Meron and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai
The tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (commonly known as Rashbi) is a major attraction in Meron. There are also other sites in and around Meron that make a visit worthwhile. Close to the main parking lot are the ruins of Meron's ancient synagogue. There is also a pleasant 2-hour hike to the ruins of Shema and its ancient synagogue.
Present-day Meron was founded as a moshav by the Hapoel HaMizrachi movement in 1949 at the foot of Mount Meron on the ruins of an Arab village. Other than in the Golan Heights, Mount Meron is the highest mountain peak in Israel.
Meron was probably never a Biblical city. Excavations have revealed ruins from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, It was then a Jewish town well-known for its olive oil. It was fortified by Josephus during the Great Revolt. The town was abandoned some time after an earthquake in 363 CE. During the Ottoman period, it was a mixed Muslim-Jewish town , although predominantly Muslim. .
The tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi).
Meron is famous nowadays because it contains the tomb of Rashbi. It is the second-most popular religious site in Israel after the Western Wall. It was not always like this. Binyamin Metudela visited Meron in the 12th century CE and described the burial cave of Hillel the Elder, but mentioned nothing about the burial place of Rashbi. What changed were kabbalistic ideas coming from the nearby city of Safed.
Safed in the 16th century attracted a concentration of messianic kabbalists, including Rabbi Yitzhak Luria (the Arizal), the originator of Lurianic kabbala. His kabbala would have a major influence on the Jewish world with its idea that repairing by personal behaavior the sparks of the broken lower sefirot (vessels) shattered at the time of creation would bring about the messianic era and cosmic perfection (see the webpage on Safed). The kabbalists of Safed believed that the messianic period was fast approaching, and since the grave of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai was in Meron, the Messiah would arise from Meron before making His way to Jerusalem. Mount Meron can be seen from Safed. Meron also became a place of gathering on Tu Beshvat, the anniversary of the death of Rashbi.
The ancient synagogue of Meron.
Just above the parking lot for Rashbi's tomb are the ruins of the ancient synagogue of Meron. This was built in the 3rd century, in the late Roman period, in the typical Romanesque style found in many of the synagogues in the Galilee. Still standing is its southern façade with its three entrances facing towards Jerusalem. The third entrance is reconstructed. This meant that congregants entered the synagogue in the same direction the congregation was praying. Other communities would later change this, including the synagogue in the Shema ruins (see below). The western aspect of the synagogue is carved into bedrock. There are fallen pillars on the ground. As in other communities, this synagogue was in close proximity to the member's houses, and not in an isolated part of town.
Entranceway to the Roman synagogue in Meron.
HIKE TO THE SHEMA RUINS
This is a very pleasant hike along the Schvil Yisrael. There is wonderful scenery and several interesting sites along the way, none of which have been positively identified. All of this makes the hike all the more intriguing!
Time: About 2 hours there and back.
Distance: About 3 Km there and back.
Type of hike: There and back on the same path.
Difficulty: An easy hike.
Directions: Enter “Kever Rashbi” into Waze. The parking lot is before the tomb.
Roman mausoleum said to be the tomb of Shammai seen on the way to Shema.
From Rashbi’s tomb (facing the entrance) turn to the left and proceed behind the building. You will immediately see the presumed burial cave of the 1st century sage Hillel the Elder. This is a Medieval tradition, although there is no literature to support it. The cave has been blocked up and other than a non-conspicuous notice one would have difficulty knowing that it exists. Proceed down the hill on the gravel footpath with stairs and railings.
When you come to the bottom of the path turn right on the paved path. Continue to the first exit from the path on the left. You will see a short green metal pole with a Schvil Yisrael marking by the path and two concrete structures on the other side of the road.
Continue along this footpath path until you come to large stone structure. This is a Roman mausoleum. It has been identified since the medieval period as the tomb of the 1st century sage Shammai (50 BCE-30 CE), although there are no texts to support this.
Shortly to the left you will come to the ruins of Shema. Most prominent are the ruins of its synagogue. This was a Jewish village in the Roman/Byzantine period. It has been given the name Shema, but it has not been identified with any Jewish village of that period. An interesting suggestion is that this could be the village of Tekoa. There were two places called Tekoa in Israel. One was to the south of Jerusalem on the edge of the Judean Desert, and this is where the prophet Amos lived. There was also a Tekoa in the Galilee. Its location is unknown, although we know that Rashbi had a beis midrash or study hall in Tekoa. This synagogue was built at the beginning of the 4th century CE on the foundations of an earlier synagogue from the 3rd century and was in use until the 6th century. Interestingly, the synagogue faced towards the east, as would its ark, and not towards Jerusalem.
This hike turns around at this point. It is possible, though, to continue along the Schvil Yisrael to as far as Mount Meron.
Trail to the Shema ruins. To follow your location on your smart phone, click on https://israelhiking.osm.org.il/share/EOrAYeUNz5. Click on the black box with a cross at the top left of the map and it should change color to green. It is not necessary to download the free app unless you wish to.
The synagogue ruins within the ruins of Shema.
NEARBY PLACES OF INTEREST:
The Tomb of Rabbi Yose HaGlili
Rabbi Yossi Haglili is buried within a brick structure on top of a mountain on the outskirts of Dalton in the Upper Galilee. There are picnic benches in the compound. The mountain provides an incredible view over the Hula Valley. Enter into Waze "קבר רבי יוסי הגלילי.”
Rabbi Yossi Haglili spent his early life in the Galilee, and was a teacher of Rabbi Eleazar ben Azaria. In his later life he joined the sages who assembled at Yavne after the destruction of Jerusalem. He was a contemporary of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Tarphon.
What’s the big deal about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai?
Everyone enjoys supernatural stories about pious individuals, especially when they have a happy ending. There are a number of such stories told about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (Rashbi) in the Talmud and midrashim. In fact, the same story can be found in different sources with different super-natural happenings. But no matter. The very fact that such tales exist tells us that Rashbi was a particularly pious individual, completely immersed in Torah, and existing on a spiritual plane much higher than regular human beings.
Rashbi was one of the select students of Rabbi Akiva and he studied with him for 13 years in Bnei Brak. He and a fellow student Rabbi Meir were the only ones who received ordination from their teacher. During the Bar Kochba Revolt he left Israel for Sidon, but returned to Israel after this. During the Hadrianic persecution subsequent to the revolt, the few remaining rabbis in the country maintained a small almost underground Sanhedrin to provide religious guidance to the people and keep the rabbinic ordination program functional. Many of the rabbinic discussions from this time and somewhat later were incorporated into the Mishna, and Rashbi is the fourth most frequently quoted sage. He transmitted the traditions of his teacher Rabbi Akiva, and also added his own ideas.
At some stage he ran afoul of the Roman authorities who placed a death sentence on him and he was forced to go into hiding. The reason recorded in the Talmud is because of disparaging remarks he made about Rome, but it would not be surprising if his offense was more consequential than this. He and his son, Rabbi Eleazar ben Shimon, hid initially in a study hall and received food and clothing from Rashbi's wife. However, they realized that this was too risky for her and they went into hiding in a cave close to Meron. One tradition is that their hiding place was in Peki’in, although there is no textual support for this.
There are several beautiful stories in the Talmud about this 13-year period and how father and son subsisted miraculously on a date and carob tree and how after many years they discovered that the time was appropriate for them to leave their hideout. Following their exit from the cave, Rashbi settled either in Meron or in Tekoa in the Galilee. He was buried in Meron.
There is a tradition that the Zohar was composed by Rashbi. The Zohar is a commentary on the Torah and it is the foundational text of Jewish mysticism. This 1,000-page text was discovered in Spain in the 13th century when Moses de Leon claimed to have found a manuscript called midrash de-Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai. However, modern literary analysis suggests that it was composed in the medieval period, since its Aramaic is in a different style than that spoken at the time of Rashbi. If one accepts this (and practitioners of kabbala do not), the Zohar could have been composed by Moses de Leon himself or passed on to him.
Because of the blossoming of the study and practice of kabbala in 16th century Safed, the tomb of Rashbi and his son became a place of pilgrimage, especially on the anniversary of his death (yahrzeit) on Lag Be’omer.
On a firmer basis, important halachic works attributed to Rashbi are the Sifre, which are halachic midrashim to Numbers and Deuteronomy, and the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon on Exodus. The Sifre are part of a number of important texts based on the tradition of Rabbi Akiva published by his students. Numerous aggadic statements he made are also recorded in the Talmud that emphasize in particular the primacy of Torah study. A strong mystic trend is apparent in his sayings, which is why his name became associated with kabbala.
An important halachic activity he performed was the purification of the city of Tiberias. The city had been built by Herod Antipas, but Jews were reluctant to settle there because it was built on top of tombs. Rashbi identified these tombs by growing lupins on suspected locations. Where there were tombs, the lupins did not take root and this allowed him to remove the bodies and bury them elsewhere. All Jews were now able to live in Tiberias and it would become the major center for Jewish life in the country.