by Enrico Tuccinardi
Translated from the French and edited
by René Salm
Based on Rapoport’s study of the piyyoutim, the Jewish scholar Samuel Klein (d. 1940) developed an interesting theory regarding the sense and origin of the liturgical poems, including the Lamentation for the 9th of Ab by Eleazar ha-Kalir. According to Klein, the lists of priestly families with their villages of residence could have been formulated only after the destruction of the second temple, and more likely following the final defeat of Bar Kochba (135 CE), since the Jews continued to live in Judea after the year 70 CE.
At the end of the persecution (towards 140 CE) the Jews reorganized in the Galilee and the survivors of each displaced priestly family installed themselves in the entire region, from the north to the south. The purpose of composing this list was to keep the identities and traditions of each priestly family in living memory. The hope of the Jewish people rested in the confidence that the Temple would be rebuilt, and then each family would leave its village in Galilee and return to Jerusalem.
Klein believed that, beginning in the sixth century, the poets who composed these qeroboth (liturgical poems intended for recital) were directly inspired by the inscriptions which they read on the walls of the synagogues, particularly the list of the priestly families. Liturgical poets, such as Kalir, composed their verses with sophisticated alterations and allusions to the names of the villages in the Galilee, to the names of the priestly courses, and even to associated zodiacal signs, modeling their work after the plaques which they found on the synagogue walls. According to Klein, every sabbath during recital of the piyyoutim, it was customary to recall the name of the priestly course which officiated during that week. Such mention evoked the hope of return to Jerusalem and reconstruction of the Temple. We can see the customary formula used in an ancient Hebrew manuscript:8
Today is the holy Sabbath, the Sabbath holy to the Lord – which is the course? [Appropriate name] is the course. May the Merciful One return the course to its place soon, in our days. Amen.
At this stage it is important to note that, if Klein’s theory is correct, then we would be assured that a village called Nazareth existed from the middle of the second century CE.
But Klein went much farther still.
The Jewish savant attempted a theoretical reconstruction of the inscription which he believed was affixed to the walls of synagogues. He did this based on a panoply of indications which we will consider later.
1. The Ascalon fragment
Around 1920, the fragment of a marble plaque was discovered in Ascalon. It reads very similarly to the second fragment (“B”) found at Caesarea in 1962, only more complete:
The fragment attests to the presence of priestly lists engraved on stone plaques and possibly mounted to synagogue walls.
2. A passage from the Jerusalem Talmud (Taanit 4.6.68d)
This is the most ancient witness to include a passage from the list of priestly families. We read of two amoraim (the Jewish scholars Rabbi Levi and Rabbi Berakhiya) who lived in the fourth century. While explaining each word, they comment on the first two lines of a list belonging to an ancient teaching outside the Mischna (baraita) which no longer survives. The first line is as follows:
יהויריב מסרביי מירון Jehoiarib Mesarbai Meiron
We see here that the name Jehoiarib, the descriptive Mesarbai, and the town Meiron are linked. Rabbi Levi explains: “Jehoiarib is a man. Meiron is a town. Mesarbai: he gave the house to the enemy.” The meaning is that the Temple (“the house”) was destroyed while the priestly family of Jehoiarib was officiating. The second line reads as follows:
ידעיה עמוק ציפורים Jedaia Amok Zipporim
Rabbi Berakhiya notes: “God knew the deep conspiracy that was in their hearts and he exiled them to Zipporim.” The name (Jedaia), the cognomen (Amok), and the town (Zipporim) are all associated in the second line of the list.
3. Two poems by Eleazar ha-Kalir
We have noted that the Lamentation for the 9th of Ab (from a composition entitled Ekha yashebah habaselteh hasharon) is the most important source by Eleazar ha-Kalir when it comes to the reconstruction of the “Hapises” verse regarding Nazareth. It contains 24 stanzas, each associated with a priestly family. In the last line of each stanza the name of the associated Galilean village apears, occasionally accompanied by an allusion linked to the family.
A second composition by Kalir (entitled Zekhor ekha anu sharahnu) also contains references to the priestly families and to the towns in the Galilee, as well as references to zodiacal signs. However, this composition is less systematic than ha-Kalir’s Lamentation.
8. Oxford Ms. Heb. 2738/6, fol. 899 in Vardaman and Garrett, The Teacher’s Yoke.