Jews’ linking their personal lives to Jewish history, is not accidental. Through Shavuot’s Bikkurim for example, you are expected to prove your connection to your people’s past struggle, by conveying the tale of its slavery and suffering – “this is unique to Judaism”, says scholar Yoel Elitzur, “it is the faith’s way to ensure that the personal life is actively connected to the story of the Jewish people.”
When did the exodus take place? asks professor Yoel Elitzur, did Moses enter the land of Israel? and where exactly is the mysterious place called the Garden of Eden?
For many people, such questions are fairy tales riddles, destined to remain shrouded in mystery – to noted scholar Elitzur however, they are an open invitation for a meticulous investigation into the Jewish people’s past.
With Sherlock Holmes-like intuition, zeal for the truth and an uncompromising appreciation of real knowledge, the noted scholar uses every clue at his disposal to bring us closer to the historical figure, place or event at hand. Elitzur biggest clue is the biblical text, while the tools at his disposal are archaeological finds, linguistic knowhow and an extensive array of geographical and historical sources.
Multi disciplined Elitzur ponders over issues at the heart of jewish history and the biblical text, exploring matters at the core of the making of Western civilisation – from the actual tracks walked by our forefathers, to their singular actions and wisdom that in turn, lay the foundation to our civilisation.
Take for example Abraham’s journey to the promised land and his milestone purchase of Mearat Hamachpela, or the iconic granting of the Ten Commandments – a monumental ethical landmark in humanity’s journey, viewed by believers and atheists alike as the cornerstone of the legal system used to this very day.
Line by line, word by word, Elitzur examines the biblical text, shedding light on quandaries such as the language spoken by the Israelites and the origin of Jerusalem’s name, or the many names given to the almighty over millennia past.
An interesting investigation in Elitzur’s book Places in the Parasha, concerns the location of the Garden of Eden – “is it some supernatural realm that does not truly exist in the world as we know it” wonders Elitzur, “or can we actually pinpoint its location on a map?”
The Genesis text reads “a river issues from Eden to water the garden, and it then divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon, the one that winds through the whole land of Havilah, where the gold is… bdellium is there, and lapis lazuli. The name of the second river is Gihon, the one that winds through the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tigris, the one that flows east of Asshur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.”
And so Elitzur embarks on a journey of discovery, drawing from an overwhelmingly vast multitude of sources, and his formidable knowledge of ancient languages that unlike Hebrew, were never brought back from the dead.
The Tigris and the Euphrates are known to us, explains Elitzur, but the identity of the other two is a mystery, furthermore, they are not mentioned thereafter in all of the Tanach. Step by step the puzzle pieces are diligently put in their rightful place, until a final conclusion is reached.
The quest for The Garden of Eden is one of many featured in Elitzur’s Places in the Parasha, which explores places named in the Tanach, from The Garden of Eden and Pithom and Ramses to countless others.
“A high percentage of the ancient names in the Land of Israel has been preserved” explains Elitzur, “on some occasions, for 4000 years or more”, this kind of name preservation is unique to the Land of Israel and has not happened elsewhere. This might be because during the last 2000 years this country tended to be a periphery, without a central government, and names of places therefore assumed a low priority. However, according to Elitzur this unique phenomenon has also another, kind of occult explanation, found in the words of Jeremiah who said
Set up waymarks for yourself,
make yourself guideposts;
consider well the highway,
the road by which you went.
Return, O virgin Israel,
return to these your cities.
“it transpires” argues Elitzur, “that God has preserved the land’s names for the Jewish people’s return.”
Elitzur’s exploration of places’ names brings up questions relating to past traditions, customs and objects such as why ‘the most holy sacrifices are slaughtered in the north’ or where the ark of the covenant is, could it be found some day?
Beaming through his work is an unshakable love for the holy land, a legacy passed on to him by his late father, Yehuda Elitzur, himself a formidable scholar – a former judge on Israel’s coveted yearly world bible contest, who shared his biblical wisdom with the likes of Menachem Begin and Ben Gurion – there is even a Jerusalem street named after Professor Yehuda Elitzur.
“Just as in biblical Hebrew the root Yod, Dalet, and Ain has the connotation of both ‘to know’ and the most intimate relations between a man and a woman” reflects Yoel, “my father taught me to love the Land of Israel by coming to know it in all its dimensions.“
As a leading expert in the fields of Tanach and Talmud, biblical and historical geography, as well as Hebrew and Semitic languages, Yoel Elitzur has also taught biblical geography and history. The highlight was a special course that Elitzur called Eretz ha-Miqra ‘The Land of the Bible’. ”We would alternately hold one weekly meeting in class and one meeting on the ground” Elitzur told me, “where you could better understand the Bible from visiting the very sites of the biblical narrative on the one hand, and observing Arabs tending to their flock in a manner similar to that of our ancestors on the other.
“I shared with the students my model of the line and the row – as I see it, we stand at the head of the row, a convoy marching through history, and communicate with Jews and Israelites who preceded us through the years, they are all standing in the row behind us – my row starts with me and goes through Rashi, rabbi Akiva, Judah Maccabee and King David, all the way to Abraham.
The line advocates on the other hand, see themselves as members of a horizontal line of contemporary scholars from different peoples, looking at previous generations purely as objects of interest, not as something you belong to, not as our direct ancestors whose legacy we uphold.
Elitzur’s studies bear an ever-present relevance to life today. As he deliberates the war of Deborah and Barak, for example, referring to it as a “war of liberation that carried historical significance”, he urges us to “contemplate our own generation” in order to understand the reality of present day Israel that is under ongoing enemy threat – “the divine processes in which we have participated of the return of the nation of Israel to its land, began more than 200 years ago” explains Elitzur, “reaching climaxes that were unprecedented in history, with the establishment of the state of Israel and the war of independence, the miracles of the six day war and the salvation of the Yom Kippur war.” Throughout this period we faced a constant opponent – the Arabs. Our ancestors had a constant enemy too, adds Elitzur, the Canaanites – from the initial arrival of Abraham to this land, the Canaanites were here. This changed when the children of Israel defeated Yavin and Sisera. From now on, Israel no longer has a Canaanite enemy.
Another example sees Elitzur connecting Abraham’s purchase of the Cave of Machpela to the moving story of the burial of Avraham Yedidya Nachshon. Born in 1975, Nachshon was the first Jewish boy to be circumcised in the Cave of Machpela but at just four month old he died in his crib. His parents decided to bury him in the old Jewish cemetery in Hebron. They were blocked from entering by IDF officers and the mother Sarah, took her son’s corpse wrapped in burial shrouds and strode towards the cemetery – her boy became the first Jew to be buried in Hebron since the 1929 Massacre.
“On a personal level” writes Elitzur, “I feel a unique happiness when I visit the site (Cave of Machpepla) and see trees growing in the area surrounding the cave, I like to think that in a way these are the very same trees that Abraham might have gazed upon when he purchased his land from Ephron the Hittitite – ‘and all the trees anywhere within the confines of that field passed to Abraham as his possession’” (Gen 23:17-18).
Elitzur’s deep knowledge and profound understanding make his commentary on present day issues resonate loudly within society at large. Elitzur is outspoken about Israeli politics, it’s society and culture. Most notable here is his much publicised objection to the forced evacuation of Jewish settlements, and postmodernist trends within academia on a mission to dismiss Jewish history, branding it a fairy tale, fallen for by the susceptible and gullible. “Unlike these academics, I rest on facts” said Elitzur, adding that “in years to come Israel’s Six Day War too could be viewed by some as an unlikely miracle – think about it, a tiny Jewish minority, attacked by Arab countries of tens of millions inhabitants with all the money and resources they desire, yet, within six days, the city of Jerusalem is captured by the Jews and Rabbi Goren plays the trumpet in celebration – the story bears the markings of an invented legend but we know it took place.”
Elitzur’s words of caution extend to the media as he draws a disturbing similarity between Antisemite’s portrayal of Jews as a collectively vile group, and the Israeli media’s portrayal of settlers and Haredi Jews in a similar fashion –
“Anthropologists distinguish between developed apes and the Homo Sapiens. In today’s Israel the ‘settlers’ are not portrayed as homo sapiens – the Leftist elites have helped create this perception, as they did to the Haredi Jews before.” Most striking is Elitzur’s assertion that “the classic antisemite methods are applied here too, targeting settlers and Haredi populations – the collective blame, within a negative context always mentioning the person’s background, contradicting yourself as in: the Jew is an all swallowing giant demon but he is also an ugly midget, the incessant repletion of the same things..”
Through Elitzur’s work there is a vivid, live and potent connection to the land of Israel. This in itself is a mark of Judaism that sets it apart from other faiths – Jews and Israelis are forever linking their lives to the Jewish history, but this is not accidental as explained by Elitzur – in the Book of Dvarim we read that a person bringing bikurim may not be content with thanking God for the fruit of his own field, but rather he needs to give a statement that tells the whole story of the Jewish people. This is a fascinating ideological aspect of the Tora reflects Elitzur with marked excitement, where it does not simply accept your offering, but expects you to prove your connection to your people’s past struggle, by conveying the tale of its slavery and suffering – “this is unique to Judaism”, concludes Elitzur, “it is the faith’s way to ensure that the personal life is actively connected to story of the Jewish people.”
Two of Elitzur’s daughters have chosen to walk in his path – his eldest Nili, teaches in Bar Ilan university just like her grandfather. “Nili is one of perhaps fifty people worldwide who are well-versed in Sumerian” says Elitzur.
His fourth daughter Rivka served as the curator at the Bible Lands Museum in Jerusalem. She is an expert in the field of ancient Jewish amulets and is currently completing a doctorate thesis at Tel Aviv University.
“With this in mind, and considering your parents’ immense talents (Elitzur’s mother was the well-known children’s author Rivka Elitzur)” I tell Elitzur my thinking that his ‘row’ idea, “seems to also apply within the personal realm”, to which the noted scholar agrees.
One cannot help but feel gratitude towards Yehuda Elitzur’s older sister who with her husband, Professor Shmuel Klein, took young Yehuda under their care when his father passed away. Most importantly, for bringing him to the promised land in 1929, just four years before Hitler’s rise to power. Indeed, many years later, in his immaculately articulated will, Yehuda Elitzur himself extends deep thanks to the couple for taking him away from the grasp of torment, to the promised land.