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Notes from Limmud 2015: The Rabbi and the Catacomb: The Necropolis of Beit She'arim - Lethargic Man (anag.)

Lethargic Man (anag.)
Date: 2016-08-18 12:26
Subject: Notes from Limmud 2015: The Rabbi and the Catacomb: The Necropolis of Beit She'arim
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Tags:archaeology, cool, limmud

Notes from Limmud 2015

The Rabbi and the Catacomb: The Necropolis of Beit She'arim

Mikaël Wahl

[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. The transliteration scheme is mine; I'm feeling pedantic today. Accuracy of transcription is not guaranteed.]

Beit She'arim has recently been added to the UNESCO World Heritage list. There aren't many post-Biblical Jewish sites. (Another example is Masada, but it's not very representative of Jewish life.) Béth Shə`ārim is the first site from the Talmudic period.

The necropolis became important in the third century, though it existed beforehand. It was used at least until the end of the fourth century; some say to the sixth.

Alexander Zeid (1886–1938) was a pioneer, a Jewish shepherd who made aliyah from Russia at the age of 18. He was one of the founders of Hashomer, a private company to provide security services to Jewish settlements. Until 1917 there were a lot of Bedouins stealing from settlements and the roads were unsafe. They used Arabs and Druze for security, but they wanted Jews to do the job. They had a hard job convincing them, though, to take Hashomer on.

At one point they got tired of doing security jobs, and they created a kibbutz to settle in the far north of the Galilee: Kfar Gil`adi. Zeid didn't like life in the kibbutz; he preferred to be on his horse and in the countryside and not have to respond to anyone else. On a kibbutz everything was done collectively. He didn't like the way the children did not stay with their parents overnight but in a communal nursery. So he left, in 1926.

The JNF didn't have enough people to settle all the land they possessed. This was problematic because according to Ottoman law, which remained into the British Mandate period, if you didn't settle your land someone else could claim it. So they got him to stay on their land. This [land] was called Sheikh Hibrik, after the tomb of Sheikh Hibrik. No one knows exactly whose tomb it was; hibrik means a little jug for Moslems to wash their hands and feet before prayer. There is a whole legend there was a spring which was created next to his grave.

Soon Zeid noticed there were ancient stones and mosaics in his field. He was interested, but couldn't excavate on his own, so wrote to the Department of Antiquities and to the Hebrew University (which had only opened in 1925), describing what he had seen. This was just after the first Jewish archaeological dig in Beit Alpha, discovered in 1929.

Unfortunately, no one had the means to start an archaeological dig.

Zeid wasn't the first to discover Bet Shə`ārim. Some explorers came in the nineteenth century and saw tombs and Hebrew inscriptions, but no one knew the name of the place, or where the Talmudic Béth Shə`ārim was. Hence in 1927 a moshav in the Jezreel valley took the name Beit She'arim, but it's 7km away from the original town of that name!

Binyamin Mazar from the Hebrew University eventually stopped by en route from visiting relatives in Haifa. He organised a dig which started in 1936. First they discovered the synagogue: it pointed towards Jerusalem, and had the usual basilica shape. They also found a small town... and the first catacombs.

In 1938 Zeid was murdered by Bedouins while walking to a kibbutz nearby. This was during the Arab revolt of 1936-1939. Then came the War, which interrupted the dig. It restarted in 1953 and continued until 1958.

[photographs of stone doors emulating wooden ones, complete with fake doorknocker, exempli gratia.]

Photo source and credit

The menorah shows this is a Jewish tomb.

[photographs of stone sarcophagi, exempli gratia]. In the Second Temple period people were buried in niches dug lengthwise into the walls of caves, not sarcophagi, and later (for a century or two) in ossuaries. By the second to fourth centuries, practices had changed, under Roman influence. In Beit She'arim there are also niches in the walls, but along the length of the body instead: arcosolia.

Photo source and credit

A lulav (palm branch): A common Jewish symbol.

[photographs of leaden sarcophagi]

How do we know this place is Beit She'arim? Answer: this inscription was found, in Greek, in one of the first catacombs:

Here lie I, son of Leontius, dead, son of Sappho-Justus,
And after I had plucked the fruit of all wisdom I left the light, the miserable parents who mourn ceaselessly.
And my brothers. Woe to me, in my Besara!
After descending to Hades, I, Justus, lie here
With many of my people, for so willed stern fate.
Be comforted, Justus, no man is immortal.

Josephus referred to Besara (Béth Shə`ārim) as an important place for crops.

There were hundred and hundreds of tombs, but the size of the town wasn't that big. How come it suddenly became such a big necropolis? There isn't anywhere else with a Jewish cemetery that big apart from Jerusalem and Rome.

Photo source and credit

This is the first representation of animals on burial places.

Also representation of human faces. And Leda and the swan!

80% of the inscriptions are in Greek. This is way more than, for example, synagogual inscriptions, which are only 35% in Greek. Of all the Jewish inscriptions found in the Galilee at that time, only 55% are in Greek. So there's something weird going on in Beit She'arim.

Most of the names on the sarcophagi are Greek names, but there are also a few Latin and a few Hebrew names, generally Biblical ones. Sometimes also titles, for example: archisynagogos: head of a synagogue. Or head of the council of the elders.

The Archisynagogos came from Sidon. Many of them weren't from the area. There is a strong proportion of people from present-day Lebanon and Syria, some from Egypt; many in particular from Tadmor (Palmyra).

Why did people come to Beit She'arim to be buried; and why is it different to all other burial places in the Galilee?

We know about one important person who lived there: R. Yəhudā haNāsi. After the Bar Kochbā revolt, the Jewish settlement in Judaea was almost completely destroyed. Half the entire Jewish population was killed. The centre of Jewish life moved to the Galilee. (How did that survive? We don't know; there are very few documents about the Bar Kochbā revolt.) The Sanhedrin moved from Yavne to the Galilee; it moved to a variety of places, one after another, each further east, until it ended up in Tiberias, where it remained until it stopped functioning in the fifth century.

Maybe it was following the centre of Jewish population. It was also moving from small villages to larger and larger towns.

R. Yəhudā haNāsi was the nāsi, the patriarch or head of the community. Most of his work of compiling the Mishna was done in Béth Shə`ārim, though in the last seventeen years of his life he moved to Tzippori. He died there around 217, but asked to be buried in Béth Shə`ārim. The Jerusalem Talmud describes his funeral:

The residents of Tzippori said "Whoever says to us, 'Rabbi has passed away', we will kill him." Bar Kappara looked at them, his head covered, his clothing ripped in mourning. He said, "The righteous ones and the angels were both grasping the tablets of the covenant. The angels gained the upper hand and snatched the tablets away." The residents of Tzippori said to him, "Rabbi has passed away?" Bar Kappara said, "You said it." One that day, the funeral took place. This was a Friday.

Big funerals stopped in every town, but they didn't have long [before the Sabbath]. But a miracle happened and all the residents of the small towns came into the large cities to eulogise him.

They put his bier down eighteen times to eulogise him. Then they took it to Beth Shə`ārim, but the daytime extended so that every person was able to reach his home, fill a barrel of water, and light a candle.

On that day, when the sun set, the rooster crowed, and people worried that they might have desecrated Shabbos. At which a heavenly voice proclaimed that whoever had eulogised R. Yəhudā had not desecrated Shabbos.

At that time, it was impossible for Jews to be buried in Jerusalem, so Béth Shə`ārim became a substitute.

The family of R. Yəhudā haNāsi was buried there; there are inscriptions with their names. Apart from those people, none of the names on the tombs are names of known rabbis from the Talmud, even though the title rabbi appears twenty-eight times.

There is only one other mention of people being buried in Béth Shə`ārim in the Talmud: it says the rich people of Caesarea have the custom of being buried there, but no sage is ever said to be buried there! All the sources which talk about burial talk about Tiberias.

How to resolve this dichotomy?

Actually, it shouldn't surprise us: we know from the literature that at one point there was a big [?broigus] between the Sages and the nāsi.

R. Yəhudā haNāsi was a very wealthy man. He was close to the the Emperor Caracalla. The nəsi'im had close links to the Roman aristocracy, and the Sages complained about them: they had judicial power, not the rabbis.

Rabbi Yəhudā haNāsi is mentioned 1300 times in the Talmud, but R. Yehuda II his grandson is only mentioned 50 times, and his grandson is only mentioned 20 times. From the fourth century there is hardly any mention of any nāsi in the Talmud.

The nəsi'im built their own circles which were independent of the Sages of the Talmud. In the synagogue in Ḥamath Teveryā, the inscriptions say that it was built by relatives of the nāsi, but they are all in Greek. And there is a villa thought possibly to have belonged to R. Yəhudā haNāsi which shows figures from Greek mythology: they had become hellenised.

So, althought UNESCO recognised Beit She'arim as a place associated with the renewal of Judaism, maybe it's not Judaism as we know it, viz. the Judaism of the Talmud.

Jewish learning notes index

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