Israelis succumb to the Rabbi's curse

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The Independent Online
When Israeli archaeologists started to excavate the tombs of the Maccabees, the ancient high priests of Judea, at a site north of Jerusalem, an ultra-Orthodox rabbi cursed them, calling for their hands to drop off. It was the latest round in the long-running battle between rabbis and archaeologists over disinterring ancient Jewish bones.

The ultra-Orthodox hold that the dead must not be disturbed if they are to be resurrected in one piece. To protect their bones the black-hatted "Haredim" demonstrate in their thousands, vandalise excavations and, in extreme cases, employ elaborate curses bringing death and disease.

They say that ritual cursing, with its origin in the esoteric Jewish tradition of mysticism and magic known as the cabbala, has proved effective against their enemies in the past. Aharon Kempinski, a well-known archaeologist, was cursed for digging up graves in the path of a main road in Jerusalem in 1993. Within a year he died of Aids. Six years earlier, Yigal Shilo died of cancer at 50 after a curse was placed on him for excavating the ancient city of Jerusalem.

However, last year the Haredim were enraged by Udi Ilan, a Tel Aviv developer who was building 270 apartments and a parking lot in the old port of Jaffa which they said desecrated ancient Jewish graves. When mass demonstrations failed to stop him they threatened him with the Pulsa de Nura ("lashes of fire" in Aramaic), a curse that should have killed him within a year. He still lives - although the Haredim say that one of his staff has died.

Not all curses are intended to kill. Some simply call on other Jews to spurn or spit at a person. Other curses specify a punishment such as cancer or economic ruin. One target was Ernst Japhet of the Bank Leumi, who financed construction of a hotel in Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee. Accused of desecrating a cemetery, he was ritually cursed in 1983, became involved in a stock market scandal and went to prison.

The exact mechanism of the curse is mysterious and complex. In theory the Pulsa de Nura curse should be initiated by 10 rabbis fasting. On the third day of the fast they stand in a circle around the Torah scrolls, a ram's horn is blown and the curse is placed on the offender.

Not all the curses are to do with excavations and disturbing bones. In the late 1950s one was placed on Gershon Agron, then mayor of Jerusalem, who had opened a swimming-pool where men and women could swim together at the same time. A year later he died of pneumonia.

A few years ago, many Israelis might have taken the bizarre rituals of the cabbala, with its roots in the Middle Ages, less seriously. But the ultra-Orthodox and the religious parties are growing in influence.

Their willingness to use violence is not confined to curses. Rabbis on the West Bank openly discussed the legality of killing Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister, in the months before he was assassinated. According to the fortnightly Jerusalem Report, he was cursed by an unnamed rabbi, a member of the ultra-nationalist Kach group, which is opposed to giving up the West Bank, who appealed for angels to kill the prime minister a month before he was shot.

By the rabbi's own account he stood outside Rabin's house on the eve of Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year, and issued a curse: "And on him, Yitzhak son of Rosa, known as Rabin, we have permission to demand from the angels of the destruction that they take a sword to this wicked man to kill him for handing over the Land of Israel to our enemies, the sons of Ishmael."

The rabbi said the Pulsa de Nura normally worked in 30 days, which would put the expiry date in early November, when Mr Rabin was indeed shot dead.

The appeal of magic and mysticism was also underlined during the Israeli election in May, when 150,000 amulets blessed by an ancient and revered rabbi were distributed among voters by the ultra-Orthodox party Shas. The magic amulets were treated with derision by the Israeli media, until the election results showed unprecedented gains for Shas.

The election should have reduced the need for the ultra-Orthodox to employ curses to achieve their ends. With religious parties winning 23 seats in the 120-member Knesset as well as positions in the cabinet, they are well placed to close down archaeological excavations legally. Under the previous government, the Attorney General's office had decided a year ago that "bones should not be considered antiquities". Any bones found must be turned over to the Ministry of Religious Affairs for burial within 24 hours.

Professor Ami Mazar, director of the Archaeological Institute at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, says: "Already we don't excavate ancient cemeteries when we know where they are." Archaeology would be further hampered if, as proposed, an ancient site could only be examined with a licence from the Chief Rabbi and under the eye of an ultra-Orthodox supervisor.

The raging against the excavators of the Maccabean tombs ended when the graves turned out to be of a later date and archaeological interest waned.

In the wake of Rabin's murder, the ultra-Orthodox are more secretive about curses. They also admit that curses can go wrong, indeed backfire. During the Gulf war, a curse aimed at Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, for firing Scud missiles at Israel, reputedly failed because the ritual was improperly carried out and the son of one of the rabbis involved died in his stead.