More rocks – Beer Sheba, one of three biblical Tels that have been recognized as UNESCO sites.  Why the death of Rabbi Shimon is celebrated on this day.

UNESCO approval always promises something good, but this time it really let us down.  We had passed the site of Beer Sheba within a few miles when the four of us (Maria, Jack, David and I) were traveling, but our days were already too full and it just could not be squeezed in.

So, David and I saved it for now.  With public transportation it takes about almost three hours, including one transfer, from the center of Jerusalem to get to the modern town of Beer Sheba, a university town of enormous recent growth by waves of Russian and Ethiopian immigrants.  From there a bus to the site departs only every 1.5 hours.  If you miss it you are stuck or have to resort to a taxi.

The site is one of three biblical Tels which has been inscribed as a UNESCO world heritage site since 2005.  It is of great importance mainly to fill in the archaeological gap between the ancient Canaanite and the more modern Israelite periods, or the First and Second Temple periods, as it attests – so the interpretation goes – for the early presence of people practicing Judaism.  The four-horned altar of the town, the general layout, and the layers of inhabitation correspond closely to biblical accounts.  But for the lay person, the stop does not have to be on the priority list.  Nonetheless, David and I had a good time strolling for over an hour on top of this ancient town, taking in a great 360 degree view from the visitors’ platform and climbing down into an impressive ancient cistern and water supply system.

Very telling was the arrival of a tour bus filled with Japanese tourists.  They approached the site with great pomp, reached the periphery, and realized that most everything extant was at about knee-high levels.  Within two minutes (or was it less?), they decided they had seen enough and took off again.  I could not help but think of the visit of the Egyptian museum a few weeks ago when a similar thing happened.  A tour group filed through the empty chambers of King Tut in less than five minutes!   Aside from the Japanese tourists and a few children, we had the place to ourselves.  That in itself is of great beauty.

We had to almost flip a coin this morning.  Are we going two hours south or three hours north?  We decided to go south.  In the north at Mount Meron near the city of Tsfat, a spectacle of some 10,000 orthodox and ultra-orthodox Jews crowding the tomb of the revered Rabbi Shimon was unfolding today and it was tempting to see what this was all about.  But it also was a formidable thought to fight your way onto overcrowded buses, standing for three hours not knowing exactly where to go (I guess following the crowd would have been OK) and not knowing how close we even could get without being perceived as intruders or being crowded out.  Knowing what I know now about Beer Sheba, it would have been worth the try.  Oh well.

We had stumbled on the Rabbi Shimon event by accident.  Last night, we strolled through the Old City and into the Western Wall area.  Unexpectedly for this time of day and this day of the week there was quite a crowd assembled.  A large fire burned and a dozen ultra-orthodox Jews were dancing and singing around the fire accompanied by some young children.  What was going on?

Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a revered Jewish mystic died on this day in the 2nd century.  It is my understanding that he took with him a curse that had inflicted many of his disciples who got sick and died as punishment for infighting.  On the day of his death the curse was lifted and Rabbi Shimon stipulated joyous celebrations for this occasion.  We met four British/American Jews at the Wall who had flown in particularly for this event!  That is how important it is.  Too bad we missed it.

Between all the “BS” sites we have seen (any other implications than pure initials are not intentional) and have not seen, things can get very confusing.  In the north we saw Beit She’an, but we missed Beit She’arim south of Haifa.  In the south we now saw Beer Sheba, also spelled Beer Sheva.  But I won’t get into spelling.  Everything here is transliterated at least three or four different ways and it’s always anyone’s guess which is which and why.  Not knowing at least the Hebrew or the Arabic alphabet definitely leaves you in the dust.

Good night.

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