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Jan 14, 2008

Adventures in Eretz Yisrael: Central Shomron: Avarta - the hornet's nest

I remember growing up in Chicago what the cold was like. On the really cold days, and especially when it was really windy, the ice cold chill would rip right through your bones. It did not matter how many layers of clothing you were wearing. If you were caught outside on one of those really cold days, such as the 10 below zero days with it being 20 below with the windchill factor, or the coldest day I remember when it hit -40 and was something like -80 with the windchill factor (I just did a google search and found the coldest day in Chicago history to be January 20 1985 when it hit -27 and was -93 with the windchill factor), you would feel it like ice running through your veins. People would die of hypothermia and lose fingers and toes to frostbite.

For the first time I can remember in the 17+ years I have lived in Israel I felt that Chicago cold in Israel. This weekend, from Thursday night through Shabbos, and it will continue through about Tuesday (though not quite as bad), Israel experienced sub-zero temperatures. It was really cold.

And if you think it was really cold in Bet Shemesh or Jerusalem, you should have been out trekking through the hills of the Shomron with me on Thursday night!! That was really cold! The Shomron is always cold at night. It is a high area and gets windy and cold. But in these sub-zero temperatures, it was like the old days in Chicago with the wind ripping through your bones, no matter how bundled up you were!

So what was I doing in the hills of the Shomron in sub-zero weather?

That leads us to the review of my latest Adventure in Eretz Yisrael..

At about 8:30 PM on Thursday night, Jameel calls me up on the phone. Whenever Jameel calls, you know something is up. He tells me that he just got word they are opening the village of [I could not catch the name of the village], and this is a place they only open to Jews once a year. In this village are the grave sites of Elazar and Isamar, 2 of the sons of Aharon Ha'Kohen, and the gravesite of the 70 elders. The buses would be leaving from "Bat Shalosh" at about 12 am and there was no need to pre-register.

We went over the directions quickly, and hung up. I called Jameel about 10:15 to go over the directions again, as I am not as familiar with the roads of the Shomron as he is. He tells me that he probably would not be going, but we went over the directions again.

So I head out to the Shomron. The trip was pretty smooth. Driving through the Shomron at night is a bit spooky, if you are not familiar with the roads. You drive through some Arab villages that straddle the "highway". You know that if you make a wrong turn you will end up on the morning news as the victim of a lynching. The signs "could be better", the lighting of the roads "could be better".

So I pass the Tapuach Junction, and Bat Shalosh is supposed to be a minute or two after that. I see two hassidic men hitchhiking on the side of the road. I figured they are probably going to the same place I am going, so I pulled over and offered them a ride.

They look at me and ask, in pure ivris, "Ata Misnachel?" - are you a settler? I said I am not but do they need a ride. They ask where I am going and I said to Shchem, to the kevarim (I said shchem just because it is the general area, but these graves are not in shchem, rather in a neighboring village). Their eyes get real wide and they say, Really? You are going to Shchem??"

So I explained that I am going near Shchem to the graves of Elazar, etc. They said forget it. They are tryign to get into Shchem and go to Kever Yosef. I said that is not open tonight, but these other ones are. they said they know but are trying to get in anyways. I said goodbye as I am not going there. I only go when it is open and secured.

So I get to Bat Shalosh and board the bus.

I still had no idea where I was going, so I asked someone on the bus. He told me the name of the village, and said that tradition, as brought in the midrash and the shulchan aruch, is that this shabbos would be the yahrtzeit of the zkeinim (elders) that are buried there. I do not know if it is the yahrtzeit of all 70, or just some of them. I also do not know if all 70 are buried there or just some of them.

So after some minor delays, we are finally off in the armored bus to the village of Avarta. Avarta is a village on the outskirts of Shchem (or Nablus in English). When I later told my brother (the mercenary soldier) where I was, he knew of the village and said "that is part of Balata". According to the map below, it is not really part of Balata, but the borders of these villages sometimes are unclear and Avarta is next to Balata, so at least in spirit it is part of Balata, even if in terms of municipal services it might not be.

Balata is known to be a hornet's nest for terrorists, and Avarta is no different. I think even most terrorists are afraid to go there!

The bus brings us in to the village and we arrive at the grave marker of Isamar ben Aharon Ha'Kohen.

They handed out sheets that had special prayers that were written to be said by these graves. Eveyone davened, from the sheets, general tehillim, personal prayers... After I davened, I was snapping some photos. It was dark and I was just snapping without really looking for something specific. One funny resulting photograph is the one below where it looks like this one guy smashed his face into a cream pie which splattered all over the grave marker. In reality he had simply just positioned himself there, over some grafitti, to daven...

From there we were told that the site of the elders is a just a few minutes walk away. So we start to head out in that direction. The soldiers stop us asking us where we are going. When we tell them we are walking to the zkeinim, they say we have to wait and we cannot go anywhere on our own. So, despite the fact that they had already secured the whole area, they sent a patrol of soldiers further down the street to make sure it was still clear, and then they escorted us. BTW, the soldiers were heavily, and I mean heavily, armed.
The site of the zkeinim was next to a small Arab cemetery. Their site was a structure, not a marker. I guess they were buried underneath it somewhere. We went in to the structure, which contained 2 small rooms and everyone davened. It was nice and warm in there, compared to the freezing cold outside, so people were reluctant to leave this one.. The walls were covered in soot, probably from having been burned by the locals. The soot though must have been old because it was hard on the walls, and was not coming off.

As I made my way towards the front of the rooms, towards where people were davening, I noticed some people were taking turns to bend down near the floor to lean on the entrance to what seemed like a cave. I took my turn and davened there for a moment, assuming that cave must be where the zkeinim were buried. I also snapped a couple of shots... (it looks like some remnants of a beer bottle are in there if you enlarge the photo)When they cleared us out of that area, they sent us on our way to the last site - the site of Elazar ben Aharon Ha'Kohen. This site was on the other side of the village and they made us go by bus. It took some time for the bus to weave through the small roads of the village. The bus could only go so far and we had to continue by foot. It was an unusual situation - we had to walk up the side of a mountain in the pitch black (and still freezing cold). We literally had to climb up gripping to rocks in the field, as this was near the top of the hill.

After davening for a bit, I noticed some people with steaming hot plates of food. I went to see what was happening and saw that someone had brought a big pot of cholent to warm up the visitors! I have no idea how he got this big pot of cholent there, but he did. He put it on some stones and lit a fire to keep it hot. he dished out hundreds of plates of cholent and gave people the energy to continue on for a bit longer.


  1. Nice story--love the cholent. But you need to remind your readers that we are talking about sub-zero temperatures in Celsius, not Fahrenheit.

  2. Are these graves genuine?

  3. Beautiful, invite me next time!

  4. I have no way of knowing, but from what I understand these are graves that were included in the Arizal's confirmation of true graves...
    I do nto know how authoritative that is, and I do not know if these really were included, but I am told they were and that is all I have to go on.

  5. that was cool...

  6. Fantastic :)

    Minor Correction: It's Ba'ha'd Shalosh "בה'ד" which stands for "Basis Hadracha" (Instructional Base).

    Sorry I missed it...next time. BTW - if anyone's interested on getting on my notification list when these places are open, just drop me an email.

  7. Rafi,
    I am going to chomesh wednesday, you game ?

  8. "they said they know but are trying to get in anyways"

    this is wrong. as i've blogged i think the government should open up all these sites to jewish visitors on a regular basis. but for these people to go into shechem without any coordination with the army is a recipe for disaster.

    great post. my favorite line: "I think even most terrorists are afraid to go there!"

  9. Wow. Amazing. Wish I could've gone. Thanks for sharing.

  10. when you go to these various kvarim, are there specific t'fillos? do you just pray for personal(family....) or certain tehillim you say? etc....

  11. I always love reading about your adventures and it makes me wish I could go. Are women ever invited?

  12. shaya - in general I pick random chapters of tehillim to say (I look for short ones), I say personal prayers, and they generally pass out sheets with tefillos there written for the specific site,,,

    mizellie - whoever is daring enough to go is welcome. there were women there (though not an awful lot of them)

    lion - I agree with you..

  13. I was curious as to how they know (or assume) that the kvarot are where they claim. There was nothing in the mefarshim of the Mikraot Gedolot that I found (Yehoshua 24:33) so I looked in the Da'at Mikra.

    According to the Da'at Mikra, chances are that the location of Givat Pinchas is in the area of Shilo- where the mishkan was during Elazar and itamar's lifetime. To me, this certainly makes more sense than them being buried further north near Shechem. And all themore so because Shilo is in Efraim, whereas Shechem is in Menashe.

  14. Great post - love the photos. Thanks to Jameel for sending you there, and sending me to look at your blog! Hatzlacha!

  15. What a great exciting (& freezing) adventure.
    Thank you for having the courage.
    I'm sure you are aware, but I want to caution you, that terrorists have been known to dress-up as chassidim chasV'sholem. All should be cautioned. Don't pick up ANY strangers. It's too dangerous. Please be careful, one and all.

  16. This post and the pictures are awesome! Thank you for sharing this experience with us. How do you function on so little sleep?

  17. anonymous - I know and thanks for the warning. Actually I am very bad about picking up hitchhikers. I almost never do. But this was at 11:30 pm and I figured they were probably going the same place as me and it was only a few minutes away and probably more dangerous for them to be on foot, so in a moment of rashness I stopped...

    thanks frum and everybody else...


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