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Parshat VeZot HaBeracha — Hidden treasure

Jewish immigrants to Jamaica didn't find gold, but Moses' blessings to the tribes of Israel suggest a tradition of digging for nuggets (VeZot HaBeracha)
Illustrative image of a treasure chest. (Public Domain, Pezibear/ Pixabay)
Illustrative image of a treasure chest. (Public Domain, Pezibear/ Pixabay)

Charles II was playing tennis in Belgium when he heard of the death of Oliver Cromwell on September 3, 1658. He had been in exile for nine years, since his very brief reign following the execution of his father, King Charles I. He fled after his defeat by Cromwell’s New Model Army.

At first, the likelihood of Charles being restored to the British throne seemed slim. Cromwell’s son Richard replaced his father as Lord Protector and ran the country for nine months. But the younger Cromwell was an inexperienced and unpopular politician.

Furthermore, the British people were fed up with Cromwell’s Puritanism that had shuttered the theaters, enforced strict Sabbath observance and even banned Christmas celebrations.

They looked at Charles, who had spent the past nine years enjoying life in Europe (he fathered at least one illegitimate son, James, the future Duke of Monmouth, while at the Hague, and went on to recognize a total of 12 illegitimate children by the time his reign had ended). And they thought he would be a better option. Due to the hedonism in his court and the relief at the end of Puritan rule, Charles would become known as the Merry Monarch.

Coronation portrait of Charles II, crowned in Westminster Abbey on 23 April 1661. (Public Domain, John Michael Wright/ Wikimedia Commons)

On May 8, 1660, Charles was invited back to London to rule (and subsequently official records backdated his monarchy so that it appeared he had been king since the execution of his father on January 30, 1649).

Charles set out from Europe and arrived in London on his 30th birthday, May 29, 1660. But he was bankrupt, and so was the country.

So, in 1662, when the king was approached by two Jews who promised to bring him wealth from Christopher Columbus’s hidden gold mine in Jamaica, he granted them permission to travel to the New World and start digging.

Charles and parliament knew that Jews were very good merchants, and had business connections all over the world and thought they would help fill the state coffers.

Portrait of Oliver Cromwell by Robert Walker in the National Portrait Gallery, London. (Public Domain/ Wikimedia Commons)

It was at this time that the tacit approval for Jews to move back to England and openly practice their religion was officially recognized by parliament. Cromwell had unofficially recognized the Jews and allowed the first congregation in London since 1290 when Edward I issued the Edict of Expulsion. Cromwell wanted the Jews because they were good merchants and had contacts and information networks all over the world. But he also had religious reasons for wanting them to return, which I hope to discuss in a future blog.

The two Jews, Abraham Israel de Piso and Abraham Cohen Henriques, had ulterior motives for reminding the king of Jamaica’s treasure. It was Oliver Cromwell who had seized the island from the Spanish just a few years earlier. Charles had promised King Philip IV he could have it back if he would restore him to the British throne.

But there were many Jews and conversos who lived in Jamaica. And if the island came back under the control of Catholic Spain, the Inquisition would soon start persecuting, torturing and executing one of the few countries where Jews were safe.

So, along with Sir William Davidson, the two Jewish merchants signed a deal with the king to:

Discover the [gold] mine [within the island of Jamaica] and to be at the charge and hazard in the discovery and working thereof with and upon the allowances and agreements herein after mentioned.

The offer of a major share of the profits of a gold mine quickly convinced Charles to renege on his deal with Spain (he said that Phillip had not helped him gain back the throne anyway), and accepted the offer of the Jews to refill the treasury.

De Piso and Cohen headed to Jamaica in search of the mine (they claimed they had heard of its location from a Jew who had been tortured by the Inquisitors), but after a year on the island, had failed to find gold. Charles was furious with them, and at the urging of Davidson, who felt they had betrayed his trust, banned them from Jamaica.

William Beeston, the governor of Jamaica, who was not pleased at the number of Jewish merchants in Port Royal, never trusted De Piso and Cohen, and soon after their arrival wrote the following:

On the 31st of March, 1663, M. H. ship the ‘Great Guest’ Captain Bernard, commander, arrived from London and brought six Jews (with a rich cargo), who pretended they came to discover a gold mine, known to them in the Spaniard’s government, but concealed for fear it might bring grievances on a place so weakly manned as Jamaica was in the Spaniard’s time; but this was basely a pretence, for their design was only to insinuate themselves into the country for the sake of trade, and was managed by Sir John Davidson, who sent them with Mr. Watson, a German, who managed all.

It is entirely possible that the Jews lied about the gold mine to entice Charles, and that their real goal all along was to trade. Thomas Modyford, governor of Jamaica, wrote on May 25th, 1664:

The gold-finding Jew, Senr. Abram Israel de Pisa, has sailed for England, and left here ore and directions to find the gold, but we are all infidels, because the miracle is to be wrought in our country; we believe he has really found and cured some little of vanilla and pimenta.

However, more recently, Edward Kritzler, author of Jewish Pirates of the Caribbean, was convinced enough of the existence of the gold to take out a mining license for the tract of land purchased by Cohen. He ends his book with an invitation for others, “to join our quixotic search.” Kritzler passed away in 2010 without discovering the hidden gold. But perhaps it is still there.

In the Torah reading for Simchat Torah, VeZot HaBeracha, there are two references to buried treasure.

Moses gave blessings to the tribes before his death. Here is the blessing for Zebulun (Deuteronomy 33:19-20):

To Zebulun he said, ‘Rejoice Zebulun when you go out and Issachar in your tents. Nations will call at the mountain, they will offer righteous offerings there, they will be nourished by the seas and by the treasures hidden in the sand.’

Rashi, based on the Talmud (Megillah 6a), explains the hidden things in the sand to be natural items found near the shore or made from sand — a kind of fish, the hilazon snail from which tekhelet blue is made, and white glass. Rashi also explains that Zebulun and Issachar are mentioned together because the tribe of Zebulun would earn enough money to support the tribe of Issachar, which was dedicated to Torah study.

However, the commentary known as Targum Yonatan, a much earlier work written in Israel, adds in another treasure:

Because they dwell by the shore of the great sea, they are nourished by the tarita fish, and the hilazon snail, whose blood is used to die tekhelet thread for their clothes, and from the sand they make mirrors and types of glass, and the treasures of the depths are uncovered to them.

Tosefot (Da’at Zekeinim) takes the idea of buried treasure even further.

The treasures buried in the sand come from the boats that break up in the port and from those that sink at sea when they throw everything overboard, and those who find the ship bury the money in the sand. The verse says that they will find both the ships and the treasures buried in the sand and will take it for themselves.

The next verses (Deuteronomy 33:21-22) have the blessing for Gad, a tribe that chose to stay on the other side of the Jordan.

He saw the first for himself because there the lawgiver is hidden.

Rashi (again based on the Talmud, this time Sotah 13b) explains that Gad wanted to remain near the burial place of Moses because its men were the best warriors and wanted to protect their leader.

However, Targum Yonatan adds another dimension:

He saw the land was good and accepted a portion first, because there are precious stones and gems buried there, for there is the place that Moses the prophet of Israel is buried.

So, not only did the people of Gad show their religious bent by wanting to remain next to their deceased spiritual leader, but they also demonstrated their pragmatism, realizing that they could mine the land for jewels and become rich.

Both Zebulun and Gad had a spiritual side to their material success — Zebulun supported the Torah learning of Issachar, and Gad remained near the lawgiver, Moses. But both made their money from things they discovered hidden in the ground — buried treasure from shipwrecks, or mining gems from the earth.

Charles did not expect to return triumphant to England, but unexpectedly, fate brought him home. Occasionally, one sees only sand or dirt, but digging a little deeper exposes the surprising and unexpected treasure beneath.

About the Author
David Sedley lives in Jerusalem with his wife and children. He has been at various times a teacher, translator, author, community rabbi, journalist and video producer. Born and bred in New Zealand, he is usually a Grinch, except when the All Blacks win. And he also plays a loud razzberry-colored electric guitar.
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