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Under the Swaying Palms

In a discussion about redeeming captives, the Gemara tells us about a maidservant who was freed from captivity by a Tarmodaa, a Gentile from Tarmod (Gittin 38a). Where is this place and what do we know about it?

Tarmod/Tadmor (they are the same place, with variations in spelling) appears several times in the Mishnah and the Gemara. Often the reference is about non-Jews from this area, sometimes it could be about Jews or non-Jews and sometimes specifically about Jews. It was settled in prehistoric times although the famous city dates to about two thousand years ago. Some commentaries connect Tadmor to a city built by King Solomon. In the Biblical book of Kings, as well as in Divrei HaYamim, we hear that Solomon built a city called Tamar, (in Divrei HaYamim it is written Tadmor):

鈥淗e built Tadmor in the desert and all the garrison towns that he built in Hamath.鈥(Divrei HaYamim II 8:4)

Some commentaries interpret this verse to be about a town called Tamar in the Negev, but others, citing to the name Hamath which is in Syria, say it is the place we know of in later history as Tadmor. This is not entirely illogical: Tadmor鈥檚 Greek name is Palmyra, derived from the palm, or tamar tree, and Tadmor and Tamar may be the same thing.

Tadmor/Palmyra is a desert oasis on one of the main caravan routes through the Syrian desert. Any trader who wanted to travel between Mesopotamia and Egypt, or from even farther afield, like India or China, would have to pass near Tadmor. In addition, by the time the Mishnah was written, Tadmor sat at a crucial junction between two major empires, the Romans to the west and the Parthians and later Sasanians to the east.

Map of trade routes with Palmyra highlighted

Shizhaoderivative work: Attar-Aram syria, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Tadmor was settled by Arameans and Arabs and later became a Hellenized city, ultimately conquered by Rome. 聽Its position on the border between the Roman and the Parthian empires meant it was sought after and a strong ruler could dictate his own terms. Or, in one case, her own terms. 聽Palmyra鈥 s most famous ruler was a queen named Zenobia who ruled in the 3rd聽century CE. She became so powerful that she rebelled against Rome in 273 CE and conquered Egypt before she was caught and exiled. With her defeat, the city was destroyed.

Coin depicting Zenobia

Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. http://www.cngcoins.com, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

While it stood, Tadmor was a wealthy, cosmopolitan city. The residents spoke Greek but also Palmyrean, an Aramaic dialect with its own alphabet:

Ramessos, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

They built a number of fabulous pagan temples such as the Baal-Shamin palace, discovered almost intact:

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

The rabbis were well aware of their neighbor Tadmor. The Tadmoreans were excoriated for their cruelty during the time of the destruction of the Temple. In a discussion about whether or not one can accept converts from the Tadmorians, we hear about their evil behavior:

鈥淲hen the gentiles entered the Sanctuary during the conquest of Jerusalem, they all turned to plunder the silver and the gold they saw there, but [the warriors of Tarmod] turned to the daughters of Jerusalem, as it is stated: 鈥淭hey have ravished the women in Zion, the maidens in the cities of Judah鈥 (Lamentations 5:11).鈥 (Yevamot 16b)

Another more neutral reference to Tadmor is when the sage Hillel is being bothered with all sorts of annoying questions by someone who is trying to make him lose his cool. Among the questions is one about the people of Tadmor:

鈥淲hy are the eyes of the residents of Tadmor bleary [terutot]? Hillel said to him: My son, you have asked a significant question. The reason is because they live among the sands鈥 (Shabbat 31a)

Like other large and diverse Middle Eastern cities, Tadmor had a Jewish population. Some scholars suggest that the community grew in the third century CE as life became more difficult for the Babylonian Jews under the rule of the Sasanians and their Zoroastrian priests. That did not mean that life was necessarily easy in Tadmor. The Yerushalmi records an exchange between Queen Zenobia and some rabbis about helping to release a captive prisoner. She is not especially sympathetic:

鈥淶eir bar 岣nena was captured at Safsufa. Rebbi Ammi and Rebbi Samuel went to negotiate for him. Queen Zenobia said to them, your Creator usually does wonders for you; put Him under pressure!鈥 (Yerushalmi Terumot 8:4)

One fascinating reference to the Jews of Tadmor is in the Mishnah of Masechet Nazir, where we hear about a woman named Miriam of Tadmor who became a Nazirite (Mishnah Nazir 6:11). Unfortunately, nothing is known about this Miriam except that she made her way to Jerusalem to bring her Nazirite sacrifices in the Temple. The Jews of Tadmor also have a presence in archaeology. In a 1930鈥檚 expedition to Palmyra, Professor Eliezer Sukienik photographed a house that had four verses of the Shema chiseled into a doorframe. Near one of the pagan temples in the town, two lamps with menorahs were found, indicating that Jews and pagans lived side by side.

Closer to home, in the amazing necropolis of Bet Shearim in Israel鈥檚 north, a number of sarcophagi have inscriptions that tell us their owners were brought here from Palmyra to be buried. One example is the inscription that refers to the sons of Leontios the banker from Palmyra. 聽Another has a picture of a Jewish soldier, in a Roman Legion uniform, with the name Germanus ben Yitzchak the Tadmorite.

Tadmor was rebuilt with the Muslim conquest in the seventh century and its name returned but its status never did. The Jews returned as well. According to the 12th century Jewish traveler Benjamin of Tudela, there were fierce Jewish warriors from Tadmor who fought in the Muslim army. Tadmor鈥檚 temples and burial caves began to be discovered and excavated in the eighteenth century. In the battles of the Syrian civil war in the 2010s, ISIS controlled the area and deliberately destroyed some of the fabulous antiquities there. Today there is an attempt at saving some and restoring others.

Tadmor/Tamar/Palmyra: by whatever name it was an exotic and important outpost in between the two main Jewish communities of antiquity, those of Eretz Yisrael and those of Babylonia.

Palms are still growing in Palmyra

Ed Brambley from Cambridge, UK, CC BY-SA 2.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0>, 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 https://www.shuliemishkintours.com/virtual-tours
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