Unleashing The Tongues Of Fire

March 28, 1995|By Doug Struck | Doug Struck,Jerusalem Bureau of The Sun

JERUSALEM -- At a secret time in a secret synagogue soon, 10 rabbis say they will begin to fast. At midnight of the third day, they will circle the Torah scrolls with black candles, blow a ram's horn and place upon Udi Ilan the curse of the Tongues of Fire.

Within a year, they predict, he will be dead.

"Punishments come from heaven. The rabbis have the power to call for it," says Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, an organizer of the ultra-Orthodox Jews calling for the curse.

Mr. Ilan is a developer building 270 apartments and a huge parking lot in the old city of Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv. The Haredim, ultra-Orthodox Jews, say that he is desecrating Jewish graves, an allegation that Mr. Ilan and government archaeologists deny.

The Haredim have demonstrated against him, vandalized equipment, threatened to boycott his bank and its affiliated American Express cards, and already have imposed a lesser curse. Unless he stops construction, the Haredim say, they will use the most lethal curse available, the Pulsa de Nura.

"We have tried earthly words. They don't understand. Now we must speak to them in a heavenly language," says Mr. Meshi-Zahav.

Mr. Ilan, 44, is unafraid. "I will outlive the rabbi who curses me," he boasts.

But in Israel, this black invocation taps a strong root of superstition. This is a country where politicians visit seers, men wear amulets on their wrists, and women seeking babies have been known to line up to sit on a chair once used by a rabbi they felt could bestow fertility.

Within the Jewish religion is a strong thread of mysticism, called Kabbalah. It uses secret rituals, blessings, curses and supernatural interpretations.

Just as some mainstream Christians blanch at rites such as exorcism, main stream Jewish rabbis squirm at the black magic aspects of Kabbalah. But most are not willing to dismiss it.

"A lot of people believe in it," says Ithamar Gruenwald, a professor of Jewish thought at Tel Aviv University. "They wouldn't practice it. But in their heart, they may believe that if something bad happens to a person, it may be because he is cursed."

From the first curse in Genesis, when God condemned to slither on its belly the snake that gave an apple to Eve, the Bible is rife with blessings and curses. To believe in the Bible but not oaths is a sort of pick-and-choose religion, says Mr. Meshi-Zahav.

"There are people who have problems with how it looks," Mr. Meshi-Zahav says of the Kabbalistic practices. "But they are denying the roots of the religion. They are really ignoring the traditions."

"Most people involved in this [construction] project are laughing about the curse," says Efrat Orbach, a spokeswoman for the Israel Antiquities Authority. Archaeologists stopped construction when ancient sites were found and removed what they say are the remains of a few dozen Persian and Byzantine Christian graves for reburial. There are no Jewish graves, she says.

Mr. Ilan suggests that the religious opponents are threatening him because they want concessions or money. He stopped work on the $160 million project for negotiations, but resumed this week because the talks went nowhere, he says.

"Don't waste your time looking for logic with them," he complains. "It's like they are in the 16th century."

Those calling for the curse are from a group called Edah Haredit -- the Community of Religious. Founded in 1918 as a small band of ultra-Orthodox Jews who rejected the founding of modern Israel on religious grounds, Edah Haredit now claims a wide following among all ultra-Orthodox, a powerful minority in Israel.

The group has seized on an emotional issue with the black-suited Haredim. It leads the fight against construction projects throughout Israel that the group says are disturbing Jewish graves.

The curses they have levied have reaped a righteous toll, they claim.

Aharon Kempinski, a noted archaeologist, clashed with the Haredim when he supervised excavations of graves for a highway near Jerusalem in 1993. They put a curse on him, and he died last year of AIDS.

Yigal Shilo, another archaeologist, was cursed for excavations in a Jerusalem project called City of David. He died in 1987 of cancer, at the age of 50, a year later.

Ernst Japhet was given a lesser curse when his bank, Bank Leumi, financed construction of a hotel in Tiberias that Haredim claimed disturbed Jewish graves. The country's leading banker, he fell to scorn in a bank stock scandal in 1983 and went to prison.

Gershon Agron, a major figure in modern Israeli history, started the English-language Palestine Post and became mayor of Jerusalem. The ultra-Orthodox put the Pulsa de Nura curse on him for opening a public pool where men and women could swim together. Within a year, in 1959, he died of pneumonia at age 65 after surgery for liver ailments.

"It's a very, very serious offense to disturb graves," says Mr. Meshi-Zahav. "These people are thieves. It does not matter if they are breaking into a house or into a grave. We have to fight them, even with curses."

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