The Jewish Footprint in the Holy Land: Our Ancient Past

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by Aaron Feigenbaum.

There is, perhaps, no other country that so definitively and incontrovertibly demonstrates the link between its land and its people than Israel. While other peoples such as the Phoenicians, lived in the Holy Land before the Jews, they are long extinct. Today only the Jews have a unique, G-d-given claim to the land. Thousands upon thousands of archaeological sites, inscriptions, and documents have been found attesting to an unbroken history of Jewish habitation dating back over 2,000 years. Walls, fortresses, shuls, coins and royal seals are just a few types of evidence of our connection with the Holy Land. It’s not an exaggeration to say that you can find evidence of the Jewish past almost everywhere you go in Israel. What’s more is that amazing new discoveries are made every year, making Israeli archaeology one of the most dynamic and fascinating fields of historical research. In a time where an alarming number of voices deny the legitimacy of the Jewish presence in Israel, archaeological and historical evidence are all the more important in providing evidence of our rightful claim. This article will highlight some of the important pieces of evidence in presenting our case.

Cave of Machpelah: This is the world’s most ancient Jewish site and the second holiest site in the world. Avraham Avinu purchased the cave around 3700 years ago and he, along with Yitzchak, Yaakov, Leah, Rivka, and Sarah are all buried there. King Herod built the structure, enclosing the cave in the 1st century B.C.E. Crusaders turned the building above the burial caves into a church. After Saladin’s army defeated the Crusaders, the building became a mosque. Though the town of Hebron was liberated by Israel in 1967, Jewish access to the site is still heavily restricted by the Islamic waqf which controls over 80% of it. Located right near the Cave is the tomb of Avner, King David’s cousin and commander of the royal army. Tel Rumeida is thought to be the site of Biblical Hebron and evidence of a Jewish presence there goes back to the time of the kings of Judah. West Bank settlers hope to turn Tel Rumeida, located in the heart of Hebron, into an archaeological park.

Western Wall: There is arguably no other structure standing in Israel today that so boldly, yet eloquently, sums up the Jewish history of Israel, as well as Judaism itself, and expresses our longing for the Messianic Redemption. The Wall is the last remnant of the Second Temple, destroyed in 70 C.E. by the Romans. Jewish pilgrims have come to pray here for centuries and halachah determines this to be the closest one is allowed to the Temple Mount itself. The kottel has survived countless wars, invasions, riots, time and weather. It is the most poignant piece of evidence of our Jewish past in the Holy Land. In addition to the Wall itself, you can also tour the underground passages which contain a huge array of archaeological landmarks including a channel which supplied water to the Temple, Warren’s Gate (the closest physical point to the Holy of Holies), and a Roman road dating to the time of King Herod. The tunnels continue to yield exciting new discoveries including a 2,000 year old mikveh and, just this year, a chisel used to carve out the high quality Melekeh limestone of the Wall.

Dead Sea Scrolls: Considered one of the most important archaeological discoveries of all time, the Scrolls date mostly to the 1st century B.C.E. and give a glimpse of Jewish life during this turbulent era. The Scrolls are believed by most to be written by a non-Rabbinic Jewish sect called the Essenes who lived an ascetic lifestyle in the desert of Qumran. The Scrolls include the vast majority of the Tanakh which, with the exception of a few scrolls following the Greek Septuagina, are the same as the modern Masoretic text, thus disproving Islamic claims that Jews have altered the text of the Torah. The Scrolls are currently housed in a special wing of the Israel Museum in Jerusalem called the Shrine of the Book.

Masada: Masada is an ancient fortress in the Judean Desert overlooking the Dead Sea. It’s the site where the last Jewish holdouts battled the Roman Empire after the destruction of the Second Temple. According to the Jewish historian Josephus, the Romans besieged the fortress and the trapped defenders saw no other choice but to commit mass suicide. While suicide and murder are not permitted by halakhah, Masada is nevertheless a symbol in modern Israel for heroism, defiance, and the iron will of the Jews of Israel.

The Masada Fortress

Gamla: Don’t think that Masada was the only site of Jewish resistance against the Romans! Gamla (meaning camel) nestles dramatically on a steep hill in the Golan Heights and is known as the Masada of the North. Jewish settlement there dates back to the 3rd century B.C.E. Excavations have revealed that Gamla’s Shul is one of the oldest in the world. Archaeologists have also found a mikvah and thousands of Herodian coins. The small town was less than 20 years old when it stood against the tyrant Vespasian in the Great Jewish Revolt. Despite the community’s bravery, having forced the Romans into retreat several times, they were eventually overwhelmed in 67 C.E. and, according to Josephus, the 9,000 inhabitants committed suicide by throwing themselves down the cliff-side. You can learn more about Gamla’s history by visiting the Golan Antiquities Museum in nearby Katzrin.

Beit She’arim National Park: Shortly after the beginning of Roman exile, Jewish life was reestablished in the Galilee and Beit She’arim became the headquarters for the Sanhedrin in the early Rabbinic period. It’s also the burial site of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, redactor and editor of the Mishnah. 20 catacombs have been unearthed with hundreds of stone coffins and inscriptions depicting everyday life. The beautiful historical site also shows evidence of an ancient shul and olive press.

Unidentified structure in Beit Shearim dating back to the beginning of the Roman exile

Unidentified structure in Beit Shearim dating back to the beginning of the Roman exile

Beit Alfa National Park: This 6th century C.E. shul located near Kibbutz Hefzibah is best known for its richly detailed floor mosaics. One of the mosaics depicts the binding of Yitzchak while another depicts a shul scene and objects such as a lulav, esrog, and shofar. The third mosaic is a Hebraized Greco-Roman Zodiac wheel, demonstrating the cultural influence of the West on ancient Jewish culture.

Tzfat: Tzfat is best known both for its artists’ colony and its Kabbalistic heritage. It was here that the Arizal rose to prominence as the founder of the modern Kabbalistic movement in the 16th century. His tomb has been a place of pilgrimage for centuries, attracting the most visitors on his yahrzeit, the 5 Av. The Arizal has two shuls in Tzfat named in his honor, one Sephardic and one Ashkenazi. According to legend, he would daven at the Ashkenazi shul on Erev Shabbos and was said to study Torah and Kabbalah with Eliyahu HaNavi at the Sephardic shul. The Sephardic shul is possibly the oldest continually used shul in Israel and served as a defensive stronghold for Israeli soldiers in the War of Independence (after they had removed the Torah scrolls).

Meron and Peki’in: Located 15 miles northwest of Tzfat, Meron is known to Jews worldwide as the location of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, disciple of Rabbi Akiva, author of the Zohar and one of the greatest halachic authorities. Every Lag BaOmer, thousands flock to Meron in commemoration of Rabbi Bar Yochai’s yahrzeit. A much less known site in Meron is the burial cave of Hillel which, appropriately enough, faces opposite the tomb of Shammai. Though it no longer stands, Meron’s shul dates to the 3rd century C.E. The Druze village of Peki’in is where Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and his son Rabbi Eliezer ben Shimon spent 13 years hiding in a cave from the Romans during the Bar Kochba Revolt. It is there that they studied the Revealed and Hidden Torah, compiling the latter into the Zohar. The narrow cave can be visited today. The Peki’in shul was built in the late 1800‘s on the ruins of an earlier shul which dates to the Second Temple era. The shul’s gatekeeper is Margalit Zenati and her family has lived in Peki’in ever since that ancient time.

Rachel’s Tomb: Rachel was not buried at the Cave of Machpelah; rather, she was, “buried on the way to Ephrath” (Bereishis 35:19.) Rachel’s tomb near Bethlehem is the third holiest site in Israel. Jews have made pilgrimage to this site since before the destruction of the Second Temple, especially on Rachel’s yahrzeit of 11 Cheshvan. Ancient descriptions of the tomb date back to the 4th century C.E. It wasn’t until 1841 that the famous Zionist financier Sir Moses Montefiore had the familiar dome placed on top of the tomb. Though the UN and the Palestinians rejected Israel’s move to place the tomb on its list of National Heritage sites, it is abundantly clear that this holy site is one of the main threads that has linked Jews with Israel for millennia.

Tomb of Rachel Imeinu, circa 1930

Kever Rochel, circa 1930

Tiberias: The Rambam’s tomb is not only one of Israel’s most important religious sites, but it’s also the most dramatic claim to fame for the beautiful lakeside city of Tiberias. The tomb’s walkway has seven pillars on each side inscribed with names of the 14 chapters of the Rambam’s seminal work, the Mishneh Torah. A stream flows along the sides, an allusion to his father Maimon whose name is derived from mayim. Also buried within the complex is Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz, the 16th century Kabbalist who authored the Shnei Luchos HaBris which had a significant impact on the development of Hasidism. The Tanna Yochanan ben Zakai is buried right next to the Rambam.

The Kever of the Rambam in Tiberias

Tiberias is also home to the tomb of Rabbi Meir Baal HaNess, the legendary miracle worker and renowned Tanna. On his yahrzeit 14 Iyar (also the date of Pesach Sheni), thousands flock to his tomb near the Tiberias hot springs to pray for success and good health. The hot springs are famous in their own right, having cured Shimon Bar Yochai of a foot ailment. And Tiberias also has the honor of serving as the final resting place for Rabbi Akiva. Tradition states that his body was miraculously transported to Tiberias along with his students that had died in a plague. His tomb has been a place of pilgrimage since at least the early Middle Ages and it is a custom to pray there for rain during times of drought. The Arizal was just one of the many luminaries to have visited this site. You can also visit the tomb of Rabbi Akiva’s wife, Rachel.

Finally, Tiberias’ Jewish cemetery is one of the holiest in the world. The Rambam states that the resurrection of the dead will begin here 40 years before Jerusalem. Records of the cemetery date back to the time of Herod Antipater in the 1st century C.E., but it is known that he violated halakha by building on top of graves. Therefore, the cemetery must predate his reign.; some of the gravestones’ inscriptions are so old they can’t be read.

King David’s Tomb: According to a millennium-old tradition, King David’s tomb is located on Mount Zion in Jerusalem. This claim is controversial as the original tomb was most likely destroyed during the Bar Kochba Revolt and its location has been lost. Despite its questionable authenticity, the Tomb of David has attracted worshipers for centuries. Jews come far and wide to his grave and say Tehillim, the Psalms remaining one of King David’s most endearing accomplishments. On his yahrzeit on erev Shavuos, it is customary to pray and study Torah all night at his tomb.

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“David’s tomb”

Tzidkiyahu’s Cave: Located beneath the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem, this cave bears witness to one of the most tragic events in Israel’s history. It is here in this melekeh limestone quarry that Tzidkiyahu, the last king of Yehuda (Southern Israel), was forced to witness the murder of his sons and had his eyes gouged out after being deposed by King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia (2 Kings 25:1-6). A legend about the cave holds that it was the source of the rock used to construct the First Temple.

The Shiloah Inscription in the tunnel built by King Hezekiah

The Shiloah Inscription in the tunnel built by King Hezekiah

Tomb of Shmuel HaNavi: The cave below the former Crusader fortress of Nebi Samwil in the hills of West Jerusalem is the burial place of Shmuel HaNavi. The Crusaders had found Shmuel’s remains in the coastal town of Ramla and relocated them here. Shmuel’s traditional burial place is Mitzpah where he was chosen to lead the Bnei Yisrael. Nebi Samwil is one of two possible locations for Mitzpah, the other being Tell-en-Nasbeh, located 8 miles north of Jerusalem.

The Mosque in the city of Nabi Samil which houses the tomb of Shmuel Hanavi in its cellar

The Mosque which houses the tomb of Shmuel Hanavi in its cellar

(Sources: Jewish Virtual Library, Israel Ministry of Tourism, Jerusalem Post)