In the heart of Yerushalayim two weeks ago, the first charedi conference on “Torah archaeology” drew a packed audience.
The opening speaker, Rabbi Shaul Shimon Deutsch, brought several ancient coins to the conference, held in the Beis Bracha hall near Yerushalayim’s Meah She’arim neighborhood. Rabbi Deutsch, who flew in from Brooklyn for the event, runs a museum that displays artifacts he acquired on the private market from the time of the Mishna. Also among the artifacts, he displayed an intact scale that he said had been recovered several weeks earlier from a sunken ship in the Mediterranean Sea.
The scale, he said, settled once and for all a dispute that has raged among Torah scholars for centuries: How much did the litra, a Talmudic measure, actually weigh? The answer: 354 grams, just as Rashi claimed, and contrary to the opinion of other greats such as the Rambam.
This, as all the speakers agreed, is the purpose of charedi archaeology: using ancient artifacts to shed light on religious texts – as long as they don’t undermine the traditional reading of the texts. Thus, when Rabbi Deutsch showed the scale to Maran Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, he “said it was really a wonder of wonders,” Deutsch related.
Speakers also included archaeologists such as Prof. Benjamin Z. Kedar, a member of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities, who chairs the Israel Antiquities Authority’s board. Kedar concurred that archaeology at times intersects with traditional Jewish texts, as “each sheds light on the other.”