The question seems almost as difficult to answer as, Who’s a Jew? A two-day conference toward the end of November grappled both directly and indirectly with the question of the Jewish attitude toward the sea, which one speaker called the least studied theologically and practically.

“Jews were not just farmers, but sailors and pirates, too!” contended one of the lecturers. Another found the evidence, and hence the attitude, ambivalent, while a third retreated somewhat from his conclusion reached over a decade ago that the Jews were not a sea people.

No one referred to Commodore Uriah P. Levy or Adm. Hyman Rickover, both of U.S. Navy fame; but hovering in the background, perhaps, was Christopher Columbus, a bust of whom sits alongside an unusual sculptural work at the University, entitled: “Colon and the Jewish Contribution to the Voyages of Discovery.” The Samson Trust of the Schalit family of Caesarea, which commissioned the piece, has endowed a large-scale research project on “Jews and the History of Shipowning and Ship Operation,” which intends, among other activities, to compile a Jewish Ship Register with listings from the first appearance in history of Jews and shipping.

The conference, labeled “Jews on the Seaways--Jews and Shipping Through the Ages,” was an initial outgrowth of this unique project. The event was sponsored by the University’s Leon Recanati Center for Maritime Studies, under whose auspices the research is being conducted.

Israel lies between two seas, not between the desert and the sea as commonly described, argued Prof. Robert R. Stieglitz, a specialist in ancient Mediterranean studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. From sea to sea gave Israel ideal borders, he pointed out, adding that there was Jewish seafaring before King David and that Dor, just south of Haifa, was the first harbor in the biblical period.

It was not for nothing that David, according to archeological evidence, conquered Dor, the best natural harbor on the Carmel coast, or that Solomon established both a Mediterranean and a Red Sea fleet. The latter was based at Etzion Gever, which is the artificial inner port off Coral Island at the southern end of Eilat, and it still makes an excellent harbor, Stieglitz said. He reported that this area has been surveyed, but never excavated.

He agreed that datable illustrations of Israelite ships from the First Temple period are rare. The one from a tomb in Hebron, he believes, meant the deceased had something to do with the sea. In addition to the more than 100 references to ships and nautical terms in the Bible, the allegorical tales and casual references to different voyages and to wealth from other lands in biblical literature indicate to the American professor that the seas “were highways, not barriers,” for the ancient Israelites.

Dr. Nadav Kashtan of the University’s Department of Maritime Civilizations who heads the history of Jewish shipowning project, pointed to the contradictory sea metaphors in biblical literature, with the stormy Jona saga at one end and the useful merchant ship in the “Woman of Valor” poem at the end of Proverbs, at the other end. The researcher finds this symptomatic of the Jewish ambivalence to the sea.

Kashtan mentioned other contradictions. The Book of Prophets illustrates the power of the coastal port city of Tyre, whereas in the Roman period Josephus cites the establishment of the inland Negev city of Arad as demonstrating the anti-sea attitude of the Jews. Shimon, one of the Maccabees, turned Jaffa into a port; but a grave with the depiction of a ship in Modiin, the Hasmonean “home town,” that is mentioned in a manuscript has never been found.

Pictures of ships on tombs in Beit Shean and even Jerusalem and on carvings on Masada, Kashtan continued, could be merely symbolic: of the families’ victories, of affluence, of the trip to the other world. This holds, too, for a geniza text relating the vision of a storm-tossed ship. It may just be an allegory of the twelve tribes pulling together or sinking, the researcher suggested.

Nonetheless, he concluded, the Israelites of the Hellenistic Roman period did have a familiarity with the sea if one judges by the terminology found in various manuscripts from that era.

As if to bolster this point, a member of the audience stated that the Book of Maccabees mentions a contract between Jews and Romans that calls for ships of the former to come to aid of the latter if needed.

Prof. Daniel Sperber of Bar-Ilan University believes another search is necessary. For his lexicographic study, Nautica Talmudica, published over a decade ago, he had found very little about sea and shipping in examining 500 years of halachic, midrashic, and rabbinic literature. The Talmud contains only 50-60 words or terms relating to the world of shipping, he said, compared to hundreds dealing with law and administration. There are no technical sea terms, like “tacking,” and imprecise use of terms from Greek and Latin, which languages each have some 500 shipping phrases. He had concluded that Josephus’ evaluation that the Judean sea trade was performed by others was seemingly corroborated.

Strangely, he did come across a word in the rabbinic literature that is not found in either Greek or Latin. Referring to the tie of a cross-beam to the mast, it was obviously a word used by sailors. Then, too, there was a story from 401 CE, told by a Christian, about a ship setting sail from Alexandria whose captain was a religious Jew and half of whose passengers were Jewish. The phenomenon of Jewish shipowning in talmudic times crops up in other countries, not just Egypt, he added.

Although Sperber cautions researchers on their interpretation of archeological material, some of which may be metaphorical, he now asks whether it is possible to use a metaphor from another culture, “a metaphor of something one has nothing to do with.”

The rabbis of the Talmud lived in an agricultural society, and agriculture was a subject they discussed with great precision, he pointed out. This “narrow, elitist group,” as he termed them, may not have known what was occurring on the coast. Sperber gave a modern analogy. When in 1948 the rabbis of the new state of Israel were discussing halachic issues on shipping, it was clear that they were “detached from reality” when it came to ship operations. “This,” he summed up, “may have been the case earlier.”

Stieglitz’s earlier characterization of the awareness of a two-sea Israel in ancient times and the strength this imparted found a modern counterpart. The Deputy Commander of the Israeli Navy, Rear Adm. Shaul Horev, expressed concern over the possibility of Israel’s signing of an international maritime charter that could give the status of innocent passage to the Straits of Tiran leading into the Red Sea. This would impose limitations on the transport of military equipment and necessitate coordinating all commercial passages through the Straits with Egypt, effectively giving it sea control. “From here to denying passage in an emergency,” the high Navy officer warned, “is but a short way.” He pointed out that the Egyptians had effective control over the Red Sea in the Yom Kippur War, even though Israel controlled the Suez Bay, which could have been disastrous for Israeli shipping.

The Israeli admiral also commented on Egypt’s growing power in the Mediterranean, which made its fleet there a force to be reckoned with, should Egypt retreat from its peace with Israel.

In his view, “The return of territories and the loss of strategic depth in return for peace pacts necessitate more exploitation of the dimension of the Israeli Navy for varied assignments and functions that other military forces are unable to carry out.”

Modern Israel’s naval experience was limited, he said, but it had already attained major accomplishments in the area of small fighting boats and advanced weapons systems, which were in demand by navies around the world.

Horev cited the importance of “showing the fl” both for its galvanizing effect on communities abroad and for showing Israel’s enemies who its friends are. That effect was achieved, he said, in the Navy’s visiting ports of call in Turkey. On the other hand, reciprocal port calls could be part of confidence-building measures between Israel and Arab countries.

The debate on whether the Jews of ancient times were a sea people has not been settled, as the conference showed. But the modern history of Israeli shipping and of the Israeli Navy’s prowess suggest that there might have been some salt water in the Jewish vein from the beginning.

Back to Table of Contents