• Roman aquaduct Israel | Photo: PXhere

Walking the Land

Kay Wilson - 10 March 2021

During the couple of days when snow recently fell on the higher peaks throughout Israel, those citizens who lived in the white-brushed peaks, made the most of the rare weather and rushed outside to build snowmen. But for the thousands who lived  where snow had not graced the region, people got in their cars and traveled miles to get out and take a hike through the novelty of white.

Hiking and walking the land is not restricted to these rare days of a European winter, but is a favorite past time of many Israelis – come rain or shine. In modernity, this inbuilt hunger for exploring our Land finds its genesis in Zev Vilnai, an Israeli geographer and author who immigrated with his parents to the Holy Land from Kishinev in the Russian Empire.

“Hiking and walking the land is a favorite past time of many Israelis”

Zev Vilnay | Photo: Wikipedia

Three years after a murderous pogrom lead by priests who encouraged the mob to slaughter 49 Jews in cold blood, Zev and his family came home. The program not only shocked the world, it infamously drove Theodore Herzl to desperately propose Uganda as a solution for the homeland for the  Jewish people.

“When Israel became a state in 1948, the Prime Minister David Ben Gurion set up a committee that was responsible for naming the plethora of new kibbutzim, moshavim, towns and villages”

Once safe in the Land of Israel, Zev became smitten with the idea of Jews exploring the land of the Bible. From his explorations he wrote many books of local folklore, parables and legends. In them he also describes a continuous historical thread found in the Jewish sources, threads that connected the ancient writings with the indigenous Jewish people. He often quoted the Talmud, saying that anyone who walks three or four cubits through the Land of Israel merits a place in the world to come.

When Israel became a state in 1948, the Prime Minister David Ben Gurion set up a committee that was responsible for naming the plethora of new kibbutzim, moshavim, towns and villages. The intent of the committee was to authenticate how close these new places were to Biblical locations. If the ancient sources depicted the authenticity of the location of the Biblical site and the archeological historical research also backed it up, the new Jewish place would be named after the Biblical one. Zev’s  groundbreaking research into the authenticity and identity of Biblical places earned him a doctorate, which in itself was a massive contribution to the establishment of the Land of Israel Studies, a certified subject in all Israeli universities.

One of his most memorable archeological discoveries occurred in 1928. With the drying up of the Kabara swamps that lay between the foot of Mount Carmel and the Mediterranean Sea, Zev uncovered a Roman aqueduct with inscriptions of the Roman Legion who had built it. His most esteemed literary work was written with his friend Zvi Berger, an Israeli artist. For three years the men worked on publishing an album of 56 lithographs. Vilnai contributed to the album from his wealth of knowledge in the landscapes of Israel and Berger did the artwork. The album was eventually translated into English under “Israel Horizons.” In 1965 it even won a silver medal at the 6th Art Albums Festival in Milan.

Israel Horizons by Zev Vilnay | Photo: Achva Press Jan 1965

Vilnai was awarded the Bialik Prize for Jewish Thought, and in the seventies he swept up the much esteemed Israel Prize for his knowledge and love of the Land of Israel. Before he died, he wrote his will and requested to be buried between Tzora and Esthaol, the territory of the Samson. Throughout his entire life, Vilnai had been so impressed and inspired with Samson’s life and strength.

Vilnai died in 1988, leaving two sons. Matan became a general in the IDF and a member of the Knesset and Oren became an expert in structural engineering. Oren also made sure to publish the English “Vilnai Guide to Israel,” which until today is part of a collection in every tour guide’s essential library.  It is all but impossible to take a hike in Israel today, and not recall the Jewish intrepid explorer, Zev Vilnai.

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