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A Halakhic Inscription from the Beth-Shean Valley / כתובת הלכתית מעמק בית-שאן: סקירה מוקדמת

יעקב זוסמן and Y. Sussmann
Tarbiẕ / תרביץ
כרך מג‎, חוברת א/ד‎ (תשרי-אלול תשל"ד), pp. 88-158
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/23593799
Page Count: 74
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A Halakhic Inscription from the Beth-Shean Valley / כתובת הלכתית מעמק בית-שאן: סקירה מוקדמת
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Abstract

In the spring of 1974, the remains of an ancient synagogue of the 'later' type were uncovered in the fields of Kibbutz Ein Ha-Natziv, approximately five kilometers south of Beth-Shean (in the vicinity of Tel-Reḥov). The most important find of this discovery was a monumental mosaic pavement inscription, unusual in its dimensions (2.75 × 4.50 m) and contents. (A brief summary of the finds of this excavation has been published by Miss F. Vitto, in 'Atiqot, VII (1974), pp. 100—104; English summary, ibid., pp. 17*—18*). The inscription was found to contain some 360 words in twenty-nine extended lines and thus represents the longest Hebrew-Aramaic inscription discovered to date. There is every indication that the Beth-Shean discovery is also the longest mosaic pavement inscription dating from ancient times, in any language whatsoever, to be found in the entire Palestinian region. Contrary to all previously known synagogue inscriptions, the Beth-Shean inscription contains no dedicatory information nor any other material directly related to the synagogue structure itself, but rather halakhic details concerning the laws of the sabbatical year and the setting aside of tithes in the various regions of Eretz-Israel and adjacent areas. Following the opening salutation, shalom, there is a detailed list of fruits and vegetables and pertinent halakhic obligations stemming from the various agricultural precepts indigenous with each and every locality. The following general formula is usually observed: 'The products (enumerated below) are forbidden in... during the sabbatical year, and during the other six years are tithed out of uncertainty (demai) / out of certainty (waddai)... [a list of the various fruits and vegetables]'. In addition, there are listings of townships (villages) where these precepts are to be observed even in the exempted areas: 'The townships which are forbidden in the limits of... [a list of the townships]'. The inscription may be divided into eight paragraphs: three of these contain lists of fruits and vegetables forbidden within the limits of Beth-Shean (ll. 1—9); Caesarea Phillipi (ll. 18— 22), and Caesarea Maritima (ll. 22—26); three lists of townships within the limits of Susita (Hippos), Naveh and Tyre; a list of the permitted townships in Sebaste (ll. 26—29), and the text of the well-known barayta dealing with the boundaries of Eretz-Israel (cf. S. Klein, 'Das tannaitische Grenzenverzeichniss Palästinas', HUCA, V, 1928, pp. 197—259). From a statistical viewpoint, the inscription was found to contain the names of approximately ninety geographic locations and some thirty fruits and vegetables. Almost all of the paragraphs of the mosaic pavement text are extant in talmudic literature, especially in the Yerushalmi (TP Demai, II, 22c—d; Shevi'it, VII, 36c) and in tannaitic sources. The novel sections are: (a) the latter half of paragraph I (ll. 6—9); (b) the closing paragraph (ll. 26—29). The latter half of paragraph I provides a detailed listing of the location, names and outlying vicinities of the city-gates of Beth-Shean. This is the first time that such information concerning the important Byzantine city Beth-Shean (Scythopolis), capital of Palestina Secunda, appears in ancient sources. The closing paragraph of the inscription lists the names of eighteen townships within the limits of Sebaste. There is a dearth of knowledge concerning this area during the Byzantine Period. Even though the other sections of the inscription are all found in talmudic sources, it is important to note that the text preserved in the mosaic pavement contains a number of important variants and adaptations of these sources. From a literary-historical standpoint, it is important to stress that the Beth-Shean inscription has preserved the most ancient copy of any source whatsoever from extant talmudic literature. In spite of the deviations from the text of the Yerushalmi, it is apparent that the Yerushalmi text served as the prototype for the inscription. On the other hand, there is also some possibility that the author of the inscription utilized a textual tradition somewhat different from the extant talmudic text. Considerations based on archaeological evidence (the structure of the synagogue and other scant finds) and the text of the inscription, enable one to offer the supposition that the inscription is apparently of late vintage. As a possible date, it is suggested that the inscription may have been written in the seventh century, somewhat before or after the Arab conquest of Palestine. In any event, it is certain that the Beth-Shean inscription dates from the post-talmudic period, and thus represents an additional link, of major import, to the history of the Jewish settlement in Palestine during the Byzantine era. It is interesting to note that during the past few years, it has become apparent that the Byzantine Period witnessed the flowering and development of fertile Jewish literary endeavours to a far greater degree than had been previously ascertained.

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