Ancient Tombs in Galilee

By Brown, Michael | The World and I, March 2009 | Go to article overview

Ancient Tombs in Galilee

Brown, Michael, The World and I

One of our goals as travelers is to experience a truly unique aspect of a foreign culture--to mingle with the locals while at the same time blending into the background to both observe and absorb the experience.

Little known to the average tourist in Israel, the ancient tombs of the Galilee annually draw many thousands of visitors and show a fascinating and colorful picture of Israeli society. After the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the Galilee (and Zefat in particular) became a center of Jewish scholarship and habitation.

These tombs of Jewish sages serve as points of pilgrimage for all kinds of Jews--frequently cutting across religious divides and ethnic backgrounds. Some are associated with specific holidays; others attract visitors with specific requests, and still others serve as bastions of holiness and tranquility; a perfect background for facilitating communication between the visitor and their God. The Jewish sages discussed here are primarily Tannaim--teachers and scholars who lived from approximately 70-200 CE and were responsible for transmitting an oral tradition that was later codified in the Jewish text known as the Mishnah.

Visiting these tombs can be a side trip of an hour or two or the focal point of a sustained experience lasting several days. The large majority of the tombs are easily accessible and also easily combined with charming and interesting sites throughout the Galilee--one of the most beautiful parts of Israel.

Zefat Cemetery

The ancient town of Zefat is located in the eastern part of the Upper Galilee--a rugged and mountainous part of the country. It achieved particular renown in the 1500s and 1600s when a number of important rabbis moved to the town and it became an important center of Jewish learning and mysticism. The cemetery, located on the western slope of the hill upon which the town is built, is home to many of these famous rabbis as well as some from earlier times. Laurie Rappeport, of the Zefat Visitor Center, relates that the cemetery is second only to Meron in the number of yearly visitors. "We get all types of people that visit the cemetery, though most of them tend to be religious. In addition to individuals and families, organized tours come to the cemetery especially to see and pray at the graves."

As you wander around this rambling cemetery you will invariably pass knots of these visitors--men and women praying at the various tombs. For some of them, a visit to one or more of these tombs is one stop in a string of visits that may last several days.

My favorite destination is at the bottom of the cemetery on a relatively flat expanse of ground. Here is the grave of Rabbi Pinchas Ben Ya'ir, a tanna from the second century who was known during his lifetime for his extreme piety. He was also the son-in-law of Shimon Bar Yochai, who is discussed later.

You will notice that there is no headstone by the tomb. The tradition says that before his death, he requested from his students not to erect a headstone. He felt that the best testament to ones life is a person's good deeds and teachings, and not words inscribed in stone. Despite this, his students erected a headstone, which, even before the end of the seven day mourning period crumbled to the ground. The students returned once again to replace the headstone but then the prophet Elijah appeared and chastised them for not listening to their teacher. Since then the tomb remains as it is.

Another unique aspect of this site is the two trees that flank the grave. As you approach the two trees--rather ordinary looking fig trees, it appears as if they have been decorated for a party. Strips of cloth and bits of plastic have been tied to every available branch and twig. They have been placed there by visitors to the tomb and are meant to facilitate their requests or to establish a personal connection to the site. You will notice this phenomenon periodically at various tombs in the Galilee. …

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