Part IX: Around Sepphoris

Hiking the Israel Trail: Civilization recedes as the path slips deeper into a pine forest.

This well-shaded, 13-kilometer, five-hour section of the Israel Trail is a delight. It may be extended to include Tel Tzipori and its well-appointed archeological park, with links to the Roman, Talmudic and Crusader periods. Meet the Israel Trail's familiar white, blue and orange logo at Kilometer Post No. 57 on Road No. 754 in Mash'had. Pick up the last-minute essentials and picnic items at one of Mash'had's small family-owned shops. Follow the markings on the road uphill past Nebi Yonas, a mosque commemorating the place of burial of the Prophet Jonah. The trail soon leaves the road along a red-marked rough wide track, flanked with the last houses of Mash'had. You will share the path with plenty of sheep and goats, and the odd shepherd or two. You may also get a few "shalom" calls from children living in the last houses who are skipping school. Have some candies ready to pass round... Civilization recedes as the path slips deeper into a pine forest. After a quarter of an hour, look out for the junction on the right, as the Israel Trail diverges from the red-marked path, and plunges down into a deep valley between Moshav Tzipori on the right and the ancient settlement of Sepphoris on the left. This is a fine part of the walk and you will be tempted to push on. Hesitate. There is a detour of a short sharp climb to the 289-meter summit of Tel Tzipori. It is well-worth the extra effort, and you might just save yourself the NIS 23 entrance fee if you get in the back way. ALLOW A good two hours to explore the archeological site. Contractors were renovating Sepphoris's original 4,500-seat Roman theater during my visit. Get over there quickly if you want to see the remains of the original structure. Next door is the splendid mosaic floor of Sepphoris's synagogue, with its intricately executed design of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac. The hedonism of the theater right next to the Jewish house of prayer and study would not have gone down well with the local rabbis. It may have prompted: "What is it the meaning of: 'Happy is the man that neither walks in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful?'" (Psalms 1:1). It means: "Happy is the man who does not go to the theaters and circuses of idolaters" (Babylonian Talmud, Avoda Zara 18b). Your view from the Crusader citadel includes the fertile valleys around Sepphoris. They no doubt well-supplied the table of the town's most famous learned and wealthy resident, Rabbi Judah the Prince, who compiled the Mishna during the second century CE. To that end, the Babylonian Talmud relates that he opened his storehouse of food in a year of scarcity to the learned, but not to the ignorant. When, however, he was told that there were scholars who refused to disclose their learning because they had no wish to benefit from the honor due to the Torah, he gave to all the needy without distinction (Baba Bathra 8a). The Israel Trail descends as you rejoin it, and it will soon get you to the grave of Rabbi Judah. There is a space to light candles outside. Mind your head as you pass under the low stone lintel upon entry into the tomb. I never quite managed to find out whose tomb it actually is. The superstructure is labeled with the name of Rabbi Judah the Prince. The guidebooks seem to hold it being that of his grandson, Rabbi Judah Nesiah (c.230-270 CE). Talmudic tradition favors neither, citing their places of burial at nearby Shfaram, and "somewhere in Galilee." Moreover, the burial tradition at this place goes back to the Middle Ages only. Whether or not it is the final resting place of Rabbi Judah the Prince, the darkened valley in the slowly setting sun makes it a perfect place to pray and reflect quietly, or learn a mishna or two: visualize yourself reviewing the great discussions that took place in the locality, whose decisions endure even to this day. The path makes its way to Resh Lakish Hill, whose ascent is a delightful upward promenade through a wild, shaded rockery - rather like the summit of Mount Tabor. The last few kilometers lead though oak trees, which in season display a kaleidoscope of autumn tints in perfect harmony with the descending sun and gathering dusk. You feel that you are in the middle of nowhere and in absolute peace with your surroundings, but the steady rumble of invisible traffic down below on the Haifa-Tiberias highway reassures you that help is close by if you need it. There are some first-class northerly views over the Netufa Valley - particularly of shimmering Lake Eshkol. Named after prime minister Levi Eshkol, it is part of the National Water Carrier. Chances are that your last glass of water was purified as it went through that lake from Lake Kinneret en route to your kitchen tap. As the water enters Lake Eshkol, a small amount of chlorine is put in to destroy algae and harmful bacterial. Aluminum sulfate is added to encourage the small clouding particles to sink to the bottom of the reservoir, leaving the water bright and clear. The fish do the third stage of the cleaning. Lake Eshkol is stocked with many species of fish. One three-kilo silver carp naturally passes 300 cubic meters of water through its body every single day. It naturally filters out tiny snails, algae, and other harmful substances. The water then leaves that reservoir though an ultra-modern filtering system into the covered pipeline, towards the much drier center and south of the country. You finally cross the main highway with another half-kilometer cross-country to Yiftahel Junction, which terminates this section of this pleasant, varied and none-too-demanding section of the trail. Walk five minutes south to Hamovil Junction, with buses to Tel Aviv, Haifa and Tiberias, and indirectly (via Golani Junction) to Jerusalem.