A scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is challenging the conventional wisdom about a 2,000-year-old artifact recently discovered in the Temple Mount area of Jerusalem.
Late last month, newspapers around the world reported the discovery of a tiny object of fired clay, about the size of a button, stamped with an inscription consisting of the Hebrew letters daled-kuf-aleph lamed-yud-hei. The object was discovered in excavations organized by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) about 15 meters north of the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, beneath Robinson’s Arch in the Archaeological Garden in Jerusalem.
According to the archaeologists in charge of the excavation, the letters are an Aramaic inscription meaning “pure for G-d,” and the object was used to mark things brought to the Temple as ritually pure.
But Prof. Shlomo Naeh offers an entirely different explanation: the object is a kind of voucher or token which enabled the Temple administrator to keep track of commerce related to sacrificial offerings. Naeh is a professor in the Hebrew University’s Talmud Department and the head of Hebrew University’s Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies.
In Temple times, every animal sacrifice was accompanied by additional offerings consisting of flour, wine and oil, in varying proportions depending on the type of sacrifice. These offerings had to be purchased in the Temple to ensure they were kosher and pure.
According to the Mishnah, a compilation of Jewish oral tradition redacted around 200 CE, the sale of these offerings was managed in a centralized manner: the person bringing a sacrifice would pay for them at the Temple “office” and receive a seal-like object with Aramaic writing. The person would then use the seal to buy the specified allotment.
According to Professor Naeh, the newly-discovered artifact was used to track these transactions by indicating in shorthand the type of additional offering the buyer was entitled to, and the date on which he was entitled to it. In this instance, Naeh explains, the letters are an abbreviation of three words: “Dekhar Aleph Le-Yehoyariv,” signifiying that the buyer was entitled to the additional offerings for a ram sacrifice, on the first day of the Temple work shift of the Yehoyariv family of priests. Naeh explains as follows:
“Dekhar” in Aramaic means “male” (signifying a ram), as described in the Mishnah: “There were four seals in the Sanctuary, inscribed with the words Egel (calf), Zakhar (ram), G’di (kid), and Hoteh (sinner); During the Mishnah Period, Rabbi Ben Azai stated that the inscriptions were in Aramaic: Egel, Dekhar, G’di, and Hoteh” (Shekalim, 5:4). “Aleph” indicates the first day of the week, meaning the sacrifice was brought on a Sunday. Yehoyariv” indicates the family that had the first of the twenty-four weekly shifts according to the division of labor among priestly families working in the Temple.
Prof. Naeh explains: “To prevent deception or fraud, they limited the validity of the seal so that it could not be used on any other day. According to the tradition recorded in the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud, they marked it with the day of the week and the name of the priestly family that was on duty that week in the Temple.” Priestly families were divided into twenty-four shifts and alternated so that each family worked approximately once in each six month cycle.
Naeh points out several problems with the original theory that the artifact was used to signify an object’s purity: “Labeling an object as ‘pure’ is not reasonable because according to ritual law, an object can easily lose its purity at any time, even if merely touched by an unclean person. Moreover, symbols of purity must be attached in a way that prevents their removal or transfer to another object, but this artifact was not found to contain spurs or holes for string that would have enabled it to be firmly attached. And it would not have been used as a stamp, because the writing on it is from right to left, and not in the mirror-image writing typically used on stamps. Preserving the purity of an object must be done in a more secure manner, for example by inscribing and sealing vessels in such a way that it’s impossible to open them without it being noticeable.”
“This archaeological discovery is living evidence of the Temple administration as described in the Mishnah,” adds Prof. Naeh. “This interpretation also explains why this object is such a rare find, because the seals mentioned in the Mishnah were used only in the Temple area as an internal means of exchange, and it can be assumed that only a few items found their way out of the Temple.”
Prof. Naeh adds that in recent years, researchers of Jewish antiquity have raised doubts about the credibility of early rabbinical descriptions of Temple activity. However in this instance the Mishnah was shown to contain accurate and precise information about the workings of the Temple, and this should caution us against making sweeping generalizations that deny the historical credibility of early rabbinical sources.