By December 3, 2015 Read More →

Aaron Demsky. “When the Priests Trumpeted the Onset of the Sabbath.” Biblical Archaeology Review 12, 6 (1986).

Place of the TrumpetingA monumental Hebrew inscription from the ancient Temple Mount recalls the signal

One of the most magnificent finds from the excavation adjacent to the Temple Mount—directed since 1968 by Professor Benjamin Mazar of the Hebrew University—is a monumental Hebrew inscription carved in stone. The eight-foot-long inscribed stone once graced the topmost pinnacle of the Temple Mount—where the priests announced the beginning and end of the Sabbath with a blast of the trumpet.1

The stone was toppled to the pavement below when the Roman legions destroyed Jerusalem and burnt the Temple in 70 A.D. After 1,900 years, almost to the day, 20th-century archaeologists recovered the inscription from the debris.

Unfortunately, when the stone fell amidst the fiery destruction of the city, its left edge broke off. The Hebrew, of course, reads from right to left; as a result of the break, the concluding letters of the inscription are missing. All efforts by the archaeologists to find the remaining piece of stone have proved unavailing.

The letters that were recovered, however, are beautifully preserved and exquisitely carved in a fine Herodian style. The inscription consists of two words about which there can be no question, and a third word cut off somewhere in the middle. It reads as follows:

LBYT HTQY‘H LH[?]

The first two words are vocalized in Hebrew as follows:

“l’bet hatteqi‘ah.”

These two words clearly mean:

“(Belonging) to the place (literally, house) of trumpeting.”

Though the letters are clearly written, the spacing between them and between the words is not always uniform. But this presents no problem to interpretation.

This inscription was, in effect, the sign at the place, or niche, where the priests blew the trumpet on the roof of the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount to inform the people that the Sabbath had begun and, similarly, to announce the end of the sacred period.2

Josephus, the first-century Jewish historian, describes this station in some detail in his classic account of the Jewish revolt against Rome. Some of the Jewish rebels had built towers on the Temple Mount to increase the elevation from which they could hurl stone missiles at the Roman legionaries below. The fourth, and last, tower, Josephus says:3 “was erected above the roof of the priests’ chambers, at the point where it was the custom for one of the priests to stand and to give notice, by sound of trumpet, in the afternoon of the approach, and on the following evening of the close, of every seventh day, announcing to the people the respective hours for ceasing work and for resuming their labors.”

But what of the final word of the inscription? The first two letters are unmistakable: LH. But the stone was broken after the third letter, so the ending of the word remains to be decided. Numerous scholars have attempted to complete the text on the basis of Hebrew paleography and the functional context described by Josephus.

Until now everyone has supposed that the third letter is a kaf (k). Three prominent scholars have tried their hand at completing the inscription on this basis. Their solutions are as follows:4 Benjamin Mazar: LHK[HN] = l’ha-kohen = “for the priest.” Yigael Yadin: LHK[L] = l’hekal = “toward the Temple.” Ze’ev Ben-Hayyim: LHK[RYZ] = l’hakhriz = “to herald [the Sabbath].”

Each of these proposals has its problems.

Mazar’s proposal—“for the priest”—postulates a rare spelling of “lh kohen,” “for the [in two letters instead of one] priest.” Moreover, his reconstruction would seem to limit the trumpeting to priests (kohanim), as suggested by the quotation from Josephus. But from other sources, we know that Levites too manned stations around the Temple.5

Yadin’s proposal—“toward the Temple”—seems to be meaningless in this context. There would surely be no need to advise a priest or Levite where the Temple was.

Ben-Hayyim’s proposal—“to herald [the Sabbath]”—is unlikely because the verb he proposes, l’hakhriz, “to herald” or “to proclaim” is used for a vocal act, not a blast from an instrument. Furthermore, this suggestion does not take into account the blasts at the end of the Sabbath.

It will not surprise the reader that when there are several equally difficult solutions to a problem—especially a textual problem—one must ask whether some fundamental mistake or incorrect assumption has been made. I believe this to be the case regarding our inscription. In my opinion, the last visible letter in the third word is not a kaf, but rather a well-attested, alternate form of a Herodian beth!

The stone engraver used two forms of the letter beth (compare the beth in the first word), a not uncommon practice in contemporaneous inscriptions.6 If the last letter in the inscription is beth, then the third word of the inscription might be completed this way:

LHB[DYL]

The inscription might then read as follows:

LHB[DYL BYN QDS L’HWL] l’havdil beyn kodesh l’hol
“To distinguish between the sacred and the profane [periods of time].”

The full inscription would then read:

“Belonging to the station of trumpeting to distinguish between the sacred and the profane.”

Indeed, this phrase is found in the Mishnah,a where it describes the trumpeting at the beginning of the Sabbath:

“And at the Sabbath eve they added six more [blasts], three to cause the people to lay down their work and three to distinguish between the sacred and the profane.”

This phrase is also found in the prayer observant Jews recite to this day at the ceremony, called Havdalah,b marking the end of the Sabbath:

“Blessed art thou, O Lord our God, who made a distinction between the sacred and the profane … between the Sabbath and the rest of the week . … ”

The plaque itself probably indicated the appointed place from which the people standing below could expect to hear the Sabbath trumpet blasts, which would thus be reinforced by the visual presence of the trumpeter. It was no doubt an awe-inspiring sight to see the trumpeter on the pinnacle of the Temple Mount as the sun set in the west on the sixth day of the week, blasting the air with his instrument to announce the commencement of the Sabbath.

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