Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Lamentation: The Second Temple-era list of Temple priestly families from a stone tablet in Yemen (UPDATE)

Tonight and tomorrow is Tisha B’Av, the saddest day of the Jewish calendar that commemorates the destruction of the two Temples and many other tragedies that befell the Jews throughout the centuries.

One of the kinot (liturgical poems) to be read on the day is איכה ישבה חבצלת השרון  #10, “How does the Rose of Sharon sit [alone],” written by the famous and prolific Eliezer HaKallir. It lists the 24 mishmarot – the families of Kohanim (priests) who each spent a week at a time doing the Temple service, who each lived in a different town surrounding Jerusalem.

After the destruction of the Second Temple, the Kohanim all moved to the Galilee to different towns, mimicking how they lived in separate towns around Jerusalem. The brilliant HaKallir poetically alludes to the family names in each verse while listing the names of the towns they lived in.

It seems that Jews in the Middle East kept a tradition of calling out every Shabbat the name of the family that would have been taking care of the Temple that week. This list was found in the Cairo Genizah as late as 1034 CE.

Apparently, there was a custom to inscribe these family names in stone to be placed in synagogues so the correct name could be called out every week. There have been stone fragments of these lists found in ancient synagogues in Israel, but the most complete list was found in Yemen in 1970. Eleven lines of the 24 are partially or wholly visible in this stone column, with family names.


The visible words are:




Here is a reproduction of the entire list of names as used in synagogues, put together from fragments of the findings in Caesarea. I’m not certain how the author of that paper reproduced the entire text.




The Yemen stone column does not include the names of the Galilee towns the Kohanim moved to. According to the Beit Hatfusot Museum of the Jewish People in Israel, this column itself is dated to Second Temple times! – and the tradition of calling out the names of the Kohanic families predates the destruction of the Temple!

Where in Yemen  was this stone column of huge importance found?

In a mosque about 15 kilometers east of Sanaa.

Muslims didn’t only steal the site of the Jewish Temples. They also stole priceless artifacts like this from the Jews in the Diaspora.

This is something else to lament on Tisha B’Av.

UPDATE: This paper dates the stone column to after the destruction of the Temple. (h/t Sapir Analytics)

UPDATE 2: I’m no expert on late Semitic epigraphy, but from my research of Hebrew evolution I think that the Yemen stone is from after the Second Temple era, perhaps around the 2nd century CE.