Meron and Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai

There are several locations in Meron making a visit worthwhile besides the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (commonly known as the Rashbi). Close to the main parking lot are the ruins of its ancient synagogue. From the tomb, there is also a pleasant hike to the ruins of Shema and its ancient synagogue.

The moshav of Meron is at the foot of Mount Meron. This is the highest mountain peak in Israel, other than in the Golan. Present-day Meron was founded as a moshav by the Hapoel HaMizrachi movement in 1949 on the ruins of an Arab village.

 

Meron was probably never a Biblical city. Excavations have revealed ruins from the Hellenistic and Roman periods when it was a Jewish town famous for its olive oil. It was fortified by Josephus during the Great Revolt. The town was abandoned sometime after the earthquake of 363 CE. It was a mixed Muslim-Jewish town during the Ottoman period, although predominantly Muslim. .

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The tomb of Rabbi Shimon ben Yocha (Rashbi)

Meron is famous nowadays because of the tomb of the Rashbi, and is the second-most popular religious site in Israel after the Western Wall. It was not always like this. Binyamin Metudela made a visit to Meron in the 12th century CE, and describes the burial cave of Hillel the Elder but mentions nothing about a burial place of the Rashbi. What changed was a consequence of 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 the broken sparks of the vessels shattered at the time of creation would bring about the messianic era and cosmic perfection. The promotion of Lurianic kabbala as a means of expediting the messianic era became a major aspect of Hasidism. The kabbalists of Safed believed that the messianic period was drawing close and because of the presence of the grave of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai, who wrote the Zohar, the Messiah would come from Meron before making his way to Jerusalem. Mount Meron can be seen from Safed and Meron therefore became a place of gathering on Tu Beshvat, the anniversary of the death of the Rashbi

The ancient synagogue of Meron.

Just above the parking lot for the tomb are the ruins of the ancient synagogue of Meron built in the 3rd century late Roman/Byzantine period. It is built in the typical Romanesque style found in many of the synagogues in the Galilee. What you see standing is its southern façade with three entrances, the third being reconstructed. The southern façade is facing towards Jerusalem. This meant that congregants would enter the synagogue in the same direction that the congregation was praying. Other communities would later rethink this, including the synagogue in the Shema ruins. The western aspect of the synagogue is carved into bedrock. There are some fallen pillars on the ground. As in other communities, the synagogue was in close proximity to the houses here and not in an isolated part of town.

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Entranceway to the Roman/Byzantine synagogue in Meron.

Hike to the Shema Ruins

This is a very pleasant hike is along the Schvil Yisrael, except at its beginning. There is wonderful scenery and several interesting sites along the way, none of which have been positively identified, all of which makes the hike all the more intriguing!

THE HIKE:

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.

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DIRECTIONS

  • From Rashbi’s tomb (facing the entrance) turn to the left and proceed behind the building. You will see the presumed burial cave of the 1st century sage Hillel the Elder. This is a Medieval tradition, although there is no other literature to support this claim. The cave has been blocked up and other than a non-conspicuous notice you would have difficulty knowing that it exists. Proceed down the slope on the gravel footpath which has 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 Schvil Yisrael markings by this 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 is no texts to support this.

 

Shortly to the left you will come to the ruins of Shema. Most prominent are the ruins of the synagogue. This was a Jewish village in the Roman/Byzantine period. It has a modern name, but has not been identified with any Jewish village of that period. An interesting suggestion/guess is that it 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 here. This synagogue was built at the beginning of the 4th century CE on the foundations of an earlier synagogue from the 3rd century and lasted until the 6th century. Interestingly, it faced towards the east, as would its ark.

 

  • This hike turns around at this point. It is possible, though, to continue along the Schvil Yisrael to as far as Mount Meron.

Roman mausoleum said to be the tomb of Shammai

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.

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The synagogue within the Shem ruins.

Nearby places of interest:

 

The Tomb of Rabbi Yose HaGlili

Rabbi Yossi Haglili is buried on top of a mountain on the outskirts of Dalton in the Upper Galilee. There are picnic benches here. 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 that 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 good ending. There are a number of such stories told about Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai (commonly known as the Rashbi) in the Talmud and midrashim. In fact, the same story may be told in different sources and contain different super-natural happenings. But no matter. The very fact that such tales exist tells us that Rashbi was a particularly pious individual who was completely immersed in Torah and who existed on a spiritual plane that was 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 to receive ordination from their teacher. During the Bar Kochba Revolt he left Israel for Sidon, but subsequently returned. During the Hadrianic persecution, 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 he is the fourth most frequently quoted sage in the Mishna. He transmitted the traditions of his teacher Rabbi Akiva, but also added his own ideas.

 

At some stage he ran afoul of the Roman authorities who wished to kill 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 offence was more consequential than this. He and his son, Rabbi Eleazar ben Shimon, hid initially in a study hall and he received food and clothing from his wife. They realized, however, that this was too risky for her and they went into hiding in a cave around Meron. One tradition is that this was in Peki’in, although there is no text to support 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 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 after he left the cave. The Zohar is the foundational text of Jewish mysticism and takes the form of a commentary on the Torah. This 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. Alternatively, it was passed on to him. Modern literary analysis, however, indicates that it was composed in the medieval period with its Aramaic written in a different style to that spoken at the time of the Rashbi.

 

Because of the blossoming of the study and practice of kabbala in the 16th century in 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.  

 

Important halachic works attributed to Rashbi are the Sifre, which is a halachic midrash to Numbers and Deuteronomy, and the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon on Exodus. The Sifrei is one of a number of important texts based on the tradition of Rabbi Akiva that were published by his students. Numerous aggadic statements he made are also recorded in the Talmud, emphasizing 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. This had been built by Herod Antipas, but Jews were reluctant to settle in the city since it was built on top of tombs. The Rashbi identified these tombs by growing lupins on where they were suspected. Where there were actual tombs the lupins did not take root and this allowed him to remove the bodies and bury them elsewhere. Jews were now able to live in Tiberias and it would become the major center for Jew in the country.