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Judi's Journal 07-15-2011

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How Old Is Old?

By Judi Siegal

I belong to a liberal Jewish congregation and often I am called upon to read or to recite the blessings before reading the Torah. This is a very special honor because much reverence and respect is given to the Torah, the most sacred object in Judaism. For me, as a woman, this honor is especially significant because not too many years ago and within my memory, women were not allowed to come up to the Torah for this honor. In more traditional circles, this is still true, but I believe that it is a right and privilege for women to participate and I am glad to see that the more liberal branches give us this opportunity.

          When I am called upon for this honor, called an alliyah, I feel I am part of a continuum that stretches back 3200 years to the experience at Sinai.  I feel I am part of a chain that connects me to all those who have come before me and all those who will come after me in this never ending strand that is my connection to my people.

With these thoughts in mind, I read with great interest about a recent finding of Biblical literature. It seems that a bit of writing was found on a pottery shard during excavations at Khirbet Qeiyafa, a site near Israel’s Elah valley, the place the Bible says that David slew Goliath. Archeologist Yosef Garfinkel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem carried out the archeological findings. What was so astonishing about the find was that it now appears that the fragment with the earliest known specimen of Hebrew writing is older that any previously discovered.  This particular find dates from the 10th century B.C.E, which indicates that the Kingdom of Israel already existed in this era and so predates the oldest finds so far by four centuries.  Gerson Gallil, a professor of Hebrew studies at the University of Haifa in Israel, deciphered the text and believes at least some of the Biblical texts were written during this period making parts of the Bible older than first believed.

 At first, the ancient language was not thought to be Hebrew but Professor Gallil was able to prove that the fragment indeed was ancient Hebrew by studying the linguistic makeup of the writing and finding key words that are specific to Hebrew and by deciphering the Hebrew cultural content. Specific uses of certain verbs, which are characteristic of Hebrew and other words, found in other languages, but originate in Hebrew such as the word for “widow,” “almanah,” gave clues as to the Hebraic origin of the piece.

What was written on the trapezoid shaped piece approximately 6 inches by 6.5 inches is a writing on how one should treat slaves, widows and orphans. Though missing letters, the fragmented phrases admonish people to worship the Lord, judge the slave, widow, orphan and stranger. Plead for the infant, poor and widow. Rehabilitate the poor at the hands of the king and to protect the poor and the slave and support the stranger. 

The phrases are similar to Isaiah 1:17; Psalms 72:3 and Exodus 23:3 but do not appear to be direct copies. I find it fascinating to note that my ancestors thousands of years ago already had statements about social justice and that these very statements continue to form the backbone of Jewish ethical living.

While the oldest known Torah still in use is about 1,000 years old and the one my congregation uses is probably only a couple of years old, it is nice to know that the ancient tradition with its words of wisdom and practicality live on in us today.

(Source: LiveScience.com)