Ancient tomb meets modern courtroom

Resting place of 3rd-century rabbi attracts attention of pilgrims, lawyers.

Mitch Pilcer 370 (photo credit: The Media Line screenshot)
Mitch Pilcer 370
(photo credit: The Media Line screenshot)
TZIPPORI – Mitch Pilcer grows olives and grapes on his farm in the ancient village of Tzippori in northern Israel. It’s an idyllic site, perfect for the bed-and-breakfast bungalows he’s built in the midst of the biblical town of Jesus’s grandparents and later the seat of early rabbinical sages.
In 2009, Pilcer was digging in his backyard to build a pool and made an amazing discovery.
“I’m a farmer, unfortunately beneath my fields there are the graves of many of the greatest rabbis of antiquity,” Pilcer, a native of New York, told The Media Line. “While I was pulling some stones away from the wall right over here I came up with this cave, this burial cave, which had this exquisitely carved stone door that was closed on the from that says this was the cave of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi.”
It turns out that this rabbi was a colorful character who lived here in the third century CE and whose commentaries appear in the Talmud. But legend also has it that he was a close friend of Elijah the Prophet, although Elijah lived several centuries earlier.
Overnight, Pilcer’s property turned into a pilgrimage site by religious Jews who traditionally offer prayers and make petitions at the tombs of great sages that dot the Galilee region.
Dudi Zilbershlag, a Vizhnitz Hassid who is a successful haredi (ultra-Orthodox) publicist and supporter of Pilcer, explained the significance of the site.
“There is a legend that he entered whole into the Garden of Eden. Some of the wise men say that his body stayed here [on earth], but his soul went there. So we have a place that is an opening to the Garden of Eden,” Zilbershalg told The Media Line.
The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) was not so enthusiastic. They demanded Pilcer, 54, let them excavate the tomb. When he tried to block them, saying a Jewish grave shouldn’t be disturbed, the IAA won a court order. In late 2009 it conducted a dig on the property and confiscated the headstone door, which had been inscribed in plainly legible Hebrew: “This is the burial place of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi Hakapar.”
“When they went in and dug it they decided they liked the door so much that they pulled it off the hinges and took it away and it is now in a storeroom,” Pilcer says. 
Later the IAA filed charges against Pilcer for carrying out an illegal excavation, damaging an ancient site and possession of antiquities. Pilcer’s trial began at the Nazareth Magistrate’s court last week where he pleaded not guilty. He has also made formal demands to have the stone returned to its original site.
“The charges are simply an excuse for them not to return the stone. They know that according to the law they eventually do have to return the stone because I’ve prepared a spot for it but they want to claim that if they can somehow indict me and convict me for a crime of archaeology, of illegal digging, then they will be able to say we can’t return the stone to this place,” says Pilcer. “That’s what this whole court case is about.”
Deliberations are set to continue this summer. The IAA said it couldn’t respond to the matter as long as it was in court. Still, the case has drawn the attention of not only the media, but brought out an unusual visitor: Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi himself, or at least that’s who the bearded man dressed in a priestly blue prayer shawl said he was.
“After some 1,800 years I have been privileged to have a chance to show myself again in this world. Finally there are worthy people who were living in a house above my grave and taking care of the place, so I thought it would be a good time to reveal the tomb to the public,” the man dressed as Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi told The Media Line.
Tzippori, about six kilometers (four miles)  northeast of Nazareth, surrounds a high hill capped with a Crusader-era fortress. During the time of Jesus it was a thriving city, traditionally believed to be the hometown of Mary, the mother of Jesus. Continuously inhabited for nearly 3,000 years, it was also a center of rabbinic scholarship during the second and third centuries CE.
The site is peppered with ancient relics, including magnificent Roman-era mosaics, and many of its residents have marble columns and other artifacts in their yards.
Pilcer, a graduate of a New York yeshiva who has lived in Israel for over 35 years, says he didn’t mind that his backyard had become the site of pilgrimage for the devout. The tomb itself is today blocked up with a stone wall, but he has made a toilet available to those who come to pray and puts out candles and psalm books for them. 
“Here you have a situation where you have a guy like Mitch, who was not religious and who moved to Israel for Zionistic reasons and was driven of an internal fire, discovers inside his backyard a treasure like this.   Not everyone discovers such things. So I feel it’s a duty to stand by him,” says Zilbershalg. 
Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi lived in this area in the third century. His commentaries are quoted in the Talmud, many dealing with preservation of health and public welfare. Legend has it that he was a companion of Elijah the Prophet.
“In all the stories in the Talmud when Elijah the Prophet comes to make his rounds on earth he brings along Yehoshua Ben Levi to kind of be his scribe and sidekick,” Pilcer says.
“We always understood that we have a good life here, health and we always understood that somebody is watching over us and we believe that it is this rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi who is watching over us so we have the obligation to watch over him as well and that is why we are doing everything we can to return the stone,” Pilcer says.  Whether or not the stone door comes back here remains to be seen, but if you believe the legends it could be that the tomb of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi just might be the doorway to the Garden of Eden.