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The First Hebrew Explorer of the Land of Israel

Unfazed by rabbinical prohibitions, he took scientific instruments and journeyed to the Holy Land

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Rabbi Ishtori Haparchi authored the first Hebrew book on the geography of the Land of Israel, an endeavor that threw the Jewish world into turmoil. 

Back in the 14th century, the only materials available on the Land of Israel were the Bible, Talmud and other religious writings. Haparchi, an Orthodox Rabbi, set out to explore the Holy Land and provide a guide for Jews seeking to make pilgrimage. It was his use of scientific tools to explore the Promised Land that proved to be vital, and controversial. 

Rabbi Haparchi was born in 1280 in the south of France and grew up in Montpelier, a large Jewish and liberal community. It was the early days of the Renaissance, when science and empirical knowledge were becoming more acceptable, together with new philosophies, including higher biblical criticism. The idea that the Bible is not an actual record of events, but only allegory, was popularized. Even rabbis were discussing the possibilities that the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai did not really happen, but is only symbolic, or that Abraham and Sarah never really existed, but are just teaching parables. These unorthodox concepts gained so much influence that some of Judaism’s greatest rabbis were moved to forbid the study of “Greek wisdom,” which meant the modern sciences being taught throughout European Christendom.

Unfazed by rabbinical prohibitions, Haparchi took scientific instruments like compasses and a sextant, a navigation instrument that measures distances, and journeyed to Israel to witness firsthand its towns and villages, rivers, valleys and plains, deserts and snow-capped mountains. The rabbi arrived in Jerusalem in search of community, but had to leave the city shortly after locals discovered his “heretical” view that modern science would only strengthen our understanding of the Bible. The lonely rabbi wandered down to Beit She’an, a small village in the Jordan Valley where there are almost no records of any Jewish communities at the time, and began his pioneering study of the geography and topography of the Land of Israel. 

The rabbi did not follow the beaten path of pilgrims visiting the holy sites, but rather set out to find all the towns and villages mentioned in the Bible and Talmud. Being a scientific man, and with knowledge of many languages, Haparchi translated the names of the places he visited from Latin and Arabic into Hebrew. He was the first to understand that most of the original biblical names had been preserved in the Arabic names given to the places by the local population. “I can now report that the names of towns and rivers as mentioned in the Holy Scriptures and in Jewish tradition have remained practically unchanged from the names given among the Ishmaelites (Arabs),” he writes in his famed two-volume record of the Land.

His guidebook “Kaftor v’Perach,” or “Bulb and Flower,” a Hebrew idiom derived from the description of the menorah in the Jerusalem Temple (Exodus 37:17), was completed in 1322, and became the authoritative guide for all of Judaism’s greatest rabbis on how to visit the Land of Israel.

Wandering the Land, Haparchi searched for remains of places and plants mentioned in Scripture. He identified 180 sites whose names are mentioned in the Bible and Talmud, as well as many plants. The book contains unprecedented information about real life in the Land, its division into tribes, the topography of Jerusalem, the vegetation of the country and its agricultural crops, weights and coins in the past and present. “I spent two years in the Galilee, exploring and studying the land, and another five years in the rest of the tribal lands. I did not rest from spying out the land for even one hour,” Haparchi writes.

Among Haparchi’s groundbreaking discoveries were the ruins of Shiloh, the biblical site where the Ark of the Covenant was housed for 369 years. “It is about three hours to the south of Shechem (in Samaria) but is slightly inclined to the east and is on its way to Jerusalem,” he reports. That’s just one of many examples, another of which is Kfar Darom, a city in Gaza where the Jewish sages of the 1st century congregated.

Rabbi Haparchi’s love of both Judaism and science, though initially rejected, many years later became a turning point in Jewish understanding of how learning to appreciate the physical world around us can enhance our love and worship of God.

This article first appeared in the September 2019 issue of Israel Today Magazine.

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