The Talmud is not a history book. Perhaps the best proof of that fact is that despite the incredible devastation and disaster of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, there are only a handful of passages that relate to that seminal event. History only enters the story when It is relevant to the laws or ideas discussed. And yet, Yoma contains a lot of history, mentioned in passing – this is how the Temple functioned, here are some major characters and stories, etc.
A few of those personalities and stories show up in the Mishna on daf 37. Some of these personalities have been lifted out of the text and brought to life in archaeological discoveries of the last century.
“King Munbaz made the handles of all the Yom Kippur vessels of gold. Queen Helene, his mother, fashioned a decorative gold chandelier above the entrance of the Sanctuary. She also fashioned a golden tablet [tavla] on which the Torah portion relating to sota was written. With regard to Nicanor, miracles were performed to his doors,”
Let’s start with Nicanor. What are his doors and what was the miracle? Nicanor’s gates were placed in a central location in the Temple, connecting the Women’s Court (Ezrat Nashim) with the main courtyard (Azara). There were fifteen steps leading up to the gates, and on these steps the Levites would stand and sing the daily Psalm. Once you passed through the gates, you were in the narrow strip of courtyard known as the Ezrat Yisrael, the portion of the Azara where Israelites were allowed to go. Beyond that, only Levites and Kohanim could continue.
Nicanor’s Gates, unlike all the other gates in the Temple courtyards, were made of copper and not of gold. Albeit very high quality and beautiful copper, but still, less precious than gold. The rabbis allowed them to stay in their original state, even when everything else was “upgraded” to gold because Nicanor was righteous and had miracles performed for him. As the story goes (38b), Nicanor was a wealthy Alexandrian Jew who wanted to give a gift to the Temple. Alexandria was a prominent Jewish community in Second Temple times, with strong ties to Jerusalem. Nicanor had beautiful doors fashioned and loaded them onto a ship to bring them from Egypt to the Land of Israel. However, a terrible storm hit the ship and the sailors threw one gate overboard to lighten the load. When they came to get the second gate, Nicanor refused to let them take it. He threw himself on the gate and told them to throw him in as well. In this inverse of the Jonah story, Nicanor was spared, the storm stopped, and the sea became calm. Nicanor and the remaining gate sailed on till they reached the port of Akko (a different version of the story says the port of Jaffa). Nicanor, still heartbroken over the first gate, was astonished to see that it had arrived on the shore! He brought the two gates to Jerusalem where they received their place of honor in the Temple courtyard.
Let’s fast forward two thousand years. A Zionist, non-Jewish Englishman named Sir John Grey Hill and his wife Caroline decided to buy themselves a property on the edge of Jerusalem in order to build a house. They bought an estate on top of Mount Scopus, one that they would eventually sell to the Jews to create the Hebrew University. However, before that happened, in 1902, they planned on an expansion of the estate. As often happens in this ancient land, a random discovery upset their plans. A burial cave was uncovered, with niches and ossuaries that showed it was from Second Temple times. The first to explore it was the Grey Hill’s daughter, Gladys Dickson, an archaeologist herself. At first she did not notice the ossuary with writing on it. However other archaeologists like Robert McAllistair and Charles Clermont Ganneau soon came to see the cave and Clermont Ganneau was the first to decipher the inscription on one of the ossuaries. It had three lines in Greek and two words in Hebrew (or Aramaic):
Greek: These are the bones of Nicanor of Alexandria who made the gates
Hebrew: Nicanor Alexa
Nicanor inscription (Wikipedia)
Nicanor was not only connected to the Temple, he, like many ancient and modern Jews, chose to be buried near the holy city! The association of Alexandria with Nicanor, and especially the mention of the gates, fits perfectly with our story. Today the ossuary is in the British Museum but the cave is incorporated into the Botanical Gardens on the Hebrew University campus and is well worth a visit. One of the caves houses two more modern graves, that of Leon Pinsker (1821-1891) and Menachem Ussishkin (1863 -1941). Ussishkin, a prominent Zionist leader and the head of the Jewish National Fund, was inspired by the ancient cave. At that time, Mount Scopus was considered the future of modern Jerusalem and Ussishkin wanted the cave to become a pantheon for Zionist leaders. He had Pinsker’s bones brought there and arranged a grand funeral for himself there as well. However, when Mount Scopus ended up behind enemy lines in 1948, the pantheon idea was moved to Mount Herzl and Nicanor’s cave languished in obscurity until the renewal of the gardens after the Six-Day War.
Nicanor’s cave on Mount Scopus (Wikipedia)
Another figure mentioned in our Mishnah also showed up unexpectedly in Jerusalem archaeology. Unlike Nicanor, Queen Helene הלני המלכה is a familiar figure in Rabbinic literature as well as in Josephus’ works She was the queen in the kingdom of Adiabene, roughly northern Syria of today, and she and her sons converted to Judaism. She is mentioned as generous to both Jews and to the Temple, as well as a paradigm of fabulous wealth – her sukkah was twenty amot (10 meters) tall!
In the late 19th century, a massive tomb was discovered north of Damascus Gate. It’s impressive size and quality were the reason it received the name Tomb of the Kings. The initial thought was that this must be the royal tomb of kings David and Solomon. Closer inspection however showed that it was a Second Temple period grave. Inside, a beautiful and simple ossuary was discovered. It said on it in the Palmyrean language and in Aramaic צדן מלכתא, Queen Tzadan. (or maybe our mistress the queen). Most scholars agree that this is referring to Helene, who Josephus tells us had a home in Jerusalem and was also buried there. Today it is in the Louvre (and in fact the tomb itself is under the control of the French government).
Ossuary with inscription highlighted (Wikipedia)
Will we find evidence of Ben Gamla and Ben Katin next? Archaeology is full of surprises.
Tomb of the Kings, late 19th century (Wikipedia)