Benjamin of Tudela – A Milestone in TimeIn ETUDES ET TRAVAUX
Benjamin of Tudela – A Milestone in Time
Ben-Gurion University of the Negev
Sede Boqer Campus, 84990 Israel.
[An essay, dedicated to my friend Paul Ohana,
modified from my forthcoming book on the route of the biblical Exodus]
Some years ago I developed a curiosity to investigate how far back in history one can
trace the Jewish tradition that we experience today. This curiosity was spurred by a
chance reading of a piece of unfinished prose by the 19th century poet Heinrich Heine.
The piece in question The Rabbi of Bacharach  depicts a Passover eve celebration
(Seder) in the Middle Ages, that is broken up by the outbreak of a pogrom. Heine’s
description of the Seder was quite similar to that which is familiar to Jews of today. In
probing further back in time I encountered the Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln ,
who wrote of Jewish life as she experienced it in Europe of the 18th Century. Again,
many of the customs described by Glückel are familiar to this day.
I was unable to find representative writings from every single century but one that is
of relevance to this essay was the diary of the travels of Benjamin of Tudela, a 12th
century scholar who set out from Tudela in search of the various Jewish communities
from Spain to the Holy Land. The entire book is filled with fascinating stories.
However, one in particular, caught my attention, probably because I myself had only
recently arrived in Israel and it seemed to touch upon a curious custom that had
hitherto been quite unknown to me. Benjamin, describing an annual journey of the
khalif of Bagdad, writes :
The khalif, after this ceremony, leaves the mosque, and returns alone, along the banks
of the Tigris, to his palace, the noble Mohammedans accompany him in boats until he
enters this building. He never returns by the way he came; and the path along the
bank of the river is carefully guarded all the year round, so as to prevent any one
treading in his footsteps. The khalif never leaves his palace again for a whole year.
He is a pious and benevolent man,…
The particular custom to which I referred was that of not re-doubling one’s tracks in a
cemetery. During my childhood in England, I never attended a funeral because my
parents considered such sad events as unsuitable for children. Later on, when my
various uncles and aunts started to pass away, I was no longer living in England and
usually received the news long after the funerals had occurred. However, Israel was
the first country in which as an adult I lived for any length of time and, not
surprisingly, I started having to attend funerals. On the very first such occasion I was
struck by the request of the officiator that, on our way out, we should be careful not to
re-trace the path we had taken when approaching the grave. This became a repeated
occurrence on such occasions, which had no doubt made the above quoted extract
stand out in my mind.
Now it is a strange fact, which readers will probably have noticed, that after one first
encounters a new word or some other kind of item, it seems to occur over and over
again. And so it was with this strange custom. My next encounter with it was in
reading a biblical story with which I had been unfamiliar, because it is not one of the
regular synagogue readings on Sabbaths or Festivals. This is the relevant part of the
strange story :
Now there dwelt an old prophet in Bethel; and his sons came and told him all the
works that the man of God had done that day in Bethel: the words which he had
spoken unto the king, them they told also to their father. And he said unto his sons,
Saddle me the ass. So they saddled him the ass: and he rode thereon, Then he said
unto him, Come home with me, and eat bread. And he said, I may not return with thee,
nor go in with thee: neither will I eat bread nor drink water with thee in this place:
for it was said to me by the word of the Lord, Thou shalt eat no bread nor drink water
there, nor turn again to go by the way that thou camest. He said unto him, I am a
prophet also as thou art; and an angel spake unto me by the word of the Lord, saying,
Bring him back with thee into thine house, that he may eat bread and drink
water. But he lied unto him. So he went back with him, and did eat bread in his house,
and drank water. And it came to pass, as they sat at the table, that the word of the
Lord came unto the prophet that brought him back: and he cried unto the man of God
that came from Judah, saying, Thus saith the Lord, Forasmuch as thou hast disobeyed
the mouth of the Lord, and hast not kept the commandment which the Lord thy God
commanded thee, but camest back, and hast eaten bread and drunk water in the
place, of the which the Lord did say to thee, Eat no bread, and drink no water; thy
carcass shall not come unto the sepulchre of thy fathers. And it came to pass, after he
had eaten bread, and after he had drunk, that he saddled for him the ass, to wit, for
the prophet whom he had brought back. And when he was gone, a lion met him by the
way, and slew him: and his carcass was cast in the way, and the ass stood by it, the
lion also stood by the carcass.
So, was this the origin of the custom of not retracing one’s steps for fear of bad luck?
My own speculation is that the custom had an even earlier origin – also in the Bible:
Namely, during the 40 years wandering of the Israelites after they emerged from
slavery in ancient Egypt. It must be evident that those 40 years were essentially a
death march to enable the entire generation to die off, according to the curse in the
biblical Book of Numbers , as punishment for not having had sufficient faith in
Divine Providence. For reasons that I have written elsewhere , the bulk of those 40
years in the largely arid Sinai Desert were spent wandering back and forth in an arc
between the two principal water sources, Kadesh Barnea and Yotvata. Naturally, as
loved ones died, they had to be buried, and their graves were no doubt marked by
piles of stones – customary among nomadic tribes. And each season, as the survivors
returned, they presumably repaired the graves by replacing the stones that had fallen –
another custom in Jewish cemeteries! They were only too aware of the curse that had
befallen them, and each knew that it was only a matter of time until such a pile of
stones would mark their own grave.
There were, as the Bible tells us, 3 survivors of that death march: Joshua the son of
Nun, Caleb the son of Jephunneh, and Moses himself. They may well have generated
the custom among their descendants that it is bad luck to double back upon one’s
tracks in a graveyard.
Coming back to Benjamin of Tudela, one notices that he does not actually say that it
is bad luck to retrace one’s steps. However, his implication seems to be that not
retracing his steps is one of the qualities that makes the khalif a “pious and benevolent
 Heinrich Heine. The Rabbi of Bachrach. English translation in The Poetry and
Prose of Heinrich Heine selected and edited with an introduction by Frederic Ewen
(Citadel Press, New York, 1948) pp 507-539.
 Glückel, daughter of Löb Pinkerle. The Memoirs of Glückel of Hameln. Translated
by Marvin Lowenthal (Schocken Books, New York, 1977).
 The Travels of Rabbi Benjamin, of Tudela, A.D. 1160-1173. English translation in
Early Travels in Palestine, edit. Thomas Wright. First published 1848 (Ktav
Publishing House, Inc., New York, 1968) pp 63-126.
 Verses 11-25, extracted from the full story in 1 Kings 13. [King James Translation
of the Bible].
 Nu. 14, 26-39.
 D. Faiman. Some observations regarding the route of the Exodus. Dor Le Dor vol.
XIV No.4, Summer 1986, pp 209-219.