Despite objections, dig will go ahead at 'mystical' grave

Excavation of a tomb that may contain the remains of famed 3rd century Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi to begin next month.

Rev Yehoshua neb Levi grave maybe 248.88 (photo credit: Josiah Daniel Ryan)
Rev Yehoshua neb Levi grave maybe 248.88
(photo credit: Josiah Daniel Ryan)
An agreement struck between the Tiberias Magistrate's Court and a Tzipori land-owner on Monday will allow the excavation of a tomb that may contain the remains of famed 3rd century Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi to begin next month. The work at the site, which features a clear inscription of the rabbi's name on the lintel and reportedly contains a terra cotta sarcophagus, may trigger significant opposition throughout the religious community, experts and religious authorities said on Tuesday. "This is an important site," Antiquities Authority director Dr. Uzi Dahari, who personally holds the license to the dig, told The Jerusalem Post after the court's decision. "We don't know what's in there yet, but it could be very, very, significant. It may be Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi, but it's impossible to know for sure until we dig." Levi was an important Talmudic rabbi mentioned in the Gemara. It is likely that excavation of the grave, which is considered by some to be a 'sanctuary' containing the soul of the deceased, will prompt religious leaders in Jerusalem to stage protests to prevent its desecration, Prof. Zeev Gries, who teaches in the Jewish Thought Department at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev in Beersheba, said on Tuesday. "Maybe they will make one or another demonstration, said Gries referring to haredi leaders in the capital. "It's very common - this is what they do in these cases. Due to Jewish mystical tradition, a grave is a place where the soul of the deceased is supposed to reside. The soul is irritated once the grave is open, according to some mystical tradition." Mitch Pilcer, who discovered the grave about six months ago, said rabbis from the haredi community in Jerusalem have instructed him to block the Antiquities Authority from excavating the grave. While rabbis who had contacted Pilcer would not speak to the Post on the record, they acknowledged they had spoken to him and told the Post on condition of anonymity that they believe the grave, like all Jewish graves, should be left intact. Pilcer, who agrees that the grave should not be opened, said that he kept quiet on the discovery in part because he feared that his bed and breakfast located on a peaceful hill in Tzipori would be overrun by demonstrators from Jerusalem. He also built a security barrier around the site before contacting the Antiquities Authority. But the authority alleged, in a statement to the Post on Sunday, that Pilcer had damaged the site by constructing the barrier around it and continuing construction on nearby projects. "Work in this area has been carried out without approval by the Antiquities Authority as required by court orders," reads the statement. "Damage was caused to the cave and to the archeological site." After Pilcer informed the authority of his discovery, the department turned to a magistrate in Kiryat Shmona on Monday, and obtained an injunction to prevent Pilcer from doing further work on adjacent property, including work on the interior of a new cabin several meters from the grave. "We went to court to request a temporary injunction to prohibit the holder of the ground from carrying out work at the location," reads the authority's statement. But both Pilcer and Mordechai Aviam, the director of the Institute for Galilean Archeology at Kinneret College, maintain that the site was not damaged by either the barrier Pilcer built or the nearly complete building nearby. "The grave is in fact safer than it was," said Aviam. "He approached it in a correct way and I don't know why they are going after him." Pilcer, who is also the head of the Tzipori security committee, said he discovered the grave while pulling rocks, which he was using for construction, out of a hillside adjacent to the bed and breakfast's swimming pool. While digging through the mud he discovered a wall and stone door bearing inscriptions in hard rock with the name of the famous rabbi and the name of the town, Tzipori. Pilcer said the door to the structure was ajar, and after looking inside he immediately re-covered the site with dirt and built an iron fence around the structure to protect it. A terra cotta sarcophagus was clearly visible lying in mud inside the grave, said Pilcer. If the grave does belong to Levi, the presence of a sarcophagus could complicate the issue for some haredim who believe Levi never died because of his attentiveness to the Torah. "According to Talmudic tradition he rose to heaven with the righteous," Aviam wrote in a press release concerning the discovery. Aviam, however, said he is not convinced the grave belonged to the rabbi. The Antiquities Authority filed suit against Pilcer to force him to allow them to excavate the grave. The court ordered Pilcer and the authority to reach an agreement, and advised Pilcer to allow the authority to excavate. Dahari, meanwhile, said that as a result of the agreement, excavation may begin in September and will be conducted in accordance with Halacha and in conjunction with the appropriate religious authorities.