In one terrifying moment, an act of G‑d turned an oasis into infertile wasteland. Unique geological conditions then combined to form the Dead Sea, a sea that is more than eight times as salty as the oceans. Over the years, the silent desert around this sea became a refuge for spiritual escapists. Occasionally, wealth-seeking opportunists set up shop on its shores to extract its valuable natural resources. Now, the Dead Sea is once again a top destination for those seeking healing and peace of mind.

History of the Dead Sea

The parched desert which now houses the Dead Sea was once a fertile plain through which the Jordan River flowed, periodically flooding the entire plain and creating a lush land. Excavations show evidence of early, sophisticated civilization there.

From the Torah, we can identify that civilization as Sodom and its sister cities. The Torah also relates the fate of that civilization. As described in Genesis the people there were irredeemably evil. Abraham’s prayers on their behalf were ineffective, and “G‑d overturned these cities, and the entire plain.”

The formerly verdant area became a barren, salt-encrusted desert and toxic substances were released from the bowels of the earth.

The Jordan's waters began to collect in this deep rift, creating a vast lake loaded with salt and asphalt. In Hebrew this lake is called Yam Hamelach, the "Salt Sea," and because fish, organisms and plants cannot live in this water, it is also known as the "Dead Sea."

After the devastation of Sodom, the Dead Sea, while no longer a fertile land, continued, periodically, to be a source of wealth. The Egyptian Queen Cleopatra built cosmetic and pharmaceutical factories in the area. Later, the Nabateans extracted asphalt from the Dead Sea and sold it to the Egyptians. The Egyptians used asphalt to embalm their dead. (The word “mummy” actually comes from the Egyptian word for asphalt.)

Herod the Great, who built several fortresses near the Dead Sea, most famously Massada, created one of the world's first health resorts (for himself) at the Dead Sea.

The surrounding desert – silent, burning, majestic – cannot be ignored. Many spiritual sects found refuge in its caves and mountains. One of these, in Roman times, was a group of Essenes who left us the Dead Sea Scrolls.

This formation is called "Lot's Wife."
This formation is called "Lot's Wife."

The Dead Sea Today

On the eastern edge of the Judean desert, about an hour’s drive southeast of Jerusalem (one can get there by bus or taxi), the banks of the Dead Sea sit on the lowest dry land on the Earth’s surface.

Since the 1960’s tourism has greatly developed there. The Dead Sea is a popular destination for many reasons. For one, it is fun to frolic in. Because there is such a density of solids in the water, salt as well as other minerals, anyone can float in the water effortlessly. In fact, it is impossible to sink.

If you decide to swim, don’t put your head in the water, the salt will burn your eyes. You will probably also find that just a short time in the water satisfies you.

Many hotels and resorts have sprung up around the Sea but there are also free public beaches, as well as separate swimming beaches for the modesty-concerned visitors. (You might have to pay a shekel or two for a bathroom or shower.)

Besides for the fun swimming, the same minerals that make this lake deadly for fish make it a doctor-recommended treatment for people: the salt draws toxins from the body, the bromine relaxes the nervous system, and the magnesium is good for the skin. Swimming in the Dead Sea or covering oneself with its mud is believed to heal psoriasis, arthritis, rheumatism, eczema, and fungus. (There are beaches that have this special mud, or you can buy it in the nearby kiosks for a few dollars.)

The air also contributes to a feeling of well-being. The extremely low altitude (the lowest place on earth!) means extremely high atmospheric pressure—creating a high concentration of oxygen (the opposite of thin mountain air). The high atmospheric pressure also blocks the ultraviolet rays, making playtime in the Dead Sea even more carefree. It is almost impossible to get sunburned at the Dead Sea.

Transport on and near the Dead Sea in 1920.
Transport on and near the Dead Sea in 1920.

Spiritual Significance of the Dead Sea

Ezekiel prophesied that one day the Dead Sea will be a body of fresh water, and fishermen will spread their nets along its shore. Water will descend from the soon to be rebuilt Holy Temple and flow towards the Dead Sea, and its water will be “healed” and sweetened. “But by the stream, on its bank from either side, will grow every tree for food; its leaf will not wither, neither will its fruit end; month after month its fruits will ripen, for its waters will emanate from the Sanctuary, and its fruit shall be for food and its leaves for a cure.”

According to chassidic teachings, the healing of the Dead Sea carries deep significance. In the Book of Genesis we are told that on the second day of creation G‑d separated between the “Upper Waters” and the “Lower Waters.” The Midrash tells us that when this occurred, the Lower Waters wept: “We, too, want to be in the King’s presence.”

In the mystical works it is explained that water is symbolic of pleasure. There are two sorts of pleasures: a) the “Upper Waters,” i.e. the spiritual pleasures reserved for the souls and angels that inhabit the supernal spiritual worlds, and b) the “Lower Waters,” the earthly mundane pleasures that pervade this physical world. The Lower Waters weep at their sorry state, the fact that they are condemned to live a life of spiritual de-sensitivity.

This bitterness expressed by the “Lower Waters” is symbolized by the bitterness of salt water, bitter tears, and specifically the saltiest of waters—the waters of the Dead Sea.

Ultimately, it is our purpose in this world to sweeten and heal the Lower Waters, through converting this lowly realm into a dwelling place for G‑d. When this mission will be accomplished we will enter the Messianic Era when all mankind will become spiritually sensitive, even more so than the Upper Waters.

It is this healing of creation as a whole that is symbolized by the future sweetening of the salty waters of the Dead Sea.

Salt Near the Dead Sea (Pikiwiki: Raz Isaacs)
Salt Near the Dead Sea (Pikiwiki: Raz Isaacs)

Interesting Facts

  • In addition to being a tourist destination, chemical products such as potash (which is used to make fertilizer) and salt are extracted profitably from the Dead Sea.
  • Recently, there has been some concern because the Jordan River, which feeds the Dead Sea, has been largely diverted for irrigation and drinking water. Only a small percentage of the river's original flow reaches the Dead Sea, and as a result, it has shrunk by a third over the past fifty years. The southern end is no longer submerged under water and the surrounding earth is prone to cave-ins.
  • The Dead Sea has no outlets—there is nowhere lower for the water to go. Instead, the water evaporates quickly in the dry desert air, leaving behind a dense concentration of salt and minerals.
  • Other names for the Dead Sea include: Salt Sea, Sea of the Aravah (biblical), Bahr Lut (Arabic), Eastern Sea, Sea of Sodom and Gomorrah, Stinking Sea, Sea of Sodom, and Sea of Lot; in the Crusader period it was sometimes called the "Devil's Sea," and the Greeks knew the Dead Sea as "Lake Asphaltites," due to the naturally surfacing asphalt.
  • "Lot's wife looked back, and was transformed into a pillar of salt" – Genesis. South of the Dead Sea there is, in fact, a pillar of salt which tour guides will tell you is Lot's wife.
  • King David hid from Saul at nearby Ein Gedi.

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