Tombs of Giants


The Galilee region of Israel is a very magical and mystical place – steeped in history and tradition. I had noticed since moving here curious structures – most with blue domes – dotted across the land. Some are easily accessible, right off the main roads. Others are well off the beaten path. You have to hike to get there – in fields, on mountaintops, in wooded areas and deep ravines. This is a Holy Land in many ways. After the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 A.D., more than a few rabbis, Torah scholars, and devout headed for the hidden regions in the mountains of the Galil. Famous giants of Judaism, like Rabbi Shammai and his students; the group of Hillel’s disciples;  Rabbi Shimeon ben Yokkai (“Rashbi”) , and later on in the Middle Ages and beyond, the great Maimonides (“the Rambam”), and so many others are buried here. There are even Biblical prophets who have tombs in the area.

People from all over the world make holy pilgrimages to visit and study and pray at the keverot, the tombs of these holy men (and women). Many miracles have been purported have happened at several of these tombs. Some say their prayers are stronger praying next to the grave of a righteous soul. Others believe that they are praying not only on their own merit, but also on the merit of the holy person entombed there. Naturally, I became more and more curious about these unusual structures and the traditions and legends associated with them. Mostly, they are visited by Ashkenaz Jews of European descent. Many feel it is a major mitzvah to pray at the kever of a tsaddik, or righteous person. Men and women, young and old, of different religious sects do this. For many, it is a tradition to visit the graves between Passover and Shavuot, especially on the festival of Lag B’Omer, which this year is celebrated May 15. It is the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, “Rashbi” – the one who spoke of the Words of the Bible as a Light to the World, and of the Divine Spark within us. He is buried on Mount Meron and thousands of devout flock to his grave for a 24 hour feast, celebration, study, and worship session.

Our first foray into this strange, new world, was made purely by happenstance. Late last fall, John and I went on a day hike in the forested mountains near the mystical holy city of Tsfat with our good friend, Jordan. As we approached the summit of the hill, there was a large clearing. In the middle of the clearing stood an enormous ancient stone monument, kind of like a dolmen.Having no idea of its significance, we decided to climb inside – and up the stones. It appeared to be a two story ancient tomb made of hewn-out rock. Adjacent was an old olive oil press and further down the hill, almost hidden and half-buried along its side, was one of those curious whitewashed structures with blue highlights. We looked inside at what appeared to be empty sarcophagi, also carved out of the rock. The plaque outside (in Hebrew) noted that it was the ancient resting place of the students of the famous Rabbis Hillel and Shammai who had moved from Jerusalem to escape being killed by the Romans. After a further trek down the slope of the mountain, we happened upon the ruins of an ancient synagogue and Yeshiva (study center) for Shammai and his students. We felt as if we had stumbled upon a lost world. Remnants of homes were scattered along the edges of this place. Old winepresses, and crumbling arches and gates lay scattered among the thorny blackberry bushes that had overgrown the site.

We travel highway 65 quite often, and have seen a signpost pointing to a small road. The sign is labeled simply “Tomb, Habakuk the prophet” in Hebrew. So one day, last January, we decided to stop and pay a visit. We drove to one of those white structures with the blue dome. A metal box mounted on a post outside the front door held a few burning tea light candles. So people DID go there. We were met at the gate by a bearded old man. John put on a kippah (yarmulke). There was a large room, separated into men and women’s sections. Prayers were framed on the walls. In the middle a large stone sarcophagus was overlaid with a deep blue velvet cloth with Hebrew writing that told it was indeed the resting place of the Biblical prophet. No huge fanfare. We were the only ones there, and we paid our respects and took some pictures. Well, we can say we visited Habakuk…

In honor of the upcoming holiday, and during this holy season, we decided the beautiful spring days would make for a great time to pack up a picnic basket and spend the day in search of these holy tombs. The first place was easy. Not far from Karmiel on route 85 at Hananya junction is a set of four of these structures. Just off the road, with great parking, easy access, there are always people at them. The place that is actually part of an olive grove, Kfar Chalafta, is the burial site of Abba Chalafta. I had never heard of him, but there was a woman saying her morning prayers outside the structure. A large candle box was also there. Was lighting a candle like the Jewish lighting of the remembrance candle or a sign of prayers being offered and ascending to heaven, or just a way of leaving a mark on the spot? As it turns out, Rabbi Yosee ben Chalafta was a first century sage mentioned in the Talmud. After doing a bit of research, I must say that I like his wife even better. They were a very poor family who lived in a little dirt-floored hut at the edge of the fields. The rabbi worked in the fields all day, and would give wise advice to those in need. He was also said to successfully pray for rain during times of drought. But Mrs. C. as poor as they were, would put down her kneading or her spinning before the sun set. She would wash and put on her best clothes and stand outside the little hovel to be a beautiful sight for her husband to look upon as he returned home from work. Because of this, she ensured a faithful and happy married life. Women come here, in particular, to pray for peace and happiness in their homes and marriages.

Directly across the street up a steep hill is a staircase. All holy tombs here have painted blue markers. So painted blue railings – lead to a holy kever – as do painted blue rocks, tree trunks, etc. When you see the blue, it is a sign of a holy site up here. The next tomb was the resting place of Eliezar ben Ya’akov, another unknown for me. I followed the blue rail to the whitewashed structure with the typical blue dome. This led to a long winding staircase that led underground where the velvet draped sarcophagus was. As usual, candles were burning, and prayer books were available for the pious. Further up the hill, John visited the tomb of Rabbi Hannaya who said that the Children of Israel received the merit of the Torah in order to study and act on its commands, thus bringing greater glory to G-d.

Our next stop was the most major of the morning: the city of Tiberius. Tiberius was the hub of Jewish Torah learning after 70A.D. It is one of the four holy cities of Israel, alongside Jerusalem, Hebron (burial place of the patriarchs and matriarchs of the faith), and Tsfat. Both Tsfat, in the mountains overlooking the Sea of Galilee, and Tiberius, on its southeastern shore, are the only continuously inhabited (by Jewish people) cities. Many, many keverot of giants are in the Tiberias belt almayn. The most famous is that of  Moses ben Maimon, also known as Maimonides or Rambam. He was the foremost scholar of Judaism, living in 12th century Spain, then moving to Morocco, then Egypt. His son brought his body to Tiberius for burial. Maimonides is the author of the 14 volume, Mishnei Torah – Mishna – as well as the creed of Judaism, the 13 Tenets of Faith. His grave was thronged with religious men in their black and white outfits, with black velvet hats, sidecurls and beards, wives and throngs of children. Most of the men were davening with back and forth rocking motion as they prayed aloud. I followed around to where groups of young women had congregated. I asked one person what this was all about. “Yesh nohagim….” “It is the custom of some….that here are the graves of Yocheved, mother of Moses, Tzipporah, his wife- and the two midwives of Exodus Chapter 1, Zilpah and Bilha. Women come here to pray for a husband. The infertile come to pray for a child. Married ladies come to pray for peace and happiness in the home and for their children.”  So many other tzaddikim are resting here, the blue domes and tombs are scattered all over, but we had a long day ahead, and still a few more to see and learn of.

Way out of the way in the Birya Forest, north of Tsfat, up a winding mountain lane, and down into the ravine below, is the secluded area of Amuka. Here is the kever of Obadiah the prophet of the Bible, and Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel. John and I stoped at a picnic table nestled in the woods and opened spa bottle of wine. We enjoyed fresh bread and goat cheese and my delicious fig preserves and fruit. The sun was filtering through the pines and there was a rustle of the wind in through thee trees. Birds were singing, and I was caught up in the serenity and holiness of the place. I don’t know if it was the wine, nature, or the mystical atmosphere, but I was beginning to get caught up in the rapture of this holy land. After our little picnic, we hiked to the tomb of Obadiah, and then to Rabbi Uziel. A family from Wisconsin had also come there, and we talked for awhile. They told me this was one of their favorite spots, and proceeded to tell me about the rabbi and the miracles that occurred here. People frequent this tomb in particular to request from G-d, the favor of finding their soulmate. It is said that after prayers here, the person will find his/her bashert within the year. Rabbi Uziel studied Torah his whole life. He had many followers. He was learned, but lonely and had before his death stated his main regret in life: that he had never married or had any children. Looking around the area, I saw colored strips of cloth tied to the branches of the trees (Li’kahor neder – used both to mean to tie a knot or to make a vow). As the story goes, the person says a prayer and ties a ribbon to the branch as he makes a vow to G-d. He/she then makes good on their vow. After the prayer is answered, he/she returns to untie the knot. Emunah, the wife, then told me the story of a girl who visited this site in prayer for a husband. She had left behind her prayerbook, but it had her name and phone number written in it. Several days later, she received a call from a gentleman who had found it and wished to return it to her. They were married a few months after that. Wow!!!!

Our last stop for the day was Zeitim Junction, flanked by olive groves and vineyards on all sides of the rolling hills. There are many tombs in this area, halfway between Tsfat and Meron. I stopped at the kever of Rebbe Crespida. As there were two men inside saying their prayers, I was told I was not allowed to go inside. For some reason, this place is special for the Orthodox Jewish ritual of Ushperin. It’s a great, celebratory occasion where a three year old boy gets his first haircut. There is much singing and well-wishing, and people pay money for the honor of cutting a lock of the child’s hair and saying a blessing over him. For some it signifies weaning (as in the stories of Isaac and of Samuel) time. Why people come here, I have no clue.    However, whenever we pass this junction, there are always people gathered here.

We did not have time enough to stop in Meron, one of the holiest places in the Galilee for grave visiting outside Tiberius. The tiny town is inhabited by  the most Ultra-Orthodox Jews and you can see many of them walking along the roads on pilgrimage to the holy sites there. Perhaps after Lag B’Omer.

Israel is known as a holy land for all. All over this country are pilgrimage spots for people of all faiths where tombs of the holy are located. In Hebron, the tombs of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Sarah, Rebecca, Leah. The tomb at the Cave of Macpelah is also holy for the Muslims as Abraham is the father of Ishmael. In Jerusalem, perhaps the most famous sites for Christianity are the Holy Sepulchre (because Jesus resurrected, his body is NOT there) for Roman and Orthodox Catholics, Armenians, Ethiopians, Copts, and other sects – and the Garden Tomb, which is where Protestant Christians believed Jesus was laid to rest. At the foot of Mt. Carmel in Haifa is the Cave of Elijah the prophet and burial place of Elisha. Also in Haifa, are the Bahai Gardens and Shrine of the Bab. The Shrine of Baha’ullah, the founder of that faith, is the gravesite and beautiful garden park in Akko.

All of these sites are holy to those who believe. Candles are lit as prayers go up to heaven on behalf of the pilgrim and in remembrance of the holy one buried there. At each place, miracles of all kinds have been reported. Despite the differences, I have seen much more commonality. Truly this is a Holy Land open to all faith traditions.

Rebbe Yochanan ben Zakkai “Rabban,” the famous sage of the Second Temple period, whose grave we visited in Tiberius, said:

                Whoever walks 4 miles in holiness in the land of Israel is assured a place in the world to come…