Tarshish, Canals and Divrei Hayamim

Tarshish, Canals and Divrei Hayamim

Question #1: Where was Tarshish?

Was Tarshish west or east of Eretz Yisrael?

Question #2: Route Canal

Was the ancient spice route accessible via canal?

Question #3: Ezra’s Error

Could Ezra have made a mistake that crept into Divrei Hayamim?


We will soon discover that attempting to identify “Tarshish,” mentioned numerous times in Tanach, will lead us to a fascinating search! Let us start with the most basic of questions: Was Tarshish a person, place, or thing?

The answer is “yes.” The word appears in Tanach dozens of times, sometimes as someone’s name (Bereishis 10:4; Esther 1:14; Divrei Hayamim I 7:10), often as the name of a place (Yonah 1:3; Yechezkel 38:13; Tehillim 72:10) and, occasionally, as the name of a precious stone (Shemos 28:20; 39:13; Yechezkel 10:9, 28:13; Shir Hashirim 5:14),


Since we know that Yonah went to Yafo, on the Mediterranean Sea, to hire a ship to go to Tarshish, it would appear that this ancient city was located along the Mediterranean basin, or perhaps somewhere along the Atlantic coast of either northern Africa or Western Europe. Yet, from other sources in Tanach, we have evidence that Tarshish was accessible from the Red Sea, an inlet of the Indian Ocean. How could this ancient port have been accessible to both the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian ocean, in an era when rounding Cape Point and the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tips of Africa was unknown? The Suez Canal, which connects the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, was not constructed until the 19th century!

Let me begin from the basics, so that we can see whether our question is because we overlooked some fundamental information. Yonah has a prophetic vision to go to Nineveh, which we know is in Mesopotamia, an overland trip from where Yonah is in Eretz Yisrael. Although the sefer bearing his name never tells us why, Yonah resists carrying out the word of Hashem, certainly knowing that this jeopardizes his hard-earned reward in olam haba, and instead decides to leave Eretz Yisrael, presumably so that he can no longer receive Hashem’s prophecy. He travels to the major port servicing Eretz Yisrael, Yafo, and leaves by ship to Tarshish.

I know of numerous suggestions as to the identity of Tarshish, including places in Asia Minor, North Africa or Iberia whose name might have been Hebraized to Tarshish, various locations in Italy or on the island of Sardinia, and even suggestions that it might be in Britain, which is also accessible from Eretz Yisrael via the Mediterranean Sea. We will soon see that some commentaries suggest that Tarshish might be cognate to Carthage, on the northern coast of Africa not far from where Tunis is today, which was, at one point, the most powerful port city on the Mediterranean. The word Tarshish may be related to the Hebrew root רשש, to crush, break into bits or impoverish, and thus might be a play on words referring to the city which was home to a sea-based empire and crushed its opposition.

From the words of the prophet Yechezkel (27:12), we know that Tarshish was a source of many valuable metals, although Yirmiyahu Hanavi  (10:9) singles out silver as its valuable export. Assuming that Yirmiyahu and Yechezkel are describing the same place, we can assume that it was located either near an area where many metals, but particularly silver, could be mined, or as a distribution point for them.

Having established from the pasuk in Yonah that Tarshish was a port somewhere in, or accessible from, the Mediterranean basin, we then discover that Shelomoh Hamelech conquered Etzyon Gever, which is a port on the Red Sea (Melachim I, 9, 26; Divrei Hayamim II, 8, 17), an inlet of the Indian Ocean. There (Melachim I, 9, 28), it describes how the merchant ships of Shelomoh Hamelech’s fleet travelled to Ophir to acquire massive amounts of gold, and, later, it describes how Shelomoh Hamelech’s fleet returned from their three years’ journey to Tarshish laden with gold, silver, ivory, and other valuables (Melachim I, 10, 22, see Abarbanel; Divrei Hayamim II, 9, 21).

It is easy to understand the commercial, political and military value of Shelomoh Hamelech establishing a port with access to the Indian Ocean. Eretz Yisrael is located where the massive Eurasian land mass touches slightly on the continent of Africa. This small touch, which we refer to as the Sinai Peninsula, is what preempts Africa from being the largest island on the planet, and, instead, it forms the southern border of the Mediterranean Sea and the western border of the Indian Ocean. Even in ancient times, spices and other valuable goods were shipped from the Far East, especially from India and the Spice Islands, today part of Indonesia, either via ship to Arabian ports, or overland through the Silk Road. Shelomoh Hamelech, with his ally, Hiram, sought to cut out the middlemen along this shipping route and, thus, be able to import these valuables directly from the source. For this reason, he established a port so that he could do business directly with the sources of these valuables on the Indian Ocean and beyond, and control this massive import-export business himself.

By the way, it is curious to note that the early stages of the empire-building and colony- seizing of the European powers in the 15th to 19th centuries were essentially for the same purpose  —  to import directly from the Far East and to establish a monopoly over these trade routes. This is why de Gama, Cabral, Columbus, Magellan and Hudson wanted to discover a sea route to Asia, and why Spain, Portugal, England, Holland and France sought and fought to create worldwide empires and trading posts.

Returning to the topic of Tarshish: Ships left from the new port of Etzyon Gever that Shelomoh Hamelech conquered and established, with access to the Indian Ocean, and traveled to Tarshish, as is also implied by a pasuk later in Melachim (I, 22:49). This leaves us with a major predicament: Where was Tarshish? Was it in or near the Mediterranean Basin, as implied by the pasuk in Yonah, or was it somewhere in the Indian Ocean or beyond, since it took three years to travel by ship from Etzyon Gever there and back, including the time used for trading at its various ports of call?

There are several ways to attempt to resolve this conundrum. I will first share with you those suggested by the Abarbanel and the Malbim. The Abarbanel explains that Tarshish ships, mentioned in the book of Melachim, are not ships traveling to Tarshish, but describe the large, deep-sea vessels capable of making an extensive voyage. These ships left Eretz Yisrael’s western ports, on the Mediterranean, for Tarshish, which he identifies as Carthage, which is what gave these ships their name, but they also left from Etzyon Gever for journeys to the Far East, which was called Ophir. This is the way Abarbanel explains the pasuk that uses Tarshish as a pronoun, “Yehoshofat made ten Tarshish ships to travel to Ophir…that were smashed in Etzyon Gever” (Melachim I, 22:49); Yehoshofat had his shipbuilders manufacture ten large oceangoing vessels to travel to the Far East, but they never made it out of port.

The difficulty that Abarbanel then faces is the verse in Divrei Hayamim (20:36) that recounts this same event, and says that Yehoshofat had manufactured ships in Etzyon Gever to ship to Tarshish, which, according to Abarbanel’s opinion that Tarshish is Carthage, was seemingly impossible at the time. The problem is that the pasuk in Divrei Hayamim is not describing a type of large merchant ship, but a destination. To answer this question, the Abarbanel presents an approach that most of us, and also the Malbim, find unacceptable: “Perhaps Ezra (the author of Divrei Hayamim, see Bava Basra 15a) erred — he found it written that Yehoshofat manufactured Tarshish ships, and he thought that this meant ships to sail to Tarshish, but this is not accurate.” Abarbanel then suggests that, because of a war with Phoenicia, perhaps Yehoshofat was unable to manufacture ships at his Mediterranean coast ports, but had to manufacture them in Etzyon Gever. He then planned to have them travel to the Mediterranean, probably via some canal that connected the Red Sea with the Nile River, but the ships were destroyed en route (as to be expected for an ocean going vessel attempted such a route). I researched and discovered that there had been an ancient canal dug to connect the Nile with the Red Sea, but its purpose was to import and export into Egypt, not to provide a method of transporting goods from Asia to Europe. I presume that, similar to the Erie Canal, it was basically a ditch, suitable for barges and other small craft, but certainly not deep enough for oceangoing vessels.

Let me explain how the Abarbanel can say that Ezra erred, which we consider to be an unacceptable, and perhaps sacrilegious, approach. The Abarbanel wrote extensive annotations to the Rambam’s Moreh Nevuchim, which some consider its most vital commentary. In his remarks, he is in the forefront of explaining the Rambam’s philosophic positions, whenever the Ramban (in his commentary on the Torah) or other rishonim take issue with the Rambam’s approaches.

Abarbanel, clearly, is following the Rambam’s position that the works of Kesuvim (as opposed to those of Nevi’im) are written with ruach hakodesh (Moreh Nevuchim 2:45), but not with prophecy. In the Rambam’s opinion, ruach hakodesh is Divine inspiration allowing someone to understand and accomplish more than he otherwise would be able (Moreh Nevuchim 2:45); however, there is no reason to assume that it precludes an error in decision making, fact gathering, or even in interpretation of halacha. For example, Rambam includes David Hamelech, Shelomoh Hamelech and Shimshon as having ruach hakodesh, although we know that each of them made severe errors of judgment and that bothShelomoh Hamelechand his father David made halachic errors, notwithstanding their ruach hakodesh.

Malbim (Commentary to Melachim I 10, 22) finds Abarbanel’s approach to be unacceptable. Instead, he suggests that Yehoshofat’s ships left Etzyon Gever for Tarshish, which he identifies with a port city on the Atlantic coast of Spain. This approach has the advantage that there was only one Tarshish and it was accessible from the Mediterranean. The Malbim understands that ships from any of Eretz Yisrael’s ports could access Tarshish by way of the open ocean, implying that ships left Etzyon Gever for Tarshish by circumnavigating the African continent.

However, this approach does not satisfy me. Eretz Yisrael had ports, at the time, in both Yafo and Akko, which have easy access to the Mediterranean. The vitality of a port at Etzyon Gever was that it has easy access, via the Gulf of Eilat, to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean.

I am surprised that neither Abarbanel or Malbim even mention what I consider the obvious answer, one that the Gemara and the rishonim mention in several other contexts regarding place names – that there are two places with the same name (Arachin 32b; Tosafos, Gittin 2a s.v. VeAshkelon). It is obvious, for example, that Har Hahar describes two different places in chumash; the place where Aharon is buried is somewhere on the eastern side of the Jordan River (Bamidbar, Chapters 20 and 33), and the Har Hahar mentioned as the northwest border of Eretz Yisrael (Bamidbar 34:7,8) is, obviously, along the Mediterranean coast, somewhere to the north of contemporary Israel. I am aware of at least six opinions exactly which seaside mountain should be identified with Har Hahar on the Mediterranean, but none of them is the burial place of Aharon.

Thus, the obvious answer to the question is that more than one place was called Tarshish. Since the word tarshish is also the name of a precious stone, as in one of the stones that the kohein gadol wore on his breastplate, it could be that Tarshish, the port, was a name given to any place where this precious stone could be acquired, similar to the diamond exchanges in New York, Antwerp or Ramat Gan.

Another possibility, which I suggested above, is that the word Tarshish, based on the root רשש, came to mean any power that impoverishes and dispossesses those that oppose it, or that the place name was borrowed to refer to another maritime superpower that vanquished and subjugated its enemies and established control of its trade routes. Certainly, there were sea powers along the Indian Ocean route, between Shelomoh and Hiram’s Levant and the far distant Spice Islands, that met this description. Thus, either of our approaches explains why the name Tarshish applied to two trade powers, one in the days of Yonah in the Mediterranean Basin, and the other in the days of Shelomoh. Since Shelomoh was earlier, it could be that the original Tarshish was off the Indian Ocean and Carthage’s name was borrowed from the original Tarshish. And, of course, none of these approaches is mutually exclusive: One Tarshish may have been named for its power, another for its valuable stone or precious metals trade, and a third borrowed its name from the original source.