The Man Who Found the Menorah

 If you are trying to navigate the Israel Museum campus, you are encountering Jerusalem streets named for some of the heroes of modern Israel. If your driving-in-Jerusalem skills are anything like mine, however, you may be feeling less intrigued by the names of the streets than by the (distant) possibility that they will actually take you where you are trying to go.

One of those streets is called Nachman Avigad.

You might not recognize Nachman Avigad’s name – but you almost certainly know his work. Have you visited the Israelite Tower – the remnant of the Jerusalem city wall alongside which Judean- and Babylonian-era arrowheads were found, and which bears damage from fires set by the sixth-century B.C.E. Babylonian conquerors? Maybe not – it’s well off the beaten track, with irregular opening hours. How about the Broad Wall – the extension of the city wall that dates to the time of King Hezekiah, and that was built on top of existing houses exactly as described in the Book of Isaiah? Still maybe not – it’s not super-well marked, and it’s easy to miss if you’re not on the lookout. Perhaps the Burnt House – the charred structure whose discovery provided the first physical evidence of Josephus’s account of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem?  Or the Herodian Quarter Museum – the unearthed lavish villas and intricate mosaic floors which upper-class Jews enjoyed during the rule of Herod? Or – en route to the Jewish Quarter shopping area – the beautifully-preserved Byzantine-era Cardo?

If you haven’t seen these things, by the way, you should. They are all amazing – and they were all excavated by Nachman Avigad.

Born in 1905 in Zawalow, Austria, (now part of Ukraine), Nachman Avigad made aliyah in 1925 and received his master’s and Ph.D. in archaeology from Hebrew University. He participated in digs at the Beit Alpha and Hamat Gader synagogues, then directed the excavations at Beit Shearim, where he personally identified the family tomb of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, the redactor of the Mishnah. Nachman Avigad also published the last of the Dead Sea Scrolls, excavated the mountain fortress at Masada, authored numerous articles – especially on Hebrew seals – and identified a seal belonging to the Israelite queen Jezebel (the identification has been contested, but I’m placing my bet with Nachman Avigad).

Amid a magnificent career, however, Nachman Avigad’s most glorious moments took place in the Old City of Jerusalem. In 1969, two years after Israel liberated the city during the Six-Day War, Nachman Avigad was asked to oversee the excavations of the Jewish Quarter; although he was well into his sixties and considering retirement, he accepted the position.

When we visit the Jewish Quarter today, it may be impossible to imagine the Jewish Quarter that Nachman Avigad first confronted: archaeological treasures he would bring to light were still buried, synagogues and yeshivot were filled with garbage from the marauding Jordanians, streets and stones lay in broken ruins. With brilliance, skill, and wisdom, Nachman Avigad redeemed the Quarter – restoring the towers and the walls, the villas and the homes that had belonged to our ancestors, and gifting them to us.

Among the discoveries with which Nachman Avigad is credited is the oldest depiction of the menorah once kindled in the Second Temple. Carved into a wall 2200 years ago, the engraving was uncovered during Nachman Avigad’s excavations. Although I have been blessed to see Nachman Avigad’s work – to visit the Israelite Tower and the Broad Wall, the Burnt House and the Herodian villas, the Cardo and Masada and Beit Alpha and Beit Shearim – there is something about this menorah that touches me like nothing else. It reminds me of the ram that God created at twilight just before the first Shabbat, that God set in place for Abraham to find in the thicket thousands of years later.

I imagine our ancestor, living in Jerusalem, worshipping in the Temple, seeing with his own eyes the menorah that illuminated this sacred place. I imagine him engraving into the wall what he had beheld as the people were gathered, the psalms were chanted, the offerings were turned to smoke upon the altar. And then his house, his Temple, his city were turned to smoke – and his memory and his children perished in their ashes.

His menorah remained. Perhaps no one but God even knew it was there. Like the Jewish people, like the holy city of Jerusalem, it waited thousands of years to be restored, to be brought forth, to be redeemed.

Now it is back. Now it is ours.