Controversy in archaeology: Hebrew University professor disputes claims about purpose of newly-discovered Temple artifact

Challenges interpretation of Israel Antiquities Authority; says ancient seal was used by Temple administration to track purchases, not to indicate purity

Jerusalem, Jan. 4, 2012 — A Talmudic scholar at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem is challenging the conventional wisdom about the purpose of an ancient artifact recently discovered in archaeological excavations in the Temple Mount area of Jerusalem.

On December 25, newspapers around the world reported the discovery of a tiny object of fired clay, about the size of a button, stamped with an inscription consisting of the Hebrew lettersדכא ליה  (“DKA LYH” or "Deka Leyah"). The object was discovered in excavations organized by the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) about 15 meters north of the southwestern corner of the Temple Mount, beneath Robinson’s Arch in the Archaeological Garden in Jerusalem.

According to the archaeologists in charge of the excavation, the letters are an Aramaic inscription meaning "pure for God," and the object was used to mark things brought to the Temple as ritually pure.
But Prof. Shlomo Naeh, a professor in the Hebrew University's Talmud Department and the head of Hebrew University's Mandel Institute of Jewish Studies, points out several problems with this explanation. According to Naeh, "Labeling an object as 'pure' is not reasonable because according to ritual law, an object can easily lose its purity at any time, even if merely touched by an unclean person. Moreover, symbols of purity must be attached in a way that prevents their removal or transfer to another object, but this artifact was not found to contain spurs or holes for string that would have enabled it to be firmly attached. And it would not have been used as a stamp, because the writing on it is from right to left, and not in the mirror-image writing typically used on stamps. Preserving the purity of an object must be done in a more secure manner, for example by inscribing and sealing vessels in such a way that it’s impossible to open them without it being noticeable."

Naeh offers an entirely different explanation: the object is a kind of voucher or token, referred to in the Mishnah as a "חותם" (seal), which enabled the Temple administrator to keep track of commerce related to sacrificial offerings. (The Mishnah is a compilation of Jewish oral tradition redacted by Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi around 200 CE; it comprises the first section of the Talmud.)

In Temple times, every animal sacrifice was accompanied by additional offerings consisting of flour, wine and oil, in varying proportions depending on the type of sacrifice. These offerings had to be purchased in the Temple to ensure they were kosher and pure.

According to the Mishnah, the sale of these additional offerings was managed in a centralized manner: the person bringing the sacrifice would pay for them at the Temple "office” and receive a seal-like object with Aramaic writing listing the type of sacrifice. The person would then bring the seal to the seller of additional offerings and receive the specified allotment.

According to Professor Naeh, the newly-discovered artifact was used to track these transactions. In an abbreviated code necessitated by the object's small size, the inscription indicates the type of additional offering the buyer was entitled to and the date on which he was entitled to it. In this instance, the letters are an abbreviation of three words: “Dakhar Aleph Le-Yehoyariv,” meaning the buyer was entitled to the additional offerings for a ram, on the first day of the work shift of the Yehoyariv family of priests.

“Dakhar” in Aramaic means “male” (signifying a ram), as described in the Mishnah: “There were four seals in the Sanctuary, inscribed with the words Egel (calf), Zakhar (ram), Gdi (kid), and Khote (sinner); Ben Azai says, the inscriptions were in Aramaic: Egel, Dakhar, Gdi, and Khote” (Shekalim, 5D).

“Aleph” indicates the first day of the week, meaning the sacrifice was brought on a Sunday.

"Yehoyariv" indicates the family that had the first of the twenty-four weekly shifts according to the division of labor among priestly families working in the Temple.

Prof. Naeh explains: "To prevent deception or fraud, they limited the validity of the seal so that it could not be used on any other day. According to the tradition recorded in the Mishnah and the Jerusalem Talmud, they marked it with the day of the week and the name of the priestly shift that was working that week in the Temple." Priestly families were divided into twenty-four shifts and alternated the watches (shifts) so that each family worked approximately once in each six month cycle.

"This archaeological discovery is living proof that the Temple was administered as described in the Mishnah,” adds Prof. Naeh. "This interpretation also explains why this object is such a rare find, because the seals mentioned in the Mishnah were used only in the Temple area as an internal means of exchange, and it can be assumed that only a few items found their way out of the Temple."

Prof. Naeh added that in recent years, researchers of Jewish antiquity have raised doubts about the credibility of early rabbinical descriptions of Temple activity. However in this instance the Mishnah was shown to contain accurate and precise information about the workings of the Temple, and this should caution us against making sweeping generalizations that deny the historical credibility of early rabbinical sources.