How the capital of the Galilee housed the Sanhedrin

The ancient remains in Zippori tell a gripping story of Jewish faith amid Roman rule.

September 25, 2007 06:31
galilee feat 88 224

galilee feat 88 224. (photo credit: Ann Goldberg)

When Rabbi Yehuda Hanassi moved his Sanhedrin ecclesiastical court from Beit She'arim to nearby Zippori (Sepphoris), quite a few eyebrows were raised. In Beit She'arim he had his yeshiva and was surrounded by religious Jews of his own ilk. In Zippori - the capital of the Galilee - lived many secular Jews who had little or no interest in Judaism. Zippori was also home to a large number of Romans, and many Jews were enjoying their newly-adopted pagan lifestyle. So why did the rabbi choose to bring the Sanhedrin to Zippori, some 5 km west of Nazareth in the center of the lower Galilee? No one can know for sure, but many believe that Yehuda Hanassi might have been one of the early forerunners of the Kiruv Jewish outreach movement, attempting in his own way to reach out to non-committed Jews. He did not just want to be the Chief Rabbi of Orthodox Jews, but of all Jews. Another reason touted is that he had always been on good terms with the Roman governors of Israel, and by living in the same town he was cementing his relationship with the then-rulers of the Jewish homeland, which could only help the Jewish residents. Whatever the reason, it was to here that he brought the Sanhedrin and finished compiling the Mishna ("oral law") in 200 CE - and it was from here that he was taken back to Beit She'arim to be buried after living his last 17 years in Zippori. Zippori of those days - the early third century CE, the time of the Mishna and early Talmud - was a bustling, thriving metropolis. The town and its residents had been spared the wrath of the Romans when Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed in 70 CE, because they had signed a peace treaty with the Romans. The town, which might have numbered about 12,000 people, had everything to make it a melting pot and commercial center. It had the most water in the entire area - aqueducts and over 40 water cisterns have been uncovered in archaeological digs. This abundance of water and surrounding fertile land made the area perfect for agricultural development including vineyards, olives and many types of vegetables. The town also sat on a commercial crossroad, making it a meeting and business center for merchants from all over. Another important factor in Zippori's favor was that it was built high on a hill, and its inhabitants had the means to defend themselves. The name Zippori was given because it sits like a bird (zippor in Hebrew) high upon a hill. It is evident from the many beautiful mosaics discovered in the excavations that the inhabitants of Zippori were wealthy. Over 40 mosaics - some as large as over three meters by five meters - were discovered in the upper town, where the Jewish population first settled. The Romans settled in the lower section, where there is much evidence of Roman-style housing and street layouts, with the straight lines of the cardo shopping area running north-to-south and the decumanus running east-to-west, producing a cross design typical of Roman town engineering. The Roman theater, however, was found in the upper section. This was probably because the theater's design necessitated seats being built on a slope, and therefore on a hillside. Because there was access to water right up to the stage of the theater, the Romans used to stage naval battle scenes in the theater, something unique to Zippori. Not surprisingly, the rabbis were against Jews attending the shows, many of which made fun of Jews and their customs, and were pagan and vulgar in content. How much success they had in dissuading their flock from attending is not clear. It is thought that the Sanhedrin used to hold meetings in the theater, demonstrating to their congregants that the building was not inherently un-kosher, rather the use to which it was put. In his writings, Rabbi Yehuda HaNassi describes how he used to teach classes in the lower section where the Romans lived and the market was. This is considered further proof that he did not wait for Jews to come to him to learn, rather he would go off in search of them, whether shopping in the market or simply mixing with the Romans. A synagogue was also discovered in this area, attesting to the fact that presumably at Mincha (afternoon prayer) time, many Jews would find themselves downtown in the Roman section and in need of a synagogue. During the excavation of homes in the upper section, ritual baths (mikvaot) were found in almost every house. This was unusual, and usually found only in homes in the upper section of ancient Jerusalem near the Temple, where the priests (kohanim) who served in the Temple lived. This led archaeologists and historians to believe that a large contingent of kohanim who served in the Temple before it was destroyed made their new homes in Zippori. The Second Temple was built only 70 years after the first one was destroyed. It is possible that the priests - who thought it would only be a matter of time until the Temple is rebuilt - wanted to keep themselves and their sons in a state of continuous ritual purity, to be ready at a moment's notice to return to their old positions. One of the most famous discoveries at Zippori was the large mosaic that includes an image that has become known as the "Mona Lisa of the Galilee." This is because the lady with her enigmatic smile appears to be looking at you whichever angle you view her from. However, it is but a small section of the panel surrounding the main design. This mosaic is part of a large mosaic floor in an apparently luxurious Roman home that was reconstructed to give visitors an idea of their occupants' opulent lifestyle. One of the most obvious signs of its ostentation is the discovery of an indoor toilet, almost unknown except among the exceptionally rich. As Reb Yosi Ben Halafta said in the Talmud "Who is rich? One who has his own toilet." In whose home was the mosaic discovered? This again is open to debate. It could have belonged to a senior member of the Roman hierarchy, but another possibility is that Yehuda Hanassi used the building to entertain Roman governors. It is not the type of house he himself would have lived in - there are too many pagan images among the mosaics - but it may have been used to impress the Roman leaders whom he often had to meet as the representative of the Jewish people. In a house like this he could entertain as an equal, and show the Romans that even Jews can live in style, and are therefore a people to be reckoned with. The excavated house also features a fascinating photographic account of how a mosaic is handled and preserved once uncovered by archaeologists. This particular mosaic was delicately removed from the site, treated at a specialist center for conservation and restoration, and later returned to the place where it was discovered. Other mosaics were treated and preserved without moving them. Almost all the mosaics in the synagogue below the main Jewish Quarter have been uncovered. There are the obvious Jewish motifs, such as seven-branched candelabras, a table of shewbread and a shofar, and also the less-obvious zodiac outline that adorned many Jewish buildings during this period. Contrary to popular belief, the zodiac was not a pagan symbol but one in use in many Jewish synagogues. In each of the four corners of the zodiac mosaic is a symbol depicting each of the four seasons, usually a woman dressed in the appropriate season's clothing. The architect who constructed the building that houses the mosaic and remains of the synagogue chose to leave the opposite walls as wide windows. In this way visitors to this ancient mishnaic synagogue look out over the neighboring religious settlement of Mitzpe Hoshaya, straight at the new modern synagogue in daily, regular use.

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