Walking with the sages in Tiberias

Jewish legends, folk tales and anecdotes from King Herod Antipas's Galilean city.

tiberias 224.88 (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
tiberias 224.88
(photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
More often than not, as you near the southern end of Tiberias, steam rises above you along the road. The explanation for this strange phenomenon is simple: King Solomon once sent a group of devils into the belly of the earth to stoke the fires of the Tiberias hot springs. As they were deaf devils, they never heard the news of Solomon's passing and are still fanning the flames to this day! So famous for their healing powers that the sages decreed they could be visited even on Shabbat, the hot springs are situated in Hamat Tiberias National Park. Located directly across from a modern-day spa, the park also houses a splendid mosaic floor from an ancient synagogue. Make the hot springs the first stop on a Tiberias tour full of legends, anecdotes and tales from ancient Jewish sources. Begin with the National Park, at the southern end of the city, and end behind the central bus station at the traditional final resting place of the revered Maimonides. Tiberias is a relatively young Galilean city that was established by King Herod Antipas (the son of Herod the Great) in 20 CE. Reared in Rome and a connoisseur of Roman culture, Antipas was anxious to have a Hellenistic-style bathhouse in the grandiose city he was planning. Indeed, he probably picked this little strip adjacent to the Lake Kinneret for his new city because of its wonderful, healing hot springs. The plush bathhouse constructed around the springs was destroyed in an eighth-century earthquake. Although it was rebuilt several times afterwards, what you see at the park are remains of a sumptuous Turkish spa completed in 1840. A stunning mosaic floor from a synagogue dating back to the fourth century - the era in which the Sanhedrin (Jewish courts) met in Tiberias - is the main attraction of the Park. Considered the first of its kind to have been installed in a Jewish house of worship, the mosaic floor includes a Zodiac design with the Greek sun god Helios at the center. After examining the spectacular floor, walk to an exposed portion of the hot springs, the source of the steam you may have seen swirling above the road. That nose-wrinkling peculiar smell results from large quantities of sulfur. Dipping your fingers briefly in the water will make it clear why rabbis of the time called Tiberias the entrance to hell! Leave the park, turn south and take the first right turn up the hill to the tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba'al HaNess (Miracle Worker), situated above the National Park and topped by two domes, one blue and the other white. A favorite story about this rabbi concerns a woman who attended his class on Friday evenings. One day the session lasted so long that by the time she returned home the Shabbat candles had burned out. Since they were the only source of light in the house on Shabbat, her husband was furious, and locked his wife out. When the woman knocked on her door, the husband opened it just a crack and asked, "Were you at Rabbi Meir's class?" When she answered in the affirmative he declared that he wouldn't let her in until she spat in the rabbi's face! Word reached Rabbi Meir that his pupil had spent the night outside. Next day he walked up to her in the marketplace and said, "I have something in my eye. Please help me by spitting into it and washing it out." "What a coincidence," said her companion. "This is your chance to return home." But, unwilling to humiliate the rabbi, she hesitated, agreeing to spit in his eye only after the rabbi begged again for her help. In fact, under his pleas, she did so seven times! "Now," said the rabbi, "Go home and tell your husband you spat in my face seven times!" Which she did, and the two made peace. All of the anonymous works in the codified oral law called the Mishna are attributed to this learned rabbi, who believed that Torah study was as important as work and prayer. According to legend, Rabbi Meir Ba'al Haness was buried standing up and ready to greet the Messiah. Outside the large structure that houses his tomb, people light memorial candles in a metal oven. And at the entrance, instead of the solemn atmosphere you might expect, a bustling marketplace is going full blast, offering religious books and compact discs, head coverings, wood carvings, portraits of various important rabbis, a vast variety of candles, tambourines, ice cream and vending machines! Inside, there is a beautiful synagogue. On different sides of the tomb there are large prayer sites for men and for women. BACK ON the road, drive to Kever Rahel - the Tomb of Rachel: not the famous burial site of the matriarch, near Bethlehem, but that of Rabbi Akiva's longsuffering wife. Just continue north on highway 90 and follow the signs pointing to the left. Until a few decades ago, this spot was neglected and full of litter. Then, one day, a hazy figure rescued a young man about to drown in Lake Kinneret. That night, Rahel appeared to him in a dream, told him that she had saved his life, and revealed the site of her grave. Armed with this new knowledge, the swimmer built this impressive monument. Rahel was the daughter of rich Jerusalemite Kalba Savua, while Akiva was a poor uneducated shepherd who tended her father's flocks. The two met, and fell in love. But Rahel, in awe of Akiva's vast but untutored intellect, agreed to marry him only if he promised to go to school. After wedding in secret, the couple was disowned by Rahel's father and lived in devastating poverty. Although Rahel insisted that Akiva keep his end of the bargain, he scoffed, called her "unrealistic" and claimed he was too old and set in his ways for schooling. To prove a point, Rahel took her husband to a spring whose waters had patiently, day after day and year after year, worn a hole in a small rock. Suddenly Akiva understood that if a drop of water could change a rock, he could absorb Torah studies. Tradition holds that Akiva learned how to read at the age of 40 together with his little son. He then went on to a famous Jerusalem academy and returned 24 years later, with 24,000 reverent students following in his wake. Rahel went running out to greet him - but the impoverished woman, dressed in rags, was rudely turned away by the students. Akiva rushed to her side, declaring that "Any wisdom I have learned, or have imparted to you, comes from this woman, my wife!" Look around for the famous rock that had such an influence on Akiva - and watch how water continues its steady drip. Now to the grave of the great man himself: Rabbi Akiva. From Rahel's Tomb keep driving, swerving with the road. It becomes Hashiloah, then ascends, changing names every few blocks. At a main street, Yehuda Hanassi, turn left, then left on Trumpeldor to the gravesite of the herdsman-turned-scholar. While Rahel raised the children and struggled to make a living, Akiva was busy becoming one of the foremost Jewish thinkers of all time. Indeed, he was the very first sage to collect and simplify interpretations of Jewish Law that are referred to even today. Rabbi Akiva actively supported the Jews' second revolt against the Romans, and its commander - fiery Shimon Bar-Kochba. Even after all was lost, Rabbi Akiva continued to defy Roman edicts by teaching Jewish law. For this he was martyred by the Romans in Caesarea, flayed to death as he uttered the prayer "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One." Throughout the ages Rabbi Akiva has been a role model for Jews willing to die rather than violate the laws of the Torah. BURIED NEAR Rabbi Akiva, Rabbi Moses Haim Luzzato (known as the Ramhal) was born in Italy. His genius was recognized early on, for even as a child he had amassed a fantastically wide body of both secular and religious knowledge. He was also a mystic, and when he began recording the divine words he heard in his head, Italy's rabbis went on the warpath, accusing him of witchcraft and burning his works. He moved to Israel in 1743, dying within a few years. Today his book The Path of the Just - a guide to spirituality - is considered a vastly important ethical writing. Return to Yehuda Hanassi, turn right and continue when it turns into Elhadif. Go right on Yehuda Halevi, left onto Ben-Zakkai at the roundabout and continue a few hundred meters to reach an open parking lot. Look for the strange, metal-topped shrine of Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides, or the Rambam) on the other side of the street. Maimonides was a 12th-century Jewish legal expert, scholar, philosopher and doctor and one of the greatest minds ever produced by the Jewish people. His most comprehensive work on Jewish law was the 14-volume Mishne Torah - considered a work of genius. Written on the wall is a saying coined by his contemporaries: "From Moses to Moses, there has never been another Moses." Legend has it that when Maimonides's body was brought to Tiberias for burial from his home in Egypt, the camel carrying his remains stopped next to the grave of Rabbi Yohanan Ben-Zakkai. And that is where he was laid to rest. A member of the Sanhedrin, Ben-Zakkai was a famous rabbi in his own right. While Jerusalem was under Roman siege, and just before the final Roman assault, Ben-Zakkai was daringly spirited out of the city in a coffin. He then climbed out of the casket to meet with Roman commander Vespasian in the latter's tent. During their audience Ben-Zakkai predicted that the commander would one day become emperor and asked that the new ruler spare a small town called Yavne from destruction. Soon afterwards Vespasian was indeed crowned emperor - and Jerusalem fell to the Romans. Ben-Zakkai and his followers then set up a center for Jewish study in Yavne. Among the rabbi's learned teachings is my favorite: "Whoever walks four meters in the Land of Israel is assured of a place in the world to come."