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Paging Bet Pagi

Cities are dynamic entities that grow and shrink over time. This is very much the case in Jerusalem which has expanded and contracted many times over its long history. Can we identify the borders of the city? And can we find long-lost sites? That is a question that is raised when we read this source in our Gemara:

[This is referring to a case] 鈥渨here he threshed inside the wall of Beit Pagi,鈥 (Bava Metzia 90a)

Rabbi Yehuda allows an animal to eat from the maaser sheni food it is threshing, since he considers maaser sheni to be non-sacred and permissible to eat. However, maaser sheni can only be eaten within Jerusalem city limits! No problem says Rabbi Yehuda, we are talking about an animal that is threshing within the wall of Bet Pagi. Bet Pagi therefore would have to be within the walls of Jerusalem yet on the outskirts of the city, in a place where there could be fields. Rashi explains that Bet Pagi is on the outer edge of Jerusalem. But is it? We have a number of sources that refer to this place in Rabbinic literature and they seem to be contradictory. Some imply that it is very close to the Temple Mount, others that it is further away.

The Mishnah in Menachot (11:2) brings the opinion of Rabbi Shimon that the showbread may be prepared and baked outside of the Temple, in Bet Pagi. Maimonides in his commentary there explains that this refers to a place outside the Azara (the courtyard where the altar is), where there is a structure for baking bread. However, the simple meaning of the text seems to indicate that Bet Pagi is further away than the Azara. In the Gemara in Menachot (78b) we have a related conversation about whether bread made outside the walls is sanctified. While Resh Lakish says the walls mentioned here are the walls of the Azara, i.e,, we are still clearly on the Temple Mount, Rabbi Yochanan defines them as the walls of Bet Pagi, (seemingly) further away. Rashi says this is outside the Temple Mount 鈥 does he also mean it is outside the city?

The Gemara in Sanhedrin (14b) discusses a situation where the rabbis of the Sanhedrin have left the Temple Mount and gone to Bet Pagi. The assumption is that they have gone to extend the borders of the city, implying that Bet Pagi is far away from the Temple Mount. But Rashi explains that it is within the walls and considered part of the city of Jerusalem. Finally, a source in Pesachim (91a) discusses a situation where someone would be able to eat his Paschal sacrifice in prison, for example if the prison was within the walls of Bet Pagi, therefore close to the Temple Mount.

To summarize: Bet Pagi seems to be an area near the walls of the city but we have contradictory statements as to whether it is within the walls or outside them. To further complicate matters, we have another source, albeit not Rabbinic but written close to Second Temple times, and that is the New Testament. In all four gospels we have a description of Jesus entering Jerusalem. Before he gets to the city, he stops in Bet Pagi (or Bethpage as it appears in the English translation):

鈥淎s they approached Jerusalem and came to Bethpage on the Mount of Olives, Jesus sent two disciples,聽saying to them,聽鈥淕o to the village ahead of you, and at once you will find a donkey tied there, with her colt by her. Untie them and bring them to me鈥. (Matthew 21:1-2)

Here we are clearly referring to a place outside the city, on the eastern side of the Mount of Olives. At the traditional site that commemorates this event there is a Franciscan church. In聽 its courtyard are Second Temple period remains: burial caves, winepresses and more.聽 Is this Bet Pagi?

The church at Bethpage

Ori~, Attribution, via Wikimedia Commons

Although the name is the same, it is very difficult to identify the Mount of Olives site with the Bet Pagi of our sources. If we are talking about a place that is close to the Temple Mount, within or right near the walls of the city, a village on the far side of the Mount of Olives cannot fit the bill. Between the rest of the city and Bethpage is the Kidron Valley, numerous graves and most of the Mount of Olives. There is no contiguity with Jerusalem of Temple times (or even Jerusalem of today).

Bethpage is circled on the right, Temple Mount on the left

So is Bet Pagi close or far? One solution wants to have it both ways: there are two Bet Pagis, one close and one far. One version of this idea was proposed by Ben Zion Segal in his book about geography of the Mishnah. He suggests that the Bet Pagi related to the Temple stories is right near the Temple Mount, perhaps where the Antonia Fortress is, to the north of the Temple. This would fit nicely with our prison source (Pesachim 91) since Jews were held prisoner there. The other Bet Pagi is called Kfar Bet Pagi to differentiate it and that one is the village on the Mount of Olives. Our sources relate that Rabbi Shimon once stayed in Kfar Bet Pagi and met a student of Rabbi Akiva there (Tosefta Meilah 1:2).

Professor Eyal ben Eliyahu suggests something similar but he places the close Bet Pagi just outside the walls of the Temple Mount, near the Golden Gate (Shaar haRachamim) of today, on the eastern side of the mountain. In 1995 a salvage excavation there revealed remains of a Second Temple village: pottery, stone vessels, tiles. This seems to have been a residential and industrial area, something befitting the outskirts of the city.

The highlighted area on the top left is where the Antonia Fortress stood, the one on the right side is where the Golden Gate is

Could the word pagi 驻讙讬 be a clue to our riddle? Most sources translate it as unripe figs, pagim, (also the modern Hebrew word for premie babies!) and suggest that the village had many fig trees. But the word can have other meanings. Rashi on our daf brings one of them. He refers back to Bava Metzia 9a which mentions a bet pagi, a donkey鈥檚 halter. He explains that just like the halter is outlining the donkey鈥檚 head, Bet Pagi is on the outer limits of Jerusalem.

M盲tes II., CC BY-SA 3.0 <http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/>, via Wikimedia Commons

We could also look for the word in other languages used by Jews in Second Temple times. Pagi in Latin means a village, a good description for Bethpage. In ancient Greek it means cheek and according to the Church Father Jerome, Bet Pagi was a village with many kohanim and among the priestly gifts they would eat were the cheeks of the animal (诇讞讬讬诐). The New Testament seems to be playing with the first two meanings in its story: Jesus rides a donkey into Jerusalem and later curses a fig tree.

Unripe figs (Pagim)

Aconcagua, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Figs, suburbs, donkeys: will we be able to find the real Bet Pagi one day?

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 https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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