In 2009, I visited Ein Gedi with my older brother Daniel. My brother always was a nature lover, so I knew that he would really enjoy this majestic desert oasis. Indeed, we saw beautiful wild animals, lovely springs, gorgeous palm trees, and we explored rigorous yet amazing hiking trails. Yet to my great surprise, not only was Ein Gedi full of natural wonders, but also was a location rich in Jewish history. Indeed, upon exploring Ein Gedi, I visited with my brother an ancient synagogue from the 3rd century with striking mosaics dating back to the late Roman period, known as the period of the Mishna and the Talmud. I remember telling my brother that the existence of ancient historic synagogues such as this one is the ultimate proof that the Land of Israel belongs to the Jewish people and no one else!
Yet, the vibrant history of the Jewish community in Ein Gedi did not begin with the Late Roman period. Going back to the Book of Genesis, the war of the four kings against five kings is believed to have taken place in Ein Gedi. During the biblical period, Ein Gedi was part of the tribal lands of Judah. David, while fleeing for his life from King Saul, hid in Ein Gedi. According to the Song of Songs, “My beloved to me is a spray of henna blooms from the vineyards of Ein Gedi. […] O my dove, in the cranny of the rocks, hidden by the cliff.” Archeology proves the veracity of some of these biblical accounts.
The Talmud claims that Jews continued to live in Ein Gedi following the destruction of the First Temple. During the Second Temple era, Ein Gedi had a thriving Jewish community. The Book of Ben Sira claimed that the Jews of Ein Gedi grew dates, while Josephus Flavius mentioned the Jewish community in Ein Gedi as well. In facts, letters that were discovered that were originally written by Bar Kokhba demonstrated the role that Ein Gedi played in the struggle against the Romans.
Archeology nevertheless proves that Jews continued to live in Ein Gedi after the Bar Kokhba Revolt, as evidenced by the synagogue that I saw with my brother. Furthermore, Eusebius, a prominent fourth century Christian leader, proclaimed that a “very large village of Jews” existed in Ein Gedi during his era. In fact, it is believed that Jews continued to live in Ein Gedi up through the sixth century. Archaeologists have concluded that the Jewish community of Ein Gedi and its marvelous synagogue was only destroyed following a wave of persecutions in 530 CE instigated under the reign of Emperor Justinian (527-565).
According to the historian Stanford Shaw, writing in The Jews of the Ottoman Empire and the Turkish Republic, “Justinian was the first emperor to set a precedent for interference with the social and religious practices of Judaism. In 553 he even went so far as to dictate that Greek and Latin translations of the Old Testament should be used in Jewish religious services in the hope that this would convince some Jews to convert.”
Shaw continued, “He forbade the use of the phrase ‘our G-d is the one and only G-d’ in Jewish services because he considered it blasphemy against the Christian holy trinity, and he outlawed the reading of sayings by Isaiah promising consolidation for the downtrodden people of Judaism. He also forbade the observance of religious services during Passover, forbade the celebrating of Passover at the same time as Easter, and ordered an end to the baking of unleavened bread. He even placed spies in synagogues during services to watch out for any violations of his rules.” It was a dark period in Jewish history.
Yet, the effects of Justinian’s persecutions were never supposed to last forever for the Jewish people could never abandon lands that had belonged to their ancestors since antiquity. Thus, following Israel’s War of Independence in 1949, Jews returned to Ein Gedi and established a kibbutz, which is an agricultural paradise full of beautiful homes, plants and trees. Kibbutz Ein Gedi has about 250 members today. These Jews continue the legacy of their ancestors, who also had settled in Ein Gedi and made their home in this wonderful desert oasis.
By Rachel Avraham