| Magazine Feature |

Finding the Jug

British surveyors explored the Temple Mount almost 250 years ago. Now their findings provide clues to the location of the jug that miraculously provided oil for the original Chanukah Menorah.


… when the Syrian-Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils. When the Hasmoneans were victorious and defeated them, they searched and found only one jug of oil which had the seal of the Kohain Gadol (High Priest). It contained only enough oil for one day, yet a miracle occurred and the Menorah burned for eight days. The following year, these days were designated as a Festival with Hallel and thanksgiving
(Shabbos 21b).

Have you ever wondered where that jug of oil was found? I have. It must have been hidden very well, which is why the enemy didn’t discover it. I think I have found exactly where the Hasmoneans discovered that famous jug of oil. This is the story of how I discovered its secret hiding place.

The story begins in the early 1860s, which was a bit before my time. More than half of Jerusalem’s Jewish and Christian populations were suffering from the ill effects of the city’s polluted water supply. Jerusalem had no source of fresh water and the inhabitants had to rely on inground storage pools, called cisterns, which contained the winter’s rainfall. The municipal cisterns were often located next to cemeteries or garbage dumps that made the brackish water unfit for human consumption.

The British Survey

On September 12th 1864, a team of six British surveyors began examining the polluted water supply of the Holy City, with the cooperation of the Turkish officials. It should be noted that the cooperation of the Turks was not due to any compassionate health concern, but rather because of the constant flow of bribes from community leaders. British philanthropist Sir Moses Montefiore was also instrumental in obtaining the nec­essary permission and cooperation of the local Jewish authorities (the Jews were a majority in Jerusalem at the time). The sur­veying team was granted total access to all areas of the Holy City, including the Temple Mount.

The expedition was headed by Charles Wilson, a twenty-eight-year-old captain in the British Royal Engineer Corps, chosen because of his intimate knowledge of ancient history, his familiarity with the infant science of archaeology, and his expertise in surveying. Wilson had been granted a unique opportunity. In the past, the Turkish administrators had never allowed any type of scientific exploration or investigation of the holy sites. It was rare for non-Muslims to be granted entrance to Har HaBayis, the Temple Mount.

The Wilson survey lasted eight months. At completion, he reported that the large cisterns of the municipality were irredeemably polluted and should be abandoned at once, except for those cisterns atop the Temple Mount. After hearing Wilson’s report, the Turkish authorities decided to take no action. The cisterns of the Mount were already reserved for the exclusive use or the Muslim Com­munity. The non-Muslims, the Jews and the Christians, would have to fend for themselves.

While the survey’s mission was ostensibly to exam­ine the water supply of the city, they still managed to do extensive archaeological work, mapping, record­ing, and photographing their finds. The most fascinat­ing aspect of the expedition was the examination of the underground “cisterns” of the Temple Mount itself. Many of these were actually the converted remains of underground rooms and structures of the Second Beis HaMikdash. Some of these cisterns had been used by the Muslims as trash deposi­tories, some were subterranean mosques, and others were used to hold drinking water.

Captain Wilson’s report was published in a three-volume work entitled Ordinance Survey of Jerusalem. It was the first scientific publication on Jerusalem’s ancient sites and served as the basis for all future explorations.

Before we examine Wilson’s report, we must first take a quick look at the layout of the Beis HaMikdash. Only by appreciating what structures stood then can we understand what remains today.

Four Features

The main area of the Beis HaMikdash was an elevated, rectangular courtyard surrounded by a high wall. This was called the Azarah courtyard. The four fea­tures inside the Azarah courtyard that will concern us now are: (1) the Mizbeiyach, Altar, (2) the Heichal, main Sanctuary, (3) the Amoh, Water Channel, and (4) the Beis HaMokad, Hearth.

(1) The Mizbeiyach was located not far from the eastern Azarah wall. Though the floor of the Azarah was elevated and tiled in marble, the Mizbeiyach had to rest firmly upon the actual ground. This was required by halachah, since the Torah refers to the Mizbeiyach as the “Mizbeiyach of the Ground.” The Mizbeiyach weighed approx­imately 1,500 tons! In order to assure that the Mizbeiyach’s great weight would not cause the ground to shift, it would be prudent to build the Mizbeiyach in such a way that it would rest firmly on

bedrock. Fortunately, the bedrock of the mountain rose to the surface in this eastern area.

Beneath the floor of the Azarah courtyard, near the southwestern corner of the Mizbeiyach, was a cave. Access to the cave was by means of a two-foot square hole covered by a marble slab. A natural system of drains in the floor of the cave diverted the blood that was poured against the Mizbeiyach out into the Kidron Valley below the Temple Mount. Once every seventy years or so, young Kohanim were sent through the hole into the cave to clean out the mouth of the drain.

(2) The main building of the Beis HaMikdash was the Heichal. It contained the Kodesh, Holies and the Kodesh HaKadoshim, Holy of Holies. It was located in the western portion of the Azarah courtyard. During the First Temple Era, the Holy Ark had rested upon a rock, also a portion of protruding bedrock, which extended a few inches above the floor in the Kodesh HaKadoshim. Shortly before the end of the First Temple Era, King Yoshiyahu, fearing the impending invasion of Babylonia, hid the Ark and other national treasures, such as the Staff of Aaron and the Shemen HaMishchah, Oil of Anointing.

After the seventy years of Babylonian exile, the returning Jews rebuilt the Temple, but the Ark and the other treasures were never found. It was the Divine Will that the Kodesh HaKadoshim and its rock should remain bare during the 420 years of the Second Temple Era.

(3) Running through the Azarah was a flowing water channel. The two-foot wide channel began near the northern Azarah wall. The water flowed under the north side of the Mizbeiyach and into the drain beneath the southwestern corner of the Mizbeiyach.

(4) North of the Mizbeiyach was a large, domed building called the Beis HaMokad. This was the only heated building in the Temple and served as sleep­ing quarters for the Kohanim who were on duty. Under the Beis HaMokad was a tun­nel. Access to the tunnel was by way of a spiraling staircase which had niches carved into the walls to hold oil lamps to illuminate the dark cavern. From this tunnel the Kohanim could reach an underground mikveh. The tunnel continued due north and led out to the Tadi Gate, the northern gate of the Temple Mount.

Rock of the Ages

As we have seen, there were two areas on the Temple Mount where the bedrock reached the surface: in the Kodesh HaKadoshim and at the site of the Mizbeiyach. Today, only one rock can be seen, the rock contained within the Dome of the Rock. The Crusaders assumed that this Rock was the Kodesh HaKadoshim, and that tradition was later transmitted to the Arabs, who in turn passed it along to the Jewish population. Throughout history, the Rock has captured the imagination of people of all religions. In the thirteenth century, Crusaders carved away chips of the Rock and sold them abroad for an equal weight of gold. Muslims would collect the dust that settled on the Rock and sell it as a cure for eye diseases.

Yet, two questions persist. In actuality, which rock is under the Dome: that of the Kodesh HaKadoshim or that of the Mizbeiyach? And where is the other rock?

During the course of Wilson’s survey, he examined the Rock itself and found that the exposed rock was about fifty-seven feet long and forty-one feet wide. Its height above the floor level ranged from one foot to four feet nine and a half inches. Wilson found steps carved into the Rock, leading into a cave below. Here is how Wilson described the cave:

The entrance to the cave is by a flight of steps on the southeast side, passing under a doorway with a pointed arch, which looks like an addition of the Crusaders. The chamber is not very large, with an average height of six feet. Its sides are so covered with plaster and whitewash that it is impossible to see any chisel marks, but the surface appears to be rough and irregular. On tapping the sides, a hollow sound is produced … from defective plastering, the plaster having become separated from the rock … There may be a small opening in the side but certainly no large one, unless it is blocked up with masonry. The floor of the cave is paved with marble and produces a hollow sound when stamped upon.

Wilson realized that the reason for the hollow sound rising from the tapping of the floor was that there was another cave below. He found a small opening in the floor, but was unable to reach the lower cave. Not all of Wilson’s discoveries were recorded in his book, as some were conveyed to Colonel Henry James, organizer of the Wilson expedi­tion. James, who wrote the introduction to Wilson’s Ordinance Survey, comments:

Beneath the Sakhra (the Arabic name for the Rock) there is a cave that is entered by descending some steps on the south-east side. The cave itself is about nine feet high in the highest part and twenty-two feet six inches square; a hole has been cut through from the upper surface of the rock into that chamber (namely the cave) beneath, and there is a corresponding hole immediately under it, which leads to a drain which in turn empties in the valley of Kedron.

Wilson knew where the drain led, because he had brought in vats of red-dyed water and poured it into the drain. He sent men all about the area outside the Temple Mount to see where the water came out. The dyed water flowed to the base of the mountain and out into the Kidron Valley.

With regard to the “hole” carved into the top of the Rock to which James referred, it is a three-foot wide hole that leads down into the cave. The area from the surface of the Rock to the bottom of the hole, which would be the ceiling of the cave, measures about five and a half feet.

Regarding the lower cave, Wilson could make no measurements, but merely detected its presence. The Arabs call this lower cave Bir al Aruah, or Well of Souls. Radvaz records a legend that Muslim infidels were cast into this lower chamber and left there to die. An old Crusader tale says that the Holy Ark and other Temple treasures were hidden there.

(In 1911, an illegal expedition headed by a British adventurer, Colonel Parker, tried to break into the Dome of the Rock. They were caught and expelled, but rumor had it that Parker found the Holy Ark, carted it off to England, and had it secreted in the basement of the British Museum. While the story was not true, it did cause quite a stir throughout the world for many months.)

At the conclusion of the survey, Wilson encouraged another young British surveyor, Captain Charles Warren, to continue the work of scientific exploration of the Temple Mount under the guise of pollution control.  Warren carefully examined the upper por­tion of the western side of the Rock. On April 8th 1869, Warren recorded in his diary that he had discovered a water channel, about two feet wide, that ran along the western portion of the Rock. It was covered with large segments of flagstone and led from the north into the hole that was above the cave below.

Warren was only able to examine sixteen feet of its length, because the remainder ran under the walkway inside the Dome of the Rock and the paved area outside the Dome covered the channel. Obviously, the Muslims were not going to allow Warren to dig up their holy site merely to satisfy his curiosity.

The Jug’s Secret Location

By this time, I assume, my astute readers are way ahead of me. The Rock has a cave accessible through a hole in its surface. This cave has a drain in the bottom, a drain that flowed into the Kidron Valley. On the western side, the rock has a two-foot wide channel that leads due north. Surely the Rock is the site of the Mizbeiyach! I am inclined to agree with you.

This assumption — that the Rock is the site of the Mizbeiyach, and not the Kodesh HaKadoshim — can explain a long-puzzling fact. The rock in the Kodesh HaKadoshim pro­jected only a few inches above the floor, the width of three fingers. The Rock in the Dome of the Rock pro­jects several feet above the floor level. All scientific evidence indicates that the present-day floor level of the Dome is the original floor level of the Azarah. How, then, could this rock, which has been cut down consid­erably, be the rock of the Kodesh HaKadoshim?

The solution, in my opinion, is that this rock is not the site of the Kodesh HaKadoshim, but rather the site of the Mizbeiyach. The Mizbeiyach’s rock could have projected many feet above the floor level. The sacrificial edifice could have been built around the rock, absorbing the height of the rock into its structure. That would not present any halachic problem, since the primary ingredient of the Mizbeiyach’s composition was stone.

The original width of the hole in the Rock was about two feet, which could only accommodate the smaller, younger Kohanim who had the task of clearing the drain. The hole was later enlarged by the Crusaders to three feet to accommodate the adult warriors. The Crusaders eventual­ly cut the stepped passageway into the cave.

Rabbi Menachem ben Machir, a contemporary of Rashi, wrote many piyutim, religious poems. At the end of one of his poems, the one composed for the second Shabbos of Chanukah, he writes that the jug of oil that miraculously burned for eight days was discovered in the cave beneath the Mizbeiyach. That being the case, we can now point to the very spot where the jug was found. This is indeed exciting, but the story does not end here.

Finding the Other Rock

Now that we have determined that the Rock is the site of the Mizbeiyach, where is the other rock, the site of the Kodesh HaKadoshim? The Kodesh HaKadoshim was about 160 feet west of the Mizbeiyach. The Dome of the Rock is built on an elevat­ed platform. Much of the platform is paved with stone tiles. The area 160 feet west of the Rock is near the western edge of the platform. When Charles Wilson was examining this area over 130 years ago, he noticed that this area was not paved with stone tiles, but the bedrock itself — shaved smooth and carved to resemble tiles. According to our reckoning, this bedrock is the site of the Kodesh HaKadoshim. Perhaps the Muslims shaved the rock down and made it appear to be the part of the flooring so as to disguise the site of the Kodesh HaKadoshim. Rabbi Dovid Kimchi (Radak) records an ancient Jewish tradition that gentiles will never con­struct a building over the site of the Heichal. If the Dome of the Rock is the site of the Kodesh HaKadoshim — as commonly believed — it would be ludicrous for the Radak to record such a tradition, since the Dome had already stood for 800 years before his time. If the Kodesh HaKadoshim was located 160 feet west of the Rock, then, in fact, no building has ever been constructed in that area.

At this point, it is important to reiterate that the gold-colored Dome of the Rock is built upon a large elevated platform about 545 feet square, accessible through flights of stairs on all sides. North of the Mizbeiyach — which I now assume to be the actual Rock in the Dome — was the Hearth. Under the Hearth was a large tunnel that connected to the mikveh of the Kohanim and led northward to the outer Tadi Gate.

North of the Rock, Wilson dis­covered a tunnel whose roof was twelve feet below the surface of the Dome of the Rock platform.  The tunnel was only partially explored because much of it had been filled with rubbish and the stench was overpowering. The dark and dank tunnel was twenty-four feet wide and measured eighteen feet from the floor to the bar­reled ceiling. Wilson measured 130 feet of its length, acknowledging that its course contin­ued due north and also due south — but how far could not be determined. The floor of the Dome of the Rock platform, north of the Rock, produces a hol­low sound when tapped, suggesting that the tunnel runs all the way to the northern side of the plat­form. Several years later, Warren confirmed Wilson’s measurements and observations. Warren reported that a local cleric, Signor Pierotti, claimed that the tunnel also continued due south to the Rock itself.

Several feet west of the tunnel, Wilson also found a complex of underground rooms nine feet below the platform, which measured twenty-three feet from floor to ceiling. They were connected by low, ­arched doorways. Again, because of the stifling heat and stench, an extensive exploration was impossible. Wilson assumed, and Warren agreed, that these rooms connected to the tunnel mentioned earlier at the north­ern end of the Dome platform. Could this be where the priestly mikveh was located? Most probably. The floor level of one of the rooms is several feet lower than the others. Traces of waterproof plaster on the walls indicated that it was made to hold water. Undoubtedly, this room was the actual mikveh.

The Talmud records that there was a tunnel going under the Heichal. Wilson claimed that the extent of the room complex was much greater than he could measure. If we extend the southerly direction of this complex, it would lead directly under the area where we placed the Heichal on the western side of the Dome platform. Could the room complex be part of that tunnel that led under the Heichal as well as the site of the mikveh?

Even more amazing, exactly in the spot where we place the Kodesh HaKadoshim is another “cistern” discov­ered by Wilson and later briefly examined by Warren. All that we know about this musty, bottle-shaped cistern (narrow at the top, wide at the bottom) is that its floor is thirty-seven feet below the flooring of the plat­form of the Dome, and that eleven feet below its top, on its side wall, is an opening leading into another, unex­plored chamber. How we wish we knew more about this room! But, alas, it has not been visited since Warren was there in that spring of 1869.

A few feet away from the Kodesh HaKadoshim is where the Menorah stood. That would be not far from this bottle-shaped cistern. The miracle began in the cave beneath the Rock, but it manifested itself near this cistern by shedding its light for eight days. To me, the bottle-shaped cistern no longer looks like a bottle. It looks more like a jug, a jug of oil.

History You Can Touch

by Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch

While the Chanukah story is famous in legend and lore, some of its history is very tangible. Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, director of the Living Torah Museum, shares the story of two interesting Chanukah artifacts still existing today

A Tablet from Ancient Times

Three years ago, a well-known dealer of Antiquities in Israel called the Living Torah Museum with exciting news. A historically important Greek stele, a stone block inscribed with writing, had been found in Palestinian territory. This unique 2,200 year old stele gave new insight to the Chanukah story. It was offered for sale to the Living Torah Museum. The price: one million dollars.

The Israel Antiquities Authority told me that they wanted this important stone to remain in Israel. Since it had been found in Palestinian territory, they could not claim it, but they did have the authority to request it remain there. Finally, Michael and Judy Steinhardt of New York purchased the stone, putting it on long-term loan to the Israel Museum. According to the dealer who sold the stone, Mr. Gil Shaya, the purchase price that he ultimately got for it was $370,000.

Now known as the Heliodorus stele, the tablet has been included as part of a special display entitled “Royal Correspondence on Stone.” In fact, the Israel Museum opened a special three-month exhibit in honor of the find, even though it had been closed at the time. The Heliodorus stele preserves three missives from the royal administration of King Seleucus IV (187–175 BCE). The earliest and most significant of the three letters is from King Seleucus IV to Heliodorus, of which only the preamble remains. In it, the King announces the appointment of an administrator to oversee the sanctuaries within the Seleucid province of Koile-Syria and Phoinike, including the Land of Israel. To the Jews of that era, this appointment was surely seen as an attempt by the Greeks to obtain control of the region. The correlation to the story of the Chanukah miracle is nothing short of fascinating. “It contextualizes the Second Book of Maccabees and provides an independent and authentic source for an important episode in the history leading up to the Maccabean Revolt, whose victorious conclusion is celebrated each year during the Jewish festival of Chanukah,” said James S. Snyder, Anne and Jerome Fisher Director of the Israel Museum.

The Ancient Menorah

What is the oldest existing Chanukah Menorah in the world? As director of the Living Torah Museum, this is a question that I am often asked. Well, it dates back to the time of the Second Beis Hamikdash. It belongs to a private collector and recently he has decided to put it on loan to the Living Torah Museum. This terracotta Chanukah oil lamp is rectangular and decorated with grape leaves, with nine oil fonts in a row and an additional opening behind for the insertion of oil. Dr. Meir Ben Dov, Archaeologist, author of Carta’s Illustrated History of Jerusalem, and field director of the Temple Mount Excavations, examined this menorah in 1988. After his examination, he wrote the following: “It is undoubtedly the earliest Hanukah lamp extant. It is also possibly the oldest Jewish ceremonial object to have been discovered to date.”

This lamp dates back to the time of the Second Temple; the burn marks around the holes demonstrates that it was in fact used. Seeing up close a Chanukah Menorah used by Jews 2000 years ago is chilling. The person who would have used it was not wealthy; pottery was typically used by the poor. So apparently, 2,000 years ago a poor Jewish family lit this Chanukah Menorah and celebrated the miracle of Chanukah then as we do today.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 239)

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