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When he was eight years old, Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch studied a passage in the Talmud, tractate Baba Kama, concerned with what happens if a kad (pitcher) is left in a public space. Is the man who trips over and breaks it liable?
At the time, Deutsch asked his teacher what a kad looked like, and was slapped twice across his face for "disrupting" class. But "I was the kind of kid who didn't take no for an answer," he says with a smile.
He returned home and began what would become a lifelong process of matching archeological items with their biblical and Talmudic references. He studied religious texts for references to archeological artifacts, and then visited major world museums to witness what these holy books were referring to when they mentioned terms such as a kad or a beka, a half-shekel, or a pym.
Now at 40, Deutsch is teaching others what he longed to know as a child. In the heart of Borough Park, a largely Orthodox neighborhood in Brooklyn, Deutsch together with his wife Pe'er run the Living Torah Museum, a three-floor enterprise on top of the synagogue he leads and adjacent to the family's living quarters.
The location is fitting, for the museum has successfully managed to bring together two worlds that have, for the most part, remained at odds - archeology and Orthodox Judaism.
The museum, which is worth roughly $14.5 million and has been written about in Biblical Archeological Review, caters largely to the Orthodox community, many of whom have never entered a museum before, as religious tradition restricts them from seeing certain statues and images. It is home to 979 archeological artifacts collected over 15 years that date from the time of the bible, the Second Temple and the Rabbinic period.
"This is a teaching museum," Deutsch says. When a religious text refers to a kind of jewelry, or handcuff, or coin, the displays help people to understand what the items look like.
Deutsch recently returned from Israel with a collection of new pieces he bought from the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA). He purchased the only existing glass perfume bottle, with its original papyrus stopper intact. Perfume bottles of this sort are mentioned in the Talmud, where the laws regarding when it is permitted to fold and use a papyrus document as a bottle stopper are discussed. The $4,000 perfume bottle is one of many artifacts the museum has purchased or borrowed from the IAA.
"The IAA loves what we are doing because they don't get a chance to display these items," Deutsch said.
During Succot, the museum was particularly crowded, with up to 500 visitors a day. Groups of yeshiva students and families flocked to the museum to get a first-hand account of texts they study on a daily basis. The museum has been open just over four years and has served roughly 35,500 visitors.
During a recent visit by a group, Deutsch circulates a pair of earrings from the time of the Second Temple. The earrings, which are mentioned in Mishna Kelim, have two parts to them - a garnet stone, and below it a charm that resembles a small hanging pot. Jewish law rules that the charm could be considered a "utensil in itself" and could be used as a perfume bottle. What this tells us, Deutsch explains, is that the Mishna concerned itself with everyday life, and answered questions relevant to the times.
"Many archeologists don't study Talmud as much as they should," he says. A pair of these earrings in worse condition was estimated at $45,000-$65,000 in the Southeby's catalogue, Deutsch tells the group.
He then proceeds to test out a pair of ancient shackles on a young hasidic boy. The rabbi ties the youth's hands together and drags him around the room. The shackles are displayed next to a pair of handcuffs donated to him by the New York City Police Department as a point of comparison.
Next, Deutsch pulls out an instrument from 1300 BCE used both to curl hair and as a razor. He demonstrates by curling a young boy's long blond sidelock. "See - it still works," he says.
Most of the artifacts in the museum are either donations or sponsorships. Archeologist Dr. Donald Brown, the last living excavator of King Tut's tomb, donated his collection of Egyptian artifacts from the time of Ramses II to the museum. Some archeologists argue that Jews were in Egypt during his reign. Brown also donated another collection from his 1932 to 1938 excavations at Tel Lachish, which is regarded as one of the most important cities in the southern kingdom of Judah. It is mentioned in the biblical narrative in the battle accounts of Joshua, Sancherib and Nebuchadnezzar.
Other collectors who have been impressed with the museum have loaned out their collections to Deutsch. Harvey Herbert, a lawyer and private collector, loaned his collection of ancient Hebrew inscriptions, the largest in the United States, according to Herbert. Most of the pieces are from the First Temple Period, around 700 BCE.
The combination of religion and archeology makes the museum one of a kind, said Herbert, who five years ago became religious. Visiting archeological sites in Israel changed his perspective on the Bible.
"When I saw these sites, I thought 'the Bible's no legend.' These are real people," Herbert says. "I wanted to show the world that Jews are not newcomers to Israel."
But archeologists are not the only experts to be impressed with the museum. In a small room to the side of the prayer house, Rabbi Deutsch has a collection of photographs of famous rabbis who have visited. In one, Yosef Rosenblum, a chief rabbinic authority for the Orthodox Union's kashrut supervision department, is seen holding weights from the time of the First Temple, weighing what he sees against what he knows from the text.
"We are using the archeological items to show him exactly the benefits of studying these weights," Deutsch says.
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