Unique Sukkot Tours and Activities in Israel

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Looking for things to do on Sukkot in Israel? Unique Israel Tours brings you a sampling of some great options to make your vacation unforgettable on this Festival of Booths.

Four Species Tour

 

Discover Israel’s Biblical nature reserve. Sift through the Bible and rabbinic writings to discover and understand which fruits and plants are required to celebrate the Succot holiday. Explore the many different ways you can build a kosher (and non-kosher) Succah by visiting an outdoor exhibition of full-scale models. Travel to Jerusalem and experience a modern Four Species market where Jews from all walks of life scour the selection for the perfect set – and choose a set of your own.

Enjoy a day of study, discovery and exploration that will help you experience the festival as never before.


 

Tekhelet Tour

 

Come learn how a two-thousand year old mystery has been solved, enabling Jews to return to a forgotten mitzvah! Study history, archaeology and Jewish sources all while scuba diving on one of Israel’s most beautiful beaches. Travel to nearby Zichron Yaakov, one of Israel’s first moshavim (cooperative farms). Experience one family’s emotional journey of hardship and triumph in the Land of Israel in a unique historical museum. No Unique Israel Tour is complete without some succulent local cuisine. Enjoy the daily catch at Atlit’s famous Ben Ezra fish restaurant.


 

Throughout  the year, Unique Israel Tours offers Jerusalem walking tours.

This Succot we will explore and enjoy Jerusalem’s justly famous open air market (shuk). Our tour will eat their way through history and traditions while answering the mystery why, contrary to Jewish law, a famous rabbi is buried is the middle of the adjacent residential neighborhood. We will then walk to Jerusalem’s city hall Succot display and discover the winner of this year’s ‘ecological’ Succah competition. End the day with a short walk through one of Jerusalem’s hidden parks filled with pools and ancient tombs.

 

During Succot as well the rest of the year, Unique Israel Tours will create a customized itinerary, special for your family or group.

Kosher?

Kosher?

Lifta (Mei Niftoach)

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Hidden in the heart of Jerusalem is a unique site which sits at the crossroads of two highways and two narratives. Her beautiful homes now sit silent. Films and artists have utilized her unique scenery. An easy stop on the way in or out of Jerusalem, Lifta is an exceptional place to explore nature, history and the tensions of the modern Jewish experience.

 

Lifta has seen continuous settlement since early Biblical times. Scholars have identified the site as that of Mei Niftoach (מי נפתוח) listed in the book of Joshua as part of the demarcation line between the tribes of Judah and Benjamin. There are archeological and literary references to a Jewish settlement in this spot during the Persian and Byzantine Periods as well. Local tradition relates that it was one Safran, an early Jewish convert to Islam, whose extended family (hamule) lived in the village during the beginning of the Muslim period in the land of Israel.

 

Skipping to end of the 19th century and the Ottoman era, the Jerusalem area began to develop and modernize and so did Lifta. The relationship between the village and the adjacent Jewish neighborhoods had its ups and downs but, as always, business connections brought people together. Jews came to Lifta to acquire etrogim (citrons) before the Succot holiday and the villagers of Lifta would come into the Jewish areas for medical treatment.

 

During the 20th century, parts of this Muslim village were sold to Jewish buyers (estimates run to 15%- 20% by 1948), mainly the Jewish National Fund. According to the UN partition plan, Lifta was slated with the rest of the greater Jerusalem area to become an international area. In the course of Israel’s War of independence (known by the Palestinians as al-Nakba) Lifta’s residents were driven out due to the conflict. As the war came to a close and new cease-fire lines were drawn, the former inhabitants of Lifta were not allowed to return to their homes although some, who were by then residing in Jordanian East Jerusalem, only lived a short ten-minute drive away. Large tracts of land that has belonged to the village were confiscated by the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan and the new State of Israel.

 

Lifta, probably from the early 1930's. Taken from the Zionist Archives and Mareeh Makom.

Lifta, probably from the early 1930’s. Taken from the Zionist Archives and Mareeh Makom.

Poor Jews from the area of today’s Islamic State (IS) were resettled in Lifta’s empty homes in the early 1950’s, however most did not stay due to the lack of basic modern utilities and the location near the border of the divided city. In recent years NGO’s, amongst them former residents, have fought attempts by Israeli contractors to restore some of the homes and create a new upper-class neighborhood on the village’s grounds. Frozen in time, Lifta remains a solemn tribute to a once common way of life in this land, until a new contractor’s tender wins in the courts or the former residents are allowed to return.

Why Visit Lifta?

A wonderful, almost idyllic spot right in the middle of a bustling city, Lifta is a great place to visit especially during the hot summer months. It offers beautiful nature, lots of places for kids to explore and unique attractions in every season. A cool water tunnel that feeds Lifta’s pool provides an exciting adventure for families who like to explore. Depending on the season, delicious fresh fruits are available in abundance along the trail. Religious Jews utilize Lifta’s water as a Mikva and its willow trees are generous contributors to the rituals of Sukkot. I have had the privilege of visiting Lifta in many different seasons and have had a unique experience each time.

Recommended: for families, tourists looking for an easy hike in a great location and anyone interested in modern Israeli history.

Lifta's Pool. Never have I seen it this empty! (Wikipedia)

Lifta’s Pool. Never have I seen it this empty! (Wikipedia)

View from the start of the walk.

View from the start of the walk.


 

Meditation: Lifta provides a wonderful break from the cacophony of the city. With some good visuals and a healthy imagination you can get a real sense of everyday life in pre-modern Jerusalem. What are the advantages and disadvantages of such a life in contradistinction to our modern, technology-driven lives? Can the memories and history of Lifta ultimately “lift” us above our fears?

What in your opinion should be done with these homes? What course of action can do justice to both history and the practical concerns of all parties involved?

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Ongoing Events and News about Lifta can be found at liftasociety.org.

Two interesting and important short videos on Lifta:

For Future Research:

Benny Morris, The Birth of the Palestinian Refugee Problem Revisited, 2004.

ענת ברלוביץ, המאבק הציבורי להצלת ליפתא, ללא תאריך

נגה קדמן, בצדי הדרך ובשולי התודעה, 2008

Rachel’s Tomb (Kever Rachel)

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Trivia time: where is this site?

Sorry, trick question.

Technically, this site doesn’t actually exist anymore. Having undergone many changes over its very long history, the present day “Rachel’s tomb” is currently housed in what seems like a military fortress. What is the significance of this site for biblical history, Israeli geography and current Israeli history?

Let’s go back in time a bit. Jacob, son of Isaac is a revered figure In all Abrahamic religions. Like countless men of faith, his life was anything but easy. Near the end of his long life he laments:

The years of my earthly sojourn are one hundred thirty; few and hard have been the years of my life. They do not compare with the years of the life of my ancestors during their long sojourn. (Genesis 47: 9, NRSV)

One of Jacob ‘s many trials related to his beloved wife, Rachel. Normally short on romance, the book of genesis relates at some length their relationship and ups and downs regarding Rachel’s infertility.

Rachel, feeling the pain of all infertile women through the ages screams unto Jacob:

Give me children, or else I die!

Jacob, feeling pain of all men of faith when their faith clashes with personal setbacks, (especially domestic) screams back:

Am I in God’s stead, who hath withheld from thee the fruit of the womb? (Genesis, 30 1-2, NKJV)

By the end of the chapter, happily Rachel does give birth to her first son, Joseph. Several chapters later, Jacob and his entourage are traveling towards Eprath.

Then they journeyed from Bethel; and when they were still some distance from Ephrath, Rachel was in childbirth, and she had hard labor. When she was in her hard labor, the midwife said to her, “Do not be afraid; for now you will have another son.” As her soul was departing (for she died), she named him Ben-oni; but his father called him Benjamin. So Rachel died, and she was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem), and Jacob set up a pillar at her grave; it is the pillar of Rachel’s tomb, which is there to this day.  (Genesis 35 16-20, NRSV)

Rachel dies in childbirth, while giving birth to her second son, Benjamin and the Bible promises us that one can visit the grave of Rachel. Indeed if one follows most modern maps, the building that houses Rachel’s tomb is situated a short 10 minute drive from today’s Jerusalem, just outside the city of Bethlehem, well known to us from the New Testament. The identification of this site, is not from yesterday, its pedigree goes back some 1700 years.

We must mention that Rachel, being one of the mothers of the Jewish people is an important figure in Christianity and Islam as well. However, many Palestinians, including local residents of Bethlehem are of the opinion that housed in this building (originally a mosque, they believe) is the grave or memorial of Bilal bin Rabah, an important figure in early Islamic history.

In my guided tours, provided my clients are interested, I delve into the entire history of the present site, and why it is that many archaeologists, including observant Jews, do not think that this present site matches up with the biblical and historical record. Some have suggested an alternative site, somewhat north of the present site, an ancient, mysterious, place known by local bedu tradition as the “graves of the (mothers) of the Jews”.

A section of the rectangular walled structures, found in the West Bank. Local tradition calls them the “Graves of the Children of Israel". Some scholars, such as C.S. Clermont-Ganneau and Noga Hareuveni, have identified this site as the authentic spot where according to the Bible Rachel was buried.

A section of the rectangular walled structures, found in the West Bank. Local tradition calls them the “Graves of the Children of Israel”. Some scholars, such as C.S. Clermont-Ganneau and Noga Hareuveni, have identified this site as the authentic spot where according to the Bible Rachel was buried.

In any event, the building in the above photo is more recent. In the 19th century, the famous Anglo-Jewish philanthropist, Sir Moses Montefiore paid to renovate the entire structure, including adding an additional room for Muslim worship and burial preparation. Being childless, Moses and his wife Judith felt connected to Rachel’s story and her tomb – so connected, in fact, that they had a replica built in their home in Ramsgate, England. Upon their passing they were interred in this mausoleum.

In recent years, due to tension in the area, the Israeli army has turned the building and its environs into a literal fortress, complete with high guard towers and patrols. Unfortunately, these renovations have altered the iconic imagery of Rachel’s burial “on the side of the road”. History, passion and politics turn this unique site into an experience that is not to be missed by any person of faith.


Meditation:

So, wait – why should I go visit “Rachel’s Tomb” if she may not even be buried there?

The true importance of Holy sites, in my opinion, lies in the experience. As a historian, I recognize the importance of historical record and accuracy. However, as a guide (and at times a tourist) I also recognize how vital unique experiences are for the soul. Rachel’s tomb – or whatever it is – is a place where people of faith have come to pour out their hearts for a very long time.

Reread the story of Rachel from the bible. What parts of her complex personality resonate with you? Was Jacob wrong to respond to her request for children in such a sharp manner? What significance, if any, do you see in the fact that Rachel is buried alone on the side of the road?

rachel2

All photos in this post are in the public domain.


For Further Reading:

נדב שרגאי, על אֵם הדרך – סיפורו של קבר רחל, ירושלים, 2005

נגה הראובני, אור חדש על ספר ירמיהו, תל אביב, 1950

יעקב מדן, מות רחל וקבורתה, 2004

Frederick M Strickert, Rachel Weeping: Jews, Christians, and Muslims at the Fortress Tomb, 2007.

http://keverrachel.com/

Jason’s Tomb

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In the heart of one of Jerusalem’s most affluent neighborhoods we discover a fully reconstructed Maccabean-era tomb. The tomb even has its own address, 10 Alfasi Street. Who’s buried here and why would they be buried in the middle of a residential neighborhood?

(Photo Credit: Dror Avi/Wikpedia)

(Photo Credit: Dror Avi/Wikpedia)

Visitors to Jerusalem’s Old City quickly notice the graveyards that surround it, especially from the East. What most are not aware of is that during the Second Temple period the Old City was surrounded by graves from the west as well. Today, many of Jerusalem’s most upscale neighborhoods were part of an elaborate “City of the Dead” (Necropolis). Our tomb sits at the heart of this ancient city.

After the 1948 war, when Jerusalem was divided into two parts, Israeli Western Jerusalem was built up as a residential area. In 1956, construction was done on Alfassi Street in the Rehavia neighborhood to make way for new residential buildings. When the contractors exploded the bedrock adjacent to 12 Alfassi Street, they discovered the remains of an ancient tomb. Not surprisingly, The City of Jerusalem delayed further construction on this street while the tomb was reconstructed and conserved, eventually receiving its own address.[1]

Inside this upscale tomb (it is in Rechavia after all!) archaeologists discovered several drawings of naval vessels and inscriptions in Aramaic and Greek including one for a man named “Jason” (Yason). Due to the drawings of boats inside the cave, many scholars believe that this “Jason” made his livelihood through the sea. Some have raised the improbable suggestion that he was a navy captain (possibly under Alexander Janeus) or maybe a pirate on the high seas.

The drawings were made in charcoal, so naturally they faded over time. (Photo Credit: Daniel Tsvi/Wikipedia)

The drawings were made in charcoal, so naturally they faded over time. (Photo Credit: Daniel Tsvi/Wikipedia)

(Photo Credit: Dror Avi/Wikpedia)

(Photo Credit: Dror Avi/Wikpedia)

Take note of the structure: the courtyard of the cave, where the deceased was placed during the ceremony, the single Doric column at the entrance to the burial chamber, above which a pyramid was built and the two openings to the two burial caves, one in front and one on the left.

Like most ancient grave sites, there is no entrance fee or opening hours for this site. It is recommended for groups of any size – especially Maccabee admirers.

Meditation:  One of the inscriptions inside the cave reads “שמחו אתם בחיים”, which can be translated either as “you the living, rejoice” or “rejoice in your life” – an appropriate message for every season.

 


 

[1] Trivia: Which recent Academy Award Nominated Israeli film has a protagonist who lives on Jason’s street? (Hint: The answer lies before the question.)

For Further Reading:

 

עמוס קלונר ובועז זיסו, עיר הקברים של ירושלים בימי הבית השני, 2004

לוי יצחק רחמני, קבר יסון, עתיקות ד, 1964

נחמן אביגד, כתובות ארמיות בקבר יסון, עתיקות ד,1964

אוריאל רפפורט, בית חשמונאי: עם ישראל בארץ ישראל בימי החשמונאים, ירושלים, 2013

 

Herodian Family Tomb

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A two minute walk behind Jerusalem’s King David Hotel brings us back two thousand years of history, possibly to the era of a different king of Judea. The small, minimalistic sign informs us that we’re standing at the “Herodian Family Tomb”.

Where are we?

Towards the end of the 19th Century, the Greek Orthodox Church began acquiring thousands of acres of land outside Jerusalem’s Old City. Today this land includes some of the wealthiest parts of the city. In the summer of 1891, while preparing the land near the neighborhood of Mishkenot Shannanim for farming, the Greek monks discovered remains of ​​large ashlar stones. The educator and archaeologist, Conrad Schick (a fascinating figure in his own right) conducted intensive excavations on the site and concluded that the destroyed building was part of a burial complex.

At the entrance to the cave one finds a complete rolling stone. These stones would block the entrance to the cave and could be rolled back when needed. The use of rolling stones (called: golel) and family burial caves was very common among the Jews of Jerusalem, especially during the Second Temple Period. (Cf. Matthew, 28:2).  Picture Credit: Segula Magazine

At the entrance to the cave one finds a complete rolling stone. These stones would block the entrance to the cave and could be rolled back when needed. The use of rolling stones (called: golel) and family burial caves was very common among the Jews of Jerusalem, especially during the Second Temple Period. (Cf. Matthew, 28:2).
Picture Credit: Segula Magazine

Schick believed that he had found the Herodian family tomb. What did he base this identification on? In brief, he based it on two factors: 1) we’ve already mentioned the size and beauty of the structure which leave no doubt regarding the wealth and prestige of its owners. 2) Secondly, the great Jewish historian Josephus Flavius, in his seminal work, History of the Jewish War against the Romans (5: 108), writes regarding the Roman General Titus’s urban planning:

the whole space from Mount Scopus to Herod’s monuments, adjoining the spot called the Serpents’ pool, was smoothed out.

The cave was carved up into several small rooms. Each room had hewn burial niches, and was covered with white chalk. Inside, Schick found several sarcophagi and other remains. The size and expense of this complex seriously points in the direction of this cave belonging to one of the privileged and wealthy families of Jerusalem of old.

The cave was carved up into several small rooms. Each room had hewn burial niches, and was covered with white chalk. Inside, Schick found several sarcophagi and other remains. The size and expense of this complex seriously points in the direction of this cave belonging to one of the privileged and wealthy families of Jerusalem of old.

Unfortunately, however, Josephus does not describe this monument. However, based on his research into Jerusalem in the year 70, Schick thought he had identified this ‘pool’ as what is known today as “Sultan’s Pool” and adjacent to it is our burial cave complex.

However, not everyone accepted this identification, mainly because the caves failed to produce any remains or inscriptions indicating the owners of the cave.

Ok, enough with the archeology. Why should you schlep in the Jerusalem heat to see an old cave? You shouldn’t! And, luckily, you don’t have to. Today, this site remains prime real estate in the modern Jerusalem. This site is situated in the middle of a beautiful public park, a few minutes away from both the Old City and the quaint but chic German Colony. Within the park, if you are lucky and the weather is right, you may even spot a bride taking photos on her wedding day in this most picturesque of locations.

Tel Tzafit National Park (Gath)

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Recently, I had the opportunity to guide again at Tel al-Safi/ Tel Tzafit National Park, a site even a Philistine will enjoy.  This hidden national park offers beautiful nature, a nice hike and an opportunity to see an archaeological dig in progress.

What is the historical importance of Tel Tzafit?

Many archaeologists are of the opinion that Tel al-Safi/ Tel Tzafit is the site of the biblical Philistine city of Gat. While no smoking gun has been found, the identification seems pretty solid. In an upcoming post I hope to discuss how archaeologists go about identifying ancient sites such as this one that are mentioned in the Bible.[1]

Similar to other places in the Middle East, Tel Tzafit has been settled almost continuously from the Chalcolithic period until the modern era. As for Biblical history: Gat was Goliath’s (yes, the one who “fought” with David) home town and strange as it may sound, David escaped to Gath, while on the run from King Saul. The Book of Kings tells us that Hazael, King of Aram, captured the city, roughly at the end of the 9th Century BCE. Archaeological findings on the site, including the earliest known remains of a siege trench, seem to provide evidence of destruction during this time.

One of several of the columbaria caves at Tel Tzafit

One of several of the columbaria caves at Tel Tzafit

 

Skipping ahead….

During the Ottoman period until 1948, there was an Arab village, Tell al-Safi (“white hill”), on the site. In July 1948 during Operation Anti-Farouk the IDF conquered the village.

What is there to do at Tel Safi?

In recent years the site has been become a national park. The 3 km medium-level hike that goes through the site is well marked and pleasant. The chalk cliffs are beautiful, the views are splendid and there are plenty of places to sit and have a picnic.

This site is especially recommended for good walkers, Bible enthusiasts and those traveling from the center of the country down to the south.

View of the Southern  Coast from the Tel

View of the Southern Coast from the Tel

 

Meditation: While today, Tel Tzafit is a pastoral, peaceful area, this wasn’t always the case. This area has seen several major battles from the times of the Bible until this past century. Who were the Philistines? Of course, being the mortal enemy of the Israelites, the Bible gives them a bad rap, but what’s their side of the story?

 

Tel Tzafit National Park can be enjoyed on its own or as part of a larger, “In the footsteps of the Philistines” tour day. Please contact Unique Israel Tours for more details.  


 

[1] The Israeli city, Kiryat Gat, 30 kilometers away from Tel Tzafit, references another opinion amongst scholars.