Author: Samuel

Hiking to the Top of Israel: Mt Hermon

Mt Hermon is the highest peak in Israel, reaching 2 040m (6690ft) above sea level. It’s a perfect location for a summer hike, providing you can plan a bit in advance.

A couple of months ago, in the middle of the summer, I suddenly found myself with a completely free day for myself at short notice. With all the Corona-chaos I hadn’t had an opportunity to do any guiding for some months, and was missing being in the field. I thought it would be a great opportunity to do a hike.

I really enjoy hiking, and although you might think I do a lot of it as a tour guide, it’s actually quite unusual with the type of visitors I normally work with. Most of my clients are coming for no more than a week and they want to pack in as much as possible – so taking a few hours from the schedule for a hike is not normally an option. It does happen here and there, but also tends to be the same trails that are close to other sites of interest or perhaps have some specific historical or religious context.

So, this was an opportunity to do a hike for me. Unfortunately, the Israeli summer is not best-designed for walking outdoors. Temperatures easily hit the mid-30s (that’s the mid-90s for our American friends) even in the cooler parts of the country. And certain areas can be extremely humid. I’d have to start quite early in the morning for a hike to even be feasible. There were other restrictions – I was on my own so would need to do a circular trail (it’s quite common to walk in one direction and then hitchhike back to where you parked your car – but in Corona times I didn’t think that was sensible). Additionally, on some trails there’s no guarantee your car will be there when you return. I needed to get some advice.

So I turned to my good friend Steve of Finjan. Steve and I did the tour guide course together, and became good friends. Although he guides general visitors like I do, together with another member of our course he’s also developed a successful business specialising on off the beaten track travel in Israel, with a particular focus on hiking. I told him my criteria and he suggested that I hike the Hermon – the highest mountain in Israel, on the Syrian and Lebanese border.

I hadn’t thought of travelling that far, but he really sold it to me – particularly because it would be a lot cooler than anywhere else in the country due to the elevation, which in the peak of the summer is a major incentive. I’d been up the Hermon a few times, but never on foot, and the challenge was appealing. It’s not simple to do – you need to get permission from the army because of its proximity to the border. But Steve talked me through the process, my permission came through, and all was set.

So, a couple of days later, at 6.30am I was driving out of Tel Aviv and heading north. It was a wonderful drive, against the traffic, and just under three hours later I was driving through the Druze town of Majdal Shams on the Israel/Syrian border, and on the slopes of the Hermon. At this point, my heart began to sink. The town was enveloped in thick fog. Had I come all this way to hike in the mist? But I was there now, and I was rewarded for pushing on as I continued to ascend towards the beginning of the trail, eventually bursting through the fog to enjoy a stunningly clear view over the Golan Heights, the Hula Valley and the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. I literally shouted for joy! It really was quite remarkable.

View looking out westwards from Mt Hermon
View west towards the Hula and Bekaa Valleys in Israel and Lebanon Respectively

I arrived at the beginning of the trail and the soldier at the gate let me through thanks to the approval I’d secured. I began to climb, pausing every now and again to enjoy the beautiful scenery, the solitude and also because it was quite a steep ascent – so I need to catch my breath! The trail was well marked and in about an hour I was at the top. It was glorious, and thanks to the relatively early time of day, almost completely empty. I had the views to myself and it was a very pleasant 24C (75F), so much nicer than the relentless humidity of Israel’s centre.

The Hermon is mentioned on multiple occasions in the Bible (sometimes by its other names: Mt Snir, Siryon or Sion). It stands out from a distance and clearly commanded respect and a sense of mysticism. Indeed some (minority) opinions identify it as the real Mt Sinai or even the site of the Transfiguration of Jesus. Whether or not this is the case, both on the approach and from the top, the mountain emanates a sense of awe. It felt very special to be there.

You don’t have to hike to enjoy the views from the top – there is also a chairlift and, more recently, a cable car – neither of which require army approval. The Hermon is the only place in Israel that you can ski (at the right time of year) and these mainly serve the skiers – there’s not a huge amount to do up there in the summer other than enjoy the views. Only 7% of the Hermon is in Israeli hands (taken from Syria in 1967) – the majority of it is in Syria and a small part is in Lebanon. So the areas you can explore up there are quite restricted.

View from the peak of the Hermon Mountain
A view from the top of the trail on Mt Hermon. Amazing to be above the clouds.

Steve had suggested that I hike up and take the cable car down, but there was some rather disturbing news awaiting me at the top of the mountain – the cable car was broken… They were trying to fix it and “hopefully” it would be working soon. Fortunately, I did have a way to pass the time – there is a further trail at the top of the mountain, requiring separate army approval, that allows you to wander a bit further.

I took this trail, exploring the area of a major battle in the Yom Kippur war, and reaching the symbolic start point for the Israel Trail – a renowned hiking route that all the way from Israel’s north to its south. When I originally ascended the Hermon, I had views into Israel and Lebanon, from this side I could see deep into Syria. I wandered as far as I was allowed (the army only approved me to go on part of this trail) before enjoying a picnic lunch and venturing back cable car with fingers firmly crossed. Fortunately, they had fixed it and I was able to avoid punishing my knees by attempting to descend the way I came.

Looking out over the border between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights from Mt Hermon.
Looking out over the border between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights from Mt Hermon. The town in the bottom right of the photo is Majdal Shams which sits right on the border. To its left is Syria.

 

The symbolic beginning of the Israel Trail
This symbol marks the theoretical beginning of the Israel Trail on Mt Hermon.

By now it was around 12.30 – and it seemed a shame to already head home. I then remembered that it was berry season in the Golan, and so headed to the Bereishit orchards to do some fruit picking for the family. I left with boxes full of fresh blackberries, blueberries, plums and nectarines. Delicious.

Blackberry picking the Bereishit orchard in the Golan Heights.
Blackberry picking in the Bereishit orchards in the Golan Heights.

And there was still time, so I popped into an old favourite – the De Karina chocolate factory in Ein Zivan, for one of their famous milkshakes and to pick up some treats to take home.

A chocolate milkshake in the De Karina chocolate factory in Ein Zivan.
A chocolate milkshake at the De Karina chocolate factory in the Golan Heights. It was as good as it looks!

I got back around 4.30pm, exhausted but exhilarated. When guiding, there’s so much to think about all the time – some logistical thing, some calls you need to make, answering questions – you don’t have that much time to enjoy the places your visiting as the tourists do. This was a day where I sort of guided myself, and was able to really appreciate the scenery, the sights, sounds and smells, in a much more personal way. It was wonderful!

If you’re ever looking for a great hike in the Israeli summer, I can’t recommend the Hermon enough. Here’s what you should think about when planning your trip:
– As with any hike: bring appropriate footwear, hat, water, a trail map and particularly sunscreen – the elevation on the Hermon means the sun’s rays are much stronger. Bring enough water to hike in both directions in case of another cable car malfunction.
– Even in the summer it can be cold at the top depending on the winds and cloud cover – so have a jumper/sweater in your bag.
– Make sure to get permission from the army enough in advance – this is a lot easier to do with a tour guide.

With thanks again to Steve of Finjan!

 

10 Tips for Travel to Israel During the COVID-19 Pandemic

While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to challenge a lot of the world, we are seeing a slow but gradual return to travel for tourism globally. At the time of writing, Israel still is not letting visitors in who do not hold citizenship, but there are more and more conversations happening about reopening the skies.

So, I thought it could be helpful to share some tips and thoughts for anyone thinking about coming to tour Israel in the near future, while we’re still in the shadow of the Coronavirus. There are pros and cons in travelling at a time like this, and ultimately everyone has to make an individual choice on the risk/reward ratio. While prices for accommodation and touring services are likely to be cheaper, and sites less crowded, none of us want to become unwell or forced into isolation. I hope that this blog can help that decision process a little.

And of course — an important disclaimer. In case it wasn’t obvious, I’m not a medical professional. So I’m basing these tips and pieces of advice on what I’ve read and heard from those who are much more learned than I am. Don’t take it all as gospel — read around and do your research.

1) Make a Plan and Stick to It (with a Backup Plan Just in Case)
Because of limitations on visitor numbers, you now have to reserve a time slot before visiting many sites and attractions in Israel. This means that it’s a lot harder to be spontaneous — whether it’s deciding to suddenly change route and stop at a new attraction (they may not have space), or spending more time than you intended at a site (you may miss your slot at the next one). 

Spontaneity is not necessarily impossible — because there aren’t as many tourists as normal, if you’re coming outside of school vacation dates there are likely to be spots free. But you can’t be as flexible as before.

However, having said that…if you do need to cancel a planned activity or stay, it’s good to have a sense of options of what you may be able to do instead. I don’t think you need to have a whole backup itinerary planned, just have a shortlist of backup options for activities and accommodations by area and, if you need to, you can quickly rearrange your plans.

2) Be Prepared to Be Flexible
But didn’t I just say you couldn’t be as flexible as before? Indeed you can’t — at least you can’t choose to be. But you may be forced to be flexible as the conditions around the country fluctuate. A site or hotel may be forced to close temporarily because of a confirmed case of COVID-19, or an area may be locked down because of a spike in infections. As long as you come with the mindset that this may happen, and embrace it, you should be ok. 

3) Avoid Places When They’re Likely to be Crowded
Try to plan to avoid being in places when they’re likely to be crowded. I’d personally suggest staying out of the big cities during the weekend (Thursday evening until Sunday morning). Don’t go to holy sites during service times and visit markets early in the morning before footfall increases. 

Israelis don’t normally eat dinner before 8pm and sometimes even later. So if you’re happy to eat early, you can reduce your risk when dining out by being in restaurants when they are quieter (and also should get better service as a result!). Nearly all restaurants have outdoor dining areas which are recommended as lower risk of virus transmission than being inside. 


Alternatively, particularly in cities, there are many great options for getting food delivered. In Tel Aviv, the Wolt app is particularly good as it works in English (although not all menus are translated) and offers a contactless delivery option.

4) Consider Apartment Rentals Over Hotels
The vast majority of hotels in Israel are taking things seriously and following the guidelines of the Ministry of Health. I’ve actually been quite impressed. However, there’s only so much they can control. And they can’t control all the behaviour of their guests. It’s difficult for a hotel as a service provider to force their paying guests to follow the rules. There have been incidences of people who were supposed to be in isolation going to stay in hotels.

So, I’d consider staying in an apartment rental. You won’t get the service of a hotel, but you’ll be reducing your risk of exposure by the simple fact that you’ll be walking past fewer people.

5) Communicate with Your Accommodation
Whether you decide to stay in a hotel or an apartment rental, take the time to communicate with them in advance before booking. Understand the precautions that they are taking in terms of cleaning, distancing, meals (in the case of a hotel) and look into reviews to see if what they tell you is actually happening. Some review sites offer the opportunity to contact the person who made the review, so consider reaching out to them to hear more.

And if you’re communicating anyway, you may want to see what can be done on price. On the one hand, these businesses have suffered a lot because of the drop in tourism, and if you can afford not to negotiate then I’d suggest it would be a nice thing to do. But if the price is the difference between you coming or not coming, there’s no harm in asking.

6) Check Cancellation Policies
Before you book anything, understand the cancellation policy. Until when can you cancel if for some reason your trip can’t go ahead? What are the penalties
for doing so? Is it possible to move your booking if needed? At times like these, understanding the policies becomes even more important.

7) Get Travel Insurance
I’m constantly surprised by how many people I’ve guided don’t come with travel insurance. It was always a given growing up that we had it. Now it is more important than ever, although also more expensive than ever. Good travel insurance will cover any health care needs, help you get home if your flights are cancelled and also cover you for cancelling your trip or parts of your trip if needed. I would not fly without it at the moment.

8) Look but Don’t Touch
This may seem obvious but I think it’s worth stating. For many people, particularly those coming to Israel for religious reasons, touch can make up an important part of the trip. Whether it’s touching the smoothness of the stones of the Western Wall to connect to the millions of people who have done the same, or touching places where it’s believed that Jesus performed miracles, for example. I am not an expert at all on the possibility of virus transmission through touching these places — but I would suggest that it’s not worth the risk of ruining your trip.

9) Consider a Private Guide
You could save yourself a lot of this hassle by hiring a private guide to do it for you — making the bookings, staying on top of which areas are lower and higher risk, adjusting your itinerary if needed and being able to speak the local language to help out in case of any emergency.

Additionally, doing a private tour will reduce your exposure to other people (for example on a bus tour) and keeping the same guide with you for the whole trip as opposed to getting different guides in different places will reduce your risk further.


Obviously I’m biased, but I think that a private guide can add even more value at times such as these, although it will increase the cost of your trip.

10) Consider Your Travel
It pains me to say this, but this is not the best time to come on a trip to Israel. Yes — there are the advantages of lower pricing and significantly less crowded sites. But some places are not open, and depending on your character, possible anxiety re contracting COVID-19 may mean the trip is not as relaxing as you would like. So if you do have a way to delay your trip, I’d very much consider it.

But not everyone chooses their time to visit Maybe it’s a family occasion that has been planned for ages and you don’t want to miss it. Maybe you don’t know if you’ll be able to come in the future because of potential changes in your lifestyle. Maybe you have a work trip and will be here anyway, so it’s a shame not to explore. If you are planning a visit to Israel, I hope that these tips are helpful, and I and the rest of Israel’s tourism professionals are here for anything you may need.

Safe travels!

TripAdvisor Travellers’ Choice Award 2020

TripAvisor Traveller's Choice Award 2020 Logo

I’m delighted to have been awarded a Travellers’ Choice Award (formerly known as the Certificate of Excellence) from TripAdvisor for 2020! I’ve now one this award five years in a row.

These awards from TripAdvisor mean so much as they are based on real reviews from people I have guided on tours around Israel. I’m very happy that people continue to have such a great time exploring Israel with me.

Thanks so much to all who took time to write a review and I look forward to guiding even more fantastic travel experiences in Israel in the year to come.

 

Luxury Travel Guide Tour Guide of the Year Award

Guide of the Year - Luxury Travel Guide

I’m thrilled to announce that the Luxury Travel Guide has awarded me with the prestigious title of Tour Guide of the Year for Tel Aviv, Israel in 2019. I received feedback from the awards committee that a significant contributing factor in the award was feedback from people whom I’ve guided about the fact that my tours are truly personalised and that I have a unique guiding approach.

I feel truly honoured to have received this award and look forward to maintaining the same high standards moving forward!

Tour Guide of the Year Award

I’m honoured to announce that the annual Travel & Hospitality Awards just named me ‘Tour Guide of the Year for Israel’.

I’m very proud of this award and grateful to those who nominated me. However the award that meant the most to me was to receive a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor for the third year in a row. This is an award that is made based on the reviews I have received from the people I have guided and so I know it is directly as a result of people having a positive experience touring with me.

I look forward to another great year of building fantastic experiences in Israel!

Mount Ebal – The Altar of Joshua?

In order to maintain my tour guide license, I need to complete at least one Ministry of Tourism training day every year – the idea being that it ensures I keep my knowledge up to date. The Ministry offers a variety of different trips and lecture days throughout the year, many sound fascinating but unfortunately it’s difficult to go to more than one or two (and sometimes even that requires a sacrifice) when managing a busy schedule.

Today’s trip was particularly special as we were able to visit a site I have been fascinated by since being on the tour guide course: Mt Ebal. First mentioned in the book of Deuteronomy, Mt Ebal is next to Nablus (biblical Shechem) in the middle of the Samaria area of the West Bank. On the course we had been told about a remarkable archaeological find there, but given that it is located in Area B, which is largely under Palestinian control, visiting requires army approval and also an escort. Fortunately, for the purpose of this training day, this was obtained.

Part of our army escort
Part of our army escort

An aside. I always find it a little strange to go on a day out in the West Bank, particularly the area of Samaria in the north, which is more populated than desert in the east and south. Although the day was not focussed on contemporary politics, it’s impossible to ignore them. You can see the Jewish villages/settlements and the Palestinian villages and cities. One can’t help but think about the controversy associated with the area. It was a bit surreal to do a tour with an army escort, particularly as it always seems so peaceful and calm. Some may argue that joining such a tour day is innately political, I would say that I was there purely for interest in the history. And I also think it’s important to see the West Bank so that one knows what one is talking about when having to discuss it with visitors. Anyway, the point is that I don’t want this post to be seen as some sort of political statement, and I hope that it will not be responded to as such.

View over Nablus (Biblical Shechem) and Mt Gerizim from Mt Ebal
View over Nablus (Biblical Shechem) and Mt Gerizim from Mt Ebal

We started the day with a look out over the city of Nablus, the economic heart of the Palestinian Authority. Nablus sits in the valley between Mt Ebal and Mt Gerizim; our guide explained to us the way that these two large ridges effectively form an insurmountable barrier to anyone entering from the east (as the Israelites would have done, according to the bible), hence their symbolism in the text. They are a sort of gateway to the holy land. We discussed this week’s Torah portion, Re’eh, where Moses gives instructions on entering the land, and details a list of curses that are to be given on Mt Ebal, and blessings on Mt Gerizim (Deuteronomy 27).

Moving away from Nablus to the other side of Mount Ebal (the peak of the Samarian hills at around 900m/2700ft above sea level), we descended through rocky and thorny terrain to reach what this day was really all about.

Starting in the 70s-80s, an archaeologist called Adam Zertal took it upon himself to conduct a huge archaeological survey of the whole (or as much as possible) of Samaria (the northern part of the West Bank). The difference between a survey and a dig is that you hike around the terrain noting areas which seem to be of archaeological significance because of limited ruins on the surface, or perhaps pottery sherds that can be found. This information is then used to prioritise where to dig.

View over the Israelite ritual site on Mt Ebal
View over the Israelite ritual site on Mt Ebal

Zertal noticed an interesting site on Mt Ebal and began to dig there. What he found was remarkable. He found an altar that completely fits the description of Israelite altars in the bible. Around it was a larger ritual site. His theory is that the site had two periods: first people came to perform various ceremonies to purify/sanctify the larger area, and then the huge altar was built.

The altar is built just as described in multiple locations in the bible (following from Exodus 20): “If you make an altar of stones for me, do not build it with dressed stones, for you will defile it if you use a tool on it. And do not go up to my altar on steps, or your nakedness may be exposed.’” The altar we saw was definitely built with unhewn stones, and leading up to it was a ramp and not steps. The idea was that by walking up a ramp, as opposed to stairs, the priests flowing robes were less likely to expose the more private parts of their body. Also, as described in Exodus 27, the altar is square (Canaanite altars were round).

Ramp leading up to the Israelite altar on Mt Ebal
Ramp leading up to the Israelite altar on Mt Ebal

It requires a bit of imagination to see this, particularly as the altar has partly been opened up to see what was inside, but it really does fit the biblical description, which is quite remarkable. What’s more, inside the stones they found over 1000 animal bones. Without exception they were all of kosher animals, under a year old (first-born animals were to be sacrificed according to the Bible) and all bore the sign of burning in an open fire.

Artist's rendition of the altar
Artist’s rendition of the altar

The evidence is overwhelming that this was an Israelite altar. The question then, is who built it? Dating the site is possible based on two Egyptian scarabs that were found in the excavations. The scarabs date to around 3200 BCE. Most scholars see this as the time that the Israelites entered the land (indeed we do begin to see evidence of a new culture in the archaeology at this time). Could this altar have been built by Joshua?

The book of Joshua describes how he fulfils Moses’ command, as described at the end of chapter 8:
Then Joshua built an altar to the Lord, the God of Israel, in Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had commanded the sons of Israel, as it is written in the book of the law of Moses, an altar of uncut stones on which no man had wielded an iron tool; and they offered burnt offerings on it to the Lord, and sacrificed peace offerings. He wrote there on the stones a copy of the law of Moses, which he had written, in the presence of the sons of Israel. All Israel with their elders and officers and their judges were standing on both sides of the ark before the Levitical priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord, the stranger as well as the native. Half of them stood in front of Mount Gerizim and half of them in front of Mount Ebal, just as Moses the servant of the Lord had given command at first to bless the people of Israel. Then afterward he read all the words of the law, the blessing and the curse, according to all that is written in the book of the law. There was not a word of all that Moses had commanded which Joshua did not read before all the assembly of Israel with the women and the little ones and the strangers who were living among them.”

It really seems to fit the text, and so Zertal argued that this was in fact the altar of Joshua. There’s one problem. It seems from the text, that the altar was visible from Mt Gerizim, but in this part of Mt Ebal you can’t see Mt Gerizim – it’s the other side of the peak. Zertal considered the option that Mt Gerizim has been identified incorrectly, but there are a number of reasons that this doesn’t make sense. Perhaps you could infer from the text that although the ceremony happened in view of everyone, the altar where the offerings were made may not need to have been in full view? It remains a problem and no one has a good answer – what is clear is that this is the only altar on Mt Ebal from any period.

Maybe it is the altar of Joshua, maybe it isn’t. As with many things here, it comes down to faith. However, I must admit to feeling emotional when seeing this altar, no matter who built it, as it undoubtedly would have been used by the ancient Israelites, as described in our most ancient of texts. I climbed the ramp, imagining the priests doing so over 3000 years before, in order to make their sacrifices. As I stood on the top of the altar, I enjoyed the stunning view before me, including the Tirtza Valley, which Zertal and others believe the Israelites used to enter the land after crossing the Jordan. I pictured the mixed multitudes arriving finally at this ancient gateway, having heard so much about it, and preparing to live in their promised land. And here I am, over 3000 years later, in their footsteps. For a few beautiful moments, it was possible to put all the tensions and politics aside, and drink in a remarkable atmosphere.

View over Tirtza Valley from the Israelite altar on Mt Ebal
View over Tirtza Valley from the Israelite altar on Mt Ebal

Unfortunately, our time was up – the officer who was accompanying us told us that it was time for us to leave. I don’t know if I’ll ever return to Mt Ebal – it’s so complicated to do so. But I’ll never forget it.

Thrilled to receive new awards

As we come towards the end of 2017 I’m thrilled to write about some of the awards that I have received this year.

After last year’s award from the prestigious Luxury Travel Guide as being the ‘Best Bespoke Tour Operator in Tel Aviv’, I’m delighted to have won a further award from the guide this year, as the ‘Best Boutique Tour Operator for Israel’.

In addition, the annual Travel & Hospitality Awards just named me ‘Tailor Made Tour Company of the Year for Tel Aviv’.

While I am very proud of these awards and delighted to receive the industry recognition, the award that meant the most to me was to receive a Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor. This is an award that is made based on the reviews I have received from the people I have guided and so I know it is directly as a result of people having a positive experience touring with me.

I look forward to another great year of building fantastic experiences in Israel for a plethora of visitors!

The Priestly Blessing (Birkat HaCohanim) at the Western Wall

Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall
Priestly Blessing at the Western Wall

The priestly blessing (birkat hacohanim) has always held a certain fascination for me. Although in Israel, and in all Sephardic communities, it is recited daily in synagogue, in Ashkenazi Diaspora communities like mine it is only recited during festivals, so it became something of a special event. I remember from a young age the priests ascending to the stage at the front of the synagogue, by the ark, in preparation for this ancient ceremony. Those who were sitting in seats that were to the side would get up and move so that they could be in front of the priests in order to receive the blessing. We would stand and my father would take me under his tallit (prayer shawl) and instruct me firmly not to look at the priests while they were blessing us – it is forbidden. This combined with the unique and haunting tune sung during the blessing made it a very special moment.

In 1967, after the Six Day War, Israel took control of the Old City of Jerusalem for the first time, and Jews had unrestricted access to the Western Wall. Those of you who have toured with me will be aware of the various complexities associated with that war and its results, but putting that aside for a moment, this was an event of huge importance. This was the first time in memory that Jews were free to visit and pray at this most holy of sites. Whether religious or secular, the significance was huge.

Those of you who have visited the Wall will be aware that there are normally several services happening there in parallel, but in 1970 a rabbi decided to try and create one large public service which would incorporate the priestly blessing. According to Rabbi Eleazar ben Judah of Worms, an important commentator and mystic from the middle ages, there is special significance to hearing the blessing from over 300 priests, close to where the temple once stood.

Today, the special unified service takes place twice a year. Once during Pesach (Passover) in the Spring and once during Sukkot (Tabernacles) in the Autumn. These festivals are significant as they are two of the ‘Three Foot Festivals’; festivals on which a pilgrimage to Jerusalem is required, as commanded in the Torah in Deuteronomy 16:16:
Three times a year shall all your people appear before the Lord your God in the place that God will choose [referring presumably to the Temple in Jerusalem], on the festivals of Pesach, Shavuot [Pentecost], and Sukkot. They shall not appear empty handed. Each shall bring his own gift, appropriate to the blessing which the Lord your God has given you

Often when guiding in the vicinity of what used to be the Temple, I try to help people imagine what it would have been like on these occasions – tens of thousands of pilgrims arriving from around the region in order to offer sacrifices and to be part of the service. And one of the only parts of that ceremony that we can say with a reasonable amount of certainty that would have dated back even to the time of the First Temple (from roughly 3000 years ago) is the priestly blessing. In fact, the oldest version of any part of the bible that exists was found inscribed on an amulet from the 6th century – it was the text of the priestly blessing (and in my opinion one of the highlights of the Israel Museum’s collection).

In Hebrew the word for a pilgrim is an oleh l’regel, the literal translation of which is ‘someone who goes up by foot’. One goes up to Jerusalem both physically (it is in the hills) and spiritually. This week I was due to guide a family in the Old City on the day of the priestly blessing during Pesach. As a sat by the Jaffa Gate, waiting for them to arrive, I was struck by the nature of the hordes of Jewish people thronging through the gate on their way to the Wall for this ceremony. The whole of the Jewish people were represented – ultra-orthodox, modern-orthodox, progressive and secular; elderly, middle-aged and child; man and women; Ashkenazi, Sephardi, Yemenite; speaking Hebrew, Yiddish, English, French and Russian; a flurry of different hair styles, head coverings and colours. As I looked upon this mixed multitude moving past me I was transported to the First and Second Temple Periods, 3000 and 2000 years ago, when such scenes would have been a regular occurrence.

As we descended towards the Western Wall, I could hear the beginning of the mussaf service being broadcast over a loudspeaker. The plaza was packed, as were all the viewpoints, not just with the Jewish pilgrims but the large numbers of tourists who had come to see this special occasion.

Eventually, we reached the part of the service where the cohanim gave their blessing. There was complete silence around the plaza as the descendants of the priests of the original Temple raised their prayer shawls over their heads. The way that the blessing is given is that the chazzan (cantor) recites each word of the blessing in turn, and the priests repeat after him. Although the chazzan had a microphone, the priests did not, but even far at the back of the plaza, it was possible to hear the hundreds of cohanim join together to repeat after him in unison – the power of their combined voices reached far and wide.

Participating in this most ancient of ceremonies, right next to where it would have taken place on a regular basis (the blessings would have happened on the Temple Mount – not feasible today for obvious reasons!), was a truly moving experience. It really helped give me a sense of what the ancient pilgrimage festivals would have been like, and was a remarkable connection to my heritage and tradition. From my small synagogue in South London, with a largely homogeneous community of a few hundred people, I was suddenly part of tens of thousands of Jews from a huge variety of backgrounds, sharing in common the blessing that has been passed down to us through the millennia:
May the Lord bless you and protect you;
May the Lord’s face shine light upon you and be gracious unto you;
May the Lord raise His face unto you and give you peace.

If you are planning to come to Israel during Pesach or Sukkot, and would like build this ceremony into a guided tour of Jerusalem, I would love to help you do so! Please do be in touch.