In the last blog post I spoke about Zippori which was home to many important rabbinical dynasties. When these rabbis passed away they were carried about 20 miles to Bet Shearim to a necropolis for burial. The traditions for death tell us a great deal about cultures. You’ve learned about the elaborate Egyptian customs, the Etruscan, and some of you have learned about the Chinese tradition of burial in mounds with 1000s of clay figures. In Bet Shearim one can find Jewish motifs alongside Roman and Christian carvings. Many inscriptions appear in Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic, and Palmyrene. Grave robbers thought Jewish tombs would contain treasure and chiseled out holes in each of the sarcophagi to find nothing. The archaeologists found scattered bones that were buried in a nearby cemetery. The most famous of the rabbis buried here is Rabbi Judah Ha’Nasi.
Bringing us to the present I’ve included some images from a more modern day concern for honoring the dead seen in my walks in Jerusalem.
One of the entrances to the necropolis that has many branches.
You can see the chisel marks inside the cave that shows how intensive the creation of this necropolis (city of the dead) was. Each of the caves has many branches that go way back into the hillside.
This is a piece of a stone entrance door that was carved to simulate a wooden door.
One of the first tunnels, one of the shorter ones. Just to give you an idea, Rabbi Judah Ha’nasi who is buried in one of these tunnels was carried from Zippori over 20 miles to be buried here.
On either side of the cave shafts are sarcophagi and some burial niches. Of course, wealthier and more important people would have been buried in the stone sarcophagi (coffins)
This entrance is to the largest of the caves and as you can see has been partially reconstructed, a good example of this.
The decorations on the sides of the sarcophagi give a clue as to who might have been buried there (their religious tradition not who the individuals were).
Lions as we have seen in many civilizations are a symbol of strength and royalty.
The symbol of the bull, also a symbol of strength
Decorative end panel featuring an eagle, not usually a Jewish symbol so this is more likely a Roman sarcophagus (the bull from previous image is on the cover).
Some of the images are more elaborate and some a bit more simple in their decoration. All the sarcophagi were broken into (broken top) by grave robbers who found nothing beside the bodies.
The symbol of Nike (winged victory) if you were a Roman or a winged angel if you were a Christian.
More finely carved detail.
A little less finely carved though carved both top and bottom.
Telling a story of the “hunt”
A final image through the wall of one shaft into another- yet again another lion.
A Hebrew inscription identifying the sarcophagus for a young child (15 months) a granddaughter of the great Rabbi Gamliel.
Continuing deeper into the main cave to a large room dug out.
This gives you a sense of the open space that we found with stacked plastic chairs. Because Rabbi Judah Ha’Nasi is buried here (his actual tomb was not accessible) people sometimes come here to pray or mark life cycle events such as weddings or bar mitzvahs (coming of age ceremonies) in the Jewish tradition.
A beautiful menorah carved into one wall of the open room.
Looking out towards the opening.
One of the caves turned into a museum of artifacts found inside the caves.
This giant slab of ancient glass was probably already in this location as I can’t imagine how they might have moved it. Produced between the 4th and 6th centuries using 10 tons of raw material (sand mostly) heated to over 1800 degrees fahrenheit for 5-10 days! The poor quality of the end product and that it was left here indicates they were not able to complete the job and who knows what its purpose was.
Coffins made of leather or lead.
The following three slides are portions of a carved arch. The pink color is just from the lighting.
The posters you see on the side of the building in the background announce the death of someone in the community, when and where the funeral will be and “comforting” the family of the deceased.
This van tells you that it is a van of the “Hevra Kadisha”, the burial society that takes care of the body preparing it for burial. This is something people do voluntarily and is considered a great mitzvah (righteous deed). It was parked in the same day two days in a row and on the third day it was moved so I assume they had to bury someone. In the Jewish tradition one is buried as close to 24 hours after death but in Jerusalem definitely within 24 hours even if it’s in the middle of the night.
A shop that sells memorial plaques. Jews honor their dead parents or children each year on the anniversary of their death. A “business” exists to sell memorial plaques installed in the synagogue as a way to honor the dead and also a reminder to the mourners that this is the anniversary. They have little lights that are lit. It also tells the rest of the congregation so they can also acknowledge it.