Israel’s national museum would be a treasure-trove even if it didn’t house the Dead Sea Scrolls. But because they are the main reason people visit, we’ll start our discussion with those ancient scrolls, which are 1,000 years older than the oldest previously known copies of the Hebrew Bible. Located in an area titled the Shrine of the Book, the exhibit that houses them not only displays pieces of the scrolls, with translation and fascinating commentary on the passages shown, but tells the story of their discovery. And what a story it is! They were discovered by chance in 1947 by Bedouin shepherds in a cave near the Dead Sea, where they were apparently hidden in advance of the Roman invasion of a.d. 67. They contain the only surviving biblical scrolls from the time when the Temple still stood in Jerusalem plus so-called extra-biblical writings that didn’t make it into the canon.
The Shrine of the Book also exhibits some of the fascinating, precious personal possessions hidden in the Dead Sea caves by refugees who did not survive to retrieve them. Archeologist Yigal Yadin’s beautifully photographed book “Bar Kochba” brings the stories behind these discoveries to life. Tip: In a recent initiative, the museum has made a number of the Dead Sea Scrolls in its collection available in their entirety on the Israel Museum website, providing an amazing opportunity for readers of Hebrew as well as a chance for others to examine the innate beauty and restrained grace of this sacred world heritage treasure in its most ancient form.
The museum holds far more than these precious scrolls (although they are, arguably, the “Mona Lisa” of the place), so don’t just see the scrolls and bolt! You’ll want to dedicate a good half-day to touring here.
The museum is divided into five main sections: The vast Archeology Wing contains the world’s largest and most dramatic display of Israeli archeological finds. The Judaica Wing displays the world’s most comprehensive, dazzling collection of Jewish cultural and religious objects, gathered from communities ranging from the Caribbean and Italy to Russia, Morocco, Iran, and India. The pavilions of the Fine Arts Complex house carefully chosen collections of Impressionist and 20th-century art as well as galleries of beautifully displayed Primitive, pre-Columbian, and Asian art. The 20-acre Billy Rose Sculpture Garden, designed by Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi, displays a 100-piece collection of works by Israeli and international artists ranging from Rodin to Picasso to Henry Moore. Near the sculpture garden, a very popular, intricate Scale Model of Herodian Jerusalem, created in the 1960s and constantly updated according to archaeological finds, is nestled against the landscape of the Jerusalem hills; elsewhere, other works of art and archeological treasures dot the museum’s grounds.
Also not to be missed: the ancient mosaic floors of Israeli synagogues, churches and villas, filled with stories and messages about the cultural and religious worlds of their creators; the indoor “Synagogue Route,” lined with intact interiors of synagogues transported from their original sites in places as varied as Cochin, India, and the Italian Veneto; the wall of exotic antique Hanukkah menorahs from all over the world; or the costumes, furnishings and model rooms of Jewish homes in various countries.
And beyond the permanent exhibits, there’s an ever-changing array of exciting temporary exhibits: In 2013–14, the museum showed the mysterious “I Am Gabriel” scroll on stone, a little known extra-biblical text from the time of the Second Temple, along with Christian, Jewish, and Koranic texts pertaining to the Angel Gabriel. The museum also hosts programs of international and Israeli concerts, dance performances, theater, and film. Check them out—they’re often the hottest tickets in Jerusalem!
There’s so much to see in the museum that a visit of many hours should be planned. Look into a special discount “return visit” ticket so that you can come back another day. Fortunately, the museum contains a stylish cafe and a more elegant, expensive restaurant called “Modern,” featuring a daytime menu of contemporary Israeli food. Both choices make meals in the museum a pleasure. All food services are kosher. A large, imaginative museum shop featuring well-designed reproduction items is filled with good ideas for gifts and special mementos. Parents should know that a lively, innovative Children’s Wing is available and engages both kids and their parents, often with interactive exhibits of ancient through modern art.