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Things that are cool in Israel #9: Tripping over history


Are you a dummy about history?

Don’t know your Maccabees from your Hasmoneans?  Can’t tell Greeks, Romans and Babylonians apart?  Well, relax – there’s no way you could be dumber about Israeli history than I am.

And the great thing about living in Israel is you just kind of ABSORB history by living here.  It’s all over – so much so that at certain times and places, you’re actually tripping over it.  Like today, when we went and visited a whole bunch of graves.

Even if you find graves kind of creepy (who doesn’t?), even the gravest sites in Israel have been thoroughly sanitized by time and by the nice archaeology people who are in charge of removing the bones to Elsewhere for a proper burial before they swing the doors wide to tourists.

Sure, Israel has some big-name graves (Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai and Maimonides being two of the biggies), but we decided to head a little off the beaten path today to celebrate one of Northern Israel’s cultural treasures – the grave of Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nassi (Judah the Prince), otherwise known throughout the Talmud as “Rabbi.”  Why does this guy merit the one-name appellation, out of all the rabbis who have ever lived, throughout Jewish history?

Rabbi Yehudah Ha-Nassi is better known as the REDACTOR of the Mishna.  He was the editor, the guy who pulled together all the oral traditions floating around and single-handedly, perhaps, saved Judaism as we were poised on the brink of a very long exile.

After Rabbi Yehuda Ha-Nassi requested to be buried there around the year 217, the village of Beit She'arim in the Jezreel Valley became THE trendy burial site for Northern Israel.  Lots of famous and wealthy people hurried to follow his example.  So there are lots and lots and lots of long-ago relatives to visit, in a lovely park-like setting on a deliciously breezy hillside.

Here is my husband standing beside a sarcophagus (not THE sarcophagus; from what I could gather, Rabbi Yehuda himself asked to be buried in the ground).

The Beit Shearim site as a whole shows a lot about how Jewish burial practices evolved over the years.  Originally, there was a “two-stage” type of burial practiced in the rocky caves that fill this area (it’s been thoroughly forested since 1960s, and now looks quite lovely, but the area was originally just a bunch of hills and rocks).

In the “two-stage” burial, people were “buried” in small private family nooks or catacombs where family members were left to decompose.  After a while, the bones were gathered and put in a special jar to make room for other family members.  Later, there were central containers or pits used for the bones of the entire community.

However, after the Babylonian exile, when the Jews returned, we were no longer a majority in Israel and couldn’t count on being reburied properly.  So they began using stone and metal sarcophagi, as surrounding cultures were doing.  However, even during this period of stone sarcophagi, they didn’t have any qualms about burying multiple people in the same sarcophagus, such as one that we saw that held two sisters, aged 22 and 9 years old.

Child behind me (in Hebrew):  “What’s a virgin???”  (I remember my little sister asking the same thing at a Catholic church in Quebec, l’havdil!)

Mother, whispering:  “Somebody who didn’t have a chance to get married.” 

Kudos to her for having a great answer ready to go like that!  I don’t know if I’d have been so prepared.

Some people also began being buried with jewellery and possessions, despite its being against Jewish tradition – again, the influence of other cultures is not a modern phenomenon.  Many of the sarcophagi that held jewels and other items were robbed over the years.  I’d never even thought of grave robbers in a Jewish cemetery, of course, because I’d assumed that we’d always done things the way they’re done now.

All the sarcophagi at Beit She'arim have lids made in this distinctive four-cornered shape - inspired by the four projections at the corners of the mizbeyach (altar) in the Beis Hamikdash (Jerusalem Temple).

One thing that’s interesting, as our guide pointed out, is that many of the people had completely secular names – Greek and Roman names, rather than Jewish ones.  They also wrote quite elaborate inscriptions, sometimes for their own graves.

Here’s the facade at the entrance to Rabbi Yehudah HaNassi’s tomb. There’s a wonderful teeny-tiny little door that my husband had to duck to get through. The third door (on the right) was added after people saw that the other tomb (see pic below) had a third arch/gate and decided that Rabbi Yehuda needed one, too. They never actually dug it out - it's solid stone behind the arch.

Spot Naomi Rivka in this selfie of me with my kids! What look like well-established plazas in front of these two tombs’ facades was in fact completely hidden by soil until the 1930s and the location of Beit She'arim was a mystery until a gravestone was unearthed with an inscription that revealed the lost location (something along the lines of, “Here I lie in Beit Shearim”!) and digging began in earnest.

Imagine being the person to happen  upon that treasure…

This is the sarcophagus my husband is standing beside in the first picture.  The guide kept saying the carvings weren't great quality, and it's true; most are extremely crude.  She also said that after much debate over what kind of animals these were, most people have agreed that they are lions. We didn't necessarily need a guide to tell us any of this, but it was super-nice to be able to understand and follow everything she was saying (for me, at least).  Tours were only available in Hebrew, I believe.

What is cool is that apparently they carved the sarcophagi out of the stone within the caves, so they didn't need to move them anywhere. (At least, I think that's what she said!)

Given how clean everything was inside the tombs, Naomi Rivka asked if there had been any bones in the sarcophagi when they were originally found.  It was a great question – I’d been wondering, too, so I actually asked the guide.  Anyway, they take the bones out for reburial elsewhere, and turn any artifacts found (coins, etc) over to the Israel Antiquities Authority.  This means that there’s no question of tumah at the gravesite, either.  Even kohanim can come and go as they please. 

(Although, see below, not all the graves have been dug out, so please do not rely on this blog post as a halachic authority!)

Anyway, after seeing literally hundreds of sarcophagi, it was surprisingly moving to come across these two little actual graves in the Tomb of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi himself.  I believe these belong not to him but to his sons, Gamliel and Shimon.


(some people believe this to be the site of Rabbi Yehuda’s grave as well)

Of course, as with any other type of historical site in Israel, it’s awesome and moving how evocatively our seemingly-
“secular” tour guide can rattle off stories of the Mishnah and Talmud and tales of these long-ago figures, so precious and holy within our tradition, as if she’d just been meeting and shaking hands with them (so to speak) just yesterday.

Not that it’s worth much in Israel right about now, but the area has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Because we totally care what UNESCO thinks.

On the other side of this high, arched cave ceiling is an area that has not yet been excavated, which is estimated to hold another few hundred sarcophagi.

To make it super-easy to get to Beit Shearim and other wonderful sites, Israel Railways has built four shiny-new railway stations out into the Jezreel Valley, along the path of a train line that operated right into Syria during the Ottoman/British period.

(on the platform of the brand-new Yokneam/Kfar Yehoshua Station)

In honour of the new stations’ grand opening, they were running shuttle buses hourly to the historic sites.  Normally, you’d have to take a taxi from the train station.  It’s about a five-minute ride and I’d estimate it wouldn’t cost more than 20-30 shekels to the Beit Shearim site – thus, well worth doing especially if you’re splitting the cab fare. 

However, it might be worth calling ahead if you’re planning on showing up on your own.  Without the guided tour, it’s all pretty much just holes in the ground.  So call and find out when there’s a tour or book one yourself if you have more than a few people.  Because it’s a Parks and Nature Authority site (or whatever the national Parks organization is called), entrance to the site is free with an annual membership or, since we don’t have a membership, 60nis for the 4 of us (2 adults, 2 kids, but I didn’t check if they have special kids’ pricing).

Moadim l’simcha – chag sameach – good Yom Tov and all the best for a most wonderful 5777.  If this is your “aliyah year,” please get in touch!  I’d love to hear from you.  And if you have any winning family tiyul recommendations, leave them in the comments.

Tzivia / צִיבְיָה

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