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Ritual Scribe Brings Ancient Synagogue Back to Life

Ritual Scribe Brings Ancient Synagogue Back to Life

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Performers use torches to act on the Chanukah story during a menorah lighting and Torah commissioning at the ancient mountaintop fortress of Masada in southern Israel.
Performers use torches to act on the Chanukah story during a menorah lighting and Torah commissioning at the ancient mountaintop fortress of Masada in southern Israel.

With an estimated 400 people participating, a rabbi and an Israeli park administrator opened a new chapter in history by repairing the 2,000-year-old break in the chain between the Jews of modern Israel and those who once lived atop the wind-swept mountain fortress of Masada.

Rabbi Shimon Elharar, director of Chabad-Lubavitch of the Dead Sea, presided over the Dec. 17 lighting of a giant Chanukah menorah in what archaeologists believe was the palace of King Herod on the western face of the desert fortress. Standing with him was Eitan Campbell, director of Masada National Park, who according to Elharar, has been the driving force behind bringing Jewish ritual back to a place the Romans ransacked millennia ago.

A veritable “Who’s Who” of Israeli naturalists joined in, including Ezra Sasson, director of the Northern Negev Nature and Parks Authority; Danny Wolf, the deputy director of the Masada park; and archaeologist Jackie Elmakias; along with Rabbi Yehuda Elharar, director of Chabad of Emanuel.

But just before kindling the menorah, Shimon Elharar led attendees into an ancient synagogue at the site, where a ritual scribe began the work of writing a new Torah scroll, a first for the site for thousands of years.

“The holiday of Chanukah, and the act of bringing a Torah scroll to the mountain of Masada are both symbols of light,” the rabbi told the crowd. “Torah enables a Jew to triumph in the battle of spirit over materialism, in a manner similar to the victory of the Maccabees in their battle with the Syrian-Greeks.

“Just as the light of a Chanukah candle lights a person’s way,” he added, “so too will this new Torah light the way for the entire world.”

Elmakias – who, along with famed archaeologist Yigal Yadin, had uncovered the ancient synagogue and fragments of two of its Torah scrolls in the 1960s – wrote a letter in the new scroll, as Rabbi Shai David Avramovitch, the scribe, assisted.

Workers install a climate control system in Masada’s synagogue in preparation for the arrival of a ritual scribe who will prepare a new Torah scroll in the ancient space.
Workers install a climate control system in Masada’s synagogue in preparation for the arrival of a ritual scribe who will prepare a new Torah scroll in the ancient space.

Daily Ritual

Crews prepared the synagogue earlier this month by installing a special climate control system, a table for the scribe and a secure storage area for his supplies and the progressing scroll.

When Avramovitch, a former resident of the northern city of Safed, heard about the project, he immediately contacted Elharar and, in consultation with the rabbi, decided to move south with his wife and three children.

Each morning, the scribe will rise early, immerse in a ritual bath, and then make the 90 minute drive from Arad to Masada. For the next seven-and-a-half hours, he will painstakingly etch letters into the scroll with a quill, all while tourists file through the ancient synagogue to watch him work through a glass wall.

He’ll keep at it until the Torah is finished.

“His job is not easy,” commented Elharar. “There are at least 800,000 people a year who come through that synagogue, and he will be working in a place designed somewhat like an incubator. It is a little like working in an aquarium.”



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