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The synagogue at Shfar'am and the tomb of Rabbi Yehuda ben Baba 

Shfar’am is a bit off the usual tourist track. Nevertheless, there are good reasons for paying it a visit. It is a mixed Druze, Arab and Christian town, which has developed a well-earned reputation for promoting co-existence between peoples of different faiths. It contains an intact synagogue from the 17th century CE, situated where the Sanhedrin once stood. The tomb of Rabbi Yehuda ben Abba, who died at the time of the Hadrianic persecution, is on the outskirts of Shfar’am. Both sites are stops on the Sanhedrin Trail.



Directions: Enter “Shfar’am synagogue” into Waze and click on “Synagogue de Shefa Amr.” The synagogue in Shfar’am is part of the Sanhedrin Trail.

Admission: Call Nazem from the adjacent House of Hope at 054 219 0543 and arrange with him to open the door of the synagogue. There is a recording outside the synagogue in Hebrew or English that relates its history. This is not an active synagogue and it contains no interior decorations nor Sefer Torah.

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The synagogue in Shfar'am.

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The Jews of the Lower Galilee and Shfar’am


Other than the administrative cities of Tzipori and Tiberias, where Romans also lived, the Lower Galilee was once entirely Jewish, including the village of Shfar'am. 


Jews were displaced from Judea during the Bar Kochba Revolt and those who survived being killed or sold into slavery moved to the Lower Galilee. For some years, Shfar’am was the site of the Sanhedrin when it moved from Yavne to nearby Usha and then moved again from Usha to Shfar’am.


The Sanhedrin took over the rabbinic leadership from the Men of the Great Assembly. The latter were rabbinic leaders from the time of the Babylonian return until the development of the Mishna. Contrary to the implications of its name, the Men of the Great Assembly were not one big assembly who gathered at one particular time but rather groups of rabbinic leaders living in different generations.


The Sanhedrin in Usha and Shfar’am consisted of a group of rabbis who had survived the Bar Kochba Revolt and subsequent Hadrianic persecutions and who functioned as rabbinic leaders, either secretly or more openly depending on their relationship with Rome. In their leadership role they adjudicated the disputes of the people and determined the direction of Jewish law. Their decisions are reflected in the Mishna. All the rabbis of the Sanhedrin were recognized as having rabbinic authority because of a chain of authorization known as semicha.



The peak of Jewish life in the Galilee was up to the 4th century CE and it then began a slow decline. However, even at its peak the number of Jews living in the Lower Galilee numbered only in the thousands. During the Byzantine period, Shfar’am changed from being a Jewish village to a mixed Jewish-Christian community. Jews continued to live here during the Muslim conquest and later Crusader period. The Knights Templar built a fortress here which they named La Safran, and this protected the road from Acre to Nazareth for pilgrims. During this period, Shfar’am became a place of Jewish learning and scholarship.


Similar to the Jews of Peki’in in the Upper Galilee, Jews who continued to live in the Lower Galilee during the Muslim period were called mista’arvim, meaning those who “disguise themselves as Arabs.” These Jewish farmers dressed like their Muslim neighbors, spoke Arabic and adopted many Muslim cultural norms. We know little about them as they were simple folk who engaged in agriculture and wrote next to nothing about themselves. We are therefore dependent on reports from visitors from other parts of the Jewish world. By the early Ottoman period, there were no Jews remaining in Shfar’am.


However, this village rose in importance during the rule of the Bedouin chieftain Zahir al-Umar, otherwise known as Daher el-Omar. He initially worked as a tax collector for the Ottoman authorities, but by the 1740s had accumulated enough power and influence to become the autonomous governor of the Galilee. His rule introduced stability and prosperity into this part of Israel. He built a fort at the highest point in the center of the city (which can be seen), probably on top of the ruins of the Crusader fortress.


Zahir al-Umar appreciated the advantages of having Jews in his kingdom. Being dependent on his largesse, they were also guaranteed to remain loyal subjects. He provided financial incentives for Jews to settle and engage in commerce in his kingdom and enacted laws to safeguard their safety. He encouraged Rabbi Chayim Abulafia to bring his community from Smyrna in Western Turkey and establish a Jewish community in Tiberias. On his way from Acre, Rabbi Abulafia stayed in Shfar’am and helped the Jews financially to rebuild their synagogue on the ruins of a much earlier synagogue from the time of the Sanhedrin. This may even have been where the Sanhedrin However, even at its peak the number of Jews living in the Lower Galilee numbered only in the thousands. However, even at its peak the number of Jews living in the Lower Galilee numbered only in the thousands. met when it was functioning. Hence, the synagogue you see today is the 17th century synagogue built with the help of Rabbi Abulafia.


Zahir al-Umar’s rule ended in 1775 when he was defeated by Ahmed al-Jazzar, the governor of Acre, who fought on behalf of the Ottomans. Zahir spent the rest of his life in a prison in Istanbul. Al-Jazzar did permit Zahir’s son Othman to rule the city for a while on a promise of fealty, but it subsequently returned to Ottoman rule.


Beginning in the 18th century, the community began to decline and by 1845 there were only 30 Jewish families living here. The last Jew left in 1920 and he entrusted the synagogue key to a nearby Muslim family.


The one-room synagogue was restored in 1988 by the Ministry of Religious Affairs, although not as a functioning house of prayer. It was restored again in 2014 by pupils of an Arab school in the city, and it underwent a final restoration by the Council for Restoration and Preservation of Historic Sites.

Muslim, Christian, Druze and Jewish coexistence in Shfar’am


Walk around the town and you will notice that many of the shop signs, particularly in the Druze Quarter (which was once the Jewish Quarter) are in Hebrew and not just in Arabic. This is an indication that many of the inhabitants here have positive feelings about the Jewish state. This is the only Arab town in Israel that celebrates Israel’s Independence Day.


Shfar’am has gained the reputation of being a showplace for religious tolerance. Each of the faiths displays respect for the faiths of others. There are business ties between the different communities and they use shared public spaces, including schools and social centers. Many residents also have deep ties through friendships, intermarriage, and their extended families. You will see churches and mosques here on the same street.


No other country in the Middle East has been as good to Christians in terms of their personal safety and freedom of religious expression as Israel. (By contrast, the territory of the Palestinian Authority has a diminishing Christian population). The Church of St. Peter and St. Paul attracts pilgrims. The Druze also have important shrines and religious centers in the city.

Synagogue Shfaram II.jpeg


Directions: Enter into Waze “Tomb of Rabbi Yehuda ben Baba” and click on “קבר רבי יהודה בן  בבא ,שפרעם“

Admission: There is a shaded room adjacent to the tomb with a long table and chairs. There are nearby restrooms. Opposite to the tomb and on the other side of the road is a footpath to nearby Usha.

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Inside the tiomb of Rabbi Yehuda ben Baba.

The story of Rabbi Yehuda ben Baba


The Talmud relates the story about Rabbi Yehuda ben Baba, a rabbi known for his piety, that occurred during the period after the Bar Kochba Revolt and during the Hadrianic persecutions. Having wiped out Judea, the Romans were determined to eliminate Judaism. To achieve this they decided to eliminate its rabbinic leadership. This was the reason for the murder of the “Ten Martyrs” mentioned in Jewish prayer at certain times. One of these martyrs was Rabbi Akiva and another Rabbi Yehuda ben Baba. The Romans had determined, with justification, that the rabbinic leadership under Rabbi Akiva had supported this revolt.  


The semicha program enabled rabbinic ordination to be handed down from teacher to pupil. Should this chain be broken, the Jewish people would have no rabbinic leadership and no Sanhedrin. The Romans therefore issued a decree that anyone caught proffering semicha would be killed, as would those accepting the ordination. Plus, the town in which this was done would be destroyed.


Rabbi Yehuda ben Baba appreciated the necessity for continuing the semicha program and despite the ban he gave semicha to 5 or 6 students in an area between Usha and Shfar’am. This location was outside the Sabbath boundaries of both towns. Hence, if they were discovered by the Romans, these towns would not be punished.


As the Talmud relates: “When their enemies discovered them, Rabbi Yehuda ben Baba said to his students: My sons, run! The students said to him: Our teacher what will become of you? He said to them: I am placed before my enemies like a rock that cannot be overturned. It was said: ‘The soldiers did not leave the spot where they found Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava until they had driven 300 iron spears through him and made him into a sieve’ ” (Sanhedrin 14a).


Rabbi Yehuda ben Baba was elderly and physically unable to run away. Nevertheless, he could impede the progress of the solders and thus permit the other rabbis to escape.


The tomb of Rabbi Yehuda ben Bava is located in the outskirts of Shfar’am, midway between Usha and Shfar’am. This may even be the very spot where he was killed.

Both Usha and Shfar’am are on the Sanhedrin Trail, a 70-Km trail that crosses the Lower Galilee and ends in Tiberias. See here for its Hebrew website).

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Visiting the tombs of righteous sages


What’s all this about visiting the tombs of righteous sages? Is this not more of a Christian and Muslim practice than a Jewish one?

Throughout the Galilee one finds the tombs of sages of Mishnaic and Talmudic times. They are in the Galilee because this is where these sages lived and died. The identification of these sites is probably fairly accurate. There was continuous Jewish habitation of the Galilee until at least the Ottoman period and there would have been strong local traditions of where sages were buried. Some of these sites, though, particularly their houses of study, are more in the way of memorials than tombs.

In Biblical times, contact with the dead required ritual immersion and the ashes of the Red Heifer before one could enter the Temple. Even after the Temple was destroyed, Jews kept the laws of ritual purity for several hundred years. These laws could indicate a form of protest against the pagan veneration of the dead as was practiced, for example, by the ancient Egyptians. The Torah makes the point of telling us that the site of Moses burial is unknown, even though God Himself buried him. One may surmise that the Torah did not wish for his grave to become a site of veneration and worship. On the other hand, respect for the dead body and proper burials have always been a major consideration in Judaism.

Why then would one wish to visit tombs? Many Jews feel that the tombs of righteous sages provide the opportunity to connect with their spiritual energy and teachings. Others seek blessing, guidance, and even heavenly assistance of the sage on their behalf or for others. Kabbalistic ideas held that visiting the tombs of righteous sages could facilitate a connection with their souls and the divine energy associated with them. In the Hassidic movement there is the notion that visiting the graveside of righteous sages can bring spiritual upliftment and the opportunity to connect with the righteous person’s spiritual legacy. On the other hand, many rabbinic authorities disagree with the approach of seeking intercession from the dead since this should be done directly to God.

The custom of visiting the tombs of sages would seem to be relatively recent. The Christian idea of holiness being attached to graves stems from the time of Helena, the mother of the Roman Emperor Constantine. She was a devout Christian who visited Israel in 326 to 328 CE and put considerable effort into establishing the location of Jesus’ crucifixion and burial, and she built the Church of the Holy Sepulcher at this site. She also located the place of burial of other Biblical figures so that they could become places of Christian pilgrimage. Many of them also became holy to Islam. Many Jews, however, reject there being any association between similar Jewish and Christian customs in relation to the dead.

In sum, there are numerous tombs of righteous sages throughout the Galilee because this is where many of them lived and where they taught. There are many approaches to relating to these tombs. What is indisputable, however, is the honor that the Jewish people bestowed on their sages and their teachings both during their lifetimes and after their deaths.

Links to the HOME PAGE and best family activities, hikes and historic sites in the GOLAN, EASTERN GALILEE, UPPER GALILEE, LOWER GALILEE, JORDAN VALLEY & LAKE KINNERET, the SHEFELAH, TEL AVIV-YAFFO and surroundings, NORTH of TEL AVIV, and SOUTH of TEL AVIV.

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