The initial view as seen in the video is towards the eastern side of the Kidron stream, down Mount of Olives. Over the course of many generations, thousands of tombs, caves and tombstones were added here. One of the most famous caves is the one known as “The Free House” using a direct translation from Hebrew as written in the book of 2kings chapter 15. According to a tradition, Uzziah the 10th King of Judah sat in this place until he died, after he contracted leprosy and was forbidden to reside in Jerusalem, and here he was “free from the kingdom”.
However, an inscription discovered on the tomb in 1864 indicates that this is a tomb of a respected priestly family – Benei Hezir, that is sons of Hezir.
The tombs here are from the2nd Temple period, I am referring to the tomb of Benei Hezir, the adjoining tombstone of Zechariah, Absalom’s tomb and the nearby Jehoshaphat cave.
Only a few families who were rich and respected could carve tombs for themselves in the prestigious area – in front of the Temple Mount.
Who were Benei Hezir? Hezir was the father of the seventeenth priestly shift. Two minutes on priestly shifts. These are groups of priests who served in the temple on weekly shifts. Each group was called a shift sometime referred to as a division or order. All members of a shift were members of the same family and lived in the same location. The division of the priests into 24 work groups, is mentioned for the first time in the book of 1 Chronicles, chapter 24. At the basis of the division stood the two families branches from the sons of Aaron, Moses brother, these are Elazar and Itamar. Only from these 2 sons, since Aaron’s two eldest sons: Nadav and Avihu, died and left no sons. The division itself was preceded by a census. Its result was that there were many more men originated from Elazar, and therefore 16 divisions were created from Elazar families, while only eight were assigned to Itamar’s families. The order of the shifts was determined by the casting of lots, and the results were recorded in front of King David, his ministers and many other dignitaries.
The presence of the leaders was intended to perpetuate for generations the list of the priestly and the order they served. The list was indeed immortalized and was preserved in Second Temple sources, for example in the literature of the Sages, in the Dead Sea scrolls and in other places.
As a starting point, each shift served twice a year, one week each time. However, since in practice two weeks on average remained from the time of the second service of the 24th shift was completed, until the end of the year. At the end of the first year as an example, the first and second shifts served again for the third time, and in the second year the service of shifts three and four was brought forward and so on.
In this way, the times of the shifts changed every year, and thus, within a period of several years, each shift was serving during all months of the year and during all the Jewish holidays, thus expressing the principle of equality among the shifts.
I will not expand on their duties, just mention few examples such as offering the daily and holiday Temple sacrifices, and administering the Priestly Blessing to the people, lighting the menorah, and all the other daily works and many other diverse roles.
Benei Hezir tomb proves that this family of priests was wealthy and had a special social status since the Hasmonean period until the end of the Second Temple period in 70CE. Just to prove this point I will mention, that for 100 years, until the establishment of Absalom’s tomb, Benei Hezir tomb was the only tomb in front of the Temple Mount.
No artifacts from the Second Temple period were discovered in the tomb of Benei Hezir because the tomb was looted in ancient times. The facade of the tomb has a Doric style that was common in the Hellenistic period. The tomb is characterized by simplicity, a uniform style without Roman influence and this perhaps indicates its antiquity. In front of the tomb stand two baseless columns.
In stone-built structures, such columns are used to support the ceiling, but here their role is purely aesthetic. Above the column headings is the architraves, this is the beam above the column headings, on which an inscription is engraved in ancient Hebrew. I will refer shortly to the inscription.
According to the archaeologists, the tomb and the “soul” which I will refer to it in a minute, were carved at the end of the second century BCE.
Regarding the inscription on the beam, it was probably written several generations after the tomb was curved, so it is from the beginning of the first century BCE, that is, from 2,100 years ago. The tomb continued to be used by Benei Hezir family even in the last generation before the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE.
The inscription is in ancient Hebrew, and it reads: “This is the grave and the soul of Eliezer Hanya Yoazar Yehuda Shimon Yochanan Benei (sons of) Yosef Beb (son of) Oved, Yosef and Elazar Benei (sons of) Hania, kohanim (priests) of the Hezir family“.
The inscription indicates that six sons of Yosef who is the son of Oved, and two sons of one of the brothers – Hania, were buried there, all priests belong to the family of Hezir.
Viewing the inside of the tomb as presented in the video, a wide corridor is connected to a hall from which three rooms have been carved. From the northeast corner of the eastern room, another room was carved with three vaulted tombs, where it is likely that the patriarchs of the shift were buried in a sarcophagus, unlike the burial in the other caves.
The ancient entrance to the corridor was through a shaft with 11 steps. The stairs ends at a height of 2m above the floor of the corridor, strange isn’t it?. What the archaeologists estimate is that 20 steps were carved, and not the 11 that you see, when the quarrying was done from top down. When they reached the desired depth, they expanded the quarry and created the corridor, the tomb and the façade, and then removed the nine lower steps that impacted the architectural beauty of the façade and vestibule.
Adjacent to the front of Benei Hezir tomb is another front on the north side, on the left. This façade is designed in the shape of a tower of two vertical strips, between which a strip is carved that penetrates about 30cm into the rock. At the bottom of it, a dummy opening is carved, and at the upper end of the façade, a lower part of a dummy window whose original shape was probably hexagonal was also curved.
Above, an upper part was built that did not survive, probably, according to Prof. Nachman Avigad, in a form reminiscent of a pyramid similar to the nearby tomb of Zechariah. The structure of the tower is probably the “soul” or Nefesh in Hebrew, that is, its tombstone. I will not expand further in this video on the meaning of the soul in the Hebrew bible and in the Halacha in the context of burial.
Those of you who have visited Petra, I have no doubt that you have seen many buildings of this type. The assumption that the source of inspiration for the “soul” next to the tomb of Benei Hezir originated from Nabataean architecture is certainly reasonable, and it fits nicely with the inscription on the front “This is a tomb and the soul of…” since soul in the meaning of tombstone appears often in Nabataean inscriptions. In Petra, the tombs with tower-shaped facades are from the beginning of the 1st century BCE. Please note that the Jews during the Hasmonean period, the Nabataeans and the Itureans were the three nations that established national states with the weakening of the Seleucid kingdom.
And to conclude, as usual a question for you, what is the name of the last priesthood shift, the answer will appear at the end of the video.