The Mishna on daf 24 deals with a case where money has been set aside for a Nazir offering that will ultimately not be brought, because the woman’s husband repudiated her Nazir vow. What happens to that money?
“If she had allocated funds, the money for the sin-offering is taken and cast into the Dead Sea” (Nazir 24a)
Our Mishnah is one of a number of situations where the Dead Sea is used as the place of no return, the place where you bring something that you want to disappear. We see a similar case in Yoma, where the Gemara discusses what happens if today (i.e., in a post Temple world), someone sets aside money for the Temple, money that cannot be given now:
“And if he dedicated money or metal vessels, he should redeem them and transport the value of their benefit to the Dead Sea.” (Yoma 66a)
On the opposite end of the spectrum is an item that is not overly holy but rather truly profane and forbidden:
“One who finds vessels, and upon them is a figure of the sun, a figure of the moon, or a figure of a dragon, he must take them and cast them into the Dead Sea” (Mishnah Avoda Zara 3:3)
In all these situations, the assumption is that once something is in the Dead Sea, it is irretrievable and will be destroyed. Is that true? Let’s take a look at the unique natural phenomenon that is the Dead Sea.
Public Domain, Wikipedia
The Dead Sea is the lowest point on earth, 431 meters or 1404 feet below sea level. This ancient sea is not usually called the Dead Sea, ים המוות, in Hebrew but rather the Salt Sea, ים המלח since it has an incredibly high concentration of salt, almost ten times as much as normal sea water. In the Bible it also goes by the name the Eastern Sea, ים הקדמוני, as well as the Aravah Sea.
The sea formed millions of years ago. Three million years ago, water from the Mediterranean reached all the way to here. Later an earthquake created the deep chasm in the earth called the Jordan Valley Rift. The water here was cut off from the sea and eventually a lake formed in this low spot, fed by the Jordan River and other tributaries. The water, salty to begin with, became ever more concentrated as water evaporated and minerals and salt sank to the bottom. The incredible density of the water means it is easy to float, hard to swim and impossible to dive. Almost no living things can exist here. The sea is about fifty kilometers long and fifteen wide.
The special properties of the Dead Sea were already known in antiquity. Salt, a precious and useful commodity was harvested from here and people saw the waters as therapeutic. They also understood that everything in and around the sea could not live. When the prophet Ezekiel wanted to imagine the end of days, he depicted the unlikely scenario of water coming from Jerusalem and flowing to the Dead Sea, bringing it back to life. He described vegetation all around and fisherman coming to fish from the waters:
“Fishermen shall stand beside it all the way from En Gedi to En Eglaim; it shall be a place for drying nets; and the fish will be of various kinds [and] most plentiful, like the fish of the Great Sea.” (Ezekiel 47:10)
In ancient times boats regularly sailed on the sea, since that was the only way to get to the southern end. Once past Qumran, very close to Jerusalem, a line of cliffs came up to the sea and prevented passage. A docking area was discovered by Ein Feshkha at the northern edge of the sea. Graffiti was found on a wall in Masada showing a boat sailing on the Dead Sea and we have similar depictions in the Madaba map, a sixth century CE mosaic from Jordan.
An image of a boat on the sea in Madaba map
Berthold Werner, CC BY 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
What was the transformative power of Dead Sea water? An Israeli artist named Sigalit Landau has been playing with that notion for years. In her most famous work, she took a black dress and immersed it in the sea for two years, periodically photographing it. It emerged a vision in white. Meanwhile, our sources presume that anything put into the water is effectively destroyed. But is that really true?
Salt encrusted rocks on the Dead Sea shore
SailE, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
About twenty-five years ago a huge treasure trove of bronze coins from the time of the Hasmonean king Alexander Yannai were discovered under the sea, by its northern edge, near Ein Feshcha and the ancient port. Far from being destroyed, they were intact and easy to read. But what were they doing there? One suggestion by archaeologist Yizhar Hirschfeld is that the money was salaries for King Alexander’s garrisons at the southern end of the sea. They were loaded on the ship at Ein Feshkha but somehow the sacks of money fell off the ship and ended up in the sea. A different and intriguing idea was put forth by scholars Hanan Eshel and Boaz Zisso. They explained that this area of the Dead Sea is where the Kidron Valley, starting in Jerusalem, terminates. Perhaps sectarians in Jerusalem who did not support the Temple took their consecrated money and as a protest sent it through the Kidron to the Dead Sea, rather than bring it to the Temple.
In any case, the sea does not seem to have destroyed the coins. Perhaps the purpose of throwing them in the sea was not to destroy them but to make them inaccessible. As Dr. Henry Abramson (“Jewish History in Daf Yomi”) explains, before modern times it would have been impossible to dive under the sea because of its density and salt. If the coins sink to the bottom and the bottom is inaccessible, then they are effectively gone.
Because of the Dead Sea Works, as well as the diversion of much of the Jordan River’s water away from the sea, the Dead Sea is steadily shrinking, approximately one meter a year (!). Anyone who has visited the area over the last twenty years sees the change immediately. Besides the tragedy of losing a unique natural phenomenon, there is also a side effect. About twenty years ago large holes, called sinkholes, started to appear in the area. A few caused the highway near Ein Gedi to be diverted and the Ein Gedi spa to be moved altogether. As the Dead Sea water receded, it left an open area under the surface which eventually caved in. The environmental alarm bells began to go off and today plans are in place to build a canal bringing water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea. It still has not happened and no one knows how it will change the water composition, but it seems to be our best chance at saving the sea.
Satellite photos showing the sea shrinking
NASA’s Earth Observatory, CC BY 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0>, via Wikimedia Commons
As the sea recedes, will we discover more items that were sent there two thousand years ago?
David Shankbone, CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons