This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

New Discoveries Shed Light on Temple Rituals*

JERUSALEM--One of the most exciting archaeological discoveries ever to emerge from the soil of the Holy Land may shed unexpected light on the nature of the Biblical priesthood and its ritual garments.

In a puzzling but astonishing new find, scholars from the Israeli Department of Antiquities have dug up what appears to be a piece of the original Priestly breastplate, dating from the days of the First Temple.

The Book of Exodus describes the High Priest's ceremonial "hoshen"--a square breastplate containing three rows of four jewels each, arranged in four columns. The function of the hoshen is not very clear, though it seems to have been used for various sorts of sacred lotteries, to help determine a proper course of action.

The poorly preserved artifact, matching the Biblical description, consists of a matrix of three-by-four squares to which would be attached the twelve jewels. What surprised the archaeologists was the unexpected inscription above the top row of jewels.

"We haven't yet deciphered it," says Dr. Benji M. Poriyim of Jerusalem's Hebrew University, "but it seems to consist of four letters written in proto-Hebrew script. The letters appear to be: Bet, Nun, Gimmel and Vav.

While the Israeli archaeological community is racing to interpret the mysterious letters, many have noted the parallels to another archaeological conundrum, unearthed last year near an abandoned synagogue in the Judean wilderness.

The "Ben-Anza papyri," named for their discoverers Professors Fritz and Sigmund Ben-Anza, consist of card-sized squares divided into five-by-five series of random numbers from one to 75.

"The numbers do not follow any identifiable pattern," said Fritz Ben-Anza, "but their function is probably magical. They come in two types, which we have named the "first Ben-Anza series" and the "second Ben-Anza series."

According to Sigmund Ben-Anza, the papyrus trove was found amidst a pile of ancient coins in a local synagogue, suggesting that they were employed in rituals for invoking prosperity upon the communal institutions. The numbers become higher as they progress from column to column. In the ancient Near East, this was a common way of symbolizing the increase of blessings.

Increasingly, some of the papyri show traces of letters similar to those now discovered on the priestly breastplate, except that in the papyri there are five letters--Bet, Yod, Nun, Gimmel and Vav--accounting for the increase from four to five columns. The temple "magic square" thus appears to represent a more original, four-column type.

Curiously, the Ben-Anza papyri, like their priestly counterpart, display signs of severe smoke damage, in spite of the fact that incense was not known to be offered outside the Temple precincts.

According to historian Yoram Kanfei-Zahav, similar rituals were widespread among ancient cults, and were used in order to persuade the gods to augment the treasuries of their sanctuaries. "The expenses involved in the upkeep of a temple could be staggering," said Kanfei-Zahav.

The Israeli Department of Antiquities expressed an interest in pursuing its investigations provided that it can devise a means of raising the necessary funds.


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First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, January 15, 1991, p. 10.