily by people of Judah.

And to really drive the point home. The method of Assyrian deportation was carefully constructed to insure that repopulated groups do not congregate in any meaningful way that would enable rebellion. The exile itself was so aggressive and abrupt, what means of scholarship would have survived in any form, and with the time required, to enable it to contemplate a religion?

All of that considered, what percentage of the society was learned enough to maintain a strong identity?

The Babylonian Exile was largely tranquil, once Jews settled in Babylon. Jews had a lot of autonomy, and scholarship was maintained, with the wherewithal to contemplate this newfound existence without a land or a Temple.

So what would you find, if you were to identify a descendant of any of the Tribes?

It is not clear, but the likelihood of finding anything that would be recognizable to us is highly unlikely [7]. That is probably why the Return of the Ten Lost Tribes is the stuff of Messianic proportions.

The fate of the Ten Tribes is tragic, indeed. And in direct proportion, so is the rebuilding of their land.

This is why the rebuilding of Shomron today is so bewildering, marvelous and miraculous.

In the spirit of this past week’s public Torah reading, which describes the death of Rachel on the road, foreshadowing the exile of her children. But there is still home, and her children will indeed come back home again.

Thus said G-d: A cry is heard in Ramah— Wailing, bitter weeping— Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted For her children, who are gone.

Thus said G-d: Restrain your voice from weeping, Your eyes from shedding tears; For there is a reward for your labor —declares G-d: They shall return from the enemy’s land.

And there is hope for your future —declares G-d: Your children shall return to their home. (Jeremiah 31:14-16)

Photo: Vineyards in Samaria. Courtesy of West Bank Wines.


[1] Cf. Yalkut Shimoni, Isaiah, 469.

[2] See also Cogan’s book Bound for Exile, Jerusalem: Carta 2013, which is a continuation of The Raging Torrent, and which focuses on the material about the exiles in their respective locations.

Note on the second edition of The Raging Torrent, for the connoisseur: There are significant differences between Cogan’s first and second editions, in terms of the sources used for Assyrian royal documents. I have asked the author about it. Prof. Cogan told me that Luckenbill’s two volume book included translations of the documents that were known in the beginning of the twentieth century. It was published in 1926-1927. However, more studies have emerged over the following decades and many more documents published, requiring revised translations. That is why he instead used Leichty for Esarhaddon, and more.

[3] Cf. Talmud Megillah 14b.

[4] The Mishnah in Sanhedrin (10:3) discusses the place of the Ten Tribes in the world to come, and the possibility of their return. Rashi points out that Jeremiah only brought back some of them.

[5] Translation taken from

[6] Unfortunately, in stark contrast to the Olympics, contemporary with this period of time. The Olympics were panhellenistic rituals in honor of Zeus and Hera. Greek cities which were at war with each other, would lay down their arms, and compete for glory, through sports!

[7] I owe thanks to Rabbi Joey Dweck for this perspective.


Cogan, M. The Raging Torrent, Historical Inscriptions from Assyria and Babylonia Relating to Ancient Israel. Second Updated & Expanded Edition. Carta, Jerusalem (2008).

Landy, Y.

לנדי, י. ואלה דברי ימי ירמיהו. תקופת ירמיהו הנביא: סקירה היסטורית, גיאוגרפית וארכיאולוגית

קולמוס הפצת ספרים, ירושלים (2016).י

Van de Mieroop, M. A History of the Ancient Near East ca. 3000-323 B.C. Second edition. Blackwell Publishing (2007).

Wine and Prophecy: The Rebirth of Shomron

Posted on Updated on

“Have you ever seen a prophecy come true?

…Would you like to hold one in your hand?”

That is how I opened up my sixth grade history class in Jerusalem, seven years ago (2010).

It was inspired by a very powerful experience on that year’s Rosh Hashana in which, I recall, my family and guests consumed fourteen bottles of wine. I daresay that I was a key player in the consumption thereof, and my passion for Israeli wine has only increased over the years.

This is a story about wine, but mostly about the Shomron (Samaria – the capital of the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Ten Lost Tribes, and a general name for the region). If you too enjoy good wine, especially Israeli wine, you will find some practical information in this series of articles.  But even if not – you may discover wonderful things. This series of three articles is intended for the Three Weeks [1] in which we reconnect with the First and Second Temple destruction periods, so it will also focus on the rebuilding of the Land, appropriate as is for its aftermath.

This, being the first part, will lay the foundation for the discussion about the Shomron, and the context that makes its wines so special.

The second part will deal with the broader historical context of the story as well as less known details that are learned from Assyrian archaeology. Furthermore, it will raise some important questions regarding the nature of the Ten Lost Tribes.

For the third part, I interviewed two people who are involved in the rebuilding of Judea and Samaria in unique ways. The first is Tzvi (Greg) Lauren, co-founder of West Bank Wines, who is involved in the distribution of Israeli wines in the United States. The second is Gabi Sackett, co-founder of Build Up Israel, a nonprofit supporting community building projects in a unique way. The article will include audio and transcriptions, as well as important links and social media information.

Now back to the sixth grade history lesson. Actually, let’s go back to that Rosh Hashana in the Old City of Jerusalem, 2010.

On the second day of Rosh Hashana, my father was appointed to read the Haftarah, a selection of prophecy of comfort from the book of Jeremiah (31:1-20). Perhaps the most famous verse from that portion is “A cry is heard in Ramah— Wailing, bitter weeping— Rachel weeping for her children. She refuses to be comforted, for her children, who are gone.” (ibid, 15) A poignant description of the utter shock and devastation of the Exile of the Ten Tribes, which have been deported by several kings of the Neo-Assyrian Empire. But what moved him to tears, as he was reading, was an earlier verse:

I will build you firmly again, O Maiden Israel! Again you shall take up your timbrels and go forth to the rhythm of the dancers. Again you shall plant vineyards on the hills of Samaria; Men shall plant and live to enjoy them. (ibid, 4-5)

What was so moving about these verses? I did not really understand…but when I held one of the bottles in my hand during the next meal, it hit me. It was a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon from Barkan Winery, and though later I discovered their vineyards are not actually in the Shomron, the Barkan industrial section is. I then realized that not only a winery in the Shomron, but a booming wine industry, was indeed the fulfillment of a prophecy which, in the disastrous times of the prophecy, was inconceivable. It was then that this lesson was born.

I saved that empty bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon, brought it to my 6th grade classroom, and made an entire lesson out of it.

Weep, oh Shomron!

So what exactly happened?

The short and familiar story is as follows: Pekah, King of Israel in the north allied with his northeastern neighbor Rezin, King of Aram (Damascus) against Ahaz in southern Judah (II Kings 16:5). They were part of a coalition to stop local kings from joining the Assyrian empire, whose main goal was keeping Assyria out of the geopolitical game in the region.

This didn’t turn out well for the coalition. Tiglath-pileser III came to the aid of Ahaz, accepting Judah as a vassal kingdom, killing Rezin and deporting large parts of the Kingdom of Israel twice over the course of a three year campaign. He deported the many captives and repopulated them across the Assyrian Empire, settling the Samaria hill country with deportees from other areas of the empire (I Chronicles 5:26, II Kings 15:29 and cf. Rashi on II Kings 17:1).

In the days of King Pekah of Israel, King Tiglath-pileser of Assyria came and captured Ijon, Abel-beth Maacah, Janoah, Kedesh, Hazor—Gilead, Galilee, the entire region of Naphtali; and he deported the inhabitants to Assyria. (II Kings 15:29)

Later, during the reign of Shalmaneser V, King Hosea of Israel was caught sending a convoy to Seis, King of Egypt, (II Kings 17:4-6), a clear act of rebellion against Assyria. Shalmaneser did not like it, and after a three-year siege over Shomron, the king of Assyria destroyed it, and deported all the remaining citizens of Israel across the empire.

…and the King of Assyria deported the Israelites to Assyria. He settled them in Calah, along the Habor [and] the River Gozan, and in the towns of Media. (II Kings 18:11)

Rashi (II Kings 17:1) adds a detail about Sennacherib deporting a small portion of the remaining Ten Tribes. He bases this on the Seder Olam. Speaking of the Seder Olam, it should be noted that only recently has this famous jewish chronological work been made available to the scientific community. Professor Chaim Milikowsky just released the very first – and long awaited – scientific publication (in Hebrew) [2].

I have not had the benefit of holding a copy in my hand, yet, but strongly encourage doing so.

In any event, this is the story we all know.

It is hard to imagine the magnitude of this devastation. The Ashkenazi current Jewish population is mostly from Judah and Benjamin, Levi, and perhaps a few scattered families from across the ten tribes. There are Sephardim with origin traditions from specific tribes. The primary reason there are “Jews” and Jewish communities in the world today is because the kingdom of Judah was left in place over a century afterwards, was exiled en masse by Babylon and stayed together in large groups, who are thus traceable in Europe and the East; and with some Jews staying in the Land, as described in Kings and in Ezra-Nehemiah.

While the Judahites were exiled they returned, rebuilt the Temple and Jerusalem – and, centuries later were exiled again and dispersed around the Roman world – and they have miraculously returned to the Land of Israel again, after nearly two millennia.

The Ten Tribes have not.

The Ten Tribes are… lost… we call them “The Ten Lost Tribes” because their whereabouts as a rule are indeed as yet unknown, despite a recent resurgence of research into their fate..

In the next article I will expand the story through archaeology and discuss some broader issues regarding the Ten Lost Tribes.

I would like to share with you a poignant lamentation about this topic. Every Tisha b’Av (the fast of the 9th of Av), Jews around the world sit on the ground in mourning, and recite different lamentations, composed over the last two millennia, which describe the horrors of the destruction, persecution, pogroms and holocaust which have transpired over the generations. Entire jewish communities which have been destroyed by the crusaders, the Spanish inquisition, burning of Torah scrolls and other horrors are remembered.

One of these lamentations is called “Samaria lifts up her voice”, by Solomon ibn Gabirol, an 11th century Spanish-Jewish poet and philosopher. Translation is from the Tisha B’av Compendium, Judaica Press, NY 1989 and I have only brought the part relevant to this article, but you can research the entire lamentation at your leisure.

Some things to notice:

First of all, the lamentation attributes the exile only to Tiglath-pileser. Perhaps for poetic reason, he also only includes several of the locations to where the tribes were exiled.

Second, the name of Shomron is Aholoh (אָהֳלָה), literally translates as “His Tent”. This name appears in the full length of the lamentation, in which Jerusalem and Shomron bemoan their disastrous fate, and compare them one against the other’s. While “His Tent” is clearly a reference to the Tabernacle, which was in Shiloh, in the Shomron for 369 years [3], it is also a curious reference to wine [4]. Indeed, the iniquities of the kingdom of Shomron – and their subsequent exile – have a lot to do with wine:

They drink [straight] from the wine bowls and anoint themselves with the choicest oils—but they are not concerned about the ruin of Joseph. Assuredly, right soon they shall head the column of exiles; They shall loll no more at festive meals. (Amos 6:6-7)


[1] “The Three Weeks” is the period in which Jews consciously engage with the nature of the destructions which have befallen the Jewish People (Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of Fasts 5:1-4). The three weeks is the span of time between two National fast days, corresponding to the approximate date of the two final stages of the destruction of both Temples in Jerusalem: The breach of the walls of Jerusalem (17 of Tammuz) and the burning of the Temple (9 of Av).

[2] Seder Olam: Critical Edition, Commentary, and Introduction. Milikowsky, Chaim (2013): Yad Ben-Zvi Press, Israel

[3] Maimonides, Mishne Torah, Laws of the Chosen Temple 1:2

[4] The word “Aholo” is also found in the story of Noah’s drunkenness (Gen. 9:21), where he was exposed in his own tent, naked. The word for nakedness and exposure in Hebrew (va’yit’gal) is the same as Exile (gal’ut). See Rashi’s commentary on that verse.

Summer 2017

Image Posted on Updated on


Summer Public Tanach Tours are over

Public tours will resume shortly, and a schedule will be posted soon.

It has been a long summer, with nearly 20 Tanach and Jewish History tours running at the Met. The summer Public Tanach Tour series is now complete, and we are gearing up for the year.

Follow Torah Intermedia to learn about upcoming tours, lectures and programs, as well as articles and reviews.

Last Tanach Tour Complete
Paying tribute to the “met sticker” tradition.. last one out of the museum today, Sunday, August 27


Thank you so much for an amazing tour of the MET with my children! You were so engaging with my children and managed to still fill the rest of the tour for us adults with lots of meaningful content! I will recommend you to anyone looking for a great tour guide of the MET and specifically a Jewish tour. You were great!!!

Rabbi Yochai “Yogi” Robkin
Director of outread of DATA at Plano, Texas
Tanach Highlights Tour on August 17
“Our extended family, ranging in age from 7 to 65, enjoyed a wonderful tour of the Met with Nachliel. He planned scavenger hunts, decryption games, and more to keep the younger crowd interested while engaging the adults with his vast knowledge. The tour brought the museum to life. I highly recommend it!”
J. Robkin, from Atlanta, GA
Tanach Highlights Family Tour, August 17

Robkin Family collage 1

MJE July 30 collage
Manhattan Jewish Experience, July 30

Thank you Nachliel providing us all a great understanding of the Assyrian and Babylonian empires and their connection to Tanach!

Rabbi Pinny Rosenthal
Manhattan Jewish Experience
Mechon Hadar, July 21

We so enjoyed having Nachliel as our guide at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Our group had been studying rabbinic materials about idolatry and Nachliel helped bring those issues to life through the Met’s collections. His comfort both with the ancient and classic sculpture we looked at as well as his fluency in Bible and rabbinic literature were terrific!

Rabbi Ethan Tucker
Rosh Yeshiva, Mechon Hadar
New York, NY
Tour took place on July 21

“Fascinating…Truly eye opening into the world we only hear about. The connection of Ancient Artifacts and the Tanach is explained and put into perspective, especially in this troubled time. This tour only reinforces our Historical connection to the Holy Land of Israel”

Jeff and Chery Klein from Monsey, NY. Participated July 23


This your is a great way to be introduced to the history of the Ancient Near East! It’s very comprehensive and spans a pretty good range of time. I also loved that it was grounded (corroborated) by passages of Tanakh. I loved seeing the intersection between the written record of history and Torah! Personally, I would have loved to spend more time on the text itself, but it’s hard to do it all in under two hours. I recommend this for anyone who’s interested in the A.N.E.!

Malka Rappaport from Crown Heights, NY. Participated Wednesday, July 12


Powerful presentation of the era of kings – Regional Kingdoms and Empires…the separation of Israel and Judea and eventual destruction of Jerusalem and the beginning of the Babylonian diaspora. Nachliel is a passionate guide and very informed and well traveled in order to present his material.

Notes were very well researched and presented. This tour was made even more powerful during the period of the three weeks between Tammuz and Tisha b’Av.

– Aliyana Wasserman, Rosanne Koenigson from Edison, NJ. Participated Sunday, July 16


“I’ve lived in New York City my entire life and have been through the Metropolitan Museum of Art…many times. Nachliel made me feel like I was touring these wings for the first time.”
Mrs. Susan Strassburger. Participated Sunday, June 18
“Nachliel is exceptionally knowledgeable and passionate about his twin loves – Torah and Archeology. He showed us the importance of contextualizing II Melakhim and Yirmiyahu in its Ancient Near Eastern setting…We moved at a rapid-fire pace…”
Ms. Sarah Robinson, Tanach Teacher at Kushner Hebrew Academy. Participated Sunday, June 18
June 18 collage 1
Some action from Sunday, June 18’s tour

Tanach Tour June 18

Posted on Updated on

Gear up for the summer with a

Tanach Tour at The Met!



Sunday afternoon, June 18

Group A:


Group B:


In Short…

Join us at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as we go through the final chapters of the Kingdom of Israel and the Kingdom of Judah, during the First Temple period, until its destruction by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon.

See fascinating artifacts that bring these civilizations to life, learn about the dilemmas we faced during these times, and understand their historic context.

  • Tour is approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes
  • Materials are provided, but bringing your Tanach is recommended
  • Tour is limited to 25-30 participants at a time


For your convenience, you may check the FAQ section, which includes information about arrival, parking, kosher food, as well as a link to the source sheet which I hand out at the Met.

Book your reservation now!

Call or text: 929-233-0950                     E-mail:

Tanach Met collage 2


Nachliel put together an interactive and informative program in the MET. It was a great experience to see firsthand some of the artifacts that our biblical ancestors saw, as presented to us in the Tanach. It was especially moving to stand under the Ishtar Gate, the same gate our ancestors entered through as they were exiled from Jerusalem to Babel during first temple period, circa 586 BC.

Jesse Salem, Brooklyn, NY 
Founder of Tanach Study

Rav Nachliel led my ninth grade Jewish History students on an eye – opening tour of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Assyrian, Egyptian, and Babylonian wings. It was important to me that my students gain the requisite background knowledge to more deeply understand the Second Temple Period…Rav Nachliel was professional and thorough and provided an enriching and worthwhile learning experience. I highly recommend a museum tour guided by Rav Nachliel.

Mrs. Frieda Cattan
Jewish History Teacher

Magen David Yeshivah Celia Esses High School, Brooklyn, NY 


Nachliel’s knowledge, energy and understanding of the art was thorough, colorful and rich. Through an intimate knowledge of history as well, he was able to vibrantly relate manifestations of ancient history to modern cultural events. A history lesson through art would have been satisfying enough, but Nachliel’s added touch of historical events as they relate to modern culture, and his willingness to respond to many questions, often tangential, brought the tour to unexpected heights

Ezra and Deborah Safdieh 

Brooklyn, NY


I went with Nachliel to the Metropolitan Museum of Art on several occasions. Nachliel is enthusiastic about Torah and archaeology, explaining Tanach and teachings of Chazal in a very engaging manner, passionately bringing Torah to life through the history and the archaeology that we explored together.Indeed, I too look forward to join him on future programs…

Dr. Nisan Hershkowitz, A president of the New York State Academy of General Dentistry, Brooklyn, NY

I really liked going to the MET with Nachliel. We saw lots of amazing things together. We should go again soon!

 Talia, age 4

Lions, Oh My!

Posted on Updated on

Lion and Bull in combat. Achaemenid, attributed to the reign of Artaxerxes III, 358-338 B.C. Credit: Boston MFA. Lent by the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, LR 36.37. Photo: Author.

The combat of wild animals was a dominant and persistent theme throughout ancient Near Eastern art. The lion was a traditional symbol for the deities of war and destruction-and also, ironically, of love. The bull, noted for its sexuality and brute strength, was associated with the gods of storms, chaos, and fertility. In art, combat between such powerful animals may have symbolically represented the increasing and unresolved conflicts in nature. This fits into an overall background theme stretching to the earliest Mesopotamian cultures of order over chaos, the urbanization and civilization subduing the wild, a constant fight which the kings and gods had to lead. This particular composition was repeated over and over again at either end of the grand staircases at Persepolis. [Based on a plaque on display at Boston MFA]

The Lion King

Throughout the ancient world, lions were symbols of strength, power, ferocity, and most importantly – of kingship.

Biblical and Midrashic literature are fraught with mentions of lions in many different contexts. The lion has seven names in Hebrew, and its various aspects are used in prophecy and metaphor. Oftentimes, it is used to describe an enemy, the most prominent of which is Nebuchadnezzar II, king of Babylon.

This short article is not attempting to cover the length of the fascinating mentions and usages of the lion in Jewish literature. That has already been expertly done in the Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom (Slifkin, 2015), and I highly recommend reading it. Rabbi Dr. Slifkin covers many fascinating insights about lions, both zoological and conceptual, which are beyond the scope of this article.

What I offer here are a few valuable tidbits for educational purposes, highlighting connections and providing food for thought. I link artifacts relating to the main antagonists of the late First Temple through Persian periods, with Biblical references tying them to lions. Finally, I will end with a treat from my hometown of Jerusalem.


Assyria – The Lion’s Den

What has become of that lion’s’ den, that pasture of great beasts, where lion and lion’s breed walked, and lion’s cub—with none to disturb them? [Where is] the lion that tore victims for his cubs and strangled for his lionesses, and filled his lairs with prey and his dens with mangled flesh? I am going to deal with you —declares the Lord of Hosts: I will burn down her chariots in smoke, and the sword shall devour your great beasts; I will stamp out your killings from the earth, and the sound of your messengers shall be heard no more. (Nahum 2:12-14).

            On the surface, this is an allegory, a metaphor to the great and mighty Assyrians who feared no one. The impact of Nahum’s prophecy would have been most impactful if it was said while Assyria was still at its height. According to the Seder Olam Rabba (20:2), Nahum prophesied during the reign of King Menashe, who ruled for 52 years (II Kings 21:1).

At this time, Assyria was indeed at the peak of its strength, both under Esarhaddon (ca. 681-669 BCE) and Ashurbanipal (ca. 668-631 BEC). Both of them were involved with Judah on some level, but mostly with Egypt.

A further description in Nahum 3:8-10 refers to the destruction of Thebes and exile of Egyptians (possibly the Nubians), which was done once by Esarhaddon and twice by Ashurbanipal. This would narrow down the time in which he prophesied. For more on Assyrian involvement in Egypt, see my article Taharqa, Sennacherib and Hezekiah – the Untold Story.

After the events of 701 BCE, Sennacherib returned to Assyria. Instead of making Judah a vassal, as he had intended (II Chr. 32:1-2), he merely taxed it heavily. You can see more about how that was documented both in Assyrian records and in the Bible in this video by Megalim Institute.

While Assyria did not annex Judah, its culture and idolatry were heavily influential upon it. This can very well explain the constant shift in the kingdom with relation to issues of idolatry and the purging thereof. This would also be the milieu in which Nahum, as well as other prophets, dealt with it.

In any event, it is clear that Nahum was speaking either in the time of Esarhaddon or Ashurbanipal. As for our perspective, it is archaeology which makes a connection between the prophecy of Nahum to the Assyrians per se; certainly, at the time his words were delivered the metaphor was very clearly associated with Assyrian Kings and their practices. Lion hunts were popular pastimes of Assyrian kings, and their portrayal through art was a way of emphasizing the king’s bravery and skill:

In ancient Assyria lion-hunting was considered the sport of kings; symbolic of the ruling monarch’s duty to protect and fight for his people, and to control and subdue the chaos of nature. The sculpted reliefs in Room 10a illustrate the sporting exploits of the last great Assyrian king, Ashurbanipal (668-631 BC) and were created for his palace at Nineveh (in modern-day northern Iraq).

The hunt scenes, full of tension and realism, rank among the finest achievements of Assyrian Art. They depict the release of the lions, the ensuing chase and subsequent killing [based on description from]


Ashurbanipal hunting lions, relief from Ashurbanipal’s North Palace, Nineveh (modern Kuyunjik), Iraq, ca. 645-635 BCE. Gypsum, 5′ 4″ high. Image credit: British Museum, London.

Be sure to check out many more such reliefs when you visit the British Museum, in room 10a. For your convenience, their reference is: ME 124781, ME 124850-ME 124870, ME 124874- ME 124878, ME 124883-ME 124887, ME 124921

Exile: The Lions of Babylon

Take refuge, do not delay! For I bring evil from the north, and great disaster. The lion has come up from his thicket: The destroyer of nations has set out, has departed from his place, to make your land a desolation; Your cities shall be ruined, Without inhabitants. (Jeremiah 4:6-7)

            Nebuchadnezzar II (605 – ca. 562 BCE). Arguably the most formidable and notorious of all Biblical “bad guys”. Midrash rates him as even more terrible than Sennacherib, and he is mentioned over 300 times in the Bible. While there are several portrayals of him during his rule, he is most famous for destroying the Temple in Jerusalem in 586 BCE – putting a stop to the rebellious Kingdom of Judah with one final blow. Jews around the world and throughout history have grown up hearing his name, as the destruction is lamented annually on the fast day of the Ninth of Av (Tisha b’Av).

The impact Nebuchadnezzar has left on the Jewish people is undeniable. Babylon was the first official exile of Israel as a sovereign nation into the diaspora.[1] Without a homeland and a Temple to center their lives around, Jews lamented the loss of Jerusalem by the Rivers of Babylon. Diaspora became a reality, and religion evolved to supplement the lack of a land and a Temple, and thus “Judaism” was born.

Getting back to the lions, it wasn’t over for the Jews in Babylon. Nebuchadnezzar held Jews in his court, gave them Babylonian names (Daniel 1:7), and even had a rather close relationship with Daniel. And to all of them – including those Jews who were marched into Babylon – the connection to lions would have been clear as day. This is because of Nebuchadnezzar’s building operations.

Digital rendering of the Ishtar Gate.

Imagine, seeing what the exiled Jews of Judah saw with their very own eyes. It can be very moving. When you see those lions, you are looking at the same bricks and images seen by Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. What impact did these lions have on them? What imagery did these lions bring up in their appreciation or fear of the works of Nebuchadnezzar?

When I take groups to the Met, we read “By the Rivers of Babylon” (Psalms 137) under these lions. It is a powerful image.

Nebuchadnezzar was a great builder, and much of the silver in his treasury was spent on rebuilding Babylon to luxurious and lofty new heights. Records of his industriousness include one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: The Hanging Gardens of Babylon. So far, the garden has not been found, but nevertheless it is a subject for art and legend. However, before it was replaced by the Lighthouse of Alexandria, there was one more of his buildings on that list, and that is the Ishtar Gate. A gate of magnificent blue and other vibrant colors, it was decorated with glazed bricks with the images of 120 lions, dragons, and bulls, representing the gods Ishtar, Marduk and Adad, respectively.

Originally from the modern city of Al Hillah, about 55 miles south of Baghdad, this gate has been excavated between 1902-1914, and painstakingly reconstructed to its current state in the Pergamon Museum, where it is on display today. Several of the figures are in museums around the world. So far, I have seen two lions and a dragon in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and one lion in the Boston MFA. There are a few more in museums around the world, including the Royal Ontario Museum, Canada (the video on the page is recommended) and the Oriental Institute of the University of Chicago. The former was actually excavated in Nebuchadnezzar’s throne room, which means that the Biblical characters mentioned above probably spent a lot of their time very close to it.


The Ishtar Gate today, in the Pergamon Museum, Berlin.


Another lion-related antagonist who is part of the Babylonian Exile, is Nebuzaradan. So terrible was he, that in comparison to Nebuchadnezzar, he is called a lion, while Nebuchadnezzar becomes a bear.

“He is a bear lying in wait for me” (Lamentations 3:10) – this refers to Nebuchadnezzar; “a lion in hiding” – this refers to Nebuzaradan (Eikha Rabba 3:4).

Lions and bears, oh my!

When contrasted with Nebuzaradan, Nebuchadnezzar is compared to a bear rather than a lion. The reason for this is that the lion is a more ferocious predator than the bear (Slifkin, pp. 86).

Nebuzaradan was the commander of Nebuchadnezzar’s guard, who personally oversaw the destruction of the Temple and the deportation of the Jews. The Talmud (Gittin 57b) goes into gruesome detail of how he butchered countless priests and school children, an act which was seen as revenge for the murder of the prophet Zechariah son of Jehoiada (II Chronicles 24:20-22). This event is also canonized in the lamentations of the destruction, recited on the Ninth of Av, annually.

Nebuzaradan, according to Midrash, is the Arioch who we meet in the book of Daniel (2:15, 24). The name Arioch is similar to the word for lion, Ari, and why is he called a lion?

Nebuzaradan is Arioch. And why is he called Arioch? Because he would roar over the captives like a lion (ari), until they reached the Euphrates. (Eikha Rabba 5:5)

Exile by the Mouth of the Lion

The imagery of lions is strongly associated, not only with Nebuchadnezzar and Babylon itself (e.g. Daniel 7:4), but with the state-of-being of exile, per se. Though the Kingdom of Israel has already been in exile for over a century, to the Kingdom of Judah – whom the Jews today are most likely descended from – Babylon was the first real encounter of exile. It was the first time that the “Jewish People” had to contemplate what it means to be “Jewish” without being a sovereign nation on their own land. Essentially, “Judaism” as a practice, religion, or identity, was born from the Babylonian Exile.

Israel ben Moses Najara (Yisrael Najara), a 16th century liturgical poet, preacher, Biblical commentator, kabbalist, and rabbi of Gaza, composed one of my favorite Sabbath songs – “Yah Ribon”. Written entirely in Aramaic, it incorporates and paraphrases several key verses and ideas from the book of Daniel. This includes Nebuchadnezzar’s dreams, and how Daniel addresses the King when presenting a solution to his dreams. The refrain “Yah Ribon Olam ve’Almaya, ant hu Malka, Melekh Malkhaya” [roughly translated “Oh God, Master of the World and the Universe, Thou Art the King, King of Kings”], is very similar to the way in which Mesopotamian kings are referred to, both in scripture and archaeologically.

All of this makes it very appropriate for the theme of the song which is the experience of Jews in Exile. A stanza describing the prayer for redemption of Jews from Exile, roughly translated, goes:

Oh God, with Whom resides Glory and Might /

Redeem Thy Flock from the Mouth of the Lion /

And Deliver Your people from amidst the Exile

Redemption “from the Mouth of the Lion” in Midrashic literature is seen as a measure-for-measure in terms of…lions. Oh, my!

There are many Midrashic analogies attributing the character of lions to Nebuchadnezzar, the Temple in Jerusalem, Judah, the fall of Babylon, God Himself, and the ultimate redemption from exile.[2] Perhaps my favorite Midrash is the following:

Judah corresponds to the kingdom of Babylon – both are symbolized by a lion.

This one is compared to a lion: “Judah is a young lion” (Gen. 49:9), and this one is compared to a lion: “The first was like a lion” (Dan. 7:4).

The kingdom of Babylon falls by the hand of Daniel, who comes from the tribe of Judah. (Bereishit Rabba 99:2)

“Babylon falls by the hand of Daniel” – this is referring to his interpretation of the Writing on the Wall (Dan. 5). While Daniel is from the tribe of Judah – who is compared to a Lion – he had a vision of Babylon as the head of a lion (Dan. 7:4). It is interesting that Daniel himself is iconic for his relationship to lions.

Briton Riviere, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, 1872. Credit: National Museum Liverpool, Walker Art Gallery.

The fifth chapter of Daniel tells the tale of Daniel being thrown into the lion’s den by king Darius the Mede. Parenthetically, this is a classic case of discrepancy between the Biblical record and the historic record. In the Bible, there is no mention of Nabonidus, who was the successor of Belshazzar. Instead, we hear about a Darius the Mede, who took over the kingdom at the age of sixty-two, and ruled for a single year (Dan. 5:30). Whether Darius the Mede is in fact Cyrus, or possibly the Median king Astyages, is unclear. Darius the Mede does not appear in any historical source other than the Bible and the Talmud. It may be that no artifacts or buildings carrying his name were left behind because of his short reign. (Landy, pp. 11)

Striding lion from the Ishtar gate. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Persia: Surrounded by Lions

In Midrashic analogy, the Persians are represented by the Bear (Slifkin, p. 112-4), based on Daniel’s visions (7:5).  However, the imagery of lions was quite prevalent in the Achaemenid Persian Empire. Several items with lions on them have been found with inscriptions connecting them to Darius, Cyrus, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes.

Perhaps the most complex and difficult issue in Biblical chronology is the organization and identification of the Persian kings in relation to archaeological discovery. Included in this, is the identification of King Achashverosh from the book of Esther. Several prominent historians have dealt with this question and it warrants an entire article of its own, thereby, way beyond the scope of this article.

The images shown in this section are for the purpose of exploration and to piqued the readers interest, and in this section I will be treating King Achashverosh, briefly, from a Talmudic and philosophical point of view. So why King Achashverosh? Because, according to the Talmud (Megillah 15b, below), he is compared to a lion by none other than Queen Esther:

My God, my God, why have You abandoned me; why so far from delivering me and from my anguished roaring?

Dogs surround me; a pack of evil ones closes in on me, like lions [they maul] my hands and feet.

Save my life from the sword, my precious life from the clutches of a dog. Deliver me from a lion’s mouth; from the horns of wild oxen rescue me. (Psalms 22:2, 17, 21-22)

“Deliver me from a lion’s mouth; from the horns of wild oxen rescue me” – Lion and Bull in combat. Achaemenid, attributed to the reign of Artaxerxes III, 358-338 B.C. Credit: Boston MFA. Lent by the Oriental Institute, University of Chicago, LR 36.37. Photo: Author.

This was the essential prayer of Queen Esther, before entering to plead to the king on behalf of her people:

Vessel terminating in the forepart of a fantastic leonine creature, Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo credit: Author.

On the third day, Esther put on royal apparel and stood in the inner court of the king’s palace, facing the king’s palace, while the king was sitting on his royal throne in the throne room facing the entrance of the palace. (Esther 5:1)

Rabbi Levi said: Once she reached the chamber of the idols, which was in the inner court, the Divine Presence left her.

She immediately said: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”…perhaps You have left me because in my prayers I called him a dog, as it is stated: “Deliver my soul from the sword; my only one from the hand of the dog”.

She at once retracted and called him in her prayers a lion, as it is stated in the following verse: “Save me from the lion’s mouth”.

Esther, it seemed, didn’t have much choice in the matter. Her life was intertwined in a play of power and politics which had potential to change the course of her people’s history, as well impact her place in her own family line (Esther 4:14). Esther was a descendant of King Saul (Megillah 13b), who lost his throne through refraining from the proper action to annihilate the Amalekite King Agag (I Samuel 15:9), ancestor of Haman the Agagite (Esther 3:1).

The turning point in the story of Esther comes from an understanding she attained with regard to how she treated the antagonists in her life. Calling the oppressor a dog is belittling and demeaning. Calling the oppressor a lion, acknowledges an appreciation of greatness, but also of the dynamic of her opportunity to grow through this. The latter cannot be achieved while belittling the challenge at hand, as difficult as it may be, and that is why she lost her “Divine Spirit” when she refused to acknowledge her oppressor. When she rose to the occasion, she indeed brought about a salvation and a change which inscribed her name on this historic event celebrated annually with the festival of Purim.

Lion Frieze from the Palace of Darius I, dating from circa 510 B.C. Found at Susa, in the Achaemenid empire. Credit: Louvre Museum, Paris

Lions of Judah and Judaism

Judah is a lion’s whelp; On prey, my son, have you grown. He crouches, lies down like a lion, Like the king of beasts—who dare rouse him? (Gen. 49:9)

            Walkiimageng out of Jerusalem’s Jaffa Gate towards City Hall, and throughout the city, you will see many representations of lions. Rooted in city tradition, the capital of Judah’s biblical inheritance, the modern emblem is indeed a lion. The new emblem as seen on the Jerusalem Municipality website celebrates fifty years to the city’s liberation in 1967. The older, classic emblem is still visible in many places throughout the city:








Several stone lions are parts of building facades, on rooftops, and engraved in Jerusalem stone. How many lions have you spotted in Jerusalem?

Winged lion in snow. Generali Building on Jaffa Street.

Well, just driving through the city between February through September 2003, you would have seen at least a dozen lions of different color and design, painted by young, experienced artists, and placed in public locations throughout the city. It was quite a sight to see. Some were just plain beautiful, while some had religious and even political themes. I recall one x-ray lion which had a heap of human bones in its belly, and an arrow pointing to them with the word “Daniel”. Below are pictures from the presentation in City Hall, before their relocation throughout the city:


Later on, they were auctioned off to private owners, yet several still remain in prominent public places, such as the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, Misgav Ladach Street in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City at the top of the stairs going down to the Western Wall, and at the entrance to City Hall:


Sometime during 2009, I had the privilege of being hired to do maintenance work for two lions placed in the Jewish Quarter. For around five years I was their caretaker – I say caretaker and not painter, because there was much more to taking care of them than painting them. I covered some of that experience in my art blog. I must have heard hundreds of tour guides explaining – or asking me to explain – the significance of the lions to Jerusalem.

Besides being a hallmark of the city of Jerusalem, the lion is also popular in synagogue and Torah scroll ornamentation.[3] This is because the lion stands for more than the holy city, but also for various components in the city itself, from times of old.

Temple Service

“Ah, Ariel, Ariel, City where David camped! Add year to year, Let festivals come in their cycles! (Isaiah 29:1)

            As the prophet, Josiah laments and consoles Jerusalem for the upcoming oppression (possibly) by Sennacherib. He calls the city “Ariel”, which in Hebrew means “Lion of God”. The imagery of the lion is clearly associated with Jerusalem, which is in the portion of Judah. It is not only in metaphor however, but in architecture as well. This verse comes to hint at the structure of the main sanctuary in the Temple:

The Sanctuary was narrow in the back [the eastern side] and wide at the front [the eastern side], like a lion, as it says, “Ah, Ariel [lit. Lion of God] Ariel, the city where David camped.” (Isaiah 29:1) Just as a lion is narrow in his back and wide in front, so too was the Sanctuary narrow in the back and wide in the front. (Mishnah Middot 4:7)

There is a curious connection between the concept of service and lions. Even today, when there is no temple service, the Jewish tradition is that the three daily prayers correspond to the main offering times in the Temple services.[5] The classical Code of Jewish Law known as Shulchan Aruch, by Rabbi Joseph Caro, opens with the following words:[6]

One should strengthen himself like a lion to get up in the morning to serve his Creator, so that it is he who awakens the dawn.

This is based on the Mishnaic imagery of animal characteristics which should be emulated in our daily practice.

Yehudah ben Teimah says: Be brazen like the leopard, light like the eagle, swift like the deer, and mighty like the lion to do the Will of your Father Who is in Heaven. (Mishnah Avot 5:20)

But there is something deeper than simply emulating the might and strength of a lion, which can basically mean “early to bed, early to rise”. In fact, the essence of the inclination to invest in a relationship with the Creator is represented by the lion.

Quite surprisingly, this was learned through an attempt to eliminate the inclination for idolatry, during the Second Temple. According to the Talmud (Yoma 69b), the sages during the Second Temple realized that after all the trouble that idolatry caused during the First Temple, it was simply not worth the risk. Clearly metaphorical, the imagery used to describe the Inclination for Idolatry – and where it resided – were shocking:

In response to the indication of divine acceptance, they observed a fast for three days and three nights, and He delivered the Evil Inclination to them. A form of a fiery lion cub came forth from the chamber of the Holy of Holies.

Consider the implications: Idolatry played a central role in the moral disintegration of the Kingdom of Israel,[7] and the ultimate destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem. And its essence resided in the Holy of Holies – the Sanctum Sanctorum. What irony![8]

The sages were aware of this interdependence from the very start, and knew that eliminating that inclination came at a terrible price: The Service of the Creator around the Temple and the Altar, were predicated on a natural, evolutionary drive. It is no coincidence that some form of worship has been found in just about every culture in the world throughout history. This inclination was now, somehow, maimed. And that means that service became no longer intuitive and visceral, but rather intellectual. It is institutionalized.

In contrast, the drive and desire for service used to be so powerful, they had to be restrained.

Prayer is now an intellectual practice. And intellect removes us from experience, and presents a great challenge in an era where attention spans are significantly changing, due to incessant sensory stimulation. I am sure there is hardly a Jewish educator today who does not feel the challenges of engaging children in prayer. How does one encourage children who are so young and full of energy and compulsion to move, to engage in the intellectual, institutionalized side of Judaism?

…Food for thought (puns intended!).


I’ll finish with a treat.

Following the theme of decorating Jerusalem with lions, here is another example I was somewhat involved in.

For years, my mother has been an activist for the quality of life for residents of the Old City. There is an artist named Solomon Souza, who recently carried out a beautiful series of graffiti on shop doors throughout the Machane Yehuda market in Jerusalem. This was featured in several news articles, including a YouTube video which I may have shared on social media. My mother asked me for the link to the video, so she could find the artist and contact him about doing some more art in the old city. Below is a taste of the result:



[1] The Assyrian Exile of the Ten Tribes occurred in three installments around the year 722 BCE. There are qualitative differences between the exiles and how they are perceived today. However, that is beyond the scope of this article.

[2] For example, see Shemot Rabbah 23:6, Shemot Rabbah 29, Pesikta Rabbati 33, Midrash Pesikta deRav Kahana 13:15, Yalkut Midrashei Teiman. I credit Rabbi Slifkin for making it so easy to find all of them in his wonderful book:

[3] Slifkin, page 66-72.

[4] In Hebrew, the word for eating and consumption by fire are interchangeable. E.g. Leviticus 9:24, 10:2.

[5] Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 26b.

[6] Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 1:1.

[7] II Kings 17:7-23.

[8] Parenthetically, it is curious that the people whom the Assyrians brought in order to repopulate Samaria, who did not know how to properly follow “the law of the God of the Land”, were attacked by lions (II Kings 17:24-27). These people converted (it surely was not called Judaism at the time), accepting the Law of the Land, and are sometimes referred to as “Converted by (fear of) Lions”, roughly translated (גרי אריות).


Slifkin, N. The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom. The Biblical Museum of Natural History / Maggid Books / OU Press (2015).

Landy, Y. Purim and the Persian Empire. Feldheim Publishers (2010).

The Chief Baker and the Chief Cupbearer

Posted on Updated on

In honor of this week’s Torah Reading, with the Saga of Joseph’s dreams. Joseph is working in the Jail house, and meets two very miserable political prisoners:

“Pharaoh was angry with his two courtiers, the chief cupbearer and the chief baker” (Genesis 40:2)

Joseph famously interprets their dreams, and we know how that ends up. Bad for the chief baker, and good for the chief cupbearer.

Almost every kid in a Jewish school will hear this story, and the background to it: Pharaoh was angry, because the negligence of his respective chiefs: The baker allowed a rock to make its way into a baked good, and the cupbearer allowed a fly to get into Pharaoh’s drink.

A few artifacts in the Metropolitan Museum of Art can bring this famous story to life.

Let us start with the background story. Pharaoh was being served a drink, it appears, and a fly somehow made its way into his wine. In the Assyrian relief below, see the scene, find the similarities. Notice how flies were kept out of drinks.

King Ashurnasirpal II wears the royal crown, a conical cap with a small peak and a long diadem. He holds a bow, a symbol of his authority, and a ceremonial bowl. Facing him, a eunuch, a “beardless one,” carries a fly whisk and a ladle for replenishing the royal vessel. [text adapted from the Met website]

Credit: Gift of John D. Rockefeller Jr., 1932, available at the Met, Gallery 401. Image source:

All ended well for the chief cupbearer:

“He restored the chief cupbearer to his cupbearing, and he placed the cup on Pharaoh’s hand” (Gen. 40:21)

But the Hebrew is actually slightly different.

וַיִּתֵּ֥ן הַכּ֖וֹס עַל־כַּ֥ף פַּרְעֹֽה – and he placed the cup on top of Pharaoh’s palm, very similar to the depiction above. Could it be that this wasn’t a traditional cup, but something more common at the time?

The “cup” being used in this relief is a Phiale, or libation bowl. You can see one of many examples available at the Met, here.

Next is the unfortunate story of the chief baker. His dream was of bad omen, indeed.


When the chief baker saw how favorably he had interpreted, he said to Joseph, “In my dream, similarly, there were three openwork baskets on my head.

In the uppermost basket were all kinds of food for Pharaoh that a baker prepares; and the birds were eating it out of the basket above my head.” (Gen. 40:16-17)
This imagery was an omen for its dreamer losing his head:
In three days Pharaoh will lift off your head and impale you upon a pole; and the birds will pick off your flesh.” (ibid, 19)
Was it a common thing for Egyptians to balance three baskets on their heads? Sure, it was a dream. But the imagery must have drawn from the time. Lo and behold, I found an Egyptian-like triple-basket: Last November I visited the exhibition Ancient Egypt Transformed: The Middle Kingdom at Met. In the gift shop, I saw this basket, presumably meant to look like something from the time period.

2015-12-01 16.34.56.jpg

Unfortunately, I did not bother to find out more about it, nor did I purchase one for myself. So sad.

Taharqa, Sennacherib and Hezekiah – The Untold Story

Posted on Updated on

Cover image: King Taharqa leads his queens through a crowd during a festival (Art by Gregory Manchess) Source: Draper 2008

Sometimes the Bible can be misleading. Sometimes.

I would like to discuss an example which demonstrates how a well-documented story, with rich archaeological remains, overshadows a major story. A story which seems to be trivial, almost meaningless, when one reads through the Biblical account.

I hope that this article inspires the reader, especially if she/he is a Biblical Studies teacher, to give more weight to the broader context and archaeological remains, which illuminate a very important story.

Many people know the famous story of Hezekiah and Sennacherib, described in II Kings 18:13 – 20:37, as well as in Isaiah 36-37, and II Chronicles 32. In short, Sennacherib attacks Jerusalem, devastates the kingdom of Judah, challenges Hezekiah in Jerusalem, but does not succeed. He ends up returning to Assyria and is later murdered by his sons, who escape to neighboring Urartu (“Ararat”), and his son Esarhaddon succeeds him. That’s just about it.

One of my favorite educational resources for the classroom is the Megalim Educational Institute of the City of David, Jerusalem. They have great videos in both English and Hebrew (with and without subtitles). Here is a sample video about the famous Sennacherib Prism:

But what happened after that? The Bible tells us one thing, and history and archaeology tell us much more. This story has such rich archaeological remains, many of which can be visited, seen and touched in Israel, and in museums around the world. The more prominent of these are:

  • The Broad Wall – which is literally underneath the house I grew up in, in the Old City.
  • Hezekiah’s Water Cistern, aka Hezekiah’s Tunnel – should be included in your next visit to Jerusalem, especially if you are with children.
  • The Lachish Reliefs – and the actual site of Lachish – which I talk about in several of my previous articles.
  • LMLK Jug Handles, as well as a personal seal of King Hezekiah. The connection of these artifacts to the narrative has several approaches, and some (Professor Oded Lipschits, TAU) attribute the LMLK jug handles to Ahaz – the first Judean king to voluntarily become vassal to Assyria.

Assyria and the Black Pharaohs

Black Pharaohs Taharqa.jpg

There is much more to the story. In a trivial looking verse (found in an almost identical verse in Isaiah 37:7), the Bible tells us as follows:

And [the king of Assyria] learned that King Tirhakah (Taharqa) of Kush (Nubia) had come out to fight him; so he again sent messengers to Hezekiah, saying… (II Kings 19:9)

In short, Sennacherib was sidetracked by a skirmish with a nebulous King of Kush, and sent his messengers to Hezekiah saying “It ain’t over yet!” or “I’ll be back!”

But that did not happen. Sennacherib goes back home, and that’s all we ever hear from Assyria in our area. Indeed?

To better understand what is missing from this story, and the impact it had on the region, we need to backtrack and see who Taharqa is, and what is the Kingdom of Kush. I will indulge for a bit in the Biblical appearance of the Kingdom of Kush, or Nubia – modern day Sudan, south of Egypt and along the Nile. I hope that this will spur enough curiosity for the reader to further look into this and convey it to whomever will be willing to hear.

The Rivers of Eden

The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where the gold is. The gold of that land is good; bdellium is there, and lapis lazuli

The name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through the whole land of Kush. (Genesis 2:11-13)

What we find here is a primal description of the building blocks of civilization. We have the Nile, which is called here Gihon (See Rashi), along which develops the land of Kush. A fascinating discussion would be, why do we need to hear about Kush in such primal a description?

The other land is called Havilah. If it is correct to say that it is the source of Lapis Lazuli, then it would probably be in the area of Afghanistan. However, Lapis Lazuli was a treasured commodity which in ancient times was only available to the powerful and the rich. It was rare, and came from far away – Afghanistan and then there is the mention of the “gold of that land which is good”. Such a strange thing to mention.

So we have Gold, and Kush, given special attention in a primal description of the fall of Man from Eden.

Kush, the man

Kush is one of the sons of Ham, from the three progenitors of the seventy nations, according to Biblical tradition (Gen. 10:5-12). Another fascinating discussion would be to just compare what we know today, from history and archaeology, with the entire Biblical description there. But that is another article for another time.

From these the maritime nations branched out. [These are the descendants of Japheth] by their lands—each with its language—their clans and their nations.

The descendants of Ham: Kush, Mizraim (Egypt), Put, and Canaan.

The descendants of Kush: Seba, Havilah, Sabtah, Raamah, and Sabteca. The descendants of Raamah: Sheba and Dedan.

Kush also begot Nimrod, who was the first man of might on earth.

I am tempted to continue the list, because of the fascinating relationships to Canaan, Assyria, Babylon and more. But we have to on point.

Taharqa, Hezekiah and Esarhaddon

When Sennacherib King of Assyria said to Hezekiah “I’ll be back” – he didn’t come back to Jerusalem. But his son, Esarhaddon, came back to the region – big time. Esarhaddon was the first enemy to ever invade Egypt.

assyria invading by sea.jpg
Wall panel depicting soldiers crossing a river floating on inflated animal skins. Assyrians ca 860 BC, Nimrud, northwest palace. British Museum

We will get back to what Assyria did to Egypt. But before that, we need to give the proper attention to Egypt of the time, and how they have to do with the King of Kush.

So what was going on in Egypt? And what does this have to do with Taharqa?

Egypt, leading up to this time, was going through political instability. It is therefore called an “Intermediate” period. This particular period of instability is known as The Third Intermediate Period.

This instability allowed the powerful southern kingdom of Kush, or Nubia, to seize the throne of Egypt. So when the Bible says that “Taharqa King of Kush” came out to fight Sennacherib – he was in fact fighting the adjacent Kingdom of Egypt, under the rule of the Kushites.

Why were they fighting Sennacherib?

The Bible does not tell us much, but archaeology fills in the gaps.

King Hezekiah rebelled against the Assyrian empire, which means that he stopped paying taxes (II Kings 18:7). What we don’t know from the Bible is that Hezekiah not only rebelled by discontinuing his taxes to Assyria. From Egyptian and Assyrian sources, we know that the Egyptian army was led by Nubian crown prince Taharqa (690-664 BCE), who joined the kingdom of Judah against the Assyrians, though the king at the time was Shebitqu (702-690 BC). The confusion as to who was king at the time can be attributed to the fact that the “the existing narrations were drawn up at a date after 690 BC, when it was one of the current facts of life that Taharqa was king of Egypt and Nubia” (Kitchen 2003, 159-60).

Before we continue the story, I would like to show you some amazing things I have seen this past week in an Boston Museum of Fine Arts exhibit. You can read more about the exhibit here.

Gold and the Gods – MFA Exhibit

Gold is a very important commodity in the ancient world, and he who has gold, has power. We saw that the Bible mentions “gold that is good” in the land of Havilah as part of the primal description of the development of civilization. While Havilah may be further south of Nubia, or to the east, gold was definitely a hallmark of the power of Nubia.

The Land of Nubia was an important source of gold, and the Nubians were expert craftsmen, making remarkable jewelry which demonstrates a high level of sophistication, skill and ingenuity (based on the words of Yvonne J. Markowitz, Rita J. Kaplan and Susan B. Kaplan Curator of Jewelry). The exhibit offers around 100 pieces, which constitute the richest exhibit of Nubian jewelry outside of Khartoum, and there is much that can be learned from them: Their usage, manufacturing, fashion and style, as well as intercultural influences. For example, we can see that the Nubians adopted, to varying extent, many aspects of the Egyptian culture, burial ritual and religion. Here are some pictures I took at the exhibit:


Of course, as a Bible Studies teacher, I went there with the hopes of finding something I can hold onto, put into a Biblical context. I went there hoping to see something from Taharqa – and I was not disappointed. Below are three articles which relate to Taharqa:

  1. (bottom) Nuri, gold foil, Napatan period, reign of Taharqa (690-664 BC).
  2. (top left) Statuette of Taharqa himself. This would probably be the inspiration for the National Geographic illustration above. Since there are several other images of Taharqa in different museums, such as the Louvre, or the Brooklyn Museum – I wasn’t so surprised. But the next piece made the entire visit worth it.
  3. (top right) Personal Ring of King Taharqa.


The Invasion of Egypt

Hezekiah made a disastrous miscalculation when he decided to rebel against Assyria, but the Egyptian-Nubians made an even more fatal mistake, because their interference in Assyrian affairs would eventually lead to the collapse of their dynasty. While Sennacherib’s war against the Egyptians was the first of its kind, it was short-lived, and as we know from the Biblical account, he turned back home and was assassinated by his sons, and succeeded by Esarhaddon (680-669 BC). But the story did not end there, and in fact, the Nubian involvement in Assyrian affairs had led to the collapse of their dynasty.

Just a few years later, in 674 and 671 BC, Esarhaddon attempted two invasions into Egypt, the first was unsuccessful, but the second one was. Assyria’s victory was commemorated on an alabaster tablet known as Esarhaddon’s Victory Stele (image below). In the stele, it reads:

“I cut down with a sword and conquered…I caught like a fish (and) cut off his head…I conquered Egypt (Musur), Paturi[si] and Nubia. Its king, Taharqa (Tarqú), I wounded five times with arrowheads and ruled over his entire country…” as well as deporting “all Nubians from Egypt”

Assarhaddon_Berlin_012008 (1).jpg
Image by Neithsabes – own work, public domain. Https://

But Taharqa was not an easy person to kill, and he lived on, attempting to seize the throne again. This led to more invasions. Esarhaddon’s successful invasion was followed by two more invasions by his son, Ashurbanipal (668-627 BC), which exacted the heaviest damage and destruction on Egypt in its history. These invasions are documented in numerous Assyrian historical texts. After deporting the Nubians (the Assyrians clearly differentiated between the Nubians and the Egyptians), they appointed Nekau I, who would become the progenitor of the Egyptian Native 26th Dynasty, and beginning the Late Period.

To summarize this article. There is always more than meets the eye. A few innocent looking words can hide within them a treasure of information, which may be critical to understanding the entire story. Here, the text and the archaeology merge to add so much more to a story which we previously thought can’t get any better: Assyria taunts Hezekiah and ends up leaving, and they lived happily ever after…or did they?

The broader geopolitical game had dire consequence on Egypt, and consequently on Judah.

Egypt continued to play an important role with the Kingdom of Judah. As Necho II and Psamtik II venture north to aid Assyria against Babylon in the Battle of Carchemish (605 BC), King Josiah of Judah interferes with Necho II, gets killed, and the Egyptians end up interfering with the Kingdom of Judah. After their loss in Carchemish, Babylon took over what Egypt controlled in the area, and thus took control of Judah, leading to its destruction. Even after its destruction, some Jewish renegades escaped to Egypt, and were killed there (Jeremiah ch. 42-44). There were also better times for the Jews of Alexandria in the time of the Talmud, but it relates to who was in charge in Egypt, and how that came to be.

As for Egypt: Once the Assyrians successfully invaded Egypt, it was just a matter of time until the later nascent Empires learned the trick: Persia, Greece and Rome did the same, and brought an end to one of the world’s most powerful and ancient civilizations.



Kitchen, Kenneth A. 2003. On the Reliability of the Old Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eardmans.