Emmaus-Nicopolis

Emmaus in the Jewish Tradition

The geographical position of Emmaus is described in the Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Sheviit:

“From Bet Horon to the Sea is one domain. Without regions? Rabbi Johanan said, ‘still there is Mountain, Lowland, and Valley. From Bet Horon to Emmaus [אמאוס] it is Mountain, from Emmaus to Lydda Lowland, from Lydda to the Sea Valley. Then there should be four stated? They are adjacent’.”

Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Sheviit 9, 2

(Jerusalem Talmud, tractate Sheviit , H. Guggenheimer, trans., Berlin-N.Y. 2001, p.609)

The name Emmaus most likely comes from the Hebrew word Hammat or Hamta, which means hot spring (under this name Emmaus is mentioned in the Midrash Zuta for the Song of Songs 6, 9 and Midrash Rabbah for the Lamentations 1, 48).

According to Midrash Zuta, spies sent by Moses to the Promised Land, passed through Emmaus:

“When Moses sent spies, what did they see as they arrived to Hammat? Moses had told them: ‘Do not enter like thieves, but be courageous and take some fruit of the land’ (Numbers 13: 20). But the Amorites started to say: ‘Look, these people have come for no other purpose than to cut our trees and to burn our cities.’ Messengers went out behind them and the Amorites attacked them. Ahiman, Shishai and Talmai pursued them till they arrived to the Valley of Hammat in Judea (חמת יהודה), and Kaleb fell down behind a wall ...”

Midrash Zuta for the Song of Songs 6, 9

(the translation is ours)

During the conquest of the Holy Land, ca. 1200 BC, Joshua fought the kings of Canaan between Gabaon and Azeqa, near today’s Emmaus. According to the Book of Joshua the sun and the moon stopped above the Ayalon valley, so that the Israelites would be victorious, and the darkness would not conceal their enemies:

“Then spoke Joshua to the Lord in the day when the Lord delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel; and he said in the sight of Israel: ‘Sun, stand thou still upon Gabaon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ayalon’. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the nation had avenged themselves of their enemies.”

The Book of Joshua 10, 12-13

(translation: KJV).

Joshua's victory over the Amorites, painting by Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld

source: Wikipedia

Joshua divided the Promised Land between the twelve tribes of Israel, and the territory where Emmaus is today was given to the tribe of Dan:

“And the seventh lot came out for the tribe of the children of Dan according to their families. And the coast of their inheritance was Zorah, and Eshtaol, and Irshemesh, And Shaalabbin, and Ajalon, and Jethlah, And Elon, and Thimnathah, and Ekron, And Eltekeh, and Gibbethon, and Baalath, And Jehud, and Beneberak, and Gathrimmon, And Mejarkon, and Rakkon, with the border before Japho.”

The Book of Joshua 19, 40-46

(translation: KJV)

Some believe Ir-Shemesh (“City of the Sun”), which is mentioned in the text, to be Emmaus, because in one manuscript of the Septuagint, Codex Vaticanus, Ir-Shemesh is rendered as “Polis Samaus”.

The Second Temple Period

Judas the Maccabee

The first historical reference to Emmaus is found in the 1st Book of Maccabees in the context of the Jewish revolt against the Hellenistic Syrian king Antiochus IV:

“Then Lysias chose Ptolemy the son of Dorymenes, Nicanor, and Gorgias, mighty men of the king’s friends, and with them he sent forty thousand footmen and seven thousand horsemen to go into the land of Judah and to destroy it, as the king commanded. So they went forth with all their power, and came and pitched camp by Emmaus [depending upon the manuscripts: Aμμούν, Αμμαου, Αμμαυ] in the plain country. And the merchants of the country, hearing the fame of them, took very much silver and gold, with servants, and came into the camp to buy the children of Israel for slaves. A power also of Syria and of the land of the Philistines joined themselves unto them. Now when Judas and his brethren saw that miseries were multiplied, and that the forces were encamped in their borders (for they knew how the king had given commandment to destroy the people and utterly abolish them), they said one to another, ‘Let us restore the decayed estate of our people, and let us fight for our people and the sanctuary.’ Then was the congregation gathered together, that they might be ready for battle and that they might pray and ask mercy and compassion. Now Jerusalem lay void as a wilderness, there was none of her children that went in or out. The sanctuary also was trodden down, and aliens kept the stronghold. The heathen had their habitation in that place; and joy was taken from Jacob, and the pipe with the harp ceased. Therefore, the Israelites assembled themselves together and came to Mizpah, opposite Jerusalem; for in Mizpah was the place where they prayed in former time in Israel. [...]

So the camp removed, and pitched upon the south side of Emmaus [Αμμαούμ, Αμμαους, Εμμαους]. And Judas said, ‘arm yourselves, and be valiant men, and see that ye be in readiness against the morning, that ye may fight with these nations, that are assembled together against us to destroy us and our sanctuary: For it is better for us to die in battle, than to behold the calamities of our people and our sanctuary. Nevertheless, as the will of God is in heaven, so let him do.’

Then Gorgias took five thousand footmen and a thousand of the best horsemen, and removed out of the camp by night, to the end that he might rush in upon the camp of the Jews and smite them suddenly. And the men of the fortress were his guides. Now when Judas heard thereof, he himself removed, and the valiant men with him, that he might smite the king’s army which was at Emmaus [ Έμμαούμ, Ναμμαουμ, Αμμαουμ] , while as yet the forces were dispersed from the camp. In the meantime, came Gorgias by night into the camp of Judas, and when he found no man there, he sought them in the mountains, for he said, ‘These fellows flee from us.’ But as soon as it was day, Judas showed himself in the plain with three thousand men, who nevertheless had neither armour nor swords to their liking. And they saw the camp of the heathen, that it was strong and well fortified and compassed round about with horsemen, and these were expert in war. Then said Judas to the men who were with him, ‘Fear ye not their multitude, neither be ye afraid of their assault. Remember how our fathers were delivered at the Red Sea when Pharaoh pursued them with an army. Now therefore let us cry unto heaven, if perhaps the Lord will have mercy upon us and remember the covenant of our fathers and destroy this host before our face this day, so that all the heathen may know that there is One who delivers and saves Israel.’

Then the strangers lifted up their eyes and saw them coming over against them. Therefore, they went out of the camp to battle, but those who were with Judas sounded their trumpets. So they joined in battle, and the heathen, being discomfited, fled into the plain. However, all the hindmost of them were slain with the sword, for they pursued them unto Gazara, and unto the plains of Idumea, and Azotus, and Jamnia, so that there were slain of them some three thousand men. This done, Judas returned again with his host from pursuing them and said to the people, ‘Be not greedy for the spoils, inasmuch as there is a battle before us, and Gorgias and his host are here by us in the mountain. But stand ye now against your enemies and overcome them, and after this ye may boldly take the spoils.’ As Judas was yet speaking these words, there appeared a part of them looking out from the mountain, who, when they perceived that the Jews had put their host to flight and were burning the tents, for the smoke that was seen declared what was done when therefore they perceived these things, they were sore afraid and, seeing also the host of Judas in the plain ready to fight, they fled every one into the land of strangers”.

1st Book of Maccabees 3:38-4,22

( translation: TMBA Bible)

Other stories from the Second Temple period:

According to the Talmud, among the musicians who played in the Jerusalem Temple there were people from Emmaus:

“And they (who played the flute before the altar) were the priests’ slaves. So R. Meir. R. Yose says, ‘They were from the Bet Hapegarim and Bet Tziporyah families and from Emmaus [depending upon manuscripts: עימאוס, עמאוס, אמאוס] ; they married priests [i.e. their daughters were accepted as wives by the priests]’. R. Hanina ben Antignos says, ‘They were Levites’.”

Tractate Arakhin, ch. 2, Mishnah 4

(The Mishnah, R. Fisch, trans., Jerusalem, 1995)

Levite musicians in the Temple

“A story is told about a donkey driver who came to Hillel the Elder. He said to him: ‘Rabbi, see how we are better off than you [Babylonians], for you are put to great trouble with all this travelling when you ascend from Babylon to Jerusalem, but I go forth from the entrance of my house and lodge in the entrance to Jerusalem’. He waited a bit and then said to him: ‘For how much would you rent me your donkey from here to Emmaus [מיאם, אמאום]?'

He answered: ‘A denarius’. ‘How much to Lod?’ He answered: ‘Two’. ‘How much to Caesarea?’ He answered: ‘Three’. He said to him: ‘I see that, in so far as I increase the distance [to be travelled], you increase the price’. He answered: ‘Yes, price is according to distance’. He said to him: ‘And should not the reward for my own feet be [at least] the equivalent of a beast’s feet?’ This is what Hillel used to maintain: ‘According to the painstaking, the reward’...”

Avot de Rabbi Nathan B, ch.27.

(Avot de Rabbi Nathan B, A. Saladrini, trans., Leiden, 1975)

Late Roman period

A collection of the Jewish comments for the Law Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael (Mekhilta for the Book of Exodus) describes the hard situation of the Jewish people after the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple:

“Once Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai was going up to Emmaus in Judea [depending from manuscripts: מאוס, מעון יהודה, מעים] and he saw a girl who was picking barleycorn out of the excrements of a horse. Said R. Johanan ben Zakkai to his disciples: ‘What is this girl?’ They said to him: ‘She is a Jewish girl.’ ‘And to whom does this horse belong?’ ‘To an Arabian horseman,’ the disciples answered him. Then said R. Johanan ben Zakkai to his disciples: ‘All my life I have been reading this verse and I have not realized its full meaning: ‘If thou know not, O thou fairest among women,’ etc. [Song of Songs 1:8] - you were unwilling to be subject to God, behold now you are subjected to the most inferior of the nations... You were unwilling to pay the head-tax to God, ‘a beka a head’[ Ex. 38:26] ; now you are paying a head-tax of fifteen shekels under a government of your enemies. You were unwilling to repair the roads and streets leading up to the Temple; now you have to keep in repair the posts and stations on the road to the royal cities’...”

Mechilta d’Rabbi Ismael, tractate Bahodesh A

(Mechilta d’Rabbi Ismael, H. S. Horovitz, ed., Jerusalem, 1970, p. 203)

Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai

Following the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai gathered his disciples in Yavne (Jamnia), where he founded an Academy and reformed the Judaism, enabling it to exist in the absence of the Temple. Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai finished his life in the village of Berur Hail ca. 72 AD . The Jewish tradition has preserved the following story:

“Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai had five disciples, and as long as he lived, they sat before him. When he died, they went to Yavne. R. Eleazar ben Arach, however, joined his wife at Emmaus [אמאוס], a place of good water and beautiful aspect. He waited for them to come to him, but they did not come. As they failed to do so, he wanted to go to them, but his wife did not let him. She said, ‘Who needs whom?’ He answered, ‘They need me.’ She said to him, ‘In the case of a vessel [containing food] and mice, which goes to which? Do the mice go to the vessel or does the vessel come to the mice?’ He listened to her and remained there until he forgot his learning…”

Midrash Rabbah for Ecclesiastes, 7, 15

(the translation is ours)


The same story is mentioned in the collection of Jewish legends, Avot de Rabbi Nathan (B):

“Why did he [rabbi Eleazar ben Arach] not attain fame for learning? Because when they left Jerusalem, [each of] them said: ‘Where shall I go?’ Now he said: ‘Let us go to Emmaus [מאוס], a beautiful town whose waters are sweet’. His name did not become famous for learning. But those who said: ‘Let us go to Jamnia, a place where people love the Torah, a place where scholars are numerous’, attained fame for learning.”

Avot de-Rabbi Nathan B, ch. 29

(Avot de-Rabbi Nathan B, A. Saladrini, trans., Leiden, 1975, p.167-168)

Other famous Rabbis also visited Emmaus in the late 1st century:

Rabbi Akiba

“ Rabbi Akiba said: ‘I asked Rabban Gamaliel and R. Joshua in the market of Emmaus [ אמאוס , in the parallel texts in Talmud, depending on manuscripts: אימאום ,עימאוס ,מימוס ,אימאוס ,אימעום ,מעאוס ,אימוס ,עימאום ,עימעיס ,עימאום ] where they went to buy a beast for the wedding-feast of the son of Rabban Gamaliel, [and I said,] ‘If a man had connexion with his sister and his father’s sister and his mother's sister during one spell of forgetfulness, what happens ?—is he liable to one offering for them all or to one offering for each of them?’ They said to me, ‘We have heard no tradition about this, but we have heard a tradition that if a man had connexion, during one spell of forgetfulness, with his five wives that were menstruants, he is liable for each one of them; and we consider that this applies still more so in the other case...’ ’’

Mishnah, tractate Keritot, 3.7

(The translation is ours)

The following text from the Midrash Rabbah for the book of Lamentations speaks of the extermination of the Jewish population in the area of Emmaus after the suppression of the Bar-Kochba revolt:

“Hadrian the accursed set up three garrisons, one in Hamta [חמתא], a second in Kefar Lekatia, and the third in Beth-El of Judea. He said, ‘Whoever attempts to escape from one of them will be captured in another and vice versa’...”

Midrash Rabbah for the book of Lamentations (1,48)

(the translation is ours)

Jewish amulet (silver scroll) found at Emmaus, 3d c. CE:

“Talisman. To Shamrael. Let God and all His holy princes (angels?) abolish every spell from his eyes, from his intelligence and from his tendons. Healing in the name…”

(L.-H. Vincent, "Amulette judéo-araméenne", RB 1908, pp. 382-394, see also: J. Naveh , S. Shaked, "Amulets and Magic Bowls", 1985, pp. 60-63, 216, fig. 5)

Byzantine period

Tombstone with a Hebrew inscription (Byzantine period):

"The resting place of Elazar, the son of Joshua, peace from Emmaus, peace"

(today found in Jaffa Archaeological Museum).


During the Byzantine period Jewish and Samaritan populations are present at Emmaus:

Rabbi Aha went to Emmaus [מאוס] and ate their pastries [Samaritans’]”

Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Avoda Zara, 5, 4

(The translation is ours)

Samaritan mosaics from Sha'alvim near Emmaus (Israel Antiquities Authority)

Middle Age

Salmon ben Yeruhim, Commentary on Ecclesiastes, (10th century Karaite author)

“The labour of the foolish wearieth every one of them, because he knoweth not how to go to the city” (Ecclesiastes 10, 15), like a man who leaves Ramla for Jerusalem (Bayt al-Maqdis), which is quite a famous road; if he wants to make a short-cut, he will pass through ‘Imwâs (Emmaus) and Qaryat al-‘anab; but he [the fool] will not go this way but will go towards Gaza and turn towards Bayt Jibrin and from there to Zughar and afterwards return to ‘Eyn Gedi and from there to Jericho and from there to Jerusalem..."

quoted by Moshe Gil in A History of Palestine, Cambridge, 1997, p.203.

Rabbi Isaac Helo of Aragon, Roads of Jerusalem, Chapter 2, From Jerusalem to Jaffa, written in 1334:

“ ...The way which leads from the Holy city to Jaffa, at the outskirt of the tribe of Dan, is as follows: From Jerusalem to Sarea, the fatherland of Samson. Today, they call this Surah and there one shows you the tomb of Samson. It is a very old monument, adorned with the jawbone of the ass with which Samson had killed the Philistines. From there, we find Emmaus, a location well-known to our sages, may their memory be blessed. Now, this is no more than a poor village inhabited by a few Ishmaelites who live in miserable houses. There is an ancient sepulchral monument at Emmaus, which is said to be the tomb of a Christian Lord, who fell in the war with the king of Persia. From Emmaus, we come to Ghimzo, the fatherland of Rabbi Nachum, citizen of Ghimzo...“

( Translated by us from: Itinéraires de la Terre Sainte, Bruxelles, 1847, E. Carmoly, ed., p.245.

Some scholars consider this text to be a 19th c. forgery; it is based however upon an authentic Jewish tradition.