Both archaeological sites we visited today, Bet Shearim (a UNESCO world heritage site) and Tzippori (Sepphoris), have rich and unique histories. What connects the two is the personage of Rabbi Yehuda haNassi (Judah the Patriarch). He was head of the Sanhedrin (which was headquartered in Bet Shearim after the destruction of the second Temple in Jerusalem and the failure of the Bar Kochba Revolt — and before it moved to Tzippori), key leader of the Jewish community during the Roman occupation of Judea, and compiler of the Mishnah (3rd century, CE). Bet Shearim became renowned as a great center of Torah study after Yehuda haNassi (or just “Rabbi” in the Talmud) resided there. Though he spent the last 17 years of his life and died in Tzippori, the Talmud (Ketubot 103b) says: “Rabbi was lying on his sickbed at Tzippori but a burial place was reserved for him at Bet Shearim.”
The well-known story of his death is one of my favorite teaching stories for end-of-life work with families who may have differing opinions about keeping their loved one alive “to the end” (Talmud Ketubot 104a). Rabbi Yehuda haNassi was basically being kept alive by life support, which were the prayers of his disciples. His maidservant, realizing how he was suffering, threw an urn on the ground to interrupt the prayers and put Rabbi out of his misery. He died in that split second when his “life support” was momentarily suspended.
Because he was buried in Bet Shearim and because the Roman authorities had prohibited Jewish burial in Jerusalem, the cemetery in Bet Shearim became the “in” place of burial grounds both for those living in the land of Israel as well as for those in surrounding areas like Syria, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Lebanon, Phoenicia, and Yemen. We only entered one burial cave, but there were about 135 sarcophagi there! And there are many other burial caves that we not only didn’t visit but that haven’t even been excavated yet.
From Bet Shearim, we travelled about 13 miles to Tzippori National Park, with remains of an ancient city and gorgeous mosaic floors. There were ruins from Roman and Byzantine periods, as well as a fortress from the Crusader period. Yehuda haNassi’s grandson is buried in Tzippori. The Sanhedrin (and Yehuda haNassi) moved there from Bet Shearim at the beginning of the 3rd century CE and the Mishna was compiled in Tzippori.
Pam, dear Pam, I am so enjoying this blog posts! It really sounds as if you are in your element, both the first rabbis part of the trip, and now with Chaim. I am making note and keeping everything, since we have a trip coming up to Israel in June. I loved the piece on the Hula bird sanctuary. Did you ever read my poem in the chapbook entitled, “the Cranes are flying?”It was written in situ there one dawn when I, too, was thrilled at the sight. I think now you would really enjoy it. Great minds think a like! I don’t know how long you are still there, but you are clearly enjoying every second. Love from our crazy country. It sounds like you are being spared the craziness of darkncraziness there, too, love, Ronnie
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