How Jewish Was Herod?

Known from the New Testament as well as from the Talmud and the ancient historian Josephus as a cruel ruler, Herod reigned over Judea as a Roman client from ca. 37 BCE to 4 BCE. On his father’s side, he was descended from Idumeans, a tribe living in the Negev who had converted to Judaism in the 2nd century BCE; his mother was a princess from Nabataea, a kingdom in what is now Jordan. Together with the fact that he had taken the crown from the Hasmonean dynasty by force, his parentage led many of his subjects to consider him less than fully Jewish. Evie Gassner examines what can be determined about his commitment to Judaism from the archaeological record:

Although the exact parameters of the biblical prohibition [on graven images] have been interpreted differently in various periods, archaeological evidence suggests that the Hasmoneans understood the prohibition to include any form of artwork depicting real objects in the world. Thus, even though the Hasmonean kings tended to lead Hellenistic lifestyles, they kept the ban on anthropomorphic and zoomorphic representation by decorating their palaces with very elaborate, geometric mosaics. Herod kept the same tradition almost to a T.

His beautiful palaces were home to lovely, abstract wall paintings drawn in the second Pompeian style, and his floors sported beautiful mosaics, all according to the latest fashion in Rome: black and white honeycomb design in the Northern Palace, colorful geometrical assortment in the Promontory Palace and apparently in the Jerusalem Temple itself.

Gassner marshals further evidence that Herod observed some of the laws of kashrut and ritual purity. Of course, whether Herod did so out of religious convictions or an eagerness to win the sympathy of a skeptical populace, one cannot know. But the exceptions, not limited to importing non-kosher wine from Italy and elsewhere, are also telling:

Herod’s most striking deviation from Jewish practice had to do with his loyalty to his Roman patrons. . . . Herod erected at least three temples dedicated to Rome and its emperor Augustus in the cities of Caesarea Maritima, Sebaste (Samaria), and Panias. He also added theaters [and] gymnasia, . . . which were frowned upon by his Jewish subjects.

The most famous example of Herod’s flouting of Jewish sensibilities to honor his patrons is when, at some point toward the end of his life, he decided to hang a large golden eagle at the main gate leading to the Temple, in order to show his fealty to Rome. This enraged his Jewish subjects, and a plot to take down the offending statue was concocted. When Herod found out about the plan, he reacted badly and had the “traitors” burned alive, in order to teach his people a lesson.


More about: Ancient Israel, ancient Judaism, Ancient Rome, Herod, Idolatry, Kashrut

An Israeli Buffer Zone in the Gaza Strip Doesn’t Violate International Law

 The IDF announced on Thursday that it is safe for residents to return to some of the towns and villages near the Gaza Strip that have been abandoned since October 7. Yet on the same day, rocket sirens sounded in one of those communities, Kibbutz Mefalsim. To help ensure security in the area, Israel is considering the creation of a buffer zone within the Strip that would be closed to Palestinian civilians and buildings. The U.S. has indicated, however, that it would not look favorably on such a step.

Avraham Shalev explains why it’s necessary:

The creation of a security buffer along the Gaza-Israel border serves the purpose of destroying Hamas’s infrastructure and eliminating the threat to Israel. . . . Some Palestinian structures are practically on the border, and only several hundred yards away from Israeli communities such as Kfar Aza, Kerem Shalom, and Sderot. The Palestinian terrorists that carried out the murderous October 7 attacks crossed into Israel from many of these border-adjacent areas. Hamas officials have already vowed that “we will do this again and again. The al-Aqsa Flood [the October 7th massacre] is just the first time, and there will be a second, a third, a fourth.”

In 2018 and 2019, Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad organized mass marches towards the Israeli border with the goal of breaking into Israel. Billed by Palestinians as “the Great March of Return,” its name reveals its purpose—invasion. Although the marches were supposedly non-violent, they featured largescale attacks on Israeli forces as well as arson and damage to Israeli agriculture and civilian communities. Moreover, the October 7 massacre was made possible by Hamas’s prepositioning military hardware along the border under false cover of civilian activity. The security perimeter is intended to prevent a reprise of these events.

Shalev goes on to dismantle the arguments put forth about why international law prohibits Israel from creating the buffer zone. He notes:

By way of comparison, following the defeat of Nazi Germany, France occupied the Saar [River Valley] directly until 1947 and then indirectly until reintegration with Germany in 1957, and the Allied occupation of Berlin continued until the reunification of Germany in 1990. The Allies maintained their occupation long after the fall of the Nazi regime, due to the threat of Soviet invasion and conquest of West Berlin, and by extension Western Europe.

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More about: Gaza Strip, Gaza War 2023, International Law, Israeli Security