Oil lamp found in cistern during excavation in Jerusalem. Photo by Vladimir Naykhin.

Israeli archaeologists have recently discovered artifacts that give us a vivid sense of how destructive and merciless extremism of any sort and an eagerness for war can be, as reported earlier this month by the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

You wouldn’t expect to find a cooking pot – let alone three of them – inside a cistern, which is a tank, usually underground, used to collect rainwater.

Photo by Vladimir Naykhin.

But when archaeologist Eli Shukron and his team were excavating a cistern associated with a first-century building near the Western Wall in Jerusalem, they found three intact cooking pots and a small ceramic oil lamp (pictured) dating to the time of the failed Jewish revolt against the Roman Empire in 66-70 CE.

These inhabitants of Jerusalem – who were most likely innocent, peace-loving people – were forced to eat food in hiding, at the risk of persecution – from other Jews. Both the eye-witness testimony of Josephus and a story recorded later in the Talmud report how a group of Jewish extremists known as the Zealots (or the Sicarii or Biryonei) were so bent on getting the rest of the Jewish community to fight for its independence by revolting against the Roman Empire that these Zealots intentionally caused a devastating man-made famine to force the people into war.

Josephus (37 – c. 100 CE):

As the famine grew worse, the frenzy of the partisans [the Zealots] increased with it…. For as nowhere was there grain to be seen, men broke into the houses and ransacked them. If they found some they maltreated the occupants for saying there was none; if they did not, they suspected them of having hidden it more carefully and tortured them.

Many secretly exchanged their possessions for one measure of wheat if they happened to be rich, barley if they were poor. They shut themselves up in the darkest corners of the their houses, where some through extreme hunger ate their grain as it was, others made bread, necessity and fear being their only guides. Nowhere was a table laid…. (Josephus, The Jewish War. Translated by G.A. Williamson 1959. P. 290 – cited in the IAA article linked above).

The Talmud (edited c. 575 CE):

He [the Roman emperor] then sent Vespasian the Caesar who came and besieged Jerusalem for three years. There were in it three men of great wealth, Nakdimon b. Gorion, Ben Kalba Shabua’ and Ben Zizith Hakeseth…. One of these said to the people of Jerusalem: I will sustain them with wheat and barley. A second said: I will sustain them with wine, oil and salt. The third said: I will sustain them with wood…. These men were in a position to sustain the city for twenty-one years.

The Zealots were then in the city. The Rabbis said to them: Let us go out and make peace with them [the Romans]. They would not let them, but on the contrary said: Let us go out and fight them. The Rabbis said: You will not succeed. They then rose up and burnt the stores of wheat and barley so that a famine ensued….

The leader of the Zealots in Jerusalem was the son of the sister of Rabban [Chief Rabbi] Johanan b. Zakkai. [The latter] sent to him saying: Come to visit me privately. When he came he said to him, “How long are you going to carry on in this way and kill all the people with starvation?” He replied: What can I do? If I say a word to them, they will kill me (Babylonian Talmud: Gittin 56a).

The three excavated pots. Photo by Vladimir Naykhin.

Every summer, during The Three Weeks, which this year ran from June 25 – July 16, Jews traditionally mourn over the destruction of the Jewish communities centered in Jerusalem, as well as the focus of Jewish life – the Temple, that occurred both in 586 BCE and 70 CE. The latter was the sad culmination of the Great Revolt discussed above. Both in 586 BCE (see Jeremiah: Chapter 18 onward) and in 70 CE, the human suffering that resulted was largely due to the behavior of those who chose to wage war for their independence rather than accept peace under the ruling government.

For traditional Jews, the destruction of the two Temples is a primary focus of this period of mourning. But for a Freethinking Jew, who is not inclined to mourn over the fact that Jews can no longer offer animal sacrifices to their god, is there any reason to mourn?

I have been thinking about this question the past couple weeks. Besides the obvious reason for mourning – the tremendous human suffering that took place – I think taking note of what happened when extremism and zealotry grabbed hold of the wheel is extremely important, so that we can learn a lesson from history and be less likely to repeat it.

To read more posts by Shloimie Ehrenfeld, visit his blog, Freethinking Jew.


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