Old bones that never lieIt is far from clear that this is actually the tomb of R. Yehoshua ben Levi. Background here.
By Ran Shapira (Haaretz)
Tags: Israel news
Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was not supposed to have had a tomb at all. According to the accepted tradition, the 3rd-century sage and head of a yeshiva moved his institution from Lod to Tiberias, not far from Tzippori, as he got on in years. Ben Levi, whose sayings are mentioned in the Mishnah, was one of 10 saintly men who, tradition says, ascended to heaven without actually dying.
However, last summer, New York-born Mitch Pilcer, who operates a bed-and-breakfast in Tzippori in the lower Galilee, was making preparations to build more rooms when he discovered a cave with an inscription at its entrance, testifying that the rabbi was buried there. He had no doubts about it.
"I knew immediately who it was," says Pilcer. "I'm a yeshiva graduate, a religious person, and the inscription was very clear: 'This is the burial place of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi Hakapar.' I felt as though this was the moment I had been living for all along. The tzaddik [righteous man] had watched over me and helped me and my family succeed and now I had to watch over him."
For this reason, probably, Pilcer did not rush to call in the Israel Antiquities Authority to investigate the grave site, even though the law obligates him to do so. He did contact the ultra-Orthodox organization Atra Kadisha, however, which seeks to protect ancient graves and tries to prevent construction in their vicinity to avoid desecrating the honor of the dead.
Dror Barshad of the Antiquities Authority in the north explained that the law leaves no room for doubt: In every place where antiquities are found that might be harmed by construction, a proper excavation must be carried out. Moreover, he adds, Pilcer himself dug in the burial cave, used a coffin there as a prayer table, and damaged artifacts; therefore, he will face criminal charges. Meanwhile, the authority applied to the court, which issued a stop-work order to Pilcer and compelled him to allow the digging to be done.
"We excavated in order to get an indication about the tomb and the inscription," says Barshad, "and we did this in full cooperation with the ultra-Orthodox."
The article also mentions an earlier controversy over another burial cave found in Tzipori (noted here). And, of course, graves found at the site for the proposed emergency room of the Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon and the Jerusalem Museum of Tolerance conflict are both mentioned. The 2004 story of the Roman cemetery at Acre is also noted (background here and here).