The view of the Old City walls above us across the Kidron Valley was impressive. We could see the terraced steep hill we had recently walked down. The tan color of its retaining walls is punctuated by dark green bushes and small trees. The crenelated city wall stands on the top of the hill like a crown. The Old City is on one of the lower hills of the Mountains of Judea; from the top of the Mount of Olives you look down on it. The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir is located near the bottom of the Mount of Olives, in the Kidron Valley. From there, the city looks like the peak of the mountain range.
The Tomb of the Sons of Hezir is carved into the bedrock of the Mount of Olives. From the road just below the city walls, it looks like a large rectangular entryway, held open by two limestone pillars. But from the foot of the Mount of Olives I saw that appearance was deceptive. The columns are merely decoration, carved out of the same rock as the rest of the cave. The actual entrance is on the side. We clambered up some rocks, then ascended three short metal stairways to enter the tomb. From there,we climbed an interior stone stairway.
The central large room is well lit in the late afternoon, as the sun shines in through the pillars. From the inside, it is clear that they serve no structural purpose—they are part of the rock from which the cave was cut. But they do look nice, and the space between them offers a beautiful view of the Old City.
Several smaller caves branch off from this main interior central space. In the second century BCE, the Hasmonean period, when the tomb was built, the dead would have spent their first year in a side cave. Later their bones would have been gathered and placed in stone ossuaries, which remained in the burial cave.
This is one of the few ancient tombs whose identity is known. The names are carved in Hebrew in the architrave, the space above the columns. The inscription translates as: “This is the tomb and the nefesh of Elazar, Haniah, Yoezer, Yehuda, Shimon, Yohanon, the sons of Joseph son of Obed, Joseph and Elazar the sons of Haniah, priests from the sons of Hezir.”
The tomb, the man-made cave where we stood, is the place for the physical body to lie in eternity. It was built during the period when Greek influence on beliefs was prevalent. This included their belief in the separation of body and soul. Thus, a “nefesh,” a special structure to house the soul of the deceased (his nefesh), was constructed behind the tomb. Other tombs from that period, such as the Tomb of Avshalom, feature a nefesh on top.
Because of its layout, experts believe that this tomb was most likely constructed the first century BCE. But, the inscription is of a much later style from around 100 CE. Perhaps no official notice was needed when the descendants of Hezir were entombed. Everyone in town knew which tomb belonged to which family. But as the Jews began to scatter throughout the Roman empire, labeling burial sites became necessary. Thus the list of the names of the sons of Joseph the son of Obed was carved .
When we see tombs, it is natural to ask, “Who is buried here?” But the more important question, the one many people do not ask, is “Who deserves something so impressive?”
Our guide, Re’ut, explained that in the late Hasmonean and Herodian periods there were only a few families who could afford tombs this elaborate. The priestly family of Hezir was one of the older families in Judea and
apparently had more resources than most other families. The family of Hezir is listed in the book of Nehemiah. They were Cohanim who returned in the first wave of resettlement of the land in 539 BCE.
We exited the cave and filed into the space between the tomb of the Sons of Hezir and the next monument, that of the priest and prophet Zechariah. He had run afoul of the government of King Yehoash by attacking idolatry, when the first Temple still stood. On the order of the king, the people stoned him to death. The sages of the Talmud considered his death especially bad. In killing him the people had committed seven separate sins. They had killed a priest, a prophet, a judge, spilling innocent blood, which defiled the Temple. They had murdered him on Yom Kippur which was on the Sabbath, thus desecrating two holy days.
Like many other recognized burial places in Israel, the tomb of Zechariah does not hold his bones. It’s solid rock, the nefesh of an unidentified tomb. Apparently, souls did not need empty space within which to dwell for eternity. The the Ionic columns and Egyptian acanthus leaf carvings, shows it was carved out of the bedrock during the time of Herod. That was more than five hundred years after the prophet’s death.
I found what was behind Zechariah’s “tomb” more interesting than the structure itself. The space is about ten feet wide, which would have been sufficient for all of us. However most of the area is taken up by two modern graves.
The graves are those of Rabbi Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref
and his wife. Rav Shlomo Zalman was a follower of the Gaon of Vilna (the GR”A), an influential rabbi in nineteenth century Lithuania. The GR”A encouraged his students to settle the land of Israel long before Theodore Herzl founded political Zionism.
The Tzoref family made their to the Holy Land, landing in Haifa in 1811. They first settled in Tsfat, but after the 1813 cholera epidemic, they moved to Jerusalem. Rav Zalman quickly became one of the leaders of the Ashkenazi community. In need of funds, the community sent Rav Zalman to Europe to raise money to support the community. On his way back to Jerusalem, he stopped in Egypt. There he received permission from Muhammed Ali, the ruler of the land of Israel, to rebuild the Hurva synagogue. The original Hurva had been destroyed more than 130 years earlier.
Unfortunately, he did not live to see the building whole and in use. He survived a first attempt on his life. The next attempt was more successful—an Arab hit him on the head with a sword. He lingered for three months before dying of his wounds. He was buried on the Mount of Olives, behind Zachariah’s Tomb. The original grave markers no longer exist. The current tombstones were put on the original burial site more than a hundred years later..
Rabbi Shlomo Zalmon’s influence in Jerusalem and Israel is felt to this day through his hundreds of descendents. His son Mordechai changed the family name from Tzoref (silversmith) to Salomon, in honor of Rav Zalman. One grandson, Moshe Yoel Salomon, founded the city of Petah Tikve. He was among the first people to move outside the walls of Jerusalem’s Old City. Following the 1863 cholera epidemic, he and six friends built the neighborhood of Nahalat Shiva (Homestead of the Seven). Today Nahalat Shiva is a mixed commercial and residential neighborhood in the heart of downtown Jerusalem. It is a vibrant area with two new boutique hotels, and restaurants, many of which feature outdoor seating. It’s a great place to go to buy gifts- shops sell jewelry, ceramics, clothing, and Judaica.
In the national cemetery on Har Herzl, there is a monument to victims of terror. Avraham Shlomo Zalman Tzoref’s name is listed there, the first victim of terror in modern Israel. As we walked back up the hill, I wondered what he would have thought of today’s city. It’s a far cry from the crowded walled city he knew. But I think he would have been proud to pray in newly rebuilt Hurva synagogue, the architectural highlight of the Jewish Quarter of the walled city.