Kenneth A. Kitchen

Kenneth A. Kitchen is professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool, England. He is author of The Bible in its World (Paternoster, 1977), as well as numerous other books and articles.

The ‘Tabernacle’ of Exodus 26/36 holds a midway position in Biblical tradition between the simple family sacrifices of the Patriarchs in Genesis1 and the permanent temple built by Solomon at Jerusalem (1 Kgs 6; 7:13–51). However, a century or so ago, in their eagerness to restructure Biblical history in accord with the philosophic fads and fashions of their time — and without as much as troubling to check for any factual basis — Biblical scholars arbitrarily decided that the Tabernacle was essentially a fiction fabricated by priests in or after the Babylonian Exile; ‘simple’ worship was declared to have been the rule until (at earliest) the shrine at Shiloh or (at latest) David’s tent or Solomon’s temple. Opinion had it that “the tabernacle rests on an historical fiction. .. At the outset its very possibility is doubtful”2 or it is “quite unrealistic.”3 No one can blame last century’s scholars for not using facts not available to them; but they (and even more, their successors) are academically open to criticism for not even having looked for evidence pro or contra.

In 1947, Cross suggested that the Tabernacle’s possible reality should be taken more seriously, and wished to refer the Exodus description to David’s tent.4 In 1960 and since, the present writer was able to point to much fuller extra-Biblical evidence that also pointed to epochs long predating the Exile.5 However, quite typically, much Biblical scholarship has failed to pay heed to either Cross’ arguments or to this writer’s fresh facts, and has continued uncritically to repeat the same old 19th century shibboleths about late priestly fictions.6 Is this situation tenable? Are there no external facts to guide us in evaluating the data of Exodus 26/36 and associated material? In origin, the Biblical books and their contents are ancient West-Semitic texts and come out

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of the ancient Near East. Therefore it is to that context we must first look, and not remain content with mere a priori theory or opinions lacking factual bases.

The Tabernacle Itself

As viewed in the text, the Tabernacle itself consisted of four sets of coverings over a series of tall, rectangular wooden frames (not solid boards, as once thought), gilded, set in pairs of silver sockets, and secured also by transverse wooden rods. At about 45 ft in length and some 15 ft wide (only two chambers: adyton at 15 x 30 ft; inner sanctuary at 15 ft square), this structure is of basically simple design and of very modest size, as befits a collapsible, portable shrine, which is what the Tabernacle is. To call this structure sophisticated or elaborate is mistaken; is it, nevertheless, fanciful, merely a dream? The following tangible data may suggest otherwise.

Our review begins in Fourth-Dynasty Egypt, ca. 2600 BC. Mother of Kheops, builder of the Great Pyramid at Giza, queen Hetepheres I had a reburial of her effects nearby in a deep shaft-tomb. Among other treasures was found a splendid bedroom suite (with bed, headrest, chair) with its rectangular pavilion of gold-cased timbers,7 the upright rods being socketed with tenons into long horizontal beams at top and base; at the rear, it had special corner-pieces for stability (as did the Tabernacle, Ex 26:23, 24). Its cross-braces across the top from one side to the other might even indicate a feature used in the Biblical Tabernacle but omitted from the Exodus account. Like

Bedroom suite of Queen Hetepheres, including bed, headrest and chair, all within a rectangular pavilion made of gold-covered wood. The pieces of the pavilion fit together with tenons and sockets in the same fashion as the Tabernacle.

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the Biblical structure, this one also would clearly have supported sets of curtains over it. While in finer details the two structures differ (e.g., rods not frames in Hetepheres, and long base-beams, not pairs of sockets), yet the basic techniques and technology directly recall those of the later Tabernacle — gold overlay on timber structural pieces; tenons into socket-holes, long beams to secure the vertical frame-poles, special corner-constructions, etc. This early example, however, is secular, not religious. But religious use of such prefabricated structures is attested in Egypt long before Hetepheres, even in the First Dynasty (ca. 2900 BC), whence date fragments of poles of such pavilions found in a ‘royal class’ tomb at Saqqara,8 in funerary use. Long after the queen, four other such pavilions are shown in tomb-scenes of the Fourth to Sixth Dynasties (mid third millennium BC).9

Another group of such pavilions of this type, the ‘Tent of Purification,’ was still more explicitly religious in use, being employed for the elaborate rituals performed over the bodies of royalty and notables before and after mummification. These were considerable structures, with hangings of cloth (curtains) over a framework of uprights linked along the top by long transverse rods and beams (cf. the Tabernacle’s rods).10 Again, actual remains of these Early Bronze ‘tabernacles’ have been found. Before Hetepheres, storerooms of Djoser at the Step Pyramid yielded some wooden fragments, while from the filling of Hetepheres’ own tomb-shaft came parts of gilded wooden poles, limestone sockets for uprights, and copper fittings — same technology once more.11

Relevant data next appear during Egypt’s New Kingdom (ca. 1550–1070 BC). Throughout most of this period, in their tombs in the Valley of Kings at Thebes, the pharaohs each had sets of four concentrically-nested gold-plated wooden shrines over their coffined burial. Unlike the Tabernacle, these were solid-walled structures (gold-overlaid throughout), but like the Hebrew structure they were dismountably fixed together by tenon and socket joints, often cleverly concealed. The one set to survive intact in full splendor is that of Tutankhamun (ca. 1330 BC) from his famous tomb; the outermost is some 16.5 ft long, 11 ft wide and 9 ft high.12 Over the second of these ‘shrines’ had been erected a wooden framework carrying a faded linen pall, like a skeletal version of the Tabernacle, with gilded bronze rosettes (daisy/marguerite) sewn all over the fabric.13 But such usage also obtained in the religion of this world as well as the next. Behind the oldest part of the great temple of Amun at Karnak in Thebes, Tuthmosis III (ca. 1479–1426 BC) erected a Festival Hall, a huge translation into stone of a pillared tent.14 Coming down to the 13th century BC, a vivid painting in the Theban tomb-chapel (No. 217) of Ipuy shows workmen busy with a shrine for the deified Amenophis I, with a richly-decorated exterior.15

Some of these last items also serve as background to the tricolored linen curtains of the Tabernacle proper, with its embroidered cherubim (winged human-headed sphinxes). Overall repetitive use of a single motif on curtains and the like (by various techniques) is well-attested in the Late Bronze Age and well beyond. Compare already, above, Tutankhamun’s

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frame-supported pall, with its gilded rosettes, and the richly-caparisoned shrine for Amenophis I. Richly woven or embroidered linen sheets go back in Egypt over a millennium before the 13th century BC. The state ship of king Sahure (ca. 2500 BC) had a huge, superbly decorated sail with a rich allover patterning of alternating stars and rosettes in rectangles.16 This tradition continued right down into the 13th century BC, as tomb-paintings show.17 Much closer to the Tabernacle for religious usage is the palladium of Min, within which the bearers of his statue walk in procession at his festivals (see cover illustration). The great tent-like swathe of scarlet cloth is ornamented with golden stars-in-circles under Ramesses III (ca. 1170 BC),18 and a century earlier with rows of alternating circled stars and royal cartouches under Ramesses II (ca. 1270 BC).19

Thus, the use of richly wrought linen generally and for religious equipment in particular was nothing new by the 13th century BC. In the Near East the use of the hides of aquatic mammals was extremely ancient — already in the fifth/fourth millennia BC, and also ca. 2000 BC, the sea-cow or dugong (possible translation of the tahash of Ex 26:14) was hunted for its products along the Arabian Gulf.20

The proportions of the Tabernacle structure, and its two-roomed arrangement also find analogy from Egyptian sources of that period. The war-tent of the divine king — as with Ramesses II at the Battle of Qadesh (ca. 1275 BC) — was likewise divided into two rooms, the outer being twice the length of the inner sanctum like the Tabernacle; and the Egyptian twofold royal tent stood within its own rectangular precinct (within the camp), just as did the Tabernacle (Ex 27:9–18).21 After Ramesses II and III, our Egyptian data fade out.

The forces of Ramesses II at Qadesh, Lebanon, 13th century BC. Ramesses’ tent was enclosed and situated in the center of a rectangular camp, in the same way the Tabernacle was enclosed and surrounded by Israelite tribes when they camped during the Wilderness Wanderings.

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Going into the Levant and beyond (by contrast with 1, 300 years of Egyptian background), the evidence is more limited but significant. The Ugaritic literary tablets of the 14th/13th centuries BC (whose stories originate much earlier22 ) provide additional data for the term qerashim, ‘frames,’ ‘pavilion,’ occurring in such phrases as qrs̆ mlk ʿab s̆nm, several times, for the abode of El: “the tabernacle of the King, the Father of Years (?).”23 So, usage here extends through the Middle and Late Bronze Ages. King Keret of the legends performs ritual sacrifices in a tent, as a natural religious act.24 By contrast with the 19th-century misconception that Hebrew mis̆kan was simply a late priestly term for an imaginary structure, the term appears (paired with ʿohel as in Hebrew) in Ugaritic, again in the old literary texts.25 On the archaeological plane, at Timna near Elath, we have the Midianite tent-sanctuary of the 12th century BC, a pole-supported tent (shreds of fabric still preserved) within a low stone enclosure, the whole some 30 ft square.26

By contrast with Egypt and the Levant, almost no evidence of the kind so far reviewed is forthcoming from the rich resources for Mesopotamian civilization. Least of all for Exilic (Neo-Babylonian) times. Symptomatically, the only remotely similar structure is a four-pillared canopy over a religious symbol in a sanctuary of the goddess Assuritu in the Temple of Ishtar built by Tukulti-Ninurta I at Assur — again, the 13th century BC.27 With this, one may contrast the sanctuary of Nabu of the seventh century BC, half a millennium later, showing no such feature.28 In late pre-Exilic and in Exilic times, the tabernacle concept has no place in ‘Exilic’ Neo-Assyria or Neo-Babylon. It is altogether older, on the full comparative data currently available.

Regarding the actual size of the Tabernacle and its precinct, it should be emphasized how very small and simple the whole affair actually was. At 45 ft by 15 ft, the Tabernacle is tiny compared (e.g.) with the 200 ft by 600 ft plan of the personal memorial temples of Ramesses II (the Ramesseum) or Ramesses III (at Medinet Habu) in Western Thebes, while its precinct at 75 ft by 150 ft (23 by 46 m) would be lost in the huge precincts of either temple, that were about twice as long (1,200 ft) and thrice as wide (some 600 ft) as the temples themselves. Of course, the main state temples at Karnak (up to a quarter-mile long) in Thebes, and at Memphis and Heliopolis were much larger again. In short, the Tabernacle of the so-called ‘priestly’ account is a very modest tent of meeting indeed, when set in a wider factual context.

Setting and Some Furnishings of the Tabernacle

The Tabernacle and its enclosure lay within an essentially rectangular

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In the first millennium BC, military camps were circular as this example of the Assyrian camp at Lachish (late 8th century BC) shows. The rectangular encampment of the Israelite tribes matches the second millennium usage.

camp, with three tribes encamped outside and at a suitable (if unspecified) distance from each of the four sides of the Tabernacle’s own rectangular precinct (Nm 2). As noticed by others long since,29 this basically rectangular layout of the Hebrew camp directly resembles Egyptian usage of the 13th century BC, as illustrated by the Battle of Qadesh reliefs of Ramesses II, whose tabernacular, fenced-off tent was in the middle of a rectangular camp, in its case edged with a palisade of shields.30 But, in later times, such encampments (more ‘economically’) are usually round, as with the Assyrians in the first millennium BC.31 So, typically, the Biblical arrangement goes back to its Bronze-Age context (13th century BC at latest), once again.

The transport of the Tabernacle structures through the wilderness was to be confined to six carts, each drawn by a pair of oxen (Nm 7:3 ff). The term used is ʿagala(t). Its use in this kind of context is not restricted to Numbers 7. In the early 12th century BC, in his third year (ca. 1151 BC), Ramesses IV sent an expedition of 8,368 men out into Egypt’s Eastern desert (in Wadi Hammamat) to quarry special stone. The supply-train consisted (besides human porters) of “ten wagons, with six spans of oxen per wagon pulling them,”32 the word for wagon being the selfsame ʿagalat (in Egyptian transcript ʿgrt, in group-writing denoting a loan word, here a West-Semitic one).33 Thus, the term, the use for desert-conditions and mode of propulsion is identical in both cases, barely a century apart; no Exilic fiction here.

The care and custody of the Tabernacle and its sacred contents is clearly divided between the Aaronic priestly family and the other Levites (clans of Gershon, Kohath and Merari): priests within, and other Levites on the outside (Nm 18:3 ff: cf. 3:7 ff); priests guarded the entry to the Tabernacle, however, even outside (Nm 3:38); the Levitical clans came under the control of priests, as of Eleazar (Nm 4:15, 16), and Ithamar (Nm 4:28, 33), etc. This duality of duties is not an isolated freak; it is also found in the Hittite instructions to temple staff, showing the closest analogies in usage with the Biblical practices; suffice it here to refer to the exemplary study by

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Milgrom.34 In punishments for offenses against the sacred, Milgrom notes (p. 209) the distinction in both traditions between human punishment of the erring individual and corporate punishment of man and family by deity directly. Here, Egyptian usage largely corroborates this position. In the great ‘secular’ Decree of Haremhab (ca. 1320 BC), the punishments meted out are upon the guilty individuals; family is not involved.35 The same is true almost throughout in the Nauri Decree of Sethos I (ca. 1290 BC), where the individual bears his punishment; only in the case of misappropriation of cattle (which had special status) was a man to be either executed or mutilated and enslaved and his family also enslaved (§§22–23). Otherwise, in one case of offense against others by temple personnel, it was left to deity (in this case, Osiris) to inflict eternal damnation on a man and his family (§36), as in Hittite and Biblical usage.36 So, the concepts are old and in some cases reach further back.

On furnishings, much could be said, but nothing more than symptomatic examples can be quickly given here. The two silver trumpets of Numbers 10:1–10 were not the familiar curling shofar; these hasoseroth are generally recognized as having been straight tubular instruments, perhaps with flared end. Their use was fourfold: to gather the assembly; to set the tribes off on their marches; to signal attack on an enemy in the land; to celebrate major festivals and the new moon. Two such trumpets were found in the tomb of Tutankhamun (ca. 1330 BC), one of silver, one of cooper or bronze, overlaid with gold.37 Trumpets of this type occur also in various relief-scenes in Egyptian temples, etc., and in much the same uses as their Biblical counter-parts. So, they are blown to rally groups of soldiers,38 to begin or accompany the march to war,39 actually in war-scenes,40 and to celebrate great religious festivals — so, under Queen Hatshepsut (ca. 1490 BC), with files of rejoicing soldiers joining in, with foliage, in Amun’s festivals,41 and under Ramesses II (ca. 1270 BC) at Abydos for Osiris to accompany offerings for the festival.42 As Hickmann notes, the use of such trumpets in pairs was a widespread phenomenon, including in Egypt (15th-12th centuries BC).43 Naturally, such instruments long continue in use beyond the Bronze Age; the point here is they were in full and customary use in that period; anyone using them then was neither precocious nor an innovator.

We turn now to actual cultic furnishing. The Ark of the Covenant has had close consideration of late.44 Its basic form and nature are clear (Ex 25:10–22), if certain details are not. It was a wooden box 1.5 cubits high and wide and 2.5 cubits long (about 0.75 m (2 ft 3 in) and 1.25 m (39 in) on four feet, gilded within and without, with a ledge around the top. Four gold rings at the four feet secured two long, gilded acacia poles on which to carry the Ark. Less clear is the adornment (two cherubim, facing each other with extended wings) upon the gold cover of the box, and fuller study of which must be left to another occasion. Such boxes, borne on carrying-poles passing through rings attached to the box, were commonplace in Egypt. This type of box is attested from the Sixth Dynasty at least, a millennium before Tutankhamun or the Late Bronze Age, while from the latter king’s tomb comes a superb example

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of just such a wooden box borne upon poles set through rings, of dimensions (0.635/0.605m; 0.83m) quite close to the Ark’s, if slightly less. It too served religious use, having originally contained a set of teapot-like namsitu ritual libation-vessels.45 The function of the Ark in relation to the deity has been much discussed — throne, foot-stool, or base-box for an (invisible) throne for an unseen deity?46 If the Biblical references be treated seriously, and not simply ‘wished away’ as later insertions, then the concept is one of YHWH throning on the cherubim, in particular upon their inner wings curved over to meet in the middle.47 In such a case, then the Ark was both base-box and footstool, and the wings of the cherubim made a throne of its golden upper element. The concept of a throne or the like for an invisible deity has long been canvassed;48 such a concept is also ancient: suffice it to refer here to a series of scenes at the Deir el-Bahri memorial temple of Queen Hatshepsut (ca. 1470 BC), where an empty ‘lion throne’ repeatedly occurs in festival processions, its absent or invisible occupant symbolized only by a feather-fan.49

The Rituals of the Tabernacle

Here also, a variety of background data furnish us with an external, relatively objective set of standards against which we may better appreciate the Biblical data.

The week-long induction of priestly staff for a new shrine (as in Lv 8–9; cf. Ex 29:35–37) is not exclusive to early Israel. One should compare the six/seven days’ ritual of Ulippi,50 so with its far greater elaboration of ritual than is found in Exodus and Leviticus. At the same general date (14th/13th century BC), we now have from Emar in Syria the two allied rituals for the induction of two priestesses at a temple (M.1 of the archaeologists), of 100 and 115 lines in length. These also lasted seven days (cf. Leviticus and Ulippi), with a bull and seven sheep sacrificed daily in one case, and a bull, ram and goat daily in the other case, with other offerings and elaborate rites ending in a banquet in the second case.51 Compared with Ulippi and Emar, the Tabernacle rituals of Exodus/Leviticus are altogether simpler, more ‘primitive.’

In recent decades. actually-known ancient rituals have attracted more sensitive and careful study, notably the West-Semitic and Semito-Hurrian rituals from Ugarit.52 Besides the Hittites (cf. Ulippi, above), Egypt too has many points of comparison. The rituals at the Tabernacle come under three heads. I. Basic types of sacrifice (Lv 1–7). II. Regular daily cult (Ex 29:38–41; Nm 28:1–10). III. Monthly offerings and annual festivals (Nm 28:11–29:40; cf. Lv 23). These distinctions are universal in the Bronze Age Near East. To an orientalist, what is so striking is the primitive simplicity, even stark ‘sparseness’ of the Tabernacle rites — in evolutionary terms, far closer to the fourth millennium BC

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than the fourth century. The daily ritual at the Tabernacle is but the twice-daily presentation of a lamb, some flour and oil, and a libation of wine,53 in not more than three ‘acts,’ while the basic sacrifices consist of only six to ten ‘acts.’ Contrast the standard daily ritual for all temples (large or small) in New-Kingdom Egypt (ca. 1550–1070 BC), of between 48 and 62 ‘acts’ or episodes in the basic rites celebrated thrice a day.54 The Hebrew calendar of annual feasts reaches barely a dozen celebrations; contrast the 60 or more annual festivals (some, like Opet, vast in length and elaboration) in Egypt, as at Thebes.55 Again, ‘primitive’ simplicity.

Terminology and usage in ritual, Biblical and beyond, has also been more carefully considered of late, notably by Milgrom.56 In recent years, evidence has accumulated for the antiquity (including a pre-monarchic antiquity) of an increasing number of terms.57 Comparative evidence enables us to correct the interpretation of familiar terms — tenupa is an ‘elevation-offering,’ not a ‘wave-offering,’ thanks to clear indications from New Kingdom Egypt.58 The concept of transferring evil symbolically to an animal and/or human, to be driven-off out of one’s land is held in common by both Hebrew usage (scapegoat rite, Lv 16) and in 14th/13th-century Hittite rituals, with (naturally) differences in detail and emphasis.59 Attitudes to economic status and to integrity of offerings are also shared by Biblical and non-Biblical writers. Allowance for poverty in Leviticus (5:7, 11; 12:8) provides that the poor may offer (e.g.) a pair of pigeons instead of a lamb; likewise in Late Bronze Age Hittite rites, the poor person may offer one sheep rather than nine.60 Blemished offerings are acceptable neither to the Levitical cult (Lv 22:17–25) nor to its Hittite opposite numbers.61 The wealth of background is very extensive, and reaches very far back in time.

In Conclusion

We have not proved that the Tabernacle of Exodus 26/36 actually existed in (say) the 13th century BC, nor have we sought to. But the overall evidence to hand does — in its own right — point clearly to an origin long before the supposed ‘pipe dreams’ of the Neo-Babylonian Exile. Much of its technology is Egyptian, the arrangement of a two-room sanctum in a rectangular precinct in a rectangular camp is Late Bronze Age and Egyptian (first millennium and Assyrian camps were rounded, with different structures within), the only Mesopotamian parallel is 13th-century, where later sanctuaries have no such provision; the qerashim/mishkan terminology is not only Late Bronze West-Semitic but originated earlier; the silver trumpets and their uses directly correspond to Egyptian type and uses. To attribute all, or any, of this to Hebrew ‘priestly’ circles living humbled in exile in Nebuchadrezzar’s Babylon, six or seven centuries after such usages in our data, involves belief in some kind of magical ‘telepathy’ across nearly 1000 miles and several centuries late! This may be all very well in ‘Science-fiction’ — but not in serious academic study of the Biblical world. ‘P,’ it should be remembered, is strictly pure fiction — there is no such document extant, other than in the scholarly

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imagination: no papyrus, parchment, codex or ostracon of it exists in any collection anywhere in the world. Hence, scholars need to revise drastically the rag bag of inherited 19th-century conceptions that ‘P’ contains and symbolizes. Specific entities within ‘it’ need to be taken out, each examined on their merits in their proper ancient context, and re-evaluated as necessary.

In terms of ‘macro-history’ — the span of entire ancient communities and civilizations — drastic and ruthless changes of attitude are now an urgent desideratum. What is needed is more attention to the actual profile of ancient Near Eastern history as we actually have it, during the literate era ca. 3000–300 BC. As has been pointed out in provisional form elsewhere,62 the real profiles of the specific histories in the area show a Formative epoch, a point or time of Crystallization of norms and forms, and then an ongoing Stream of cultural tradition. This is seen at its clearest in Egypt, but is equally discernible in both Mesopotamia (with duality of phenomena due to Sumerian/Accadian concurrence) and ancient Anatolia (also, multiple groups), and is visible in the archaeological ‘history’ of Syria-Palestine. To this fundamental ‘profile,’ based exclusively on the known facts of history as universally accepted, we must compare Biblical history. That displayed in our extant Biblical tradition (and so often decried — without evidence — as schematic) fits perfectly. The patriarchs/Egyptian Sojourn are the formative epoch, or ‘proto-history’ (to echo a term used by Professor Malamat63 ) with clear links to the Middle and Late Bronze ages; the Exodus from Egypt to Sinai with institution of the Covenant and the simple Tabernacular worship is the crystallization; and the rest of Israelite/Judean history is the ongoing stream of tradition, its history — like all ancient history — marked by undulation (ups and downs, in plain language). The old 19th-century concept of a few primitive tribes folk (of ‘Stone Age’ mentality) evolving smoothly upward via a rather rural monarchy to the ‘moral heights’ of later ‘prophecy’ (covenant coming only with the seventh century BC), and followed by fossilization into rigid priestly structures from the Exile onward into a cultural decline (barely a ‘silver age’) — this is the stuff of fiction, and bears no relation whatsoever to how ancient history really unfolded, inside or outside of Biblical tradition. In real history, the Tabernacle tradition belongs to the Late Bronze Egypto-Semitic world, not to Middle-Iron Mesopotamia. Furthermore, this result does not flow from dogmatic considerations but from the exclusive attention to tangible evidence, open to all to verify at leisure; it neither needs nor presupposes any particular system of belief or philosophy. Over the years, the contributions by Professor Malamat have been an unfailing stimulus in studying the interrelations of Biblical and Near-Eastern data; those presented here seek to tread a parallel path.

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(Reprinted with permission from Eretz-Israel 24 [1993], pp. 119*-29*)