This week’s parsha warns that the greatest blessing, misused, can be a terrible curse. According to the Zo- har (2:218b), merely reciting pitum ha’ketores each day (slowly and with understanding) ensures that a person will not be harmed that entire day. Yet, by offering unauthorized ketores, Korach’s followers were consumed by flame, Aharon’s two sons perished (Vayikra 10:1), and in a less known incident, King Uziyahu, a cousin of Yeshayahu Hanavi, was afflicted with tzora’as.
Uziyahu was a good king who did that which was right in Hashem’s view and enjoyed tremendous prosperity and success (II Divrei Hayomim 26). But then his heart grew proud to corruption (verse 12). He argued, “The most Holy is a King and I too am a king. It is fitting that a king minister to the King and bring up incense before Him” (Tanchuma). As punishment for this, he was struck with tzora’as (which is tantamount to death) and spent the rest of his life in Bais Hachofshis, a cave in the Har Hazeisim cemetery. According to tradition, a column standing next to Yad Avshalom is the last surviving remnant of this Bais Hachofshis
Although ketores disappeared at the churban, if we are to believe the accounts of the maverick archeologist Vendyl Jones, a huge cache of ancient ketores was discovered in 1992.
Between 1947 and 1956, archeologists discovered hundreds of ancient texts, known popularly as the Dead Sea Scrolls, inside a number of caves at the northwest shore of the Dead Sea. Two tightly rolled copper scrolls were discovered there in 1952. They were covered with raised letters formed by punching impressions into the copper from the back. Transported to England, the scrolls gathered dust for four years as scientists agonized over how to unroll their corroded sheets without destroying them in the process. In the end, they hit on the simple expedient method of cutting the scrolls lengthwise with a high-speed saw. This resulted in twenty- three strips whose photographs collated into one seven-foot long text.
Unlike the other Dead Sea Scrolls, the Copper Scroll was not a religious text but a treasure map listing dozens of locations where piles of bullion were presumably ready for the taking. But to the researchers’ disappointment, the identifying signs, which may have been familiar when the scroll was written, were almost impossible to decipher in modern times. The clues were cryptic and meant almost nothing to a modern person unfamiliar with the old place names of two thousand years ago.
One entry read, “In the cavity of the Old House of Tribute, the Chain Platform: sixty-five bars of gold,״ and a further entry said, “In the great cistern in the court of Peristyle in the spout in its floor, concealed in a hole in front of the upper opening: nine hundred talents.״ Other entries wrote of, “Sixty-five bars of gold lie on the third terrace in the cave of the old Washer’s House,” and again, “Seventy talents of silver are enclosed in a wooden vessel in the cistern of a burial chamber in Matia’s courtyard.” Besides being difficult to identify, there was a good chance that the sixty-four locations mentioned had already been looted. And to make matters worse, some scientists thought the whole thing might be a complicated hoax to send treasure seekers on a wild goose chase. If that was indeed the scroll’s purpose, it was certainly successful when it came to people like John Marco Allegro (a scientist who helped decipher the scroll), Vendyl Jones (whom we’ll discuss later), and Jim Barfield (an Oklahoma fire marshal who thought he’d discovered a new way to read the scrolls). In proportion to the time and money searching for the lost treasures, the pickings were slim. The only person who discovered anything at all was amateur archeologist Vendyl Jones.
Lost Cruse of Oil
Vendyl Jones (1930-2010) was a fierce individualist. When he saw things a certain way, it made no difference to him if anyone – layman, scientist, or theologian – thought differently. This is what gave him the fortitude to decide that the New Testament was a fake, leave his job as pastor in 1956, and join a class of kids in a Talmud Torah to study genuine Torah from the ground up.
Adopting the seven laws of Bnai Noach, he founded the first ever Bnai Noach organization for like-minded idealists. Chief Rabbi Mordechai Eliyahu sent two representatives of the Israel rabbinate to its first international convention in 1990. The organization celebrated its twentieth annual conference last year. Apparently, his interest in Judaism influenced a number of non-religious Jews to adopt a life of Torah and mitzvos.
When Vendyl Jones got hold of photos of the Copper Scroll, he decided that the scrolls were not a mere treasure map, but also a secret guide to the kelim of the Mishkan hidden by King Yoshiyahu in advance of the first churban (Horayos 12a). These included the Aron, the anointing oil, and Aharon’s staff.
For Jones, part of the scroll read like this: “In the desolations of the Valley of Achor, under the hill that must be climbed; hidden under the east side, forty stones deep, is a silver chest, and with it, the vestments of the High Priest, all the gold and silver with the Great Tabernacle (the Mish- kan) and all its Treasures.”
Jones’ opinion was bolstered by a recently rediscovered sefer, Emek Ham- elech printed in Amsterdam by Rav Naf- toli Hertz ben Yaakov Elchanan in 1648, which includes missing toseftas from Masseches Kelim. These toseftas describe vessels hidden by the prophets Yirmiyo- hu, Tzidkiyohu, Chagai, and Zechariah, before the first churbon and mention in chapter two, “These are the Holy Vessels and the vessels of the Temple that was in Ycrushalaynn… Slnmor the Levi and his friends wrote on a copper tablet.” Jones was convinced that this copper tablet and the Copper Scroll of Qumran were one and the same thing.
Fired up by his discoveries, Jones hired teams of workers and spent years excavating dozens of Qumran caves without a penny of public or government funding. For sixteen years, his men discovered nothing. Then, one day in 1988, while digging through a stretch of pale sand, they came across some palm leaves, and pulled a basket covered jug from between them. Inside was a viscous substance, which, according to the Pharmaceutical Department of the Hebrew University was none other than the shemen afarsi- mon used to anoint Kohanim and kings. Due to its rarity, this oil was once worth more than its weight in gold. Certain that the cruse of oil dated from the first Bais Hamikdosh, Vendyl triumphantly claimed he had discovered at least one artifact mentioned in the Copper Scroll. Although The New York Times and National Geographic trumpeted his story, it is by no means certain which plants and oils were used to produce the shemen hamishcha and whether or not Jones actually stumbled upon the genuine item’s remains.
The Reddish Mass
Four years later, Jones announced that his workers had discovered yet another treasure, which at first glance seemed unimpressive. According to the Vendyl Jones Research Institute, “An estimated 600 lbs. of what looked like ‘reddish earth’ was uncovered at the North entrance of the Cave of the Column by excavation volunteers in the late Spring of 1992. Team members reported detecting the smell of cinnamon present in the substance.”
Botanist Dr. Terry Hutter subsequently performed an exhaustive analysis and claimed that the sample was composed of nine different plants, which he identified by pollen particles and organic properties of the mass. These plants included ingredients of the incense such as Cinnamon, Saffron, Balsam, Myrrh, Galbanum, Cassia, and Frankincense.
The process of his investigation was almost mystical.
“The aroma released from the spice compound during its processing was profuse and almost immediate,” he wrote. “It initially saturated my hands as well as the clothes that I was wearing. Within a matter of minutes my laboratory and the surrounding area (for an area of several meters) was affected by the scent released from the spices… On the first day of processing, the aroma was so intense that I could almost taste it… Upon my return home that evening, the scent that had attached itself on my body and clothes was really apparent to both my wife and daughter. During the course of the week, the odor lessened slightly but was still noticeable in and around my lab. Within a few weeks, the distinct aroma of the spices diminished to a freshness or cleanness of the air in my lab and the surrounding area. This aroma was in evidence, if even so slightly, for approximately two months.”
All this correlates with Chazal s report that the ketores was so powerful it could be smelled all the way from Yerushalayim to Yericho.
But some scientists were unenthused with Jones’ work. “It’s a shame to mislead the public,” said Robert Elliot Freedman, a professor of archeology at the University of California. “What a tragic waste of money.” Zohar Amar of Bar Ilan University, wrote a paper claiming that the red substance Jones discovered was borit, or lye, which the Qumran residents produced in huge quantities. And Kenneth D. McMurtrey (Department of Chemistry, University of Southern Mississippi) wrote, “My interpretation of the available data is that the red material is soil of mixed calcite/dolomite limestone origin (primarily calcite) with an admixture of silicates, nitrates, phosphates and sufficient iron salts to provide a red color.”
The head of the Puah Institute Rav Menachem Burstein, expert on the subject of ketores, knew Vendyl Jones and personally visited the Qumran cave where the red substance was found. He told Yated that in his opinion the substance seems to have some connection to the Bais Hamikdosh, but all tests conducted on it have proven inconclusive.
Despite criticism, Jones was electrified by his discoveries and planned to drill into the “Cave of the Column” in Qumran, where he believed the treasures of the Mishkan were hidden, and unearth the Menorah, Shulchan, and Aron Habris. He was certain that their discovery would jumpstart the Geulah. Readers of the Kossel Tunnel article in the Pesach edition may remember a similar tale of the rabbi who tried to jumpstart the Geulah by unearthing the Aron Habris from beneath the Kodesh Hakodoshim.
Israel’s Department of Antiquities (which Jones termed the Department of Iniquities) refused to cooperate with him. At his death in December last year, his twenty-five year longing to set the wheels of redemption into motion remained an unfulfilled dream.