In the cemeteries of Beit Shearim, the largest and most important concentration of burials in Israel from the Late Roman period was revealed. The cemeteries were initially used for burial of local population and later for the burial of the Jews of Galilee and then from other countries. Burial was done in caves hewn in the soft chalk rock. The deceased were placed in hewn niches along the sides of the caves, in arches hewn as can be seen in the video.
The location of the cemeteries was such that it ensured the required distance from the residential area located on the hill for several reasons: first, the issue of impurity, the concern of the living being too close to the dead, a second reason – maintaining quality of life and preventing odor nuisances. As the wind blows from the west, its strength up the slope and weakens greatly over the hill. Vortices develop on the hill and the direction of the wind blowing is reversed. On the other hand, if the burial was east of the city as is customary in Jewish tradition, the odor nuisances on the hill would have been more severe due to the hills slowing down the flow of wind blowing from the eastern side. The cemeteries were in a low valley while the settlement was located on the hill tens of meters above it.
In addition, the burial caves were hewn horizontally and the placement of the bodies in limestone coffins, caused the meat to be rapidly eradicated. Also, the sealing of the cave openings in stone doors, greatly reduced the odor nuisances. It seems that after the arrival of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi in Beit Shearim, local geographical aspects were taken into consideration, in determining the location of the cemetery, in order to achieve a better quality of life.
The sarcophagi cave also called the coffins cave, is the largest and most magnificent tomb system found in Beit Shearim and it includes many branches and many burial chambers. Its length and width are 75m. In all the halls it has 135 sarcophagi of which 35 are decorated. The sarcophagi are made of limestone and weigh between 4 and 5 tons. The structured system attests to organizational initiative and resources, and it has served families with status and means. Relatively, many Hebrew inscriptions were found here. All the first names (except one) of the men buried are Hebrew names, the names of the women are Roman Greeks. Another characteristic of the inscriptions is the large number used the title of rabbi. It is assumed that the buried were from religious families, whose language was Hebrew, a language that was rarely used during that period. This cave was dated to the end of the second and third centuries.
During the days of the First Temple, the Jews were buried in burial caves. At that time, they would lay the departed on a bunk, come back after a year when only the bones remained, and then place them in a room which contained the bones of the departed ancestors which is the origin of biblical terms such as “gathered up to his ancestors”, or “lay with his ancestors”. In the days of the Second Temple, the burial was in individual caves. A belief in the resurrection began and we will not discuss here the possible reasons for this significant change, yet that led to the preservation of each person’s bones separately. The dead were first buried in caves or sarcophagus for about a year until the bones remained, which were later buried in ossuaries. That further changes during the 3rd century yet I will not elaborate further. More than 300 inscriptions in Greek were found in Beit Shearim, as well as inscriptions in Hebrew, Aramaic and Tadmorit, which indicates that burials occurred here for deceased from places such as Tadmor, the Phoenician coastal cities, Syria, Mesopotamia and other remote locations. The inscriptions include details about the deceased, such as his name, occupation, and sometimes his place of origin.
The change in the status of Beit Shearim occurred after the failure of Bar Kochba revolt in the year 136. According to the decrees of Emperor Hadrian after the suppression of that revolt, Jews were forbidden to settle in and around Jerusalem. The result was that Jews settled in other cities, such as Beit Shearim, Tzipori, Tiberias and Jaffa. The arrival of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi to Beit Shearim, his status and positions among the Jewish public and with the Roman government, made Beit Shearim a Jewish center that also includes a permanent presence of public institutions.
From the end of the 2nd century CE, Beit Shearim became an important burial place to which the dead were brought from all over Israel and abroad. A series of burial systems with similar quarrying style were discovered. There is no information about a central entity that organized the burial in Beit Shearim, but it is clear that this was not a sporadic initiative of individuals. The quarrying of graves and their preparation for burial required central organization and funding. According to various testimonies, there is a hypothesis that the presidency of the Sanhedrin or an entity on its behalf organized the activities at the site. The Sanhedrin presidency was the only entity that operated in the Jewish public and could handle a project of this magnitude.
The water cave, that served as a water reservoir was the main source of water for all activities in the area. Later, the cave was converted into a glass-making workshop, and you can see there the unusual large block of glass, which weighs about 9 tons. The practice in ancient times was to produce large blocks of glass, and to break them into smaller pieces that were sent to the various workshops.
The city of the Dead required different occupations and provided work for many of the local residents. Professions such as tomb builders, caretakers of the dead, suppliers of perfumes and pottery, manufacturers of ossuaries and more.
At the end of the fourth century, during the Byzantine period, the Jewish settlements in Galilee were almost completely abandoned during this period, whether following the Gallus revolt or the 363 earthquake that struck many locations.
There is much more to see in Beit Shearim, of course the tomb of Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, the amazing Menorah Caves complex, and the city on the hill – you can watch all these places in the various videos.
And finally, as usual, a question – I mentioned that among others, Jews from Tadmor were buried here, where is this city located? – The answer appears at the end of the video.