Again shalt thou plant vineyards upon the mountains of Samaria

I spent this past Shabbat in Elon Moreh.

The Torah portion we just read, Lech Lecha, is the first time in the Bible that the Land of Israel, the Land of Canaan as it was then known, is mentioned, and the first time that it is promised to Abraham’s descendants. Every year, Elon Moreh invites scores of people from all over the country to come and experience Shabbat on the occasion of this particular Torah reading. The very first place Abram, not yet named Abraham, visited upon arriving in the Land of Israel, was Shechem. As part of his campaign to eradicate the memory of Jewish presence from the Land of Israel, the Roman emperor Vespasian renamed it as Flavia Neapolis, whence Nablus. Elon More, today a settlement adjacent to Shechem, is also mentioned in last week’s reading immediately after Shechem.

And Abram passed through the land unto the place of Shechem, unto the terebinth of Moreh (Genesis 12:6)

Shechem, the largest city in Samaria, the Shomron in Hebrew, was in fact the entrance gate to the Land of Israel not just for Abraham. Jacob, upon his return from a twenty-two year long exile with Laban, even before he went south to be reunited with his father in Beer Sheba, stopped in Shechem and bought a parcel of land. That is where his son Joseph was eventually buried and a funerary monument is there to mark the spot to this very day. The Children of Israel, arriving into the Land of Israel after the exodus from Egypt, also entered through here, and it is here, in a ceremony held upon the two mountains surrounding Shechem, Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal, as well as in the valley in between, that the nation of Israel was constituted.

The climax of that Shabbat was for me an afternoon climb up Har Kabir (The Large Mountain, 792 meters above sea level), guided by veteran settler Benny Katzover. His storytelling is spellbinding and his passion palpably contagious. There were far too many details for me to retell faithfully and being Shabbat, notes could not be taken. Nevertheless, I will try to summarize three highlights.

One of his first point was the renewal of vineyards in the Shomron. In the early 80’s, when the settler movement started to reestablish Jewish settlements in Samaria, they looked for references to the region in the Bible. One of these, is the verse in Jeremiah (31:5) from which the title of this blog post is taken. But, as Katzover tells it, with all due respect to the prophet, there was not one vineyard in Samaria, only olive groves. So they set out to plant vineyards. Today, there are nearly 30 vineyards speckled throughout the hills of Shomron. The grapes harvested here produce many award wining wines bottled in numerous boutique wineries. Of course, most of the varieties planted are imported from Europe. However one Ariel University oenophile, Elyashiv Drori, is rather incredibly, looking to recreate the local variety from which wine was made in biblical times.

Vineyard in Elon Moreh
A vineyard in Elon Moreh with Har Kabir in the distance

One of the observation points after the considerable climb looks onto Mount Ebal (940 meters above sea level). From here one can look onto, albeit from afar, an archaeological site, where Prof Adam Zertal discovered a strange rectangular structure dating back at least to 1000 BCE. Eventually, he reluctantly had to identify it as most probably Joshua’s altar. The evidence is just overwhelming: a sloped ramp, only kosher animal bones, uncut stones, all strict biblical requirements as detailed in the Mishnaic tractate of Midot, to mention only a few.

Then from one last observation point, we were able to see westward the Mediterranean sea, eastward the Gilad mountains with Jordanian farmland just beyond, and northward the Golan heights and the Hermon mountain, three borders of the State of Israel, giving you an unparalleled visual impression of just how small this sliver of land really is.

Witnessing this miraculous modern renewal, anchored with a concrete connection to an ancient past, is a truly unique feeling. I know many readers will disagree with the goals of the settlement movement, whose flagship was and still arguably is Elon Moreh and the few settlements surrounding Shechem. Nonetheless, regardless of your political inclination, I cannot but highly recommend that you allow yourself a visit to this extraordinary place.

About the Author
Gilbert Weinstein is an academic who spent almost three decades abroad. In Fall 2013, he will return to Israel to take a position at Ariel University.