The Talmud describes how the Sanhedrin was exiled ten times starting with its exile to Yavne in the days leading up to the destruction of the Holy Temple and ending in Tiberias centuries later.
The Sanhedrin was exiled from the Lishkat Hagazit (on the Temple Mount) to the Chanut. And from the Chanut to Jerusalem. And from Jerusalem to Yavne. And from Yavne to Usha. And from Usha (back) to Yavneh. And from Yavneh (back) to Usha. And from Usha to Shfaram. And from Shfaram to Beit Shearim. And from Beit Shearim to Tzippori. And from Tzippori to Tiberias.
– Babylonian Talmud Rosh Hashana 31
A Unique Israel Tour
Last week I had the pleasure of taking a client on a very special tour of many of these places! Sheldon Lisbon is a History teacher at several Jewish schools in Florida. He contacted me looking for a very unique tour. He wanted to see the sites where the Sanhedrin sat and where the Mishnah was compiled. He also wanted to get a feeling for life in the time of the Mishna.
We needed to start and end in Jerusalem so we made this a two day tour with a night in Tiberias.
Here’s what we did:
Caesarea – The Execution of Rabbi Akiva
Just before the Temple was destroyed in 70 AD, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai snuck out of the walls of Jerusalem and pleaded before Vespasian to allow him to establish the Sanhedrin in Yavneh on the coast of Israel. Vespasian granted his request and the Sanhedrin functioned there for decades and started the important process of crystallizing and recording the Oral Torah.
But after the Romans brutally put down the Bar Kochba Revolt in 136 CE, Jewish life was not allowed to continue in Judea and had to be moved north to the Galilee.
Rabbi Akiva was the spiritual moral authority behind the Bar Kokhba revolts. He went so far as to declare that Bar Kochba was the long awaited Moshiach. This is why the Romans made sure to execute him after they put down the Revolt.
Caesarea was the center of Roman rule in the Holy Land at that time. The Romans generally executed important prisoners publicly in an amphitheater. This is why it is reasonable to say that Rabbi Akiva was most likely executed in the ancient amphitheatre of Caesarea which still stands till today.
This is why we made a stop on the way up to the Galilee to see the ancient amphitheatre at Caesarea. Many of the students of Rabbi Akivah like Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and Rabbi Meir Baal Haness were among the most important figures in the establishment of the Sanhedrin in the Galilee. They had witnessed their Rebbe being tortured to death and this no doubt made a great impression on them and made them more committed to the great project of recording the Oral Torah for all generations.
Usha – First site of the Sanhedrin in the Galilee
Usha was a small Jewish village in the Galilee. So why did the great Sanhedrin choose this place as their home? Precisely because the Sanhedrin was trying to keep a low profile to keep away from the Roman wrath that was poured out generously after the Bar Kokhba Revolt.
In Usha the Rabbis sent out a call to all Jews saying, “Whoever is learned come teach and whoever is not, come learn.” They started over from nothing and began the process of gathering all of the teachings that had been passed down over the generations.
They also began a process of ordering decrees, called ‘Takanot Usha’, that would help Jews function as an organized community. For example they decreed that no one should donate more than 20% of their income to Tzedakah, lest they themselves become a burden on the community.
The archeological site of Usha has barely been touched. A local school from Kiryat Ata has adopted the site and they are responsible for doing the digging under the supervision of archeologists. They also put up signs around the site with profiles of some of the great Rabbis who lived here.
Unfortunately, because this site is not given the proper attention by the government, there is very little to see here. There are some remnants of a wine press and a mikveh and a few other remains. We did a short walk around the site to get a feeling of this place which is so important to our Jewish history.
Shfaram – An ancient Synagogue in an Arab village
The next place the Sanhedrin went to was Shfaram. Today Shfaram is an Israeli-Arab village of the exact same name. Even though there are no Jews living there today, in the heart of the village there is an old Synagogue which has been destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout history. The local tradition tells that it is built on the site where the Sanhedrin sat.
The Synagogue is tended by the Jafery family who live across the street. Although they are Moslem Arabs, they consider the site to be a holy place and they keep it clean and let in visitors.
After getting the key from the Jafery family we entered and said a few chapters of Tehillim and were on our way.
Beit Shearim – Home of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi
The Talmud tells us that Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was very wealthy. He was also friends with the Roman Emperor Antoninus who would consult with him frequently. Antoninus granted many lands to Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi as a gift. Although not mentioned specifically, Beit Shearim is likely to be one of these gifts since it was considered royal property even in the Second Temple times.
Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi lived in Beit Shearim and brought the Sanhedrin here. Although his life ended in Tzippori, he was brought to burial in his family tomb in Beit Shearim.
Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi’s Tomb
We visited the burial tombs of Beit Shearim which were excavated in the 1930’s. They are very impressive tombs with many ornate sarcophagi and decorations with Jewish themes like the Menorah, Lulav and more.
One of the graves is thought to be the original grave of Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi. It is a simple grave cut in the ground. Next to it were found carvings with names of several of the family members of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi.
The Talmud tells how Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi requested that a Yeshivah be gathered after his death in his memory. There are several traditions of Yeshivot being gathered to study on top of the tomb of great figures after their death. One amazing thing about this tomb is that they discovered a sort of theater carved into the stone above the entrance to the tomb. This was probably where the Yeshivah gathered to study on top of the Tomb.
Next we headed over to Tzipori. This city was the capital of the Galilee in Roman times. Rabbi Yehudah Hanasi was ill in the end of his life and had to move here because its higher elevation makes the air cooler and drier. In fact the Talmud says that it is named Tzippori (Bird) because it sits on a mountain like a bird. Of course, for as long as Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi was here, the Sanhedrin also met here.
Even though only a small portion of the site has been excavated, the site is spectacular. You can walk down the ancient Roman road, see the mosaic floors of wealthy homes and shops, and much more.
Mona Lisa of the Galilee
On top of the hill at the back of the site is the ruin of a wealthy Roman villa. It has a very fine mosaic with scenes from Greek and Roman mythology. One of the features of the mosaic is the face of a woman. The face is made of small pieces of rock with no paint or added color, and yet it is so finely detailed and shaded that it looks like it was done with oil paints. This was accomplished by a highly skilled artisan by cutting pieces of rock that had the exact shades that the artist needed. Some call it the ‘Mona Lisa of the Galilee’.
We ended the first day of our tour in Tiberias, the last of the cities of the Sanhedrin. This is where the Sanhedrin settled until its demise centuries later. In Tiberias we have the tombs of some of the great figures who we spoke about on this tour such as Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai, Rabbi Meir Baal Haness and Rabbi Akiva.
We ended the day with checking in to our hotel, and dinner near the promenade.
In the morning after Rosh Chodesh Davening at the old Chassidic Synagogue of Tiberias (with the first Shofar blowing of Elul) we grabbed some breakfast and headed out to Katzrin in the Golan Heights.
Talmudic Village in Katzrin
In Katzrin, archeologists discovered a Jewish village from the times of the Mishnah and Gemara. It is one of hundreds of such towns that existed in the Golan Heights and the Galilee. What makes this one so unique is that they decided to reconstruct a few of the buildings to their original state. Inside the buildings they have placed all of the tools, dishes and furnishings that would have been common to that Talmudic period.
‘Rabbi Abun’s House’
One of these is the house known as the “House of Rabbi Abun”. They call it that because of a tombstone of a Rabbi Abun that had been used in secondary use in the building of the house. This house has been reconstructed using the original materials. It is a typical family home from the period complete with kitchen, living room, bedroom, storage room and courtyard. Inside there are all kinds of tools and dishes that were used in those times such as a plow, threshing board, broom, oven, pots, bowls, bed, benches, oil lamps and more.
Other highlights of the Talmudic village include an Olive Press, Wine press and an ancient Synagogue.
Visiting the Talmudic Village in Katzrin really brings to life what day to day living was like in those times! It really helped to round out and sum up the tour.
What an amazing tour in the Galilee and Golan Heights!
At this point after a lot of very serious, academic touring we opted to finish off with some fun stuff. We checked out the tanks outside of Katzrin, then headed over to the De Karina Chocolate Factory in Ein Zivan and finally drove up to the top of Mt. Bental for a view into Syria before we headed back to Jerusalem.
If you would like to do a unique tour of Eretz Yisroel like this one, based on Torah sources, contact me and I’ll be happy to work with you to great the tour of your life!