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Over Hill and Dale

Sometimes it鈥檚 all about the lay of the land, or as I often say, topography is destiny. An animal that has no trouble in the cool mountain air can鈥檛 cope with the heat in the valley below. Conversely, an animal that is used to the nice flat valley floor stumbles on the challenging terrain of a rocky slope. This is the scene set by our Mishnah:

鈥渙ne who rents a donkey to lead it on a mountain but he led it in a valley, to lead it in a valley but he led it on a mountain, even if this path is ten mil and that one is also ten mil, and the animal dies, he is liable. With regard to one who rents a donkey to lead it on a mountain but he led it in a valley, if it slipped he is exempt, but if it died of heatstroke he is liable, to lead it in a valley but he led it on a mountain, if it slipped he is liable but if it died of heatstroke he is exempt.鈥 (Bava Metzia 78a)

While the Talmud Bavli often relates to the conditions in Babylonia, a land of rivers and valleys, the Mishnah was written in the land of Israel and as we know from the Torah, here the terrain is varied:

鈥渂ut the land you are about to cross into and possess, a land of hills and valleys, soaks up its water from the rains of heaven.鈥 (Devarim 11:11)

In one little country we have high(ish) peaks like Mount Meron (1200 meters or 3600 feet above sea level) and deep valleys, and often they are near each other. Let鈥檚 take a look at a classic valley and mountain on the eastern side of the land of Israel. The scenario in our Mishnah could easily take place there because the valley and the mountain are close to each other.

The Jordan valley, part of the larger Syrian African Rift Valley, is the lowest valley on earth. It is one hundred and five kilometers long and the Jordan River runs through it. Since 1967 the Jordan river is the border between Israel and Jordan, but in earlier times this area was a corridor for travel and migration. This was true for early humans as well as later in history when a major road entered the land near Bet Shean and continued across the Jezreel Valley to the coast. It is also true for animals, and especially for bird migration. Today more than five hundred million birds, from more than two hundred species, 鈥渧isit鈥 Israel as they make their way south in the winter and north in the summer.

A relief map of the Jordan Valley

Dr. Avishai聽 Teicher Pikiwiki Israel, CC BY 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

On the human side, the northern Jordan Valley, around Bet Shean, flourished in Biblical and particularly in Roman and Byzantine times. Major cities as well as many small communities grew up around here and the land was famous for its agricultural bounty. Resh Lakish, a Talmudic sage whose home was in nearby Tiberias, said that if the opening to the Garden of Eden was on earth, it was in Bet Shean. The warm weather combined with abundant water sources made this place thrive.

Date palms growing by Kibbutz Gesher

爪讬诇讜诐: 讗讬诇谞讛 砖拽讜诇谞讬拽, CC BY 2.5 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

However, by the 15th century the area was neglected. Bedouin tribes moved in and used the farmland for grazing land, the cities were abandoned and there was a feeling of insecurity. The Ottoman Turks tried to improve matters but it was really only when the British conquered the valley in 1918 that life began to return here. Pioneering Jewish communities were built and the land began to flourish again. There was even the first electrical power plant in the Land of Israel here, at Naharayim by the confluence of the Jordan and the Jabbok rivers. However, 1948 brought much of that activity to an end. Bet Shean remained in Israeli hands but south of there was Jordan.

In 1967, with the return of the whole valley to Israel, Israeli communities began to be built. Palestinian terrorists, based in Jordan in the early 1970s, would launch attacks on Israeli communities from the east. The army and the government decided that one of the best ways to thwart these attacks was to build more communities and have more of a presence here. So many small agricultural communities, some started by the Nahal (the army鈥檚 settlement wing) began here and are still thriving today. Still, the stark landscape saw much terrorism in those early years and it was known as 讗专抓 讛诪专讚驻讬诐, the land of chases. IDF soldiers would chase terrorists who would hide in the many caves around here, often using women and children as shields from which they would attack the soldiers. As you drive north you pass a large black and white monument dedicated to those who fell defending this area.

砖诇诪讛, Cc-by-sa-3.0

Today the Jordan Valley is home to a large population of Israelis as well as almost sixty thousand Palestinians, many of whom live in Area C (controlled by Israel and accessible to Israelis). If you don鈥檛 mind very hot temperatures in the summer, it is a paradise for agriculture and there are small farms that have branched out from the classic date palms usually grown in this area. From pineapples to argan oil, the farms and greenhouses in the Jordan Valley produce an amazing bounty.

Not far from Bet Shean is the mountain range of the Gilboa. This chain of mountains begins right above the Jordan Valley and continues north and west, from where you have an amazing view down to the Jezreel Valley. The Gilboa dominates the landscape and history of this area.

Gilboa and Jezreel Valley below

Maizab, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

The most famous event connected to the Gilboa is King Saul鈥檚 desperate stand here against the Philistines three thousand years ago. Both armies came north, wanting to control the fertile valleys and the roads through them. Saul camped by Ein Yizrael, one of the springs in the valley. The Philistines camped to the north, at Shunem by Givat HaMoreh. Saul, distraught at not hearing from God before this fateful battle, decided to defy his own decree against witchcraft. He put himself in mortal danger, by venturing close to the Philistine camp, to the village of Endor. There a soothsayer raised the spirit of Samuel the prophet (or pretended to) and Samuel told Saul that he and his sons would die in battle the next day.

Saul is terrified yet leads his people to battle nonetheless. The final struggle takes place on the slopes of the Gilboa. Saul is pursued by the Philistine archers and is terrified that he will caught and tortured, He begs his servant to kill him but when the boy refuses, Saul commits suicide. The next day Philistine scavengers happen upon the bodies of Saul and his sons and hang them on the walls of nearby Bet Shean. This terrible insult, both to the king and to Jewish values of burial, is rectified by commando troops from across the Jordan. The people of Yavesh Gilead, who owe a debt to Saul from his earliest days as king, come at night and rescue the bodies, bringing them back to Yavesh Gilead for burial. Only many years later does King David bring the bones back for reburial in the land of Benjamin.

Today, thanks to the JNF, the Gilboa mountains are green and beautiful. You can drive through on a special scenic route that takes you from one JNF site to the next. But it was not always so. David cursed these mountains when he heard of Saul and Jonathan鈥檚 death here: 鈥渕ountains of Gilboa, let there not be rain or dew upon you!鈥 In recent centuries the mountains were largely barren and they overlooked the desolate Jezreel Valley below. It is hard to picture this when you stand in the forests on top, looking down at the gorgeous green carpet below. Yet even the famous Gilboa irises, which attract a crowd every spring, were planted by the local communities in the 1950s, in an attempt to make the mountains bloom.

Gilboa Iris

Amir Yalon from Ganei Tikva, Israel, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Today you are more likely to see cars and hikers than donkeys on the hills of the Gilboa and in the valleys below. But the contrasts in height, and the amazing views, are still there, reminding us of how the area looked to the authors of the Mishnah centuries ago.

Beivushtang at the English-language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

Shulie Mishkin

Shulie Mishkin made Aliyah from New York with a Master's degree in Jewish History from Columbia University. After completing the Ministry of Tourism guide course in 1997, she began guiding professionally and has since taught and guided all ages, from toddlers to retirees. Her tours provide a complete picture of the land of Israel and Jewish heritage, with a strong reliance on sources ranging from the Bible to 19th century travelers' reports. Alongside her regular guide work, she teaches "tour and text" courses in the Jerusalem institutions of Pardes and Matan as wel as the Women's Bet Midrash in Efrat and provides tours for special needs students in the 鈥淒arkaynu鈥 program. Shulie lives in Alon Shvut with her husband Jonathan and their five kids. Shulie Mishkin is now doing virtual tours online. Check out the options at
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