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Beit She'arim - ancient city and basilica 

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. Being buried in Israel is regarded in a very positive light by Jews. Because it was not possible to be buried in Jerusalem, the righteous sage Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi was buried here and 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 Jews living outside the country. The contents of these impressive burial caves provide insights into Jewish life in the Diaspora in Mishnaic times.


However, there is more to this site than just its necropolis. Beit She’arim was an important Jewish city in Mishnaic times. Its ruins are not part of the World Heritage Site and not in the National Park but slightly before its entrance. Some imagination is needed as the ruins are not reconstructed but they are of considerable interest because of their possible association with the influential sage, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.



Directions: Enter i“Beit Shearim” into Waze

Admission: This is a site of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority. Hours in the summer are 8.00 am to 5.00 pm Sunday to Thursday, and Friday and holiday eves 8.00 am 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. There are free tours of the burial caves in Hebrew at 10.00 am, 11.00 am, 12.00 pm and 1.00 pm provided by trained local volunteers.  There is a store selling hot and cold drinks. Adjacent and close to the store are several shaded areas with picnic benches. The phone number is 04 983-1640. This is their website.

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The burial cave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi

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Beit She’arim was developed as a Jewish city during the reign of King Herod. The Jewish historian Josephus mentions that it was part of the estate of the Herodian dynasty and he called the city by its Greek name Besara.


Beit She'arim became important because of the presence of Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi (called Rebbe). This was his hometown and he moved the Sanhedrin here from nearby Shefar’am. Beit She’arim was therefore one the ten locations of the Sanhedrin. This was not a full Sanhedrin of 71 judges, but a number of sages and their students. It performed vital religious functions such as adjudicating cases, establishing the times of the new moon (and hence fixing the Jewish calendar) and developing the Jewish Oral Law so that it remained relevant to the people. Rebbe was both the head of the Sanhedrin and the political leader of the Jewish people, which was an unusual combination of functions.


The glory of the city diminished when Rebbe moved to Tzipori, although new tombs continued to be constructed. The city was destroyed in the 4th century CE after the Jewish revolt against the Roman emperor Gallus. This resulted in the destruction of many Galilean towns and villages. There was some Jewish habitation here in the Byzantine and Arab periods, although not to the extent as previously.


In the 19th century, the Jewish National Fund bought the small Arab village of Sheikh Bureik located here from its Lebanese landowner via Yehoshua Hankin. The Arab tenants were evicted but compensated. The political movement Hapoel Hamizrachi established an agricultural settlement on the ruins of Sheikh Bureik, but abandoned the site for a new settlement in Sde Ya’akov.


The presence of Beit She’arim’s burial caves was already appreciated by the late 1800s, but no excavations were carried out until Alexander Zaid, who was employed as a guard by the Jewish National Fund, entered a cave, found inscriptions and informed the Israeli archaeological world of his discovery.



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


Directions: A bit before the entrance kiosk to the National Park you will see ruins on your left. They are easily recognizable because of 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 entrance 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.


The ruins of a magnificent residential building


The ruins you see in front of you are those of a large mansion. There was a synagogue just beyond the mansion, but its ruins are in the grounds of the Zayid farmstead. Because of its magnificence and location, there is a strong possibility that this was Rebbe’s home.


The mansion had a large entrance courtyard where his bodyguard would have regulated his visitors. Note a small room with a toilet at the rear of the building on the right (facing the ruins from your car). This may have been a much-used room for Rebbe as we know that he had a bowel problem that led to bouts of severe abdominal pain. Unlike Tzipori, this city was not a Roman polis and therefore had no running water. Waste would have gone directly into the ground.


  • Now walk along the main road in the direction of the park to the next set of ruins.

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The archway into the probable mansion of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. 

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The toilet in the mansion. The houses did not have running water.

Ruins of an olive factory and city gate:


  • The next ruins along are those of an olive factory and after this a gate which would have been at the northern edge of the city. 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 two gates.

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The olive oil factory.

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The northern gate of the city.

Ruins of a basilica and the statue of Alexander Zayid on the top of the hill:

  • Take the first paved road on your left up the hill. 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. 


This basilica has 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 possible that this is where the Sanhedrin met, although there is no direct proof for this.


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


The city of Beit She’arim was built on top of this hill and its slopes. The view is impressive. In front of you to the south is the western part of the Jezreel Valley. The mountains of Samaria are just beyond this. The Carmel Mountain Range is to your right.


The statue in front of you is that of Alexander Zayid on his horse. There is a recording in front of the statue in Hebrew and English. In 1907, Zayid, together with others, founded the defense organization Bar Giora that provided protection to settlements in the Upper Galilee during the Second Aliya. 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 greater detail in the chapter on Tel Hai.

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Statue of Alexander Zayid

Visiting the burial caves within the park:


  • To visit the burial caves, including that of Rebbe, drive down the hill to the National Park and its necropolis. They can be viewed within the context of a tour or with the aid of the map that is provided.


Rebbe died in Tzipori where he had lived for 12 years, from about 217 CE, but he requested that he be buried in Beit She’arim. The Cave of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is cave number 14. It has three doorways and a triple arch. 

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The presumed gravesite of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi and his wife in the ground rather than in a sargophagus.

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Bilingual inscription in black paint reading "Of Rabbi Gamaliel." This was another 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.

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi – an unusual rabbinic leader


One might imagine that the composer of one of the seminal works of Jewish scholarship would be a sage completely focused on Torah learning and somewhat detached from the world around him. This was not Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi. This nasi (prince) was not only the head of the Sanhedrin but also the leader of the Jewish people who dealt routinely with the Roman administration.


Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi (about 135 to 217 CE), or Rebbe as he was called, was well-trained for both tasks. 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 also learnt Greek at home. Learning Greek knowledge was frowned upon by the sages of that time but his family was granted an exception because of its need to deal with the Romans.  


The emperor Hadrian had ruthlessly crushed 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 because of a price on his head. Another preeminent student of Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, hid in a cave in the north of Israel (see: “What’s the big deal about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi)?”). The Sanhedrin meanwhile went underground.


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


On his appointment, Rebbe moved the court from Usha, where he had been brought up, to Bet She’arim. His leadership was not accepted calmly by all the sages and Rabbi Meir and Rabbi Nathan attempted to depose him. However, their efforts against his appointment were unsuccessful. Rabbi Nathan subsequently apologized but Rabbi Meir refused to do so. Because of this affront to his family, he is referred to in Rebbe's Mishna by the name “the others”.


During the time of Rebbe's exilarch, the relationship between the Jews and the Roman leadership warmed considerably. There are over 100 mentions in the Talmud and midrashim of conversations between Rebbe and a Roman emperor called “Antoninus,” some of them philosophical and others more intimate regarding the emperor’s household and palace intrigues. There has been much discussion among Jewish scholars as to who this Antoninus was. A strong possibility is that he was either the emperor Severus, or more likely his son Caracalla, both of whom had a high regard for Jews. Their positive relationship with the Jews represented a marked change from previous Roman administrations and obviously made Rebbe’s administrative role that much easier.


Rebbe became extremely 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 Jewish sources.


Rebbe would relocate the Sanhedrin to Tzipori and he lived there for the last 18 years of his life for health reasons. This is also where he wrote the foundational work on Jewish law, the Mishna. This was more of a compendium of Jewish law than an original composition. Much of the material had already been put together by Rabbi Akiva and his students and Rebbe followed the order they had used. However, he did decide what should be left in and out of his book. The material he left out is often quoted as either a Beraitha or Tosefta in the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds and is evidence of the large amount of material that he had to sift through. In some instances, Rebbe would provide a number of opinions on a matter of Jewish law and not a final decision. His Mishna would become the basis for the discussions of the Talmuds and thus an essential link in the transmission and elaboration of Jewish law.


Rebbe died in Tzipori, but he instructed that he be buried in Beit She’arim and in the ground rather than 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 prevented the departure of his soul. Aware of Rebbe’s physical distress, his maid servant broke a vessel. Because of the disturbance, there was a break in the prayers and this permitted Rebbe to die. Rebbe’s funeral procession stopped at eighteen places during the 12 Km 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. Rebbe recognized that it would take an unusually talented person (such as himself) to be able to do these two functions simultaneously. Both sons are buried in the same catacomb as Rebbe.

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