Ancient Jewish tombstone found near Sacramento

Approximately 1,500 years after a Jewish woman died in the ancient city of Zoar, near the southern edge of the Dead Sea, her tombstone ended up in a church’s museum in a small California city near Sacramento.

Now, thanks to the generosity of that church’s pastor and board, the stone is being returned to the Jewish people.

Steve Fine, a professor of Jewish history of the Greco-Roman period at Yeshiva University, is coming from New York to receive the stone in a ceremony on Sunday, Oct. 27 from the Woodland Museum of Biblical Archeology.

Fine will deliver a lecture and participate in the museum’s annual banquet. Then he will carry the tombstone — about the size of a large floor tile — in a padded box back to New York, where it will be prepared for exhibition at the Yeshiva University Museum.

The 1,500-year-old tombstone measures about 12 inches by 12 inches. photos/woodland museum of biblical archeology

An expert on the art and archeology of the Talmudic Period, Fine found out about this piece 18 months ago when contacted by pastor Carl Morgan of Woodland United Fellowship, an independent church located 25 miles north of Sacramento. The 6-year-old museum, adjacent to the church, houses 400 pieces — many of them from Morgan’s personal collection (he has a doctorate in archeology and has been to the Middle East 40 times).

Morgan set up the museum to promote the teaching and understanding of biblical history and the land of the Bible. “It helps people realize that people in biblical times were people like us,” he said. “It brings the Bible to life.”

After reading a journal article by Fine, Morgan found out that one of the pieces in the museum, a stone with Aramaic writing on it, was probably a relic from Zoar, a city mentioned in the Torah in relation to Abraham. Fine’s article was about a group of tombstones that were found there, above ground and well preserved because of the Dead Sea climate conditions.

“These stones started showing up on the antiquities market in the 1920s,” Fine said. “Hundreds of non-Jewish stones were found, but there were only about 100 Jewish ones. [Scholarly articles and pictures of] about 40 of them have been published.”

Fine said Zoar stones show up on the private Israeli antiquities market once every six months, but that there are only “five or so” in the United States. Two are at the Living Torah Museum in Brooklyn, and some are in private hands, he added, such as two in the private collection of Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt.

The Zoar stone at the Woodland museum was a gift in 2011 from a private donor who had received it from another private donor, and the provenance of the stone is unclear. Morgan put it on display, but realized after reading Fine’s article that a better home for it would be at Yeshiva University.

Carl Morgan, pastor of the Woodland United Fellowship, holds the stone in his museum.

“It’s not something our museum is so interested in,” Morgan explained. “Our museum houses primarily biblical artifacts made of ceramics and metals. This stone is from the 5th century [C.E.].

“I believe that Yeshiva University can do a better job of preserving the stone,” he added. “It needs to be appreciated, and Yeshiva will appreciate it as part of Talmudic history.”

Fine already has a jumpstart on deciphering the wording on the tombstone, which was painted on with ochre, rather than engraved. Last spring, students in Fine’s undergraduate talmudic archeology seminar used their knowledge of Aramaic and advanced digital enhancement technology to figure out the inscription from photographs.

One of those students is Daniel Trager, the 21-year-old son of Bay Area mohel Rabbi Moshe Trager. “I’ve been studying Talmud my whole life, so I know Aramaic,” he said. “The real challenge was making out the words, some of which were worn off. We filled in missing letters by comparing the text on the stone to the wording on similar stones.”

The inscription on the tombstone included the Hebrew month of the person’s death and the year in relation to the Sabbatical year and the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The deceased was a woman, and her name was Saadu bat Pinchas.

“My students were so excited by this,” Fine exclaimed. The work will lead to a published paper, he added.

“It really connects you to the past,” Trager said about seeing a menorah and a lulav painted on to the stone. “It’s amazing to have something in front of you that shows you that Jews 1,500 years ago had the same customs that we have today. I knew this conceptually, but this really brought it home for me.”

Morgan had a feeling the tombstone would elicit such deep responses from Jews. “It’s going home to where it needs to go,” he said.

The Zoar tombstone will be on display 1-5 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 26, at the Woodland Museum of Biblical Archeology, 240 N. West St., Woodland. Lecture and hand-off ceremony at 6 p.m. Sunday, Oct. 27, is open to public. (530) 662-2773.

Renee Ghert-Zand
Renee Ghert-Zand

Renee Ghert-Zand is a Jerusalem-based freelance journalist. She made aliyah from Palo Alto with her family in June 2014.