Thursday, August 7, 2008

Golan Heights

Nestled among the Kibbutzim and Moshavim of the Golan Heights is the town of Katzrin. With a total population size of some 7,000 people, almost half of the Jewish population of the Golan Heights resides here. Katzrin is the administrative center of the Golan.

When the Six-Day War ended archaeologists performed surveys of various archaeological sites on the Golan. While touring the Bedouin village of Katzrin, the archaeologist Shemaryahu Gutman came upon an ornate doorway made of basalt stone. He discovered that this was the entrance to the synagogue which had functioned 1500 years ago. The name of this town from that time is unknown.

In order to give us an idea of what a house looked like and what the layout of the town was like during Talmudic times, archaeologists performed an elaborate restoration of the ruins of the town. Similar plans are on the drawing board for Um El Kanatir. Here we can see how the town was planned. We see streets, a synagogue, a square in front of the synagogue, and an olive press.

Given that the town is located on the western side of the Golan, grazing and farmland is present. The main industry in this region seems to have been the manufacturing of olive oil. One olive press per town indicates that enough olive oil is produced just for local use. Three to five presses indicates that the townspeople are producing for export.

Olive oil had many uses in antiquity: it was used for nutrition, lighting fuel, medicinal purposes and for lubricating the body. The sages recount the following: Olive oil is beneficial for the health. Thus it is told of Rabbi Chanina aged eighty, who could stand on one leg, remove his shoe and put it back on. Rabbi Chanina said: hot water with oil anointed upon me by my mother at childhood has upheld me during my years of old age. (Talmud Bavli chullin 24b.)

Olive oil is produced in two phases. At first the olive are crushed inside a basin by a large crushing stone resembling a wheel. The wheel was usually pulled by an animal or by people. The first round, the crushing takes about 30 minutes. The crushed olives are transferred to the olive press, immediately nearby. The olives are first put in straw baskets, (kefifot.) There is an Aramaic term, “ladur bikfifah echat” which means “dwelling in a crowded fashion in one area (one basket).”

You put these straw baskets one on top of the next until you have like a sandwich of these akals (Arabic), or baskets. Then you start to take the press and turn it by going around. You would get all the liquids going into the canals and draining into a hole. You pick the oil off of the top and the water goes out the bottom. The liquid of the olive contains both oil and water.

On display as well is an accurate representation of the homes from the Mishnaic time period. All the tools are modeled on actual tools found at the site. One of the most fascinating features of these homes is the roofs. The roof is built with branches placed on top of Oak, cypress and cedar beams. Soil is placed on the branches, mixed with water, and then used to seal the holes in the roof. This keeps out rain and snow. In the summertime, when the mud dries and cracks, it needs to be repaired.

A maagela is a roof roller and was used to fix leaky roofs. Choni the Meagel, the name of the very popular Talmudic figure, is usually translated as Choni the Circle Maker. If you pronounce the word maagal as meagel, you don’t have Choni the circle maker but Choni the roof roller. In the tractate taanit, there are quite a few aggadot about how Choni would pray for rain for his community when there was a drought. More rain, more roof rolling required! This house also has a small kitchen and store room, with no room for animals.

What did they use for food storage? It wasn’t cool here. They placed food up high where kids and mice couldn’t reach it and was covered with a sheet. The floor was made of stone and then covered with a kind of plaster. That’s why you couldn’t sweep the floors because you’d make holes in the grout. Later on it was replaced with tiles.

Outside the house is a ladder. A story about Rabbi Joshua (ben Hannaniah), who hosted a man, gave him food and drink, and then gave him a bed located in the loft. He removed the ladder leading up to the loft. What did this man do?
He awoke in the middle of the night and stole tools and jewelry. When
he tried to descend down the ladder, he fell from the roof and broke his
collarbone. In the morning Rabbi Joshua awoke and found him lying there.

The purpose of bringing this story here at Katzrin is to teach us about the way homes were constructed and how space was used. Apparently, space was maximized by allowing family members to sleep down below and up above. .

The synagogue is clearly a communal building. It occupies the center of the town and its two rows of pillars, with decorative capitals, give it both height and a sense of grandeur. It faces Jerusalem and inside there are menorot carved on the stones.

We have said that when we find a synagogue it means we have found a town, not a village and towns have between 1000-5000 people. On the Golan and beyond the border of the Golan into Syria of today we have ruins of about forty ancient Jewish synagogues. Multiply that by only 1000 and we have 40,000 Jews, at a minimum who were living in this area in Mishnaic times. It seems that the synagogue ceased functioning in 749 CE after a massive earthquake.

They found an inscription in the Golan, “this is the bet midrash of Rabbi Eliezer Akkapar.” They found this in Daburiya above the Jalabun, 3 kilometer from Katzrin. One assumes that a beit midrash existed in Katzrin, but it has not been discovered. It is possible that the synagogue structure simultaneously served both purposes of prayer and study, obviating the need to build a separate structure.

There is the big Tabor oak tree by the synagogue. The tree is estimated to be some 600 years old. Some years ago, I attended my cousin's wedding here. The chupah was set up in the ruins of the ancient synagogue. It was a beautiful and moving experience.

The park is open daily, from 9-4. There is an admission fee. For more information call 04 696-1412 or email

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