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Archaeological Find Shines Light on Shabbat Innovation

July 26, 1996
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It seems that it’s not only since the advent of electricity that Sabbath-observant Jews have been trying to make their lives easier while observing Jewish law.

A clay vessel with an odd protuberance has been found at an archeological site just north of Haifa and according to an article in the August issue of Moment magazine, it turns out to be a Shabbat lamp.

Some savvy businesspeople in Palestine during the Talmudic period, the fourth century to the seventh century, found a clever way to extend the time an oil lamp would burn Friday nights without violating the prohibition against adding oil on the Sabbath, according to the article by Israeli archaeologists Hanan Eshel and Dina Avsalom-Gorni.

The oil lamps of the era were usually small and held only enough oil to provide about 45 minutes of light, the archaeologists wrote.

That amount of time is fine six days of the week, but what about on the Sabbath, when adding more oil to a burning lamp would constitute one of the 39 classes of work prohibited on the day of rest?

The quandary was discussed by rabbis in the Talmud. They consider various attachments to the lamp that would permit more oil to be slowly added, and therefore burn longer.

The Israeli archaeologists made the discovery as they were excavating a site known as the ruins of Uza, just five miles from the Mediterranean, which was a center of the pottery industry during the Talmudic period.

They found fragments they dated back to between the years 350 to 450 and reconstructed them into vessels resembling a bundt pan with three handles on the sides.

Etched into the side of one of the vessels was the word “Shabbat” in Aramaic, which sent the archaeologists looking to the Talmud for a connection.

From the rabbis’ discussion, they realized that they had uncovered a very early Shabbat lamp.

An ordinary lamp with a very long wick would be placed on top of the Shabbat lamp, resting on the pillar sticking up in its center, and in effect, feed the Shabbat lamp with more oil than any single lamp could hold on its own.

“Like so much of ancient archaeology, this illuminates the mindset of people,” said Hershel Shanks, editor of Moment and the Biblical Archaeology Review. “When there is something we can touch like this it somehow makes things more real.”

“Our ancestors,” he said, “were people like us, questioning like us.”

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