The late Prof. Eshel
The late Prof. EshelIsrael news photo: Bar Ilan University

Prof. Chanan Eshel, a leading Second Temple historian and archaeologist at Bar Ilan University, passed away Wednesday night from cancer. He will be buried at 4 PM in Kibbutz Maaleh HaHamishah.

Among his discoveries was a fragment from Leviticus from the period of Bar Kokhba (2nd century C.E.). He explained that the passage is one of those that are read on the Passover holiday, as were other fragments found from the Bar Kokhba period - and that this shows that the last time these scrolls were read were on Passover, indicating that the famous revolt began losing steam at that time of year. 

"Faith is the ability to pray,” he once said. "G-d is present in my life, and has helped me with my cancer."

Prof. Eshel was of the opinion that the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans originally had excellent chances of succeeding, and that it caused the Romans heavy losses. He also promulgated the theory that at least some of the Jews on Massada did not commit suicide, but were rather killed in battle with the Roman army when it burst into the mountain fortress.

Eshel, 52 at his death, studied in the Ohr Etzion yeshiva high school, and served in the Nahal unit of the IDF, combining military service and establishment of new agricultural settlements in outlying areas; he was based in Keshet, in the Golan. He later studied archaeology, where he was one of only three students out of 70 who were religious. “Of those 70,” he later recounted, “only three continued on to receive doctorates – namely, the three of us. Even though archaeology is sometimes considered a ‘dangerous’ field [for the religious, ed.], all three of us remained with our yarmulkes on our heads…”

He said that “the findings show that most of the Jews who lived during the times of the Second Temple, the Mishna and the Talmud observed the Torah’s commandments.” Asked once about G-d and faith, he said, “G-d is present in my life, and helps me deal with my cancer… Faith is the ability to pray.”

He often found societal parallels between the Second Temple period and today.

Known as an expert in the Dead Sea Scrolls found at Qumran, Eshel also wrote five books, including “The Qumran Scrolls and the Hasmonean State.” He also authored over 200 articles. He was a professor in the Land of Israel and Archaeology Department at Bar Ilan University, and headed the department from 2002 until 2004. He received his doctorate from Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and received research grants from Harvard, Oxford, and Michigan University.