The Role of Archaeology in Halachic Decision Making - Part Three by Rabbi Chaim Jachter
In the last two weeks we have explored the fascinating issue of the potential impact of archaeological finds upon Halacha. Last week we explored the dispute that currently rages regarding the use of the “new” Techeilet as well as other issues. In this essay, we shall discuss the impact of archaeological finds upon the iestablishment of the date of observing Purim in a variety of locations, the Halachic reaction to an archaeologist’s claim that the human remains that he discovered are not of Jewish origin, and archaeological evidence supporting the non-Chassidic Ashkenazic tradition regarding how to write the letter Tzadi in a Sefer Torah. If you have missed any of the articles in this series they are available on our website, www.koltorah.org
The question has arisen in quite a number of places in Eretz Yisrael whether archaeological evidence should be considered in deciding whether a city was surrounded by walls during the time of Yehoshua bin Nun and thus should observe Purim on the fifteenth of Adar. This question has arisen in two variations. One is that there are certain areas that have not maintained a tradition that they might have been surrounded by walls during the time of Yehoshua bin Nun but twentieth-century archaeological evidence indicates that they were surrounded by walls during that time period. A variation of this question arises when there exists an ancient tradition that a city might have been surrounded by walls in the time of Yehoshua bin Nun and archaeological evidence unearthed in the twentieth century indicates that it was certainly surrounded by walls in the time of Yehoshua bin Nun.
Purim in Beit El
The first variation arises in a number of places, such as the town currently called Beit El. The Tanach (Shoftim 1:22-25) clearly indicates that the town known in biblical times as Beit El was surrounded by a wall during the time of Yehoshua Bin Nun. In the first volume of Techumin (pp. 109-118) Yoel Elitzur (a noted Tanach expert) argues that archaeological evidence (and other evidence) reveals that the contemporary town of Beit El is located in the same place as the biblical site of Beit El which was certainly surrounded by walls during the time of Yehoshua bin Nun. He suggests in this essay that Poskim should consider ruling that Purim should be observed exclusively on the fifteenth of Adar in contemporary Beit El. The reaction of Poskim (recorded in the same volume of Techumin pp. 120-127) was mixed.
Rav Shaul Yisraeli felt that Purim should be observed only on the fourteenth of Adar. He felt (among other considerations) that the archaeological evidence was inadequate to determine that the contemporary Beit El was surrounded by walls during the time of Yehoshua bin Nun. Rav Ovadia Yosef, though, felt that the evidence was sufficient to rise to the level of Safek to the extent that he ruled that “it is worthwhile and proper” to read the Megillah in Beit El on the fifteenth of Adar without a Bracha. Rav Mordechai Eliyahu was even more inclined to rule that Purim should be observed in Beit El on the fifteenth of Adar based on the archaeological evidence. However, he felt that a rabbinic consensus should be reached, to avoid Halachic pandemonium ensuing on this matter (one who wishes to see an example of Halachic pandemonium should visit the various Minyanim convened at Yeshiva University on Yom HaAtzma’ut during Shacharit time).
In practice my cousin Shmuel (Steve) Adler of Alon Shvut told me that he asked one of the original residents of Beit El about what is practiced in Beit El today. The Beit El veteran told Steve that Purim has always been observed in Beit El on the fourteenth of Adar and he never heard of the Megillah being read on the fifteenth. Another longtime Beit El resident told me that he has never heard of anyone reading the Megiillah on the fifteenth in Beit El, especially since the longtime Rav of Beit El, Rav Zalman Melamed, authored a responsum (Techumin 1:130-134) arguing that it is sufficient to read the Megillah on the fourteenth in Beit El.
Rav Melamed emphasizes in his responsum that he believes that the archaeological evidence is “far from certain” and “in his opinion even a Halachic Safek (doubt) has not been created.” In conversation with Rav Melamed this past summer he told me that no one actually reads the Megillah on the fifteenth in Beit El. He noted the practical difficulties associated with observing Purim on two days and that the Jerusalem Talmud and the majority of Poskim agree that if one who lives in a walled city (from the time of Yehoshua bin Nun) observes Purim on the fourteenth, he fulfills his Purim obligations. Rav Ovadia Yosef notes this last point in his responsum as well.
Purim in Lod
A variation of the Beit El debate has emerged regarding the city of Lod. The Gemara (Megillah 4a) states unequivocally that Lod was surrounded by walls during the time of Yehoshua bin Nun. However, Rav Yechiel Michal Tukachinsky (in his famed Luach Eretz Yisrael) records the ruling of Rav Shmuel Salant (who served as the Rav of Jerusalem for many decades during the nineteenth century) that Purim today should be observed in Lod on both the fourteenth and fifteenth days of Adar because of the uncertainty whether the city we refer to today as Lod is located precisely where the ancient city of Lod stood. The questionemerged in the 1980’s, though, that perhaps Purim should be observed in Lod exclusively on the fifteenth, as archaeological evidence seemed to prove incontrovertibly that the current city of Lod lies on the ruins of the ancient city of Lod.
Yoel Elitzur (Techumin 9:367-380) suggests to Poskim that Purim should now be observed on the fifteenth of Adar. He presents what he deems to be overwhelming evidence that the city of Lod is built on the ancient city. He notes that in practically every change to the infrastructure of Lod, ancient relics are discovered. My cousin Liraz Roem of Ramat Yishai, who spent the year 5764 performing national service helping disadvantaged youth in Lod, confirmed that this information is accurate.
Once again, the reaction of Poskim was mixed (their rulings are recorded in Techumin 9:365-366). None of the Poskim ruled that Purim should now be observed exclusively on the fifteenth of Adar in Lod but one can discern subtle differences in their respective approaches. Rav Yosef Shalom Eliashiv seems not to be moved by the archaeological discoveries and writes that the practice recorded by Rav Tukachinsky should be maintained. On the other hand, Dayan Weisz (Teshuvot Minchat Yitzchak 8:61) writes that although Purim should still primarily be observed on the fourteenth of Adar in Lod as has been the custom, nevertheless, one should be especially careful to hear the Megillah again on the fifteenth of Adar without a Bracha especially in light of the newly unearthed archaeological evidence (the nature of which we will discuss later).
Liraz Rotem informed me that in Lod, generally speaking, Purim is observed on the fourteenth of Adar. Liraz put me in contact with Rav Ortner, the Rav of Lod who wrote a comprehensive essay on this topic that appears in Techumin volume 9. Rav Ortner told me that when asked, he advises that the Megillah be recited again on the fifteenth without reciting a Bracha, in accordance with the rulings of Dayan Weisz and Rav Eliashiv. He told me that indeed some of the Shuls in Lod conduct Megillah readings both in the evening and the morning on the fifteenth.
One can sense that two considerations fuel the reluctance of Poskim to establish “new” places to observe Purim exclusively on the fifteenth of Adar. First, they maintain a healthy degree of skepticism regarding archaeological finds. They do not want to change the date of Purim observance in a particular locale from time to time based on the vicissitudes of archaeological science. Second, Poskim seem to be seeking to preserve the unique status of Jerusalem in its observance of Purim. In many areas of Halacha Jerusalem has its own unique practices and Minhagim. For example, Jerusalem is renown for its unique practices regarding weddings, Gittin, Tefillah, time of Kabbalat Shabbat, Kevurah and Aveilut. Even Hebrew is spoken somewhat differently today in Jerusalem than in the rest of Israel.
Next week, IY”H and B”N, we will conclude our discussion of archaeology and Halacha with a discussion of the identification of bones and the writing of the letter Tzadi.