Authors note: Information about the sites was gleaned from the on-site signs and descriptions.
The sights and smells of Chanukah are in the air! As the menorah candles flicker while the smell of latkes and sufganiyot wafts in from the kitchen, let me take you back in time to the ancient city of Modi’in. Let’s visit Umm el-Umdan, an excavated village located in current day Modi’in that is dated back to the time of the Chashmonaim!
As you know the Chashmonaim are the heroes of our Chanukah story, which took place during the time of the second Beit Hamikdash. Yehuda HaMakabi, from the prominent Chashmonai family of Cohanim, captured Yerushalayim and purified the Beit HaMikdash around the year 164 BCE. The Chashmonai family continued to rule in Yerushalayim and Judea for about 100 years afterwards (until the entrance of Pompei in 63 BCE). It was during those times that a Jewish community lived and flourished in Modi’in. Based on archeological research, it is believed this village was inhabited until the time of the Bar Kochba revolt around the year 132 CE. Let’s take a look.
In Umm el-Umdan, we can see the remains of the village homes. We can also see the mosaic tiles of a winepress. Grapes were placed on the floor and stepped on to extract the juice.
Nearby, we find a mikvah from the 1st century CE. Near the mikvah, seals describing wine production were found. It is clear that this community was careful in keeping the laws of taharah, Jewish ritual purity.
Perhaps the most exciting find in Umm el-Umdan, is the remains of an ancient synagogue dating back to the time of the Chashmonaim. This is actually the oldest remains of a synagogue found in Israel and was used during the time that the Beit Hamikdash still stood in Yerushalayim! Although the central place of worship at the time was the Beit HaMikdash, it is believed that this synagogue was used for Torah study and communal gatherings. A later phase of this synagogue, the height of its construction, is from the Herodian era. Surrounding the central area, we see benches on which people would sit. This is the traditional structure of a synagogue from that time, similar to the one found on Masada. This is the phase that is being preserved by the Israel Antiquities Authority.
As we think back to the heroism of the Chashmonaim, it’s meaningful to think of them as people like ourselves, living in a vibrant Jewish community. Their homes, their synagogue, the local mikvah are all elements of our life as well. One can see parallels between the challenges they faced, imposed by the Syrian-Greeks, to those that we face today in the modern world. When do we hold strong to our beliefs and proclaim, “Mi L’Hashem Elai” in the face of a world that often looks with contempt at our ancient values?!
Now let’s travel to another exciting place in Modi’in where archeological evidence of civilization for almost 6,000 years has been discovered. It is here that an olive press from the Roman-Byzantine era was discovered. Now, this is slightly after the reign of the Chashmonaim but given that on Chanukah we celebrate the small flask of oil that lasted for eight days, let’s talk about olive oil production in the ancient world. It was the same process during the days of the Chashmonaim, even if they didn’t use this specific apparatus.
The first few drops that come from an olive with the light pressure of a pestle produce the שמן זית זך that was used in the Beit Hamikdash. After that, the olives were put in a crushing basin on top of which was a stone wheel that was turned around, thus crushing the olives.
The crushed olives were then put into a basket and carried to a pressing vat where they were placed below a wooden beam. (The beam was called a “בד”, hence the term בית הבד.) The wooden beam was also attached to heavy weights. When the weights would come down on the olive pulp baskets, the juice would be extracted and oil would flow into a collection pit. This method of olive oil production was used in Eretz Yisrael since Hellenistic times.
Did you ever think about this from the perspective of the olive? The poor olive gets crushed to a pulp and then squashed even further to produce oil!
The Midrash Aggadah (Tetzaveh 27:20) explains that it is this pressing (כתישה) which makes olive oil worthy of being lit on the Menorah in the Beit Hamikdash. There is a lesson we can learn from this. When we are put through difficult times, our true greatness comes out and shines. It is through our suffering that we acquire Torah and inherit the World to Come. It is our personal hardships that bring out the best in us and ultimately enable us to shine.
As we once again look into the Chanukah candles, let’s take this message to heart and use our personal challenges to light up the world.
Hava Preil is an enthusiastic licensed Israeli tour guide. She grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan and holds an MA in Judaic studies. Hava has developed and taught accredited courses in Tanach and Jewish ethics for Naaleh/Woodmont College and Cybersem. She currently lives in Givat Ze’ev, Israel with her family. Hava can be reached at IL:054-844-1579, USA:
845-391-0438 or at [email protected].
Recognize where this is? I’ll give you a hint. It’s called “מגדל הרואה”.
Be the first to email the correct answer to [email protected] and receive a free drink at Lazy Bean Cafe in Teaneck! Stay-tuned to learn more about it in our next article
By Hava Preil