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“First, …recognize that it's a penny”: Report on the "Newark" Ritual Artifacts


    The artifacts could not possibly have been created in the nineteenth century; nobody had the knowledge necessary to do so. Indeed, nobody who previously examined these artifacts has recognized that two of the artifacts are inscribed in the ancient incantation format. Nor has anyone previously realized that the "peculiar" font is a consolidated design or that it is a grid font typical of scripts and fonts used with incantation formats. It is rather clear that no one until today has recognized the Late-Medieval Hebrew script that is the base-script of this consolidated grid font.

    The inclusion of ancient Sinaitic graphs in the consolidated grid font is an indication that these particular "letters" were considered "magic" and had to be copied exactly. Nor could they be modified much to suit the script design. There are other indications that the tzadik is a "magic" graph. As has been noted, the tzadik is a cuneiform-type composite -- a graph of which mutations were incorporated into both North and South Semitic script systems adapted for dry surface writing. There are many abbreviations in the text. In accord with the typical practice of multiple use, this composite stands as both a “tzadik” and as the symbol for "Sinai."

    The first words running down the left hand side of the artifact are not the "decalogue": they are a condensation of Exodus 20:2, which reads: "asher hotzetecha m'eretz mitzrai'im" (confirm [that I] brought you from the land of Egypt). The first three letters of "Hotzetecha" are “heh-vav-tzadik;” but that is not what is written on the artifact. What is written on the artifact is ”heh-resh[half grid space] tzadik/Sinai.” “Heh-resh” is “har and means "mount." The line reads: "asher har Sinai/tzetecha m'eretz[sinai] mitz[sinai]rai'im." (Confirm [that I] [at] mount Sinai brought you [at Sinai] out of the land of Egypt [at Sinai].)

    Perhaps it should be explained that, when asked what script would have been used for the tablets described in Exodus 32:15, more than one expert on ancient Semitic scripts will reply that an educated guess would be Sinaitic. The preservation of one Sinaitic graph in the symbol-set used on the hand phylactery, as well as the preservation of the “V” of the composite “tzadik” in Hebrew script systems down the millennia, is the first tiny bit of concrete evidence that the description of the Mosaic code as inscribed on tablets, no matter how many embellishments accrued, is based in fact.

    The preservation of one Hebraeo-Phoenician graph suggests that this graph was considered another "magic" letter that had to be copied exactly for the incantation to work. It also represents a small piece of evidence that the texts of the first four books of the Pentateuch were written down early in the Monarchial period in the 10th century BCE.

    The large number of South-Semitic graphs (six out of twenty-one) are strong evidence that the older tradition of including the decalogue in the phylacteries was continued among a group of religious Jews living in South Semitic countries long after the tradition was forbidden by the Palestinian and Babylonian Rabbis in the second century CE. Equally strong as evidence is the sculpture with its distinctly Semitic pose and Islamic-influenced clothing. These aspects that show clear South Semitic influence indicate that the set was commissioned by a Sephardic Jew and, as the set is clearly intended for use when traveling, probably by a merchant-trader. From details on the sculpture, the most likely site for the place of production is Spain. If at the earliest range for the date (11th CE), the set may have been produced in Catalonia. If the later date range (13th CE), the set was possibly produced in Cordoba or Toledo during the time of Alfonso X of Castille. Nor can we ignore the possibility that the set was produced in France; Sephardic Jews handled the trade between the Holy Roman Empire and the Moslem world.

    While the words in the phylacteries are linked to both identification and protection, there is no direct evidence that the words were linked to magic. On the other hand, evidence that certain graphs were linked to "magic" signs can be seen in the format and symbol-set used on the late-medieval hand phylactery inscribed with the "forbidden" condensed decalogue. The inclusion of "antique" graphs in the consolidated script design tends to support the school that maintains that the texts of Exodus and Deuteronomy which refer to the wearing of signs on hand and on forehead may have been meant literally. These graphs also link phylacteries with the ancient "magic" letter/signs inscribed on protective charms and amulets -- and, possibly, literally inscribed on the skin of the left hand and the forehead.

    The fact that the hand piece was still in its case, while the bowl, flow detector, and head piece were not, gives us further information. The head piece clearly was bound to the skull; thus, we know that the flow detector and bowl had been used. We now also have evidence that the older tradition of donning the head piece first was carried on among some Jewish communities for many centuries after the Rabbinical ruling that the hand piece be placed first.

    The use of the condensed decalogue on the hand phylactery gives us concrete evidence that, although as of the second century CE, the decalogue was forbidden to use in the Palestinian and Babylonian traditions, the older tradition of a "fifth" text, the decalogue itself, was alive and well among other Jewish communities. We do have some indications as to the age of this older tradition. The finds at Qumran, the Nash Papyri, and this hand phylactery, make it clear that the condensed "decalogue" was not a Samaritan concept as had been previously assumed. Samaritans do not use phylacteries, although a similar condensed version appears on Samaritan stone mezzuzahs. The use by Samaritans of a similar condensed "decalogue" indicates that the tradition of this condensed "decalogue" dates to before the rift between the Samaritan and Jerusalem communities, which may be as early as the 7th-6th BCE.57 The rift certainly was indicated by the fifth century BCE in a letter from Elephantine.

    We have, however, further indications as to the antiquity of the tradition of reciting this condensed decalogue, which pushes the probable date back to the 9th century BCE. Although the hand phylactery is shaped as the familiar high-rounded arch of the Jerusalemite tradition and although the sculpture is encased in another Jerusalemite arch, the tablet that Moses is holding is not the high rounded-arch of the Southern Kingdom. The tablet is the shape used in the Phoenicianized northwest and north central corner of the area in that period. The tablet, in fact, is the same shape as the "Beit David"stele found at the Tel Dan archaeological site (Figure 8).58

Fig. 8:(a) Shape of the tablet tucked under the arm of Moses  
  Fig. 8:(b) Shape of the "Beit David" stele found at Tel Dan

    We will never be able to date this "portrait" of Moses: the shape of the tablet he is holding indicates a very ancient tradition in the Northern Kingdom with regard to interpretations of the instructions in Exodus. On the other hand, with the evidence of the "Newark" hand phylactery, we can now state with confidence that an older tradition of reciting the decalogue daily continued for at least another 1100 years among some Sephardic Jewish communities.59 It also seems that a compromise on the contested point was arrived at, albeit many centuries before the question was even raised: a condensed version of the decalogue avoids the exact repetition of the words said by Moses. Indeed, the bas-relief of a benign Moses would appear to lend his countenance to the saying of the condensed decalogue.

    The Newark Ritual artifacts date to the Late Medieval period, as is made clear from stylistic features on the bas-relief sculpture on one of the artifacts and the Late Medieval Hebrew base-script used for the consolidated grid font that appears in the inscriptions on two of the artifacts. The artifacts are authentic, if not what they were thought to be in the 19th century, and, unfortunately, even today.60

    Claims of modern forgery based on the "peculiar" script, or "spelling" errors (of which there is precisely one after 1500 years or more of copying the text),61 or the pose of the figure on the bas-relief are equally erroneous and have no basis in actuality. The fact that black limestone with crinoid stems can be found in Ohio also has been claimed as evidence that the artifacts are forgeries. Black limestone containing crinoid stems, however, is available throughout the world. The material may be found, for example, in Belgium, England, France, Hungary and Spain. It may also be found in Idaho and the Dakotas as well as in Mercer and Muskingum Counties Ohio.62 The artifacts pass all visual forensic analysis tests. They also pass the materials examination as far as the availability of the material at the probable site(s) of manufacture. That black limestone can also be found in Ohio is irrelevant.

    Archaeology as a soundly based field only came into being in the 1880's. That in the 1860's claims that the artifacts were forgeries, although the evidence at the site and expert opinion was against this, can be excused. Claims today that these artifacts are forgeries and not "old" enough for where they were found are unacceptable; such claims ignore both basic archaeological standards and the evidence. We can never know whether the artifacts were deposited during the "pirate treasure hunt" phase or sometime shortly after 1832 when the workmen removed 144,000 cartloads of stones from all the stacks at the site. There is, though, little doubt: this set of ritual artifacts was deposited at the two sites during the early part of the nineteenth century. As Dr. Fischel pointed out in 1861, these artifacts are medieval and European and had been stolen from a European settler.

    The "Newark" Ritual artifacts are neither forgeries nor relics of “Ancient America.” They are, however, very important concrete evidence of Ancient and Medieval Israelite practices. The ancient graphs included in the consolidated script on these phylacteries are also our first small pieces of concrete evidence that a factual basis underlies Exodus 32:15. The shape of the tablet held by Moses as well as the condensed "decalogue" inscribed on the hand phylactery is concrete evidence of the types of authoritative and theological disputes that divided the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. In addition, these artifacts also give us some hints as to the continuation of Jewish traditions among the peoples displaced after the Northern Kingdom was destroyed. This particular penny is far too important to leave in the obscurity of a wrangle between two extremist sides, both of whom ignore the evidence.

    If an American penny finds its way onto the Acropolis in Athens or the Colosseum in Rome, we dismiss the question of how it got there as too obvious to be worth asking. This set of late-medieval ritual artifacts found their way to these sites in the United States because they were brought there, as so many family heirlooms were, by a settler from Europe searching for a new home in the new world.

    Many thanks to Scott E. Meyer of Northwestern University for supplying me with the Alrutz article (which I could not acquire for myself) and then for digging out further information on Dr. Arnold Fischel after the provocative (and incomplete) reference in the Alrutz article. My gratitude must also be expressed to Herb Basser of Queens University for his erudite comments on Hebrew and Mishnaic sources. Obviously, any errors that may remain are mine.

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