The entrance courtyard to the cave at Beit Shearim in which Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi is buried
When Uri Savir was growing up in the early 1950s, the area around Kiryat Tivon was largely undeveloped. On Shabbat, when his father did not have to work, the two of them would explore the surrounding hills of the Galil. They collected mushrooms in the forest. Often they walked to the monument to Alexander Zaid, who had founded the Jewish self defense organization, Hashomer, in 1926. In the late winter and early Spring Uri and his father picked the bright red kalaniot (anemones) that grew wild.
The hills are pocked with caves. Uri and his father never entered any of them. It was too dangerous —you could get cave fever from exploring a cave. But they would stand at the openings and look in, staring at the sarcophagi inside. In those days, the biggest archeological find was a menorah engraved on one cave entrance.
Everyone knew that the menorah was a uniquely Jewish design. Finding it on a burial cave meant that the sarcophagi inside held the remains of Jews. These caves are just outside ancient Beit Shearim, one of the cities where the Rabbis of the late Roman period developed the Mishna. The Mishna, or oral law, is a compilation of Rabbinic discussions and interpretations explaining Torah law. Many of the Tannaim, the sages of the Mishna, were buried in sarcophagi in Beit Shearim. All the burial caves are man-made, carefully dug out of the soft limestone, with alcoves and shelves to hold the deceased. As the vast necropolis was excavated, the graves of many of these Rabbis were identified.
The caves had been discovered in 1830, but little archeological work was done then. Benjamin Mazar came and did some excavation from 1936 to 1940. In the 1950s, Nahman Avigad continued the earlier work.
By the time Mazar and Avigad started work in Beit Shearim, grave robbers and unscrupulous antiquities dealers had already raided the caves. Nonetheless, it was remarkable how much of historical value still remained. The necropolis has been recognized as a “World Heritage Site” by UNESCO. For this designation, it had to meet two criteria. The first one is that the site demonstrates an interchange of human values, including architecture, technology, monumental arts, town-planning or landscape design. Secondly, the site must offer a unique testimony of a living cultural tradition, or a lost one..
We were touring the Galil with my class from Pardes Institute, studying the sages of the Mishna.. This tour of places associated with the development of the Mishna was our capstone. Because we had many places to see, we entered only two caves.
One of the highly decorated sarcophagi in the Cave of the Coffins in Bet Shearim
The first cave we entered has been named the “Cave of the Coffins” by the Nature and Parks Authority. When first excavated, this cave held 135 coffins, twenty of which were carved with decorations. Several of these coffins sit in alcoves of the cave, lighted to show off the animals and plant ornamentation.
At the far end of this cave a menorah has been carved from the wall. Many menorot have been found in the caves, but this one is the largest, standing 1.9 meters high by 1.25 meters wide, a little over 6 feet by 4 feet. The Parks Authority has worked with the Israel Antiquities Authority to preserve it in situ.
The entrance to the Cave of the Coffins has three doorways. Another cave with three doorways sits in a courtyard, deliberately built there. Additionally, benches cut into the hill above the cave, allow visitors to the grave to pray or study All this is in keeping with the stature of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who is buried in this cave. As Nasi, the President or Prince, he was head of the Sanhedrin, the Rabbinical court. His major work was compiling the Mishna, committing the Oral Law to writing so it would not be lost as the Jews scattered throughout the world. His stature was so great, that to this day, he is simply referred to simply as “Rebbi.”
Interestingly, Rebbi’s name is not inscribed anywhere in the cave. However, the names of his two sons, Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi Gamliel, are painted in the chamber closest to the door. A stone inscribed with name of the man that Rebbi had appointed head of the Sanhedrin in his stead, Anina the Younger, was also found here.
In the back of the cave are two graves dug directly in the ground. No coffin was found, just the two graves, side by side, as might have been prepared for a man and his wife. The graves were originally covered with large stones. The structure of this grave is another bit of evidence that Rebbi was laid to rest here.
At the time of his death, Rebbi lived in Tzippori, a larger town about 15 km away. Nonetheless, he left instructions that he be buried in Beit Shearim. He also requested that he not be put in a stone coffin, but be dressed in a simple linen shroud and laid directly in the ground. Today, the custom in Jerusalem is to be buried as Rebbi was—dressed in hand sewn linen shrouds and laid directly in the ground.
Leah Rosenthal teaching a gemara about Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi in the outdoor “classroom” above his grave at Beit Shearim
We exited the cave, and climbed the old worn rock steps up the hill into which the burial cave is carved. We sat on the stone benches of the outdoor classroom for a short class. Leah Rosenthal, our teacher, presented an excerpt from the Babylonian Talmud about Rebbi. She joined us on the two day trip to continue the learning we have been doing since last Fall.
Our course has focused on the personalities of the Tannaim, as revealed by what was written in the Mishna and in the Gemara. The Gemara is the record of the discussions of the Rabbis about the Mishna. It records their decisions about the halakha, the religious law. Because the Gemara developed simultaneously in the Galil and in Babylonia, there are two versions, known as the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud. The excerpt Leah chose to learn with us was from the Babylonian Talmud.
To start, she pointed out that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi was not the first one to compile texts. Rather, he was the sage who had such stature that his compilation was accepted by everyone. He ushered in a new era. From that time, to this day, all students study the Mishna, as compiled and redacted by Rebbi.
Leah chose to highlight Rebbi’s skill as a master teacher. The excerpt starts with his quoting a line from Psalms: “But whose desire is in the law of Lord.”(1:2). Rebbi explained this as meaning that “One can learn only that part of Torah which is one’s desire.”
The Talmud goes on to illustrate Rebbi’s application of the verse from Psalms. Two students, R. Levi and R. Shimon, disagreed about what to study: Psalms or Proverbs. Rebbi decided to study Psalms. They read the first chapter. When they reached the second verse, Rebbi explained it in his usual way. R. Levi stood up and said, “Rebbi! You have given me the right to rise!” He understood that because he did not desire to study Psalms, he would not learn much from that class. Rather, he would learn more from studying Proverbs, as he had originally wanted. Rebbi, by stating that one can only learn well what his heart, had given him permission to study something else.
Flowers and trees bloom at Beit Shearim National Park in March
Sitting at the top of the hill, on the ancient stones, above Rebbi’s grave, we learned some of his work. In those few moments, Leah had brought him to life.
As long as students continue to study Mishna and Gemara, the ancient sages remain alive.
Looking out at the flowering trees and wildflowers scattered in the grass, we had no desire to go elsewhere to learn.
Where is Beit Shearim?