purity seal, temple worship
An Israel Antiquities Authority employee holding the purity seal. Government officials say it proves the Jewish link to the Temple Mount. Photo by Olivier Fitoussi
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A rare clay seal that appears to have been used to authenticate the purity of ritual objects used in the Second Temple has been discovered during excavations near the Western Wall, the Israel Antiquities Authority said Sunday.

The report of the discovery is particularly timely, since a seal like the one displayed yesterday, on the fifth day of Hanukkah, played a key role in the holiday, according to religious tradition. The Festival of Lights celebrates the Maccabees' victory over the Greeks and the rededication of the Temple - made possible by the single vial of oil affixed with just such a seal of purity, which tradition has it kept the menorah lit for eight days.

The seal, which was displayed in a ceremony in Jerusalem yesterday, is two centimeters in diameter and has a two-word Aramaic inscription that translates as "pure for God." It was discovered during excavations beneath Robinson's Arch, in the Old City's archaeological park.

Government officials who attended the ceremony seized upon the finding as proof of Jewish continuity in Jerusalem.

Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat called the find "a seal of verification of our right to the Land of Israel." Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said "these excavations could not have taken place without Israeli sovereignty."

Archaeologists said the seal was important because it substantiates descriptions of Second Temple activity that are found in ancient sources.

This is "the first time an indication has been found by archaeologists about activities that took place at the Temple Mount," said Ronny Reich, a professor of archaeology at Haifa University and one of the leaders of the excavation.

Ritual objects in the Temple had to meet rigorous purity guidelines that are set forth in the Mishna.

Aren Maeir, a biblical archaeologist at Bar-Ilan University who was not involved in the excavation, said the sail is important because it "was found right next to the Temple and is similar to what we see described in the Mishna."

"It's nice when we can connect an activity recorded in ancient sources with archaeological finds," he said.

The seal was found under several layers of dirt that covered the foundations of the Western Wall, 15 meters north of the southwest corner of the Temple Mount.

Atop one layer of dirt researchers found street-floor materials from the period of Herod that were apparently used to build Jerusalem's main road during the Second Temple period, from 538 B.C.E. to 70 C.E. The materials were dated from the end of the first century C.E., a period that witnessed considerable construction activity, influenced by Roman styles.