Bet She'arim for the living and the dead

Beit She’arim is a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its extensive necropolis (a large, elaborate cemetery of an ancient city). It is the largest necropolis in the Levant, with at least 30 underground catacombs. For a Jew, burial in Israel is considered very positively. It was not possible to be buried in Jerusalem at that time, and because the righteous sage Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi was buried in Beit She’arim, and because it was relatively easy to carve out burial caves in the chalk, Beit She’arim became a favored place for burial in the 3rd and 4th centuries CE for those able to afford it, including for Jews who had lived outside the country. The contents of the burial caves are impressive and provide insight into Jewish life in the Diaspora in Mishnaic times. However, there is much more to this site than just its necropolis.

Beit She’arim was an important Jewish city in Mishnaic times. Its ruins are not a World Heritage site. They are not therefore in the National Park, but slightly before its entrance (and can be viewed without charge). Some imagination is needed as they are not reconstructed, but they are of considerable interest because of their possible association with Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.

VISITING THE NECROPOLIS AT BET SHE'ARIM

 

Directions: Enter into Waze “Beit Shearim.”

Admission: This is a site of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Hours in the summer are from 8.00 am to 5.00 pm Sunday to Thursday, Friday and holiday eves 8.00 to 4.00 pm. The park closes 1 hour earlier in the winter. There is an admission fee. A brochure with a map of the caves and ruins is available in English. A very nice service are free tours (in Hebrew) at 10.00 am, 11.00 am, 12.00 pm and 1.00 pm provided by trained local volunteers. Try and take this tour if you can.

 

There is a store selling hot and cold drinks. Adjacent and close by to the store are several shaded areas with picnic benches. Their phone number is 04 983-1640. This is their website.

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Cave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi

Beit She’arim became an important city because of the presence of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi (called Rebbe) who moved the Sanhedrin from nearby Shefar’am to his home town of Beit She’arim, this being one of its 10 journeys. Rebbe was both the religious and political leader of the Jewish people, which was an unusual combination of functions. The Sanhedrin consisted of a number of sages and their students who were active in developing the Jewish Oral Law so that it remained relevant to the Jewish people, and performing vital religious functions such as establishing the time of the new moon for fixing the Jewish calendar and adjudicating cases.

 

Beit She’arim developed as a Jewish city during the reign of King Herod. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions that this area was part of the estate of the Herodian dynasty, and he called the city by its Greek name Besara. The earliest evidence of construction here dates from the 2nd century CE. The glory of the city diminished when Rebbe moved to Zippori, although tombs continued to be constructed during this time. The city was destroyed in the 4th century CE after the Jewish revolt against Gallus, which resulted in many Galilean towns and villages being destroyed. There was some habitation here in the Byzantine and Arab periods, although not to  the same extent as previously. In the 19th century, the Jewish National Fund bought via Yehoshua Hankin a small Arab village here called Sheikh Bureik from its Lebanese landowner. Its Arab tenants were evicted, but compensated. The political movement Hapoel Hamizrachi established an agricultural settlement on the ruins of Sheikh Abreik but abandoned the site for a newer settlement in Sde Ya’akov.

 

The presence of its caves had already been appreciated by the late 1800s, but no excavations were carried out here until Alexander Zaid, who was employed here as a guard by the Jewish National Fund, entered a cave with inscriptions and informed the Israeli archaeological world about his discovery.

WALKING IN THE FOOTSTEPS OF RABBI YEHUDA HANASI 

 

Walking in the footsteps of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi through the ruins of Beit She’arim is an interesting way of exploring the significance of this former Jewish city:

 

Directions: On the way to the National Park and a bit before the entrance kiosk (which is usually empty) you will see the ruins on your left. They are easily recognizable because an arch. You can also enter into Waze “פסל אלכסנדר זייד” and click on “קרית טבעון פסל אלכסנדר זייד” - the ruins are slightly before the entry road to this statue. There is no defined parking area, but you can park on the road’s shoulder in front of the ruins. Leave your car here for this part of your walk.

 

Ruins of a residential building.

 

The ruins are that of a large mansion. There was a synagogue just beyond the mansion and which is now in the grounds of the Zayid farmstead. There is a strong possibility because of its magnificence and location that this was Rebbe’s home, although there is no direct evidence of this. The mansion had a large entrance courtyard where his bodyguard would have controlled his visitors. Note a small room with a toilet at the back right (facing the ruins from your car). This was probably an important room for Rebbe as he had a bowel problem and severe abdominal pains. This city was not a Roman polis like Zippori, and there was no running water. Waste would have gone directly into the ground.

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An olive factory and gate of the city

 

  • The next ruin you will see in the direction of the park is an olive factory followed by a gate of the northern edge of the city (see picture). Both are indicated by signs, and it is difficult to miss them. Beit She’arim was formerly known as Beit Sha’arayim, House of Two Gates, and this would have been one of the gates.

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The olive oil factory.

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A northern gate of the city.

The basilica, top of the hill and statue of Alexander Zayid

 

The city of Beit She’arim was built on top of this hill and its slopes.

  

  • Take the first paved road on your left up the hill in the direction of the statue of Alexander Zayid on a horse. There is no entry for cars and you will need to continue walking. Just beyond a turning on the left are the ruins of a public building or basilica. You can see here a large hall divided by two rows of columns. Given the importance of the Sanhedrin in this period and the influence of Rebbe, it is quite likely that this is where the Sanhedrin met, although again there is no direct proof of this.

 

  • Take the next left to the top of the hill.

 

The view is impressive. In front of you to the south is the western part of the Jezreel Valley and the mountains of Samaria are just beyond this. The Carmel Mountain Range is to your right in the west.

 

The statue is that of Alexander Zayid. There is a recording in front of the statue that can be listened to in English. Zayid, together with others, was a founder in 1907 of the defense organization Bar Giora that provided protection to settlements in the Upper Galilee during the Second Aliya in place of Arab protection. Its ultimate aim was to form a secret underground army that would eventually form a Jewish state. It was disbanded to form a larger organization in 1909 called Hashomer. This will be discussed in relation to Tel Hai.

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The burial cave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi

 

  • To visit the burial cave of Rebbe and other burial caves drive down the hill to the National Park and its necropolis. The Cave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is cave number 14. It has three doorways and a triple arch.

 

Rebbe died in Zippori where he lived for 12 years from about 217 CE. Rebbe requested that he be buried in the ground and not in a sarcophagus. The story of his death, as related in the Talmud, is shown in a movie in the synagogue at Zippori. The rabbis were praying for his recovery, and this did not allow for his soul to depart. Assessing the situation, and knowing the distress which Rebbe was suffering, his maid servant broke a vessel. Because of the disturbance there was a break in the prayers and Rebbe died. Rebbe’s funeral stopped at 18 places on the way to Bet She’arim and he was eulogized at each step. His functions were taken over by his two sons - Rabbi Shim’on, who led his yeshiva, and Rabbi Gamaliel, who succeeded him as the administrative prince or nasi. Both are also buried here.

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The presumed graves of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and his wife

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Bilingual inscription in black paint reading "Of Rabbi Gamaliel." This would be son of Rebbe.

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Red painted inscription for the burial place of Rabbi Shimon, son of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.

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Decorated sargophagus from the Cave of the Coffins seen during the tour.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (about 135 to 217 CE) – an unusual rabbinic leader

 

Most people would imagine the composer of one of the seminal works of Jewish scholarship to be a sage who was completely focused on Torah learning and somewhat detached from the world around him. This was not Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. This nasi or prince was not only the head of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish court that adjudicated legal cases and formulated Jewish law, but also the leader of the Jewish people who dealt routinely with the Roman government.

 

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, or Rebbe as he was called, was well trained for both these functions. He came from a family that had provided leadership to the Jewish people since the time of the sage Hillel. He was taught Torah by his father’s colleagues, who were the preeminent scholars of that generation. He learnt Greek at home. The family had an exemption from the other sages for learning Greek knowledge (which was otherwise frowned upon), which prepared him for dealing with Romans.  

 

The emperor Hadrian had ruthlessly suppressed the Bar Kochba Revolt. He then attempted to crush Judaism and its rabbinic leadership on the not unreasonable assumption that both had promoted this revolt under the leadership of Rabbi Akiva. This was the period of the Hadrianic persecutions. Rebbe’s father, Rabban Simeon II ben Gamaliel, had been a student of Rabbi Akiva, and he went into hiding outside the country with a price on his head. Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai was also a prominent student of Rabbi Akiva and hid in a cave in the north of Israel. The Sanhedrin meanwhile went underground.

 

It would take about 20 years before Rome and the Jews were able to coexist comfortably with each other. Antoninus Pius, the son of Hadrian, relaxed his father’s decrees only later in his rule. The Sanhedrin was then able to meet again at Usha. The restoration of the patriarchate was permitted subsequent to this, and Rabban Simeon II ben Gamaliel was invited to lead the Sanhedrin despite his previous sympathies with the revolt.

 

This was not accepted calmly by all the sages, and Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Nathan attempted to depose the recently appointed exilarch. This was unsuccessful. Rabbi Nathan apologized but Rabbi Meir refused to do so. Because of the family affront, he is only referred to in Rebbe’s Mishna as “the others”.

 

On the death of his father, Rebbe was appointed exilarch and he moved the court from Usha, where he had been brought up to Bet She’arim. During this time the relationship between the Jewish and Roman leadership warmed considerably. There are over 100 mentions in the Talmud and midrashim of conversations between Rebbe and a high Roman official called “Antoninus,” some of them philosophical and others more intimate regarding his household and palace intrigues. There has been much discussion as to who this Antoninus was. A reasonable guess is that it was either Severus, or more likely his son Caracalla, both of whom had a high regard for Jews. This type of relationship represented a marked change from previous Roman administrations, and obviously made Rebbe’s administrative tasks that much easier.

 

As the leader of the people, Rebbe became incredibly rich due to land holdings donated to him and this gave his office an aura of grandeur. Nevertheless, he is quoted as saying: “Whoever chooses the delights in this world will be deprived of the delights of the next world; whoever renounces the former will receive the latter.” His piety and holiness are also mentioned in the sources.

 

Rebbe relocated the Sanhedrin and lived in Tzipori for the last 18 years of his life for health reasons and this is where he wrote the foundational work on Jewish law, the Mishna. Wrote is probably not quite the right word as this was more of a compendium of Jewish law than an original work. Much of this material had already been gathered together by Rabbi Akiva and his students, and Rebbe also followed the arrangement which they had previously used. However, Rebbe decided what should be left in and left out of this book. The material he left out is often quoted as a Beraitha and Tosefta in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds and is evidence of the amount of material he needed to sift through. In some instances, he provided a variety of opinions on a matter of Jewish law, and not always a final decision. His Mishna would become the basis for the discussions of the Talmud and thus a crucial link in the elaboration of Jewish law.

 

Rebbe died in Tzipori, but instructed that he be buried in Beit She’arim, and in the ground and not in a sarcophagus. The story of his death, as related in the Talmud, is shown in a movie in the synagogue at Tzipori. The rabbis were praying for his recovery, and this was preventing the departure of his soul. Aware of Rebbe’s distress, his maid servant broke a vessel. There was a break in the prayers because of the disturbance and Rebbe died. Rebbe’s funeral procession stopped at 18 places on the 12 Km way to Bet She’arim and he was eulogized at each stop.

 

His functions were taken over by his two sons - Rabbi Shimeon, who led his yeshiva, and Rabbi Gamaliel, who succeeded him as the administrative prince or nasi. Both are buried in the same catacomb as Rebbe. The division of these two functions was a recognition by Rebbe that it would take an unusually talented person, such as himself, to be able to do them simultaneously.