The Women Prophets of Sukkot

Sukkot - welcomeI’ve been enjoying the Jewish holiday of Sukkot this past week. The festival is named after “sukkah,” the Hebrew word for “booths” mentioned in Leviticus:

“On the fifteenth day of this seventh month there shall be the Feast of Booths to the Lord, [to last] seven days…You shall live in booths seven days…in order that future generations may know that I made the Israelite people live in booths when I brought them out of the Land of Egypt, I the Lord your God” (Lev. 23:33, 42-3).

This joyful holiday has been celebrated for thousands of years with feasts and get-togethers inside the temporary structures. Unfortunately I didn’t have an opportunity to set up my sukkah this year.  I’ll share a picture of it next year.

A custom originating with the Lurianic Kabbalah (a medieval mystical Jewish document) “invites” one of seven “spiritual guests” into the sukkah each day of the festival. These guests are called “ushpizin” which means “guests” in Aramaic. Traditionally these ushpizin were Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Aaron, Joseph and David and each guest has a spiritual lesson to give on the day they visit.

In 1597 the kabbalist Rabbi Menahem Azaria of Fano wrote that seven prophetesses in the Hebrew Bible correspond to seven spiritual attributes of God (sephirot). According to the Babylonian Talmud seven women preached to Israel: Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah and Esther.

As a later development, the seven women were linked to the seven guests invited into the sukkah. We use the feminine form “ushpizot” to refer to these seven visitors. This practice has not been standardized, so some communities invite a different set of women into their sukkahs than the prophetesses (most commonly, Rebecca, Rachel, Leah, Miriam, Hannah and Esther; Ritualwell has developed a ceremony to welcome these women into a sukkah).

I’m quite taken with the prophetesses, so I invite the women who spoke oracles into my hut. Here’s my rendition of a ceremony to welcome the prophetesses. Feel free to use it if you find it meaningful. The photos are of the decorations I use in my sukkah to commemorate the seven prophetesses. Happy sukkot!


 Ushpizot of the Seven Prophetesses

“The rabbis taught: Forty-eight prophets and seven prophetesses preached to Israel…Who were the seven prophetesses? Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail, Huldah, Esther.” (Tractate Megillah)

Day One

We welcome you, Sarah, who heard God’s voice. From you we learn loving-kindness (hesed).

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Action: shake lulav to the right.

“But God said to Abraham, Do not be distressed because of the lad and your maid; whatever Sarah tells you, listen to her, for through Isaac your descendants shall be named” (Genesis 21:12).

“We call upon Sarah the priestess, co-founder of Judaism, who gave us the candle-lighting ceremony. Beautiful and holy princess, she celebrated in sacred groves and a simple tent, bringing the light of the Shekhinah wherever she traveled. Laughing mother of ageless beauty, bless our way.” (Leah Novick, excerpted from Appeal to the Matriarchs)

Sarah, our holy guest be seated in our sukkah under the shade of the Shekhinah that we may learn loving-kindness from you.

Day Two

We welcome you, Miriam, who sang and danced for God. From you we learn strength (gevura).

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Action: shake lulav to the left.

“Then Miriam the Prophetess, Aaron’s sister, took her drum in her hand, and all the women followed her out, with drums and dances. And Miriam sang to them …” (Exodus 15:20-21).

“Miriam, as it is written [Ex. xv. 26]: “Then took Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron.” Aaron’s, and not Moses’ sister? Said R. Na’hman in the name of Rabh: She had prophesied even when she had been yet but Aaron’s sister, before Moses’ birth, and she said: In the future my mother will give birth to a child that will deliver the Israelites. Finally, when Moses was born, the whole house was filled with light. And her father rose, and kissed her on her head, and said: Daughter, thy prophecy is fulfilled. Afterward, when he was cast into the river, the father asked: Daughter, what has become of thy prophecy? And this is what is written [ibid. ii. 4]: “And his sister placed herself afar off, to ascertain what would be done to him,” i.e., to know what would be the end of her prophecy” (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Megillah).

Miriam, our holy guest, be seated in our sukkah under the shade of the Shekhinah that we may learn spiritual strength.

Day Three

We welcome you, Deborah, who spoke the truth. From you we learn to appreciate beauty (tiferet).

Sukkot - Deborah


Action: shake lulav to the front.

“Now Deborah, a Prophetess… judged Israel at that time. And she sat under the palm-tree of Deborah …. in the hills of Ephraim” (Judges 4:4).

“Deborah, great warrior, judge and mother in Israel, your fiery example inspires us to take action. We long to know more of your words and yearn to take your poetry into our hearts and minds. Warrior mother, we need your energy now to sacralize the political and create leaders that embody your prophetic leadership” (Leah Novick, excerpted from Appeal to the Matriarchs).

Deborah, our holy guest, be seated in our sukkah under the shade of the Shekhinah that we may learn about the splendor of God.

Day Four

We welcome you, Hannah, who dared to pray out loud. From you we learn about eternity (netzach).

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Action: shake lulav toward the heavens.

“Hannah was considered as a prophetess by Jonathan b. Uzziel. In his targum he thus explains the first five verses of I Sam. ii. as being a prophecy: Verses 1, 2: These indicate that her son Samuel would be a prophet, and that her great-grandson, Heman, the singer, would stand with his fourteen sons among the musicians in the Temple. Verses 3-5: These foretell the rout of Sennacherib; the fall of Nebuchadnezzar and that of the Macedonian kingdom; the fatal end of Haman’s sons; and thereturn of Israel from Babylon to Jerusalem. Hannah is likewise counted among the seven prophetesses in Meg. 14a” (Jewish Encyclopedia, “Hannah”).

“…and she prayed to the Lord exceedingly. Hannah spoke devotedly from her heart; only her lips moved, but her voice could not be heard” (1 Samuel 1:12).

Hannah, our holy guest, be seated in our sukkah under the shade of the Shekhinah that we may learn about eternity.

Day Five

We welcome you, Abigail, who used her wise words to bring peace. From you we learn about the glory of God (hod).

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Action: shake lulav toward the earth.

“Abigail, as it is written [I Sam. xxv. 31]: ‘And when the Lord will do good unto my lord.’ She prophesied that he would be king” (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Megillah).

“[Abigail], forceful woman of Carmel, you foresaw David’s future; feeding and welcoming the outlaw chief when his life was in jeopardy. Becoming his wife in hard times, before he was king and psalmist, you supported the emergence of genius. Clairvoyant mother, send us your insight so we might have the strength to trust and follow our intuitions” (Leah Novick, excerpted from Appeal to the Matriarchs).

Abigail, our holy guest, be seated in our sukkah under the shade of the Shekhinah that we may learn about God’s glory.

Day Six

We welcome you, Huldah, who used her intelligence to bring wisdom to the world. From you we learn about that righteousness is the foundation of the world (yesod).

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Action: shake lulav behind you.

“So the priest Hilkiah . . . went to the Prophetess Huldah, wife of Shallum . . . And she said to them, “Thus says the Lord: Behold, I will bring evil upon this place and its inhabitants fulfilling all the words in the Book . . .because they have forsaken me and sacrificed to other gods . . . ” (2 Kings 22:14)

“Huldah, preacher at the Southern gates of the Temple, you were consulted on important religious matters, like your cousin Jeremiah. You, whose teaching comes to us in your advice to King Josiah, are needed now. Prophetic mother, help us find the deep learning of enlightenment and peace” (Leah Novick, excerpted from Appeal to the Matriarchs).

Huldah, our holy guest, be seated in our sukkah under the shade of the Shekhinah that we may learn about the foundation of the world.

Day Seven

We welcome you, Esther, who risked her life for the sack of bringing justice. From you we learn about queenship (malchut).

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Action: smell the perfume of the etrog.

“And Esther, because it is written [Esther, v. 7]: ‘Esther put on royalty.’ It should be written, ‘royal apparel’? That means, she clothed herself in the Holy Spirit, and this is inferred from an analogy of expression; here it is written, ‘she put on,’ and in I Chron. xii. 18, ‘a spirit invested Amassoi.’ As there the Holy Spirit is meant, so here” (Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Megillah).

“Esther, gentle queen with premonitory knowledge that propelled you to save your people, whether you are historical or mythological, we are touched by your story. How you must have feared your awesome destiny, overcoming fear with transcendent faith. Royal mother, bless us with inner strength to overcome the obstacles that block us from fulfilling our sacred assignments” (Leah Novick, excerpted from Appeal to the Matriarchs).

Esther, our holy guest, be seated in our sukkah under the shade of the Shekhinah that we may learn about the royalty of the spirit.

Final Prayer

May it be Your will, Lord my God and God of my ancestors,
To allow Your holy spirit to dwell in our midst;
Spread over us the shelter of Your peace;
Encircle us with the majesty of Your pure and holy glory. Give sufficient bread and water to all who are hungry and thirsty. Grant us many days to grow old upon the earth, the holy land, That we may serve and revere You.
Blessed be the Lord forever. Amen, amen.


The Leading Women of Thessalonica


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I’m quite taken with Ivoni Richter Reimer’s book Women in the Acts of the Apostles: A Feminist Liberation Perspective. This book will crop up in many of my future blogs but what caught my eye today was Reimer’s comments about “not a few of the leading women of Thessalonica” (Acts 17:4) that the apostle Paul and his side-kick Silas met in the Greek city. She writes: “Paul and Silas’s ‘missionary method’ was the same everywhere: They entered a city and made contact with the Jewish population, going repeatedly to the synagogue and preaching” (p. 245). She highlights that in Thessalonica, a city near the Roman colony of Philippi, the missionaries continued this practice. “As elsewhere, a conversion takes place in the context of the synagogue, but a special detail is the emphasis on a particular social group: not a few of the ‘leading women’ join Paul and Silas” (p. 245). This is not the first instance of notable women’s attraction to the teachings of Jesus in the context of a synagogue. Note that at the time of the writing of Acts, the complete divergence between Christians and Jews had not yet occurred.

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Image source

Throughout Greek literature contemporaneous with Acts, the Greek term “leading” refers to “the highest level of society and implies political power and a display of wealth” (Arlandson, p.158). The newly converted women in Thessalonica were therefore “wealthy, powerful, and enjoyed a high measure of political power and social prestige” (Arlandson, p.158). Wealthy women in the first century Roman Empire often controlled their own money, as allowed by law.

Financial independence brought them social freedom and leisure time, allowing them to participate in political and religious offices. A number of first century writers note that prominent women participated in a variety of religious cults, particularly in foreign religions from the East. “Such women had the resources and perhaps the necessary personal autonomy to join a new religious movement,” (Kraemer, Women in the Scripture, p. 465). From stone inscriptions we learn that they often donated vast sums to civic organizations, religious institutions and building projects. Though Acts 17 doesn’t spell out the leadership duties of the leading women of Thessalonica, it is very likely that they held positions of authority in early Christianity, just as their female contemporaries did in other foreign religions throughout the Roman Empire.

Reading about these leading women reminded me of my time in Thessalonica (now known as Thessaloniki). Flying in from Athens, my sister and I disembarked from the airplane and almost the first thing we heard was Hebrew! That should have been a clue, but I was too astounded to begin to understand what that meant. So we proceeded through the ordeal of renting a car that was given to us without gas and the engaging task of finding our way to our hotel where there was no parking.

My main focus was continuing on to Philippi as soon as possible. I hadn’t done much research on Thessalonica except that I knew it possessed a Jewish Museum. I try to never miss one of those wherever I’m traveling; ask anyone I’ve dragged along with me. After dropping our bags off at the hotel, we had enough time try to find the Jewish Museum. In hindsight I can say that we got close. We saw posters for it, but that didn’t really count. Wending our way back to our room we happened upon the 4th-century Rotunda commissioned by the Roman emperor Galerius as part of his palace in Thessaloniki. Nearby is the impressive Arch of Galerius. Well and dandy, but way after the biblical period. (Read: I wasn’t too excited about these monuments.)

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However, as my sister and I walked around the exterior of the Rotunda, we found gravestones inscribed with Hebrew and Jewish symbols scattered like abandoned children’s toys. This was my second clue, but I was still clueless.

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After visiting Philippi the next day, we drove back to Thessaloniki and made another attempt at finding that dang Jewish Museum. We found the posters again. Woohoo. Defeated, we headed back to the café where we’d drowned our sorrows the previous day. Considering myself to now be a loyal customer worthy of posing stupid tourist questions, I asked the employees where the museum was. Nobody spoke English but through gestures I figured out that their English-speaking owner would arrive in a half hour. Yeah, I’m really good at the non-verbal communication thing. In Israel and Italy I’ve had lengthy conversations with others without uttering a word. When the owner arrived, we discovered that we had not walked far enough down the street. How pathetic was that? We promptly scuttled down the said street and entered an elegant museum just before it was ready to close. This would be a recurrent theme throughout our trip.

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The museum blew me away. In the imposing building that once housed the Jewish newspaper L Independent, I learned that a huge Sephardic (Mediterranean Jewish) population had flourished in Thessaloniki after being expelled from Spain in 1492. The city provided a tolerant atmosphere where the new settlers flourished with their knowledge of Renaissance medicine, science and other skills. The city became known as the “Mother of Israel” and housed a number of Jewish institutions. By 1940 the Jewish cemetery held 500,000 tombs. With the arrival of the Nazis, 49,000 Jews of Thessaloniki were shipped to the German death camps of occupied Poland. The cemetery suffered a great deal of damage at the hands of the anti-Semites.

Today Thessaloniki is a pilgrimage site for Jews across the world, especially to the renowned cemetery. Follow this link if you want to know more:

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So to bring this full circle, I have to tell you that some of those Hebrew speakers we overheard in the airport were also at the museum! We could have followed them the whole time and probably would have had a profound engagement with Jewish history. Or perhaps everything worked out just as it should have.


For Further Reading

Arlandson, James M. – “Lifestyles of the Rich and Christian: Women, Wealth, and Social Freedom,” in A Feminist Companion to the Acts of the Apostles. Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff, eds. (London: T & T Clark, 2004) 155-170.

Arlandson, James M. – Women, Class, and Society in Early Christianity: Models from Luke-Acts (Peabody Mass: Hendrickson Publishers, 1997).

Kraemer, Ross S. – “Leading Women Converts of Thessalonica,”  in Carol Meyers, Toni Craven and Ross S. Kraemer, eds., Women in Scripture: A Dictionary of Named and Unnamed Women in the Hebrew Bible, The Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books, and the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000) 465 -6.

Mattews, Shelly –  First Converts: Rich Pagan Women and the Rhetoric of Mission in Early Judaism and Christianity (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2001).

Mattews, Shelly –  “Elite Women, Public Religion, and Christian Propaganda in Acts 16,” in A Feminist Companion to the Acts of the Apostles. Amy-Jill Levine and Marianne Blickenstaff, eds. (London: T & T Clark, 2004) 111-33.

Witherington III, Ben – “Anti-feminist Tendencies of the ‘Western’ text in Acts.” Journal of Biblical Literature 103, 1 (1984): 82-84.

Hello from Seattle



I’ve had a unique and intense summer. It all began June 26 when I drove up to Switzerland from Brindisi, Italy—a 12-hour drive I’ve become accustomed to—and picked up my daughter from boarding school. When I stepped into her school I heard the sounds of “Shalom Havorim,” a Hebrew song she’d sung back in pre-school at the Jewish Community Center. Naturally I moved toward the music only to discover that the very secular elementary school of Institut Montana was performing songs from around the world for their parents who’d just arrived to pick them up. I reminded myself that Thea is not in primary school any longer and made my way to the middle school dorms. (After a summer of intense European anti-Semitism, I wonder if the school will include the Hebrew song next year.)

_DSC6502View from Thea’s dorm room

From Zugburg, Switzerland we traveled north to Germany to see where Thea’s dad, David, grew up. As an army doctor in the late 60’s and early 70’s, David’s father was stationed at the army base in Landstuhl, Germany. With their interest in horn instruments, both David and his father joined the local church band in the nearby town of Kinsbach. Over the years, the lone Jewish family was adopted by the hamlet and became one of them. When my father-in-law, Jerry, returned to the USA he made arrangements for the band to tour America three times. For his diplomatic efforts, he was given the keys to New York and a commendation from the State Department. Little did they know that they were endorsing a bunch of drinkers with oompah problems.

Now the citizens of Kinsbach were not about to be out-classed by a bunch of Americans. No, they had a secret weapon. The entire band and the dignitaries of Kinsbach decked themselves out in their traditional velvet costumes handed down to them for generations. Without explanation, they escorted Jerry and his wife Judy into a horse-drawn carriage which wound its way up the hill to the local castle. During the ride he joked and laughed, thinking this was the best practical joke his fellow band members had ever played on him. Finally the bandleader jabbed Jerry’s side with his elbow and told him, “Shut up. This is for real.” Solemnly, Jerry entered the grand hall of the ancient Landstuhl castle where, with great pomp and ceremony, my father-in-law was knighted. [Excuse me one moment where I search Google for other Jewish German knights. No relevant results.] Is it possible that Gerald H. Cohn is the only Jewish German knight of the 20th century? Of any century?

KnighthoodOuch! It must have hurt to get that piece of metal jabbed in his side

This summer we had the great honor of visiting the old castle, Burg Nanstein, named after the 15-meter high natural outcropping. Carved in 1150 out of the sandstone cliffs overlooking the three surrounding valleys, the weathered castle walls are stunning from a sculptural point of view. We ventured into the dungeon where Thea’s dad hung out with his friends as a kid and we saw the rampart he scrambled over when chased by the guards. How cool is that?


Before leaving Italy we had to see the Last Supper in Milano, of course, and since my daughter is named Theodora, we had to see Empress Theodora’s mosaics in Ravenna.


Then we took the long way back to Seattle via Japan and Hawaii. Upon returning to Seattle, finally, I discovered that my website had been hacked. When I contacted my webmaster in Rome, he disclosed that he had been arrested for taking pictures of police brutality. As far as I know, he’s still set for trial and continues to battle it out. I wish him the best. Eventually he waved his magic wand and made everything all right on my website, hence my ability to send out this email!

But before I could return to my computer, my father-in-law died in our house due to the complications of Parkinson’s. His wife died in our house almost exactly three years ago. We had a touching funeral service and laid him to rest with soy sauce and beer (what he joked about being embalmed with in honor of living in Japan and Germany).

So that’s my excuse for not writing all summer. I hope no more excuses arise because I miss “chatting” with you.

The Jewish Ghosts of Lecce, Italy

A week before beginning to move back to the States from Italy, I met the other Jew of Brindisi at a party. I’ve lived here two years and just before I leave, I find someone I could have celebrated the holidays with?! Her name is Syd and she’s an American expat who has lived here for eons with her Italian husband and children. We immediately got along. In the short time we spoke at the party, we couldn’t talk quickly enough to learn about each other. In that initial conversation, she mentioned that there was a medieval mikvah (Jewish ritual bath) and remains of a synagogue in the nearby town of Lecce. I couldn’t believe it. I have three guidebooks about Jewish Italian history and not one of them mentioned Lecce. The only ancient Italian mikvah I knew was in Sicily. I have a long abiding interest in mikvot since writing Judith: Wise Woman of Bethulia because the ancient biblical heroine was known for her ritual purification washings. So when Syd offered to show me the ancient Italian site, I dropped all my packing and we drove to Lecce.


We were met by Giuseppe Pagliare, a scholar of the Jewish history of Lecce. About a year earlier Syd had discovered him and his work. We were lucky he was available on such short notice to guide us through the old Jewish quarter of the city. Though he is not a “member of the tribe,” Giuseppe is passionate about all things Jewish—he even goes by the Hebrew nickname of Yossi.

He explained that Lecce, like many ancient cities, is built in layers. With the passing centuries, each new generation built on top of the prior so the oldest part of the city is buried under what we see today. After the Jews of Italy were expelled for the last time in 1541, Lecce grew over the old quarter where they had lived. When new maps were drawn, no trace of the former community remained on record. In time, Jewish existence in Lecce was forgotten leaving behind only a street named Via della Sinagoga (“street of the synagogue”) and a handful of legends. These small crumbs of evidence led contemporary historians to seek out the presence of a Jewish community near Via della Sinagoga.


The first breakthrough came in 1994 with the renovation of the Palazzo Adorno just down the street from the church of Santa Croce, the highlight of the baroque architecture of Lecce. Underneath the Palazzo they discovered two entrances and a complex of rooms “like a city,” Giuseppe said. The various rooms surrounding the mikvah were probably used  for a study house and other community related activities. Since the site is not open to the public, Giuseppe made arrangements to take us down into the area now used as a very messy archive. It was here that they broke down a wall in 1994 and uncovered what was later determined to be steps leading down to a large mikvah dating to the time before Jews were expelled for the last time in 1541. I took a picture of a fish swimming in the fresh water.


Since the last time Giuseppe visited the site, he learned that most mikvot at the time were designed with at least two pools, one for women and one for men. So this time, armed with the flashlight I’d brought with me, Giuseppe searched for any indication of another ritual bath. In one of the disorganized rooms, between rusting metal cabinets, we found a grating and peered down into the dark. We saw water below and an inlet channel typical of a mikvah which allows the proper amount of fresh water into the pool for ritual purposes. Of course we couldn’t be sure it was the second mikvah, but given Giuseppe’s experience and knowledge, he said it definitely wasn’t a well. Needless to say, we were excited about the possibility of finding an unrecorded ancient mikvah. I was feeling a little like Indiana Jones at that point!


Giuseppe also showed us a stone inscribed with Hebrew which I believe said “bait le ohavei hael” (House for God Lovers). This stone originally identified the local synagogue or the aron kodesh, the place where a synagogue’s Torah scrolls are kept. The stone is lodged upside down in an alcove, just where it had been placed next to the sewer line centuries ago. I bent down and turned up to take a picture of the neatly chiseled Hebrew words. Giuseppe explained that after being removed from it original position in the synagogue, the inscribed stone was purposefully placed next to the sewer to offend the Jews, a common practice in the Middle Ages during times of Jewish persecution. Apparently, this inscribed stone is the only holy writing that remains from any synagogue in Salento (southern Italy), a region once scattered with a number of Jewish communities. Most of these communities, Giuseppe explained, were located near the sea so that in times of increased anti-Semitism, Jews could escape quickly via ships in the harbor.

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Walking across the piazza in front of the Church of Santa Croce, Giuseppe informed us that the market the Jewish community frequented lay beneath the stones. After making arrangements once again, he led us down a flight of steps through the glass doors of Persone Bistrot, a restaurant in a small portion of a large building. When the work began on the restaurant in 2003 they discovered two separate entrances and more mikvot basins along with channels for bringing in natural rainwater. At the time of the renovation, fresh water still flowed into the pools. Excavators determined that this marked the site of Lecce’s synagogue as described by the sign outside. In 1495 a mob set fire to the Jewish quarter and killed a great number its inhabitants. The synagogue was demolished and a church was erected on top of it. Later it became a warehouse and then was closed for centuries.


The restaurant designed Plexiglas floors so that visitors could look down and see the excavations. Giuseppe pointed to where a wall separated the women’s section from the men’s (hence the two separate entrances). No one knows how much of the large building covers other Jewish structures and it doesn’t appear that archaeologists will have an opportunity anytime soon to find out.


Giuseppe explained that the restaurant manager, Catarina, who had opened the space for us, was fascinated by Jewish history and had been collecting as much information as she could about the original purpose of the building and the lost Jewish community. She asked us if we wanted to see more in the back where only the employees were permitted. We readily agreed and she slipped us through the kitchen to a stone archway leading down some ancient steps. There we found more basins that were presumed to be where utensils were dipped to kasher (make kosher) them. I took a couple of quick pictures before Catarina nervously escorted us out.

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Shaft to let fresh rain water into the mikvot

Later I learned that Catarina would have gotten into a lot of trouble if the owner of the restaurant had discovered that we gained access to the restricted area. Although Giuseppe had heard about the additional basins in the back, he’d never had the opportunity to see them. Once outside the restaurant, he implored me to send him the pictures because, as far as he knew, I was the only one with photographs of that area of the building. I was only too happy to comply with his wishes. I couldn’t think of a better way to show my appreciation for the time he took to show us these treasures. No one knows how much of the large building covers other Jewish structures and it doesn’t appear that archaeologists will have an opportunity anytime soon to find out.


Giuseppe led us down Via della Sinagoga and pointed out a bed and breakfast with a sign partially in Hebrew. The owner, Michelangelo, also owns the tobacco shop near the famous church of Santa Croce. For years he had been collecting all the oral legends of the neighborhood and was happy to share his affinity for Jewish history with the archaeologists when the excavations began. He explained that there was a very old tale that a Jewish cemetery lay along Via della Sinagoga. When he began converting an old building into a B&B along the street, he discovered ancient structures under his building. Unfortunately, the government authorities ordered him to seal it up and leave it unexplored. Based on Giuseppe’s description of the political climate of Lecce, I’m guessing that the Hebrew sign outside is a non-verbal protest against those in the community who do not want more Jewish sites uncovered.


Right next door to Michelangelo’s little hotel is building #8 on Via della Sinagoga. We learned that the community considered it cursed because of a long history of tragedy associated with the structure. For example, during the Fascist period, this location housed a fencing school and over a period of time, the footwork loosened the flooring. One day it collapsed and killed all of the fencers. A succession of owners have also met with tragic deaths. Recently the property was purchased once again and the new owner allowed Giuseppe to explore the site. He discovered successive layers of buildings under the street level. The lowest level included a basin of fresh water. If indeed this is the location of the ancient cemetery, Giuseppe speculates that this might have been the funeral house with a bath for the Jewish ritual of washing the dead before burial. Until the owner has the funds for renovation, excavations are on hold and the mystery of the cursed house on Via della Sinagoga will go unsolved. I hope all ends well for the new owner!

Though only a tiny portion of this area of Lecce has been excavated, the discoveries indicate a relatively large, well-established Jewish community lived here until 1495. There is evidence that Jews began to return to the port city in the 1800’s. Then once again during the Fascist era in the 20th century, the Jews of Lecce disappeared along with most of the Jews of Italy sent to the Nazi camps in northern Europe. Giuseppe doesn’t think any Jews live in the city even today.

I’ve been to the beautiful city of Lecce many times over the last two years, but this visit wins the prize for the most exciting. I write historical fiction but sometimes, real life adventures in history are just as dramatic and amazing.

Was Miriam Buried at Petra?

Screen Shot 2014-06-13 at 9.36.45 PMAt Petra with my sister Shawna

Numbers 20:1 states that the prophetess Miriam died at Kadesh (also known as Kadesh-Barnea) in the Wilderness of Zin. Numbers 13:26 connects Kadesh with the Desert of Paran instead. For at least 2,000 years writers have speculated where this site is located and if there are two places known as Kadesh. “A very few modern scholars have claimed that there were, indeed, two sites by the name of Kadesh. However most have assumed that there was, in fact, only one Kadesh” (Levin, p. 65). Modern scholars almost universally identify Kadesh-Barnea as Tell el-Qudeirat in northern Sinai. Starting in the 1800’s explorers visited this area and came to the conclusion that it was the ancient site of Kadesh. T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) who also visited the Tell, popularized this conclusion. He concluded (along with others) that due to the abundance of springs in the area, it was the only logical place that could support a large group of people fleeing Egypt. Unfortunately, the explorers and early archaeologists who agreed with each other didn’t stop to consider that there were other well-watered places in the vicinity of the ancient land of Canaan.

Recent archaeological excavations at the Tell, led by Rudolph Cohen, have unearthed three fortresses, one built on top of the other. In 1981 he reported the remains of the earliest fortress had built on virgin soil (no further archaeological evidence below the remains). He writes,

“The earliest remains on the site derive from the 10th century B.C.E. the age of David and Solomon. In the Bible, however, Kadesh-barnea is connected with the much earlier epoch of Moses and the 40-year wandering. This is an apparent inconsistency, and it should be asked if the excavations at Kadesh-barnea have contributed, in one way or another, to the understanding of Israel’s early traditions…. Although the author is convinced that the site of Tell el-Qudeirat is Kadesh-barnea, documentary evidence is lacking” (Cohen, “Did I”).

Cohen hopes that if they keep digging eventually they might find something to identify conclusively that this was the biblical site of Kadesh-Barnea. After reviewing the archaeological reports, I find no evidence linking Kadesh-Barnea with Tell el-Qudirat, despite the scholarly consensus that the two are identical. I think Lawrence of Arabia’s opinion on the subject has been overly influential.

A minority of scholars, on the other hand, maintains that the real Kadesh-Barnea is in the area of Petra in current-day Jordan. Here are the reasons given for this identification:

1)    Tell el-Qudirat is located within the ancient boundaries of the “Promised Land” based on the description of boundaries in Joshua 15:1-4 and Numbers 34:3-5. Since the Israelites reportedly weren’t allowed into the Land until the conclusion of 40 years, how could one of their camps be set up within the borders? Admittedly, the biblical descriptions of the boundaries of the land of Canaan are difficult to decipher so I’ll let this one slide.

2)    The ancient historian Josephus wrote in 110 C.E. that Kadesh-Barnea was located at Petra. “Then it was that Miriam, the sister of Moses, came to her end, having completed her fortieth year since she left Egypt, on the first day of the lunar month Xanthicus. They then made a public funeral for her, at a great expense. She was buried upon a certain mountain, which they call Sin; and when they had mourned for her thirty days … Now when this purification, which their leader made upon the mourning for his sister, as it has been now described, was over, he caused the army to remove and to march through the wilderness and through Arabia; and when he came to a place which the Arabians esteem their metropolis, which was formerly called Arce, but has now the name of Petra, at this place, which was encompassed with high mountains, Aaron went up one of them in the sight of the whole army, Moses having before told him that he was to die, for this place was over against them” (Antiquities 4.82-83). Of course Josephus didn’t go on the Exodus adventure but he might have been privy to traditions about the location of Kadesh-Barnea passed down through the generations.

3)    Eusebius of Caesarea wrote a dictionary of geographic places in 325 C.E. called the Onomasticon. Therein he locates Kadesh-Barnea in the area of Petra. “Kadea Barne. The desert which extends to (the city of) Petra a city of Arabia. There Mariam went up and died, and there the doubting Moses struck the rock to give water to the thirsty people. The tomb of Mariam herself is pointed out there even now” (Eusebius). Again, he didn’t have first hand knowledge of the location but he did have access to ancient documents and oral traditions that we no longer have access to.

4)    Kadesh-Barnea was on the border of Edom (Num. 20:16) in the Transjordan. Petra is certainly in the region of Edom (see map, MacDonald, p. 295). Tell el-Qudirat is not even close to the border of Edom.

5)    Kadesh-Barnea was in the Wilderness of Zin (Gen. 14:7; Num. 13:3-26; 14:29-33; 20:1; 27:14; cf. Deut. 1:46). The Anchor Bible Dictionary’s entry on Zin is of no use. It states that because Kadesh-Barnea was in Zin, and because Lawrence of Arabia identified Kadesh-Barnea with Tell el-Qudirat, then that’s where the Wilderness of Zin was. Yeesh. You can see why Lawrence is being cited a bit too heavily, in my opinion. Numbers 34:3 states that the Wilderness of Zin was along the border of Edom which was clearly in the Transjordan area, not the Sinai Peninsula.

6)    Kadesh-Barnea was in the Wilderness of Paran (Num 13:26). Again, The Anchor Bible Dictionary uses Lawrence to identify this biblical location. Same circular argument. Eusdebius in his Onomasticon entry for Paran (Pharan) reported that Paran was a city in Arabia. Some contemporary scholars also identify Paran with the Transjordan region, see for example Shehada, p. 90. By the way, this is also where Abraham exiled Hagar.

7)    Petra and the surrounding areas were inhabited since 7,000 B.C.E., including the time of the Exodus (Petra National Foundation).

8)    There are many attestations to the wealth of water that was once available at Petra, including the ancient writer Strabo who wrote in 15 C.E. (Geography 16:4:21).

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That’s a long enough list of reasons to not go along with the crowd of scholars who think Kadesh-Barnea was located on the Sinai Peninsula. So now when I look at the pictures I took in Petra, I see them through the lens of a biblical prophetess named Miriam. Petra is an exciting place and it just got even better for us women of the Bible freaks.


For Further Reading

Cohen, Rudolph – “Did I Excavate Kadesh-Barnea?” Biblical Archaeology Review 7.3 (1981) 20-33.

Cohen, Rudolph and Hannah Bernick Greenberg, eds. – Excavations at Kadesh Barnea (2 vol)(Tell El-Qudeirat) 1976-1982. Israel Antiquities Authority Reports – IAAR 34 (Israel Antiquities Authority, 2008)

Eusebius of Caesarea – The Onomasticon of Eusebius Pamphili, Compared with the Version of Jerome and Annotated, C. Umhau Wolf, trans. (1971; digitized 2006) (

Finkelstein, Israel and Neil Asher Silberman – The Bible Unearthed (Free Press, 2001)

Hacohen, D. – “Kadesh and Rekem, Kadesh-Barnea and Rekem-Geah,” in Y. Eshel, ed., Judea and Samaria Research Studies 11 (Ariel, 2002), 25–40 (Hebrew with English abstract).

Isaacs, Samuel Hillel – The True Boundaries of the Holy Land, as described in Numbers XXXIV: 1-12, solving the many diversified theories as to their location (1917) (

Josephus, FlaviusAntiquities of the Jews  (

Levin, Yigal – “Numbers 34:2-12, The Boundaries of the Land of Canaan, and the Empire of Necho” Journal of the Ancient Near Eastern Society 30 (2006) 55-76.

MacDonald, Burton – “Archaeology of Edom” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman, ed. Vol. 2:295-301 (Doubleday, 1992).

Manor, Dale W. – “Kadesh-Barnea” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, David Noel Freedman, ed. Vol. 4:1-3 (Doubleday, 1992).

Petra National Foundation – “A Short History” (

Roman, Y. – “The Kadesh Controversy,” Eretz Magazine 3:2 (1988), 45–57

Shehada, Haseeb – Translation of the Samaritan Torah (Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, 1989)






Visiting the Catacombs of Priscilla

It took me three trips to Rome to finally manage a visit to the Catacombs of Priscilla, the two previous attempts subverted by bad timing. It turns out that the Catacombs had been closed for five years for restoration work which was completed at the end of August, 2013. I had no idea the Catacombs had been closed for so long and how lucky I was to gain access shortly thereafter. I can say that by the third time I traipsed out to Via Salaria, I had the route down pat. Whether or not the waiting made my visit more precious, the site is indeed a marvel.

Dating back to the late second century C.E., the catacomb of Priscilla is the oldest Christian cemetery in Rome and best preserved. Though several legends suggest that the Priscilla from the New Testament, friend of the apostle Paul, was associated with the catacombs, scholars have debunked this myth. It takes its name from Priscilla, the mother of the Senator Pudens in whose house the apostle Peter, according to ancient tradition, found refuge. Priscilla likely donated a portion of her family land, once a stone quarry, as a burial place for the early Christian community. 40,000 tombs have been uncovered, many left undisturbed.  On account of the fact that seven early popes and many martyrs were buried in the cemetery, it was known as the “Queen of the Catacombs” in antiquity.

It is a common myth that early Christians used the catacombs as a place of hiding. The poor lighting and lack of storage makes it unlikely they made the underground graveyards their hideouts.

Of greatest interest to me were the frescos.

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The world’s oldest known image of Mary depicts her nursing the infant Jesus (3rd century C.E.) Image source

The most controversial fresco of the catacomb is the Fractio Panis. Some scholars believe that it illustrates a female priest breaking the Eucharist bread and giving it to the other women around the table. This is used as an argument for the ordination of female priests in the Catholic Church. Some believe that this represents a funerary meal instead. Others belive that all seven people seated at the table are men. The official guide book states that the gathering includes one woman.

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Fractio Panis – Image source

Archaeologist Dorothy Irvin has studied the frescos of this catacomb extensively. She notes that the seven baskets lined up on either side of the central image were a common symbol of the Eucharist in the early church. Women were chastised by the Church Fathers for leading early Eucharists so the depiction of one is not unthinkable. In addition, there is no food on the table other than the bread, only eucharistic elements, therefore it could not be an agape meal open to the entire Christian community regardless of gender.

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A close look at the fresco shows that the participants are all women.

“One wears a veil, and they are all characterized by upswept hair, slender neck and sloping shoulders, and a hint of earrings. The arrangement of the hair, in fact, in comparison with datable coins depicting emperors’ wives, has been an important factor in dating this fresco to the end of the first century AD, that is, to a time when the New Testament had not yet been completed” (Irvin, p. 83).

The person at the left end of the table is shown sitting rather than reclining like the others. She has both hands outstretched and appears to be breaking the bread (fraction pains). The modern discoverer of the Priscilla Catacomb, Josef Wilpert, understood this end figure to have a beard after cleaning the fresco of its encrusted mud and stalactites at the turn of the century. However, there is no beard now so it is hard to determine if he saw what he wanted to see since the principle celebrant seems to be presiding over the eucharist, a male only perrogative in our time. Irvin describes this figure further:

“The arrangement of the hair seems to be the same as that of the other definitely female figures, but it is the skirt length that is determinative. Skirt length for men at this period…was, for a working man, knee length or slightly shorter–top of kneecap–while ‘white collar’ length was below the knee, to the top of the calf. Women’s skirts were ankle length…The skirt of the left end person can be clearly seen, in the best photographs, to cover the calf, whose outline through the cloth is indicated…Thus the artist intended to paint here a woman.” (Irvin, p. 83)

In other words, early Christians did not exclude women from the priesthood and episcopate. Their exclusion would become a later development.

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The Velatio – Image source

Another fresco in the catacomb has been described by some scholars as a “woman being celebrated, consecrated, blessed for some kind of leadership role” (Chris Schenk as quoted by Fincher).

“In the Catacomb of St. Priscilla, is a fresco, dated about 350 A.D. that depicts a woman deacon in the center vested in a dalmatic, her arms raised in the orans position for public worship. On the left side of the scene is a woman being ordained a priest by a bishop seated in a chair. She is vested in an alb, chasuble, and amice, and holding a gospel scroll. The woman on the right end of this fresco is wearing the same robe as the bishop on the left and is sitting in the same type of chair.” The woman in the center “depicts a woman deacon in the center vested in a dalmatic, her arms raised in the orans position for public worship.” (Meehan).

Not everyone agrees with this description of the fresco. Most commentators suggest that the three scenes depicted in this fresco represent three incidents in the life of a young woman: her marriage on the left, her life as a mother on the right and the woman after death in the center. I tend to agree that the Velatio fresco does represent the ordination of a woman to a church office since there are so many other archaeological examples of this practice in the early church. Here’s a list of examples.

Since I’m not Catholic or even Christian, I’m watching the debate over women’s ordination in the Catholic Church from the sidelines. But even from the sidelines I can see that an injustice has been done to religious women for centuries. Like the apostle Junia, early Christian women wielded a great deal more power and honor in the decades and centuries after Jesus’ death.

For Further Reading

Barrois, Georges – “Women and the Priestly Office According to the Scriptures.” in Thomas Hopko, ed., Women and the Priesthood (Crestwood, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1983) 39-60.

Catholic Biblical Association of America’s Task Force on the Role of Women in Early Christianity – “Women and Priestly Ministry: The New Testament Evidence,” Catholic Biblical Quarterly 41 (1979) 608-13.

Denzey, Nicola –  The Bone Gatherers: The Lost Worlds of Early Christian Women (Boston: Beacon Press, 2007).

Eisen, Ute –  Women Officeholders in Early Christianity: Epigraphical and Literary Studies. (Collegeville, MN, Liturgical Press, 2000) Transl. from German original.

Fincher, Megan – “Women Priests ‘delighted” by Google, Vatican Catacombs Tour” National Catholic Reporter, Nov. 22, 2013 (

Ide, Arthur Frederick – Woman as Priest, Bishop & Laity in the Early Catholic Church to 440 A.D.: With a critical commentary on Romans 16 and other relevant Scripture and patrological writings on women in the early Christian Church (Mesquite, Tex.: Ide House, 1984).

Ide, Arthur Frederick – God’s Girls. Ordination of Women in the Early Christian and Gnostic Churches (Garland, Tex.: Tangelwuld, 1986)

Irving, Dorothy – “The Ministry of Women in the Early Church: The Archaeological Evidence” Duke Divinity Review 45 (1980): 76-86.

Kalugila, Leonidas – “Women in the Ministry of Priesthood in the Early Church: An Inquiry” Africa Theological Journal 14, no. 1 (1985) 35-45.

Kroeger, Catherine Clark – “Bitalia, The Ancient Woman Priest” Priscilla Papers 7, no. 1 (winter, 1993) 11-12.

Meehan, Bridget Mary  – “There Have Always Been Women Priests” (

Morris, Joan – The Lady Was a Bishop: The Hidden History of Women with Clerical Ordination and the Jurisdiction of Bishops (New York: Macmillan, 1978)

Osiek, Carolyn – ‘”The Ministry and Ordination of Women according to the Early Church Fathers,” in Carroll Stuhlmeuller, ed., Women and Priesthood: Future Directions (Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1978) 59-68.

Rossi, Mary Ann – “Priesthood, Precedent, and Prejudice: On Recovering the Women Priests of Early Christianity. Containing a translation from the Italian of ‘Notes on the Female Priesthood in Antiquity,’ by Giorgio Otranto,’ Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 7 (1991) 73-94.

Swindler, L.S. and A., eds. – Women Priests: A Catholic Commentary on the Vatican Declaration (New York: Paulist, 1977).

Torjesen, Karen Jo – When Women Were Priests: Women’s Leadership in the Early Church and the Scandal of their Subordination in the Rise of Christianity (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1993)

Lusting after Bread Stamps


Ever since visiting the fascinating Italian town of Matera, I’ve wanted a bread stamp. Yes, I’m mad about bread but I’m also quite keen on the history of this particular pastoral art of this region of Italy. The oldest part of Matera is built out of caves (sassi) where centuries of families lived along with their livestock. In the 1950’s the Italian government evicted these residents due to the squalid conditions, many of which now live in modern housing up the hill. Local residents still mourn the loss of the sassi community with their rich traditions, one of which was their bread stamps. Women used to prepare the bread loafs at home and then deliver them to the community ovens. To distinguish the loaves belonging to different families, the dough was marked with the unique bread stamp of each household. Today master carvers preserve the tradition although their creations are only ornamental objects now.

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Some of the stamps depict carved women engaged in various tasks and when I saw them, they reminded me of the women who baked bread for the Jerusalem Temple. I wonder if the ancient Israelites and the early Jewish communities also used stamps since communal ovens were widely used. If, like the bread stamps of Matera, they were whittled out of branches found by shepherds, no evidence would remain of this practice. But if such an artifact could have survived the centuries, that would be the bread stamp of all bread stamps for me. In the meantime, I’m still grappling over whether to spend 150 euro for one of these carved pieces of art just to remind me of my visit to Matera and my musings about ancient Israelite women bread bakers.