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Song of Solomon

King Solomon: wisest, richest, most powerful of kings. Well, at least that is how the Bible tells it. And the Gemara as well. When the rabbis want to bring an example of a fabulous meal, the best money can buy, they invoke King Solomon and his legendary feasts:

鈥渁n incident involving Rabbi Yo岣nan ben Matya, who said to his son: Go out and hire laborers for us. His son went and allocated sustenance for them. And when he came to his father, his father said to him: My son, even if you prepare for them a meal like the feast of Solomon during his era, you will not fulfill your obligation to them, as they are the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob鈥 (Bava Metzia 49)

The Gemara here is quoting a聽 Mishnah that occurs later in our tractate, and there we hear just how elaborate Solomon鈥檚 table was:

鈥淚s this to say that the feast of Abraham, our forefather, was superior to that of King Solomon? But isn鈥檛 it written: 鈥楢nd Solomon鈥檚 provision for one day was thirty measures of fine flour, and sixty measures of meal; ten fat oxen, and twenty oxen out of the pastures, and a hundred sheep, beside harts, and gazelles, and roebucks, and fatted fowl鈥 (I聽Kings 5:2鈥3)鈥 (Bava Metzia 86b)

Evoking King Solomon鈥檚 feast as the ultimate fress fest is also done in Taanit, where the Gemara discusses what kind of a meal one can have if Tisha B鈥橝v, a day of mourning and fasting, occurs on Shabbat:

鈥渢he Ninth of Av that occurs on Shabbat, and so too, the eve of the Ninth of Av that occurs on Shabbat, he may eat and drink as much as he requires and put on his table a meal even like that of Solomon in his time.鈥 (Taanit 29b)

How wealthy and powerful was King Solomon? Does archaeology back up the Biblical accounts? This is a fascinating question and the answers have evolved over the past few decades as different schools of Biblical archaeology, as well as many discoveries, have changed the picture.

Early Biblical archaeologists in the 1930s and on, like William Albright and the many students he taught, believed to a great extent in the historicity of the Biblical narrative. They looked to the Bible to provide them with clues about where to excavate and how to interpret what they found. The first generation of Israeli archaeologists, prominent among them Yigael Yadin and Yochanan Aharoni, largely followed this approach. Yadin said that he dug with the Bible in one hand and a spade in the other, a statement that no archaeologist would make today.

When Yadin excavated in the cities that the Bible ascribes to King Solomon, Hazor Megiddo and Gezer, he expected them to follow a similar plan. After all they are mentioned together in the same Biblical verse listing Solomon鈥檚 accomplishments:

鈥淭his was the purpose of the forced labor that Solomon imposed: It was to build the House of GOD, his own palace, the Millo, and the wall of Jerusalem, and Hazor, Megiddo, and Gezer.鈥 (Kings I 9:15)

Indeed, Yadin found similar six-chambered gates in each of these cities and ascribed that to the fact that they were all built for the same ruler. He even went so far as to outline a six-chambered gate in the ground at Hazor before it was discovered, because he was so sure that the urban planning there would be the same as in the sister cities of Megiddo and Gezer!

The Six-Chambered Gate of Hatzor聽in the upper聽Galilee,聽Israel. Taken by聽user:讛讗讬诇 讛谞讬讗讜诇讬转讬.

But as time went on, this belief in the accuracy of the Bible fell out of favor. It was replaced by a new view 鈥 that the stories about King David and King Solomon were largely legendary and reflected a reality that came into being at least a century later. There was a powerful kingdom in Israel but it only began with King Ahab and continued into the time of the later kings of Judah. According to this view, the Biblical authors, writing many years after they claimed David and Solomon ruled, anachronistically projected back into history their own reality, creating a storied past. And what of Yadin鈥檚 and other鈥檚 discoveries? This school, one of whose important proponents is Tel Aviv University professor Israel Finkelstein, claims that these structures were built later and that Yadin鈥檚 chronology was wrong.

The pendulum began to swing in the direction of Biblical authenticity once again in the 1990s. In 1993 an expedition led by archaeologist Avraham Biran discovered an inscription in Tel Dan, in Israel鈥檚 far north. This stele boasted of the victories of an Aramaean king, probably Hazael, in the 9th century BCE. He claimed to have vanquished both his Israelite and Judahite foes. What is important for our purposes is that the inscription clearly mentions a king of Bet David, the house of David. According to Biblical chronology, David lived in the tenth century BCE. If there is a house of David attested to outside the Bible less than a hundred years later, it seems clear that there was a real David and he was not a legendary King Arthur- like figure.

The “Bet David” inscription, the words are outlined in white

Oren Rozen, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Over the past few decades more discoveries have fleshed out the picture in favor of the Bible, if not wholly matching it. Eilat Mazar鈥檚 discovery of a fortified wall in Jerusalem and remains of a palace, both (she claims) from late tenth-early 9th century (King Solomon鈥檚 time), the uncovering of a strong, albeit small, fortified town in the lowlands of Judah called Kayafa, dating to David鈥檚 time, more research into those six-chambered gates, all seem to support a relatively strong kingdom in Israel already in the tenth century. Was it as strong and as wealthy as depicted in the Bible? Perhaps not. But did it exist? Definitely.

So what are we to make of Solomon鈥檚 feast? Could it really have been as lavish as the Bible tells us? Even the Mishnah adds a qualifier: 讻住注讜讚转 砖诇诪讛 讘砖注转讜 , like Solomon鈥檚 feast at his height. Rashi explains this phrase by referencing the wild legend in Gittin (68) about how Ashmedai king of demons temporarily gained power over King Solomon鈥檚 kingdom and sent him into exile. At the end of that story, Rav and Shmuel disagree whether Solomon returned to his full powers at the end. In any case, 讘砖注转讜 refers to when Solomon was powerful, not when he was a penniless wanderer.

As of now, no archaeologist has uncovered the royal shopping list or even the recipes used by Solomon鈥檚 cooks. However, an intriguing discovery was made in the 1980s at the excavation of the Southern Wall of the Temple Mount. Benjamin Mazar and his granddaughter Eilat Mazar uncovered rooms that they date to the 10th-9th century BCE, based on pottery that was put in the fill of the floor. The rooms were built just south of where the Temple stood, in the place we assume was the location of Solomon鈥檚 palace. The Mazars found twelve huge jugs, known as pithoi. Two of them had inscriptions. One was just a drawing of a palm tree. The other had writing, in the ancient Hebrew script, and it said 诇砖专 讛讗讜 , to the officer of the of. . . Could the original have said 诇砖专 讛讗讜驻讬诐, the officer in charge of baking (like in the story of Joseph)? If so, these pithoi would have been part of the royal kitchen. One might have held flour, for the baker. The other could have held dates or perhaps date honey, silan. Were they part of the preparations for Solomon’s table?

聽 Designer: A. Kalderon Public domain, 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 https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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