An Ancient Gift, An Unlikely Friendship


Steven Fine, a professor of Jewish history at Yeshiva University and director of the school’s Center for Israel Studies, figured an article he published last year in Biblical Archeology Review about ancient tombstones in the Holy Land, would resonate with other archeology buffs.

But he never imagined that “Tales From Tombstones” would move a reader to give him one of those rare relics.

The reader, Pastor Carl Morgan of Woodland, Calif., curator of the Woodland Museum of Biblical Archeology, sent Fine a photo of a limestone gravestone in his collection. Yes, said Fine – it was undoubtedly one of the stones about which he had written.

Fine, who was then teaching an undergraduate course in Talmud and archeology, showed his students a photo of the stone; they suggested they spend the semester deciphering it; gravestones from Zoar, a biblical city along the southeastern shore of the Dead Sea, bear Aramaic inscriptions that preserve evidence of life among the Christian majority and Jewish minority that peacefully coexisted there in the fifth century.

Thus began a beautiful and unlikely friendship between the East Coast students and the West Coast pastor. The students called Morgan on a regular basis seeking information about the stone’s measurements, design and other details.
Although it was worn, the students, with Fine’s help, were able to decipher the text. They dated the stone to 430 C.E. — some 360 years after the destruction of the Second Temple, and reconstruct the name on the stone to be ‘Sa’adah, daughter of Pi[nchas].”

“Here’s a Jewish woman we never knew of before in a place were there weren’t likely any rabbis,” says Fine. “When it comes to ancient history, every little scrap of anything is worth something. We try to squeeze as much as we can out of every scrap. Each stone is another brick in our knowledge about Jews in the talmudic period — you never know what connects to what until we have it all together.”

Fine says approximately 50 Zoar gravestones from the fourth-to-sixth centuries C.E. remain. Intricately decorated, they provide a wealth of information: the name of the deceased, followed by the date of death, and conclude with expressions for peace. The painted texts are often accompanied by depictions of common Jewish symbols, such as the seven-branched menorah, the Torah ark or the lulav.

At the end of the semester, the pastor called the professor. “I think this thing should be at Yeshiva University,” Pastor Morgan told Fine. “It’s not biblical. It’s in Aramaic. It’s a talmudic object. It belongs at Yeshiva.”

In return for the gift, Fine will visit the California museum at the end of this month to deliver several lectures. At that time, Morgan will give Fine the 12”x12” relic, which he will carefully pack into his carry-on bag and bring back to YU.

“It is heartwarming that this Christian community reached out with an artifact of Jewish historical significance, and has gone far out of its way to send it ‘home,’” Fine says.

Morgan agrees that the gravestone belongs at the Yeshiva University Museum. “Many more people will be able to see it and appreciate it there.”