Beit She’arim – בית שערים – The Jewish necropolis of the Roman Period
Beit She’arim was founded at the end of the 1st century BCE, during the reign of King Herod, and reached the height of its prosperity in the Roman period. The town in southern Galilee was first mentioned by Josephus Flavius (Life 118-119) as Besara [ Josephus Flavius (Life : 24)] , the administrative center of the estates of Queen Berenice in the Jezreel Valley in the 2nd century. During the Jewish revolt against the Romans, it was one of the bases for the commander, Josephus Flavius.
After the Romans exiled the Jews from Jerusalem in the second century CE, Jewish community life reestablished itself in the Galilee, and Beit She’arim rose to prominence as the headquarters of the Sanhedrin.
The Home of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi
The sign points the way to the “Ancient Synagogue” however the site of the further back underneath the private homes of the Zaid and Yoffe families and cannot be excavated. So what is this building. Read what the Talmud has to say about the home of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, who was very rich. He lived in a two story columned building with a stable in the basement, a heated bath, private toilet, close to the synagogue. All of these elements are found on this site. So most archaeologists and tour guides agree that this is the home of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi. However, when he grew old, but still the Nasi (head) of the Jews in Eretz Yisrael, he made a strategic decision to move to the Roman seat of government in the Galilee in the city of Zippori.
The Sanhedrin Building
The locality became known as Beit She’arim, and a rabbinical academy was established there. Later in the same century the town gained fame when the Sanhedrin (Jewish legislature and supreme council after the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 CE) was moved to Beit She’arim and Rabbi Judah Hanasi took up residence there.
Remains of a number of large and very well-built public buildings were uncovered. Worthy of mention are the basilica with a 40 x 14 m. hall, divided by two rows of columns, which served as a meeting place for the discussion of secular matters; and the ancient synagogue measuring 35 x 15 m. next to it.
The prayer hall of the synagogue, with two rows of columns along its sides and an elevated podium at the back, was entered from the south (the direction of Jerusalem). The interior walls were plastered and painted; some dedications to public office holders were found on the plaster.
The revered Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi is especially known as the editor of the Mishnah (collection of oral laws) and though he died in Zippori, he was buried in Beit She’arim. In the 3rd and 4th centuries, many Jews, both in the Land of Israel and in the Diaspora, were buried in Beit She’arim, and its cemetery became a necropolis, where a series of 20 catacombs were excavated in the hill-side. In the man-made tunnels and caves there are over 200 stone coffins dated to the 2nd C – 5Th C AD. These tombs were of rich Jewish families from many countries around Israel who requested to be buried in the Land of Israel, close to Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi whose tomb is located in one of the tomb clusters.
Its catacombs, mausoleums, and sarcophagi are adorned with elaborate symbols and figures as well as an impressive quantity of incised and painted inscriptions in Hebrew, Aramaic, Palmyrene, and Greek, documenting two centuries of historical and cultural achievement.
The Cave of the Coffins
The wealth of artistic adornments contained in this, the most ancient extensive Jewish cemetery in the world, is unparalleled anywhere. Carved on tomb walls or on the sarcophagi themselves are many depictions of animals, seven-branched candelabra (both incised and in relief), stone and marble statues, scenes from the pagan world, and ships. Especially remarkable are the hundreds of inscriptions, noting names of the deceased, professions, places of residence, energetic curses upon those who would open the tomb, lamentations, and prayers sending he dead on their way to the afterlife.
The Cave of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi
The city was destroyed by the Roman legions during the Gallus revolt (351/2 AD). It did not recover this destruction, and remained a small village.
In the 19th C a small Arab village, Sheik Ibrik, was located on the hill, named after the tomb of the Sheik.
The Mystery Slab of Beth She’arim
Just adjacent to its catacombs is a natural cave that had long ago been made into a large cistern for storing water. It apparently fell into disuse at the end of the 4th century and filled up partially with four or five feet of clay-like silt.
In 1956 it was decided to convert the cave into a small museum. A bulldozer was taken in to clear the rubble and level off the surface. But, unexpectedly, the bulldozer bumped into something large—so large, that it wouldn’t even budge. It turned out to be a large, rectangular slab that looked like concrete. Because of its size, it was left where it was, and the surrounding area was paved over with flat stone.
The slab measures 6½ x 11 ft. and is 18″ thick. Its top is perfectly level.
In 1963, members of a joint expedition of The Corning Museum of Glass and The University of Missouri were surveying the region for possible remains of ancient glass factories. Someone suggested that the Beth She’arim slab might be made of glass. The suggestion was greeted with skepticism—indeed, one member of the team volunteered that if the slab was made of glass, he would eat it. A chemical analysis though, confirmed that it was, in fact, made of glass. Whoever made this glass some 1600 years ago was not making a glass artifact; they were making glass as a material. The Beth She’arim slab is a huge piece of glass meant to have been broken up and fashioned into objects somewhere else. If the Beth She’arim slab had actually been put to its intended use, probably 50 to 60 thousand small vessels could have been blown from its glass. who would ever have imagined that, at the beginning of the 5th century, glass technologists had the ability—and even more so, the boldness—to undertake such an astonishing adventure in pyrotechnology.