Altar – ancient on Mount Eval

After Israel conquered the West Bank during the Six Day War, Jewish savants got their first opportunity to explore what had until then been an archeological “Black Hole.” This is the area around Shechem where few archeologists had dared to dig for centuries, as the region was a hotbed of hostility ever since its Arabs plotted to eject fi rst the Ottoman Turks, and later the British. Furthermore, unlike Yerushalayim and the Galilee, this area had few obvious attractions for Jews, Christians or Moslems interested in digging up their past.

In 5740/1980, after the first flurry of exploration had died down, archeologist Adam Zertal led a team to explore Mount Eval that lies north of Shechem. One of his most intriguing fi nds on the mountain was a plateau that was littered with shards of pithos (ancient storage jars), pots, jugs and bowls dating back to the time of yetzias Mitzrayim. Amidst all this clutter was a giant pile of stones set in an ancient courtyard guarded by an impressive entry.

The team first had to break through a road to the site by hand in order to bring in food and supplies. Then they peeled back the layers of stones to find what lay beneath them, and the resulting discovery left them baffled.

Under the stones lay a structure with no obvious purpose because it had no windows or doors. The artifact was 10 feet high, 29.5 by 23 feet in area, and filled with four layers of material, the top layer consisting of black ash mixed with animal bones. Sifting through the fill, the investigators discovered two Egyptian scarab seals, which, like the pottery noticed earlier, dated back to the time of yetzias Mitzrayim.

Three sides of the rough stone structure were surrounded by a low walkway, and running to the top of the structure was a ramp, four feet wide and 23 feet long. Another, smaller ramp led to the top of the walkway. After analyzing a large sample of the three millennium old bones taken from the black ash, biologists of the Hebrew University of Yerushalayim concluded that these were the charred remains of year-old kosher male animals.

The puzzle was still unresolved. What was the function of this strange building, the likes of which had never been seen anywhere in Eretz Yisroel?

The breakthrough came on the evening of the 15th of October 5743/1983 after the diggers had returned to their sleeping quarters in the Shavei Shomron settlement near Shechem. Adam Zertal was displaying a sketch of the enigmatic structure to a small group of people, when local settler, Tzvi Kenigsberg, raced home and hurried back clutching a Mishnah. He quickly flipped it open to the Mishnah of Masseches Middos (3: 1-3) that reads:

“The altar (of the Beis HaMikdash) was 32 by 32 (amos). It rose an amah and went in an amah – this is the yesod (foundation). We find (that now, at this height, the altar is) 30 by 30 (amos). It rose five (amos) and went in one amah. This is the walkway (soveiv). We find (that now, at this height, the altar is 28 by 28)… And a ramp was on the south of the altar…”

Printed in the sefer was an illustration of this altar that looked like an almost identical counterpart of the mystery diagram that Zertal had just been showing round.

A series of pesukim burst onto Zertal’s consciousness.

The fact that the burned animal bones were all of male, kosher, year-old animals could now be explained by the verse: “When a person of you offers an offering to Hashem from an animal, from the cattle and from the flock he shall offer his offerings. If his offering is a burnt offering, he shall offer it an unblemished male” (Vayikra 1:1-3).

As for the location of the mystery structure, does the Torah not write: “And it will be, when you cross the Yarden, you shall set up these stones that I command you this day on Mount Eval and cover them with whitewash. And you shall build there an altar to Hashem your G-d, an altar of stones. Do not wave iron on them. Whole stones build the mizbei’ach of Hashem your G-d, and offer on it burnt offerings to Hashem your G-d”? (Devorim 27).

And after conquering Yericho and Ai, did Yehoshua not later fulfill this command as it says: “Then Yehoshua built an altar to Hashem the G-d of Yisroel on Har Eival as Moshe, Hashem’s servant commanded the sons of Yisroel, as is written in the book of Toras Moshe – an altar of whole stones that one did not wave iron on them. And they offered on it burnt offerings to Hashem, and they sacrificed peace offerings”? (Yehoshua 8).

The ramp, too, fitted in perfectly with the Torah’s command, “Do not go up by steps on My altar, that your nakedness be not uncovered on it” (Shemos 2:23).

Zertal was not the only one to appreciate the importance of Kenigsberg’s revelation.

“There was a moment of silence,” Zertal writes. “The similarity was so close that something stuck in the throats of those sitting in the room. After the silence, cries broke out. ‘Hurray! Heidad!’ We stood up, hugged each other and yelled… Some of us had tears in our eyes. It was difficult to understand the greatness of the moment. The Mishnah’s description clinched the story and explained the whole matter.”

Why had it taken so long for Zertal to realize the obvious? The culprit was his reluctance to accept a new paradigm.

As he explained later, “At that time, I was under the influence of the brainwashing I had got from the history and archeology establishment that, influenced by Biblical criticism, sees all the stories of the Tanach that speak of the formation of the Jewish nation as complete myths. Therefore I refused to accept the idea that this was indeed Yehoshua’s altar.”

According to this new interpretation of the findings, this huge structure was unique because until this day, only two Jewish altars have ever been found in Eretz Yisroel, and they are far less ancient. One is in Arad, and another, dismantled one was found in Be’er Sheva. People theorize that the reason for this scarcity of ancient altars is the campaign of King Yeshayahu and King Chizkiyahu to destroy all the bamos (small altars) of their times.

Zertal soon discovered that not everyone in the archeological establishment was willing to make a paradigm shift as he was.

The very day after he decided that the structure was Yehoshua’s altar, Prof. Binyamin Mazar who had worked with him from the start warned him, “This is a great discovery but be prepared for a long hard battle. Not everyone will agree with you.”

This was a true prediction. Despite publishing a detailed report of his findings, Zertal remains a voice crying in the wilderness. Famous Prof. Yigal Yadin claimed that the structure might be a tower for guarding fields, and Zertal’s teacher. Prof. Aharon Kampinski of Tel Aviv University concurred with this shaky theory, even complaining that Zertal’s opinion was encouraging settlers to feel that Jews had a right to the Shechem area.

The opposition is understandable in the light of Harvard archeologist Dr. Lawrence Stager’s summing up of the situation, “If a sacrificial altar stood on Mount Eval, its impact on our research is revolutionary. All of us have to go back to kindergarten.”

“Silence has descended on the scholarly world,” Zertal complains. Desperate to revive the debate, Zertal published a book in 5760/2000 aimed at the general public: Am Nolad. Mizbeach Har Eival Vereishit Yisrael.

Although Zertal’s identification of the mystery structure as Yehoshua’s altar is convincing, examination of pertinent halachos reveals that it is not absolutely watertight.

First, although this altar has the regulation walkway accessed by a small ramp, it does not have a vertical projection (keren) on each corner, nor does it have a foundation (yesod), even though the Gemora (Zevachim 62a) states these are indispensable.

As it says there: “The Rabbis taught: the keren (horn) and the ramp, and the foundation invalidate. The measure of its length and the measure of its breadth and the measure of its height do not invalidate.”

Although one can argue that the projections fell off over the years, it remains problematic that this structure has no projecting foundation at its base. Perhaps this puzzle has a simple solution. The Gemora in Zevachim states that the absence of these items makes the altar invalid because, “Wherever it says hamizbei’ach – it invalidates.” However, where does the verse say hamizbei’ach? When discussing the mizbei’ach of the Mishkan (Shemos 27). So perhaps one can claim that this rule does not apply to altars built outside the Mishkan or Beis Mikdash.

However, another objection can be raised. Lechatchila, one is supposed to pour the remaining blood of all sacrifices on the altar’s foundation. How did Yehoshua observe this rule if his altar had no foundation?

The second problem is that although all the bones in the ash on top of Zertal’s mizbei’ach are of kosher, one year- old animals, they also include bones of the yachmur (fallow-deer, a wild animal common in Eretz Yisroel in Yehoshua’s time). Although Reish Lakish (Zevachim 34) holds that a chaya (kosher wild animal) can be offered on any altar, and Tosfos (Chulin 22b) quotes Rishonim who hold that these animals can be offered on a bama (altar outside the Mishkan or Beis Mikdash), the halacha is like Rabbi Yochanan who disagrees with Reish Lakish, and we do not hold like those Rishonim quoted by Tosfos.

Although these problems have not been fully resolved and Zertal’s mystery find is not completely understood, one thing has been made abundantly clear – the reluctance of certain academics to jettison their treasured preconceptions.   (Sources: Am Nolad. Mizbeach Har Eival Vereishit Yisrael by Adam Zertal, Tel Aviv, 2000. Article by Adam Zertal.)

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