Nablus - Shechem: Their Very Jewish Roots

            December 2013    
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The Jewish Roots Of Nablus - Shechem

By F. M. Loewenberg

Today no one thinks of Nablus () or Shechem (as it is known in Hebrew) as a Jewish city. In fact, many consider that it is the most hostile of all Arab cities on the West Bank. But this has not always been so. In the past, especially in Biblical times, it played a vital role in Jewish history and many important events took place in this city.

Shechem is a very old city whose origins can be dated back to a period before the arrival of the Israelites. It is mentioned in two Egyptian inscriptions that are dated to the 19th century BCE. Rashbam postulated that it was named after the king of the city, that is, it is the city of Shechem. (Genesis 33:18). It was only after the Romans rebuilt the city that they called it Neapolis, the Greek name for New City, which the Arabs corrupted to Nablus.

Shechem in the days of the Patriarchs

Shechem was the first city that Abraham encountered when he travelled from Horon to the Promised Land. The Lord appeared to him at the Tree (or Plain) of Moreh and said to him, "To your seed I will give this land." In response to this promise he built an altar and offered sacrifices to the Lord (Genesis 12:5-7).

When Abraham's grandson Jacob returned from twenty years of exile in Padan Aram, Shechem was also the first city that he encountered in Canaan. Since he did not wish to stay with the local idol worshippers, Jacob bought a homestead in the city and pitched his tent there. Like his grandfather, Jacob also built an altar to worship the Lord who had protected him all along his travels (Genesis 33:18-20).

During the time that Jacob and his family lived in Shechem, his daughter Dinah was raped by Shechem son of Hamor, the son of the local tribal chief. The young man liked Dinah so much that he persuaded his father to obtain Jacob's consent to marry her. Jacob's sons agreed to this marriage on condition that all the men of Shechem circumcise themselves. Dinah's brothers Shimon and Levi took advantage of their temporary disability after the circumcision to kill all of them (Genesis 34:1-31). Since Jacob feared the reaction of the other Canaanite tribe, he hurriedly left Shechem for Beth-El (Genesis 35:1-5). But his attachment to Shechem continued in later years.

Years later, while living in far-away Hebron, Jacob sent his sons to graze his sheep in Shechem - presumably because he still owned pasture land there. Subsequently he sent his beloved son Joseph to check on the brothers. Joseph obeyed his father, but once he found his brothers he became the victim of their hatred and found himself sold as a slave to Egypt (Genesis 37:12-28).

Many years after that, when Joseph had become viceroy of Egypt, his father together will all of his family joined him in Egypt. At that time Jacob blessed Joseph by giving him "one portion over your brothers" (Genesis 48:21-22). Rashi interprets this phrase (in Hebrew: ?????? ????? ) to mean that Jacob assigned the deed of the city of Shechem to Joseph and his descendants. And this is the reason that the Tomb of Joseph is located in Shechem to this day (see Joshua 24:32).

Shechem in the era of the Conquest and Judges

Two covenant renewals took place immediately after the Israelites crossed the Jordan under the leadership of Joshua (Joshua 8:30-35 and 24:1-27). Shechem is not mentioned by name in the first of these events where the Blessings and Curses were pronounced, but the location between the mountains of Gerizim and Ebal clearly indicate that it occurred in or near Shechem, most probably in the very same location where both Abraham and Jacob had erected an altar.

During the allocation of the Promised Land to the various tribes, the tribe of Menashe (son of Joseph) received Shechem as part of its tribal territory (Joshua 17:7). Later on Shechem was designated both as a city of refuge (Joshua 20:7-9) and as a Levitical city (Joshua 21:20-21). Years later the Sages of the Talmud explained that Shechem was chosen as a city of refuge because murderers were common in that city (TB Makkot 10a).

Gideon, one of the judges mentioned in the Book of Judges, refused to become king when this position was offered to him (Judges 8:22-23), but his son Abimelech, son of a Shechemite concubine, persuaded the people of Shechem to elect him king after his father's death (Judges 9:1-3). Soon afterwards he murdered sixty-nine of his seventy brothers (Judges 9:3-7). Only Jotham, the youngest brother survived by hiding; following his brother's coronation Jotham warned the Shechemites about his brother and prophesied that they were destined to destruction by fire (Judges 9:7-21). After three years of Abimelech's autocratic rule, the people of Shechem decided that they had had enough and attempted to replace him with another king (Judges 9:22-30). When Abimelech learned of this rebellion, he captured and destroyed the city while the people were at work in the fields (Judges 9:31-45). Later that day he burnt to death all the Shechemites who had taken refuge in "a strong tower" (Judges 9:46-49).

Shechem during the period of the Monarchy

Shechem, located as it is in the center of the country, was a major city in the days of the United Monarchy. After the death of King Solomon all of the twelve tribes of Israel were summoned to this city for the coronation of his son Rehoboam. But Rehoboam was inexperienced in political matters and antagonized a large part of the population. The ten northern tribes split from the United Kingdom and elected Jereboam as their king (I Kings 12:1-22). Initially Jereboam made Shechem his capital, but it lost much of its importance when he abandoned it and moved to Peniel in Transjordan (I Kings 12:25) and still later to Tirzah, a city about seven miles north of Shechem (I Kings 14:17).

After the Assyrians captured Samaria in 721 BCE they exiled the local population to a distant country (where they disappeared) and in their stead brought in another conquered people who became known as the Samaritans (II Kings 17:6 and 24). Shechem, like all other cities of the Northern Kingdom, was reduced to a heap of ruins (II Kings 15:13-16). But Jeremiah's account of the ill-fated group of pilgrims from that city in the days immediately following the destruction of the First Temple indicates that a small number of Jews continued to live there (Jeremiah 41:9).

The long lasting hostility between the Jews and the Samaritans had its origin during the time of the rebuilding of the Second Temple when the Samaritan's offer of help was rebuffed by the Jews (Ezra 4.1-3). In the long run this led to the establishment of a rival temple on Mount Grizim near Shechem. When the Maccabean general John Hyrcanus (134-104 BCE) captured Samaria, he destroyed both the Mt. Grizim temple and the city of Shechem. This added to the deep hatred between the Samaritans and the Jews.

Shechem in the Talmudic period

The city was in ruins for almost two centuries. In 72 CE Vespasian built another city on its site to which he gave the name "Neapolis" (Greek for New City) In the Talmud and the Midrashim the city is often called Nipolis or Nipolin. Both Josephus and Pliny stated that Shechem or Neapolis was called by the natives "Mabortha" or "Mamortha." This name is evidently a corruption of the Aramean "Mabarakta," or "the blessed city," so called by the Samaritans in opposition to Jerusalem; they also called Mount Gerizim "the blessed mountain" in opposition to Mount Moriah, which they designate as "the accursed mountain" (Gen. R. 81.3).

From the time that the Romans conquered the country until the end of the Byzantine era, a time period of more than 500 years, Shechem was essentially a city without Jews. But the relation between the Jews and the Samaritans continued to be characterized by hostility.

This may explain the occasional negative references to the city found in both of the Talmuds. For example, the Sages ruled that the roads leading through Shechem were ritually impure "like the countries outside of Palestine" (even though they were most certainly inside the Holy Land). And Shechem was identified as "a place destined for misfortune [because] there the tribes sinned, there Dinah was violated, there the kingdom of the house of David was divided." (TB Sanhedrin 102a). Once when R. Ishmael ben Jose passed Neapolis (Shechem) in order to go to Jerusalem to pray he became the target of the disrespect of the local population (TJ Avoda Zarah 5. 4).

Arab Conquest

The Arab conquest of the city in 636 did not result in a renewal of the Shechem Jewish community, as it did in Jerusalem. Not a single document in the Cairo Geniza makes reference to a Jewish community of Shechem during the years 800-1200. When Benjamin from Metudela visited Palestine around the year 1170 he found about one thousand Samaritans in Shechem but not even one Jew. Things changed somewhat after the Crusades.

Many Jerusalem Jews fled to the relative safety of Shechem when the Mongols threatened the country in the 13th century. This explains why Nachmanides ("Ramban") found neither a miyan (ten adult Jews) nor a single Torah scroll in Jerusalem when he visited the city in 1252. In a letter that he sent to his son Nachman he wrote that "we sent a message to Shechem to bring from there the Torah scrolls that earlier had been sent from Jerusalem for safekeeping in Shechem." The Arab geographer Al-Dimashqi (1256-1327) confirmed the presence of Jews in Shechem in his days by recording that Muslims, Samaritans, Orthodox Christians, Catholics and Jews populated the city.

Rabbi Ovadia M'Bartenura (b.1440 or 1450) settled in Jerusalem in 1488. On the way to the city his party was attacked by robbers from Shechem; they hid all night long because these highwaymen were known as vicious killers. In the morning the group paid a ransom of 14 gold coins and continued on their way to Jerusalem, but these bandits continued to follow them all the way to Jerusalem so that they were thoroughly terrified when they arrived there. Other travelers reported similar experiences. The situation became so difficult that the Jerusalem rabbis pronounced a ban that prohibited Jews from settling in Shechem; this ban was confirmed by Rabbi Joseph Caro (1488-1575), the author of the Shulchan Aruch.

Shechem in the Ottoman Era

Rabbi Moses ben Mordecai Bassola (1480-1560), a well-known Italian rabbi, arrived in Palestine soon after the Ottoman Turks captured the country. He reports that in 1522 he found in the "large city of Shechem" only twelve Jewish families whom he characterized as moriskim; most probably he meant that these were Oriental Jews whose lifestyle was identical with that of the local Arabs - but some think that the moriskim were Jews who never had left Eretz Yisrael. The unreliability of population counts from this early period is obvious when comparing Bassola's report of 12 Jewish families with other reports from this period. According to the Turkish tax lists of 1533 there were 200-300 Jewish families in Shechem - presumably this number also includes the Samaritans. On the other hand, the tax report of 1539 lists only 71 Jewish families, while in 1542 only 20 Jews were listed for the city.

Throughout this period traveler's reports testify to the existence of a small Jewish community in Shechem, but over time even this small number declined. Many people, both Jews and Arabs, abandoned the city after a major earthquake in 1546 -the tax roll of 1549 lists only 36 Jewish families and five single men. This number seems to have remained constant for the rest of the century since the 1590 tax rolls indicate 34 Jewish families. All travelers agree that the Shechem Jews were very poor. How poor some of these Jews were can be gleaned from an 18th century responsa by Rabbi Israel Meir Mizrachi (who died before 1749). The case presented to him concerns the case of a newly-wed Jewish woman in Nablus who became pregnant while her husband was out-of-town; what makes the case unusual is that the new husband was so poor that he needed to work even during his wedding week. He had to leave his bride two days after their wedding in order to obtain work in a distant city. He did not return until he received a message eight months later that his wife was in the early stages of pregnancy.

The Karaite pilgrim, Shmuel ben David, who passed through Shechem in 1641, found six Jewish families living there. Other 17th century pilgrims did not give a count, but noted that all of the Jews lived in one compound that included 14 rooms. Unlike other Ottoman cities, Shechem never had a "Jewish quarter." There was no special synagogue building in the 17th century, but services were conducted in a rented room.

For some years, at the beginning of the 18th century, Nehemiah Chai Chion, one of the better known followers of Shabtai Zvi, found refuge in Shechem after being expelled from Jerusalem. We do not know whether or not he had any followers in Shechem, but before long he abandoned Palestine and began to preach the message of the False Messiah in Europe.

Shechem in the 19th Century

When the followers of the Wilna Gaon came on aliyah at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th centuries, they did not settle in Shechem. One of their numbers did investigate the city as a possible location for settlement; his negative report includes the observation that ten Jewish families lived there, but that their Arab neighbors were "very bad people."

The economic situation of Shechem Jews continued to be poor. Earlier, in 1785, the rabbis of Jerusalem had issued a decree that everyone who visited the Tomb of Joseph in Shechem was required to contribute four grushim to the Shechem Jewish community and those Jerusalem Jews who did not visit the tomb were required to contribute one-and-a-half grushim. Despite the decree the Jewish community did not receive any significant income from this source.

The famous geographer of Palestine Joseph Schwartz reported that in the first half of the 19th century 20 Jewish families and many Samaritan families lived in Shechem. An 1834 traveler reported that he found 20 Sephardi and 10 Ashkenazi Jewish families in the city. That same year David, the son of the former Rishon l'Zion, Jerusalem's chief rabbi R. Yaakov Moshe Ayash, settled in the city. Another report, dated three years later, speaks of 25 Jewish families. The same number was noted in 1860. In that year six Ashkenazi families tried to settle in the city but left soon after their arrival because their Arab neighbors constantly threw stones at them and at their windows.

The economic situation of Shechem Jews, never good, continued to deteriorate. In 1881 the small Jewish community sent a heart wringing appeal to the Jerusalem rabbinate, asking for a grant that would permit them to engage a ritual slaughterer. There is no record of any response to this appeal.

Toward the end of the century Rabbi Moshe Mendel Werner made an attempt to establish an Ashkenazi Jewish community in Shechem. He founded the "Porat Yoseph" society in 1884 for the purpose of purchasing a large track of land near Shechem that would enable poor Jewish families from Jerusalem to settle there. He received the warm support of Rabbi Yaakov Michechnov who wrote,

    due to the poor economic conditions in Jerusalem many poor families want to move to Shechem. . Jerusalem is distinguished by its holiness, Shechem by its fertile fields. Shechem also offers spacious living quarters at reasonable rental prices..

His efforts showed some success, but in the end this grandiose settlement attempt failed. The Jewish population of the city did grow to 120 souls by the year 1895. However, life for Jews in Shechem continued to be most difficult because of the enmity and jealousy of the local Arabs. Within six years the number of Jews had shrunk to 35. In 1908 when Yitzhak Ben Tzvi (who later was to become the second president of the State of Israel) visited Shechem, he only found a Jewish cemetery, but not one live Jew.

20th century

No Jews lived in Shechem at the turn of the century, but many continued to visit Joseph's Tomb. This is probably the reason that one Jew tried to open a hotel in Shechem in 1909, but after a short while he was forced to flee from the city to save his life.

After the First World War a few individual Jews tried to settle in Shechem. In 1918 the

Hashomer Hatzait youth movement endeavored to establish an urban commune in the city but failed in this effort. Shechem suffered greatly from the 1927 earthquake, but it was the 1929 Arab riots that put a final end to the small struggling Jewish community of Shechem.

A few years later several individual Jews did drift back - the 1931 census listed 6 Jews - but these were forced to abandon the city during the 1936 Arab riots. Since then no Jew has lived permanently in the city. In the decades after the Six Day War, a number of settlements, such as Har Bracha, Alon Moreh and Yitzhar, were established near Shechem, but no Jews moved into the city itself. In 1982 a yeshiva was established in the Tomb of Joseph compound. This was supposed to be the start of a new Jewish community in Shechem. It remained the only Jewish presence in the city until it was forced to leave in October 2000 when the Israel army abandoned Shechem as a result of the Oslo Agreement.


According to Rav Kook, every location in Israel has its own unique facet of holiness (Orot, Land of Israel ch.1). Our forefathers recognized Shechem as a holy city. This inner quality of the city remains even when the socio-economic and political situation has caused many changes. The day will come (we pray that it will be soon) when Shechem will once again become an ir v'eim beyisrael.


two Egyptian inscriptions - James B. Pritchard (ed.), Ancient Near Eastern Texts Relating to the Old Testament, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1954, pp. 230, 323.

a ban was pronounced - on the validity of the ban nowadays, see Shu"t Ziz-Eliezer 10.1 and 11.12.

an 18th century response - Rabbi Israel Meir Mizrachi, P'r Eitz, O.H. 1, see also Matt Goldish, ?Jewish Questions: Responsa on Sephardic Life in the Early Modern Period. Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 2008, pp. 136-137.


from the December 2013 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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