“Loving Divorce”: Born on the Battlefield

When you enter into a marriage, you don’t do so expecting it to end. But sad as it is (“Even God sheds tears when anyone divorces his wife,” says the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 22a), it happens. And when it happens to a Jewish couple, the Bible requires the husband to provide his wife with a “bill of divorcement” (Deut. 24:1).

In my first historical novel, The Scroll, published by Menorah Books, the title and starring role were given to such a document—in this case a real bill of divorce, found in a cave in a place called Wadi Murabba‘at in the Judean Desert in the 1950s, but actually written at the desert fortress of Masada, where my novel begins. As a tour educator, I’ve taken thousands of people to Masada, where I tell the story of a band of rebels who held out against the Romans and eventually took their own lives. When I tell people that two women of Masada, and five children, survived according to the Jewish historian Josephus, they inevitably ask: What happened to them? With the help of that ancient divorce document, The Scroll offers an answer.

The divorce document from Wadi Murabba’at in the Judean Desert. Courtesy of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

What’s the Connection between Divorce and Love, David and Goliath

I imagined that on that barren mountaintop, surrounded by enemies, the husband, whom the real document names as Joseph son of Naqsan, gave his wife, named Miriam daughter of Jonathan, a divorce of a very special kind—out of love. Joseph, I imagined, was about to go to war, and offered his wife what is known as a “conditional divorce” so she could go on with her life in case he didn’t return.

One Talmudic reference says this custom comes from the Bible, when the young shepherd David is told by his father to bring food to his brothers who are fighting the Philistines: “And to thy brethren shalt thou bring greetings, and take their pledge (1 Sam 17:17–18).  The meaning of the Hebrew word for “their pledge”—arvutam—gets lost in some translations, where it boils down in some cases to Yishai simply asking David to find out how his other sons are faring.  But in reality “their pledge” was much more. The Talmud says the meaning was: “things which are pledged between him and her,” in other words—their marriage vows. David, according to the sages, was to bring back word that his brothers were freeing their wives from their marriage vows if they did not return from battle but could not be confirmed dead.

The Valley of Elah, where David fought Goliath. Courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Thus came the Talmudic dictum: “Everyone who goes out into the war of the House of David, writes for his wife a conditional divorce” (Ketubboth 9b). It’s understandable that the sages would look to that story, in which the Israelites quake in fear at the giant Goliath. Certainly, many never expected to survive the day, and thought about the wives and children they left behind. (Although hope springs eternal, it seems: Even as they were quaking, dismayed, terrified and fleeing, as the text tells us, they were telling each other that anyone who defeated the giant would earn himself a princess for a wife and financial benefits for his family.)

In Judaism, dissolution of a marriage under such circumstances is a hot issue to this day. The sanctity of the marriage vows dictates that a woman whose husband’s whereabouts are unknown for any reason is still “bound” to him unless definitive proof is shown that he won’t return. In fact, Prof.  Dror Fixler of Bar-Ilan University (who in addition to being an Orthodox rabbi is also a physicist) tells us in an article he wrote on the subject[1] that the great medieval Jewish teacher Maimonides instructed husbands not to act as the “evil ones” who “bind” their wives to them forever even if their whereabouts in the fog of war might never be known.

But what happens if the husband eventually does turn up? Since this was a “divorce given out of love”—a phrase coined by the 20th century Rabbi Yitzhak Yaakov Weiss in discussing this very subject—can they simply resume their lives together? Another medieval sage, Rabbi Moses Isserles had a solution: They would have to get married again. (And that has its own problems if the missing husband is a Cohen, a member of the priestly class, for example, who is forbidden to marry a divorcee!). I raised that complication in one dramatic twist in the plot of The Scroll, in a way that reverberates through its fictional generations.

Another proposal was that a rabbinic court hold on to the document, and give it to the wife in case the husband did not return after a specified period. That was suggested by Rabbi Isaac Herzog, chief Ashkenazi rabbi of Palestine and of Israel after Independence—whose life spanned two world wars and who certainly saw his share of such cases.

Indeed, the issue is still with us. Rabbi Fixler wrote that during the Second Lebanon War in 2006 a soldier asked him about obtaining such a document. Yet seemingly no such thing was to be found in the Israeli army’s archives. But, as Fixler reveals, something called IDF Manpower Directorate Form 821 is exactly that. Fixler concludes (as the Israeli army’s first chief rabbi, Shlomo Goren, did), that this type of document would not be widely accepted. Moreover it would be detrimental to morale. For those reasons it is apparently not made available to IDF soldiers.

What touches me most about the concept of “conditional divorce” is that this issue, with its deep Hebraic roots, like some equally controversial issues that I raise in The Scroll, is still with us. It shows us the living nature of our ancient biblical tradition and its millennia-long impact.

Cover of The Scroll, featuring the entrance to the cave where the divorce document was found, overlaid by a photo of the original document.


A Cupful of Hope on the Seder Table

The decades have not dimmed the memory of my parents’ Seder table back in Trenton, New Jersey. It was laden with traditional family favorites, and, more importantly, with the enduring symbols of commemoration. We each had our own little bowl to hold the salt water symbolizing our tears when we were slaves. The parsley was at the ready for dipping into the salt water, symbolizing the new life and joy of our springtime festival of freedom. And of course there was the all-important Seder plate, each object representing an element of the immortal saga. The full wine cup of Elijah was there, too, waiting for the redemptive door to open. My mother added to the symbolism with her signature, green-in-honor-of-spring Passover Jello-and-pineapple ring.

Nowadays, in our home in the mountains of Judah, at my own family’s Passover table, we still have all of those, along with a new symbol of which my mother would certainly have approved: Next to Elijah’s cup we set another goblet—brimming with water—Miriam’s cup. I’m glad my granddaughters, and the many families around the world who mark this new custom, will grow up with Miriam, sister of Aaron and Moses, “singing unto them” more powerfully than ever before.

Miriam leading the women in song. At right, Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. At left, Serah, daughter of Asher (Gen. 46:17, Num. 26:46), another Scriptural woman who sustained the Jewish people throughout the generations, according to legend.
Miriam leading the women in song. At right, Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. At left, Serah, daughter of Asher (Gen. 46:17; Num. 26:46), another Scriptural woman who sustained the Jewish people throughout the generations, according to legend. Detail from a painting by Riki Rothenberg.

What is Miriam’s connection to water? We remember her as “prophetess, sister of Moses and Aaron,” timbrel in hand, leading the women in praise song and dance at the shores of the Red Sea (Exod. 15:20–21).  But there’s much more. The medieval commentator Rashi, explaining Psalm 110:7, interpreted her name as having two parts: mar, a Hebrew word for “bitterness,” plus the Hebrew word for “sea,” yam.  In fact, those are the two elements that bookend the drama of Miriam’s early life, from the bitterness of the slavery into which she was born, to the shores of the Red Sea where she emerges as a public leader, part of a team, as the prophet Micah (6:4) reminds us.

Miriam was a prophet, says Exod. 15:20—the first woman in the Bible to receive this title. The Bible does not tell us what she prophesied, but the ancient sages are there, as always, to fill in the blanks. The two midwives, Puah and Shifra (Exod. 1:15), they said, were none other than Jochebed, Miriam’s mother, and her five-year-old (!) daughter. In this imaginary telling, Pharaoh summons Miriam and Jochebed to his palace to deliver his diabolical edict—to kill the Hebrew baby boys they had delivered. The world’s most defiant toddler then stamped her foot (as I picture it) and warned the Egyptian ruler: “Woe to this man because of his evil deeds when God is finished with him.”

 A fearless little Miriam tells Pharaoh off at the banks of the Nile. At right, Jochebed enthroned.  Detail from a painting by Ricky Rothenberg.
A fearless little Miriam tells Pharaoh off at the banks of the Nile. At right, Jochebed enthroned. Detail from a painting by Riki Rothenberg.

Further evidence of Miriam’s prophetic skills comes from the ancient commentary on Exodus, Exodus Rabbah, which teaches that when the Israelites realized Pharaoh’s plot, “many men decided to remain separate from their wives.” But young Miriam predicted: “a son will be born to my father and my mother at this time who will save the People of Israel from the hand of Egypt.” Persuaded by the sheer power of their daughter’s words, Jochebed returned to her husband Amram enthroned as a queen. She gave birth to a son, “and…the house was filled with a great light like the sun and the moon at their rising.”

Despite her leadership status, in fact, no doubt because of it, the Bible highlights an incident revealing a character flaw. Numbers 12:1-2 finds Miriam and Aaron apparently gossiping about their Cushite sister-in-law and maligning big brother Moses. Miriam bears the brunt of the punishment, struck with leprosy.

However, the same ancient sources who took Miriam to task and accused women in general of being prone to idle talk, also gave us Miriam’s most enduring, positive association, which comes to her only in death. Scripture speaks of Moses’ death and unmarked grave on Mount Nebo (Deut. 34:1-2, 6). As for Aaron, Numbers 20:29 says the whole house of Israel wept for him and mourned him for 30 days. But when it comes to the third member of the triumvirate, there is only the date, “the first month,” and the place, Kadesh (Num. 20:1).

Passover 2015 Miriam Kadesh Barnea
The barren wilderness of Kadesh, where Miriam is buried, as seen from Israel’s present-day border with Egypt in the western Negev. Photo: Miriam Feinberg Vamosh.

But then, it is the very next verse that has brought Miriam’s cup to our Seder table. The sages who interpreted Scripture were all about connections, and the fact that the death of Miriam is immediately followed by an assembly, not of mourning but of “striving” (Num. 20:3), was simply too good to leave alone.

Miriam's well from Riky
Miriam’s well, as the sages pictured it. Detail of a painting by Riki Rothenberg.

In answer to the people’s outcry, God tells Moses to strike a rock, bringing water gushing forth (Num. 20:8-12). The Ethics of the Fathers speaks of this well as one of ten amazing sights created on the eve of the first Sabbath after creation—on a par with the rainbow after the great flood, manna, and Moses’ miraculous staff (m. Avot 5:6). In the Babylonian Talmud, Rabbi Jose noted that the well, like other miraculous gifts, was given out of merit for the three wilderness leaders (b. Taan. 9a). Because Miriam’s most memorable deeds involved water—saving Moses and leading the women in praise song and dance next to water—the people felt the lack of water most powerfully when she died. And so, in her honor, God caused the well, which had mysteriously disappeared, to return. When the head of each tribe would strike the rock, water would emerge in a stream leading to that tribe’s encampment. Wherever the tribes encamped, there the well would be.

The legend of Miriam’s well is still with us. Christian pilgrims crossing the Sea of Galilee spot many boats making the crossing with them, pausing mid-lake just like they do. But passengers on other decks are sometimes pilgrims of another faith—their dress clearly identifying them as Orthodox Jews. They are there waiting for a spring—none other than Miriam’s well, which they believe ended up here—to bubble up from the depths of the lake, as it intermittently does, as a sign of God’s faithfulness and healing power.

A 2012 film about reconnecting and renewal bears the name of the fictional town that is its backdrop:  “Hope Springs.” That play on words was not accidental. Hope springs eternal, Alexander Pope said. The cleansing and quenching of our spiritual thirst, the promise of new growth nourished by winter rains of blessing in the Holy Land, are all contained in “Miriam’s cup.”

Women dance, rarely, elsewhere in the Bible (1 Sam. 18:6; Judg. 11:34; 21:21; Ps. 68:25). But it is Miriam who is depicted by the Jewish mystical text, the Zohar, as dancing in Heaven. Miriam’s dance was unique, the very embodiment of praise and hope, which continues to promise that wherever we set our Seder table, in the words of the ancients, “sustenance may be granted for the sake of one individual.”

My thanks to the artist Riki Rothenberg (rikiro.art@gmail.com) for her insights about Miriam and for her evocative painting of the prophetess, details of which grace this article.
Friends for life, through thick and thin: My great-niece Adella (right), her arm around her little brother Cole, remind me of Miriam and Moses, and other shorelines. San Francisco, 2015. Photo: Sierra Schwidder.
Friends for life, through thick and thin: My great-niece Adella (right), her arm around her little brother Cole, remind me of Miriam and Moses, and other shorelines. San Francisco, 2015. Photo: Sierra Schwidder.
Learn more about Miriam Feinberg Vamosh at www.miriamfeinbergvamosh.com.

How a Book is Born: Teach it To Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days

Stories? Me? Write stories? That was my gut response when the scientific adviser for my book Teach it to Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days, made one of his first suggestions to me, because until then, my specialty was non-fiction—informing readers how people lived in Bible times.

The book has plenty such information in the “Did You Know” sections of each chapter. But it’s the short stories in each chapter of Teach it To Your Children: How Kids Lived in Bible Days that I start out with as I attempt to rise to David Bivin’s welcome challenge to describe the “genesis” of this book. One of my favorite stories was inspired by my scientific adviser, Prof. Meir Bar-Ilan.  In fact, I’d like to tell you about him first because he embodies so much of what makes this book a special combination of inspirations from the Holy Land itself. He is a professor of Talmud and Jewish history at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, which carries the name of his own grandfather. He is a disabled veteran, having lost a leg in Israel’s first war in Lebanon. And so not by chance, as we discussed the chapters the book should contain, Prof. Bar-Ilan suggested there be one about how the Bible treats people with disabilities. This struck very close to home, as my husband is also a disabled Israeli veteran. He led me back into 2 Samuel where I rediscovered the story of a young man, disabled as a toddler, who overcame both physical and political adversity to rise to new heights—Mephibosheth. Most people hardly remember who he is (2 Sam. 4:4; 2 Sam. 9), much less can pronounce his name. And so, telling children his story, I was able to give him a voice, and at the same time introduce children to one of the Bible’s most important injunctions—care for the needy and the weak, as God does.

How Kids Lived In Bible Days by Miriam Feinberg Vamosh

Inspiration for another story came from my educational adviser, Maya Dubinsky, an expert in early childhood Jewish education (full disclosure, she is also my daughter). One of my stories takes place in an ancient classroom from around the time of Jesus, where I wanted to show what schooling was like in those days, and appears in my chapter on education. I asked Maya what the most amazing thing was that a child ever said to her in the classroom. She answered, without hesitation, that it was when she was discussing with them in what ways they thought human beings are made in God’s image, as we are taught in Genesis. The answer of one of her young students went right into the mouth of the young boy living in Jesus’ day in my story: “we are like God because we speak, and so does God.”

Yet another story, in the chapter on worship in Bible days, came from my own childhood, in fact, the very first lesson I ever learned in Sunday school. It is such a powerful and well-known tale in Jewish tradition that many people think it’s right in the Bible. But it’s not—it was a story the ancient Jewish sages told to explain how father Abraham, as a youngster, came to his faith in one God.  It’s a strange, wonderful tale of Abraham working in the “idol shop” owned by his father Terah.

The other special element of the book is the arts and crafts section that goes with each chapter. That goes back to the very first conversation I had with the publisher, Avi Ofra of Avi Media. “I want a book for children, and about children. A book that grandparents, parents, aunts and uncles can read together with the kids they love. And I want activities, too,” he said. We realized that this element, together with the fictional story for each chapter, would take this book beyond any other. Putting historical and biblical facts together with pictures of various finds is quite a common element in daily life books about Bible times and other historical times; Teach it to Your Children does that, too. But actually being able to sit with your child, grandchild, niece, nephew or Sunday School class, and make a manger, for example, that looks like the one Jesus was put in as an infant—well, there’s nothing like it for teaching, learning and growing together in love of Scripture.

The activities became an opportunity not only for biblically inspired coloring, painting, drawing and writing, but also a chance to let children elsewhere in the world know what Israeli children do in their classroom. For example—how to make a charity box, with a photograph of real little girls in a Tel Aviv classroom with some of their creations. Another activity shows you how to make a model spring—water being one of the Bible’s most enduring symbols—the way elementary schoolchildren in Israel learn to do. The making of a manger came out of the fact that as a tour educator, I show people at Megiddo (Armageddon) a stone manger—the same kind the baby Jesus would have been laid in. “You see?” I tell pilgrims. “Mangers were not made out of wood like they usually are in your nativity scenes back home. They were stone. So next year, have your Sunday school classes make a manger out of papier-maché!”  And that’s exactly what I did. Over about five weeks, as the layers of plaster and newspaper dried thoroughly over an old shoebox, and with some craft-store straw, quite a presentable manger emerged. The photo, and instructions, are in the book.

People often ask how I do my research. One thing’s for sure: I’ve come a long way since collecting material for my first book about daily life at the time of Jesus and those that followed. I remember summer days where I took one library book at a time to the pool at Kibbutz Ma’aleh Hahamishah near my home. Those were my strange-but-true first steps into the world of ancient customs. As my two daughters—never mind how long ago but they are now a business woman and an educator—splashed around with their friends, I would troll the book for information, copying notes longhand into a notebook. Then the notebooks (and there were many) would slowly but surely coalesce into chapters at home in my study.

By the time I wrote Teach it to Your Children, I had upgraded my technology—no more longhand copying into notebooks (and no more poolside research)—but the library still played a vital role. After the publisher gave me his wish-list of subjects to include, Prof. Bar-Ilan went over it and added his ideas. Then he gave me a long list of books to read. And so it was off to libraries at Tel Aviv University and at Hebrew University to find and study them. If you’re wondering about your own research, I’ll add that Internet searches can play a role, but mainly to come up with new sources to look into back in the library, as well as, in my case, to find experts in the many and varied fields I tackled. For instance, it was on the Internet that I found Prof. Leslie Joan Shumka, who had written her M.A. thesis years before on toys in the Roman world. She was pleasantly surprised by my query, and was warmly obliging when I emailed her “cold.” She sent me her entire thesis, which was an invaluable resource in my chapter on toys and games. There were many such ad-hoc advisers.

Eventually, with much help from a team that included, prominently, the book’s designer (as much as text is my forte, I recognize the old adage is more true than ever—a picture is worth a thousand words), the book came together. After much polishing by Margery Morgan, the text editor, the text was ready. Prof. Bar-Ilan went over each element of each chapter with a fine-tooth comb, picking out the inaccuracies, sometimes again and again until he was satisfied that readers and young listeners were getting a true picture of the lives of children in the Bible. After that, came the input of Sharon Hopkins, an early childhood Christian educator and pastor’s wife from Oregon, who read each chapter through the prism of her faith and the eyes (and language skills) of the children she teaches.  As a Jewish person, I’ve tried for years in my writing and guiding to respectfully show Christians how the best of Jewish tradition impacts their own faith and customs. But Sharon’s input made all the difference in making sure that every word was written so as to deepen Christian children’s understanding of Scripture and the experience of sharing it with the adults who love them to strengthen family bonds.

And speaking of family, one of the best aspects of working with the publisher Avi Ofra is that his very own family embodied the love, devotion, care and respect in family bonds to which the Bible teaches us to aspire. His son and daughter helped him in many aspects of the marketing and the book’s first edition was dedicated to his first grandchild. The family of the graphic artist, Saggie Bernstein, was also involved—it’s his son whom he photographed using “David’s slingshot.” And the illustrative artist, Mira Hass, says her children are a constant inspiration for her to tell Bible stories in pictures.

Scholars tell us that the word “genesis,” coming via Latin from a Greek term, is related to being born. I hope that I have been able to clue you not only to how Teach it to Your Children was born, but perhaps, on a deeper level, how the collective effort of the group of people behind and alongside me gave birth to a book that I hope is an inspiration to growing faith in Scripture of children and their families everywhere.