Beit Shearim and Beit Alpha

by Jordan K., NFTY-EIE Spring 2014 Student

Jordan 1This morning we ventured out of our usual stomping grounds of Jerusalem and into the north of Israel. Here we would explore ancient burial caves, uncover past synagogues, and even swim in natural freshwater springs.

Our day began at Beit Shearim, otherwise known as the House of Gates. Upon arrival to Beit Shearim it appeared that we were in some kind of garden or even a park. Everyone wondered the significance of this area and why we would come here for today’s lesson.

During the time period after the Bar Kochva revolt, the Jewish people were centralized in the North of Israel. Many Jews had been killed in the revolt or due to the harsh rule of the Romans. One example was Rabbi Akiva, one of the ten martyrs who was murdered publicly as a result of his continual study and practice of Judaism. The ten martyrs introduced us to an issue occurring in Jewish society at this time in our history. Major scholars and educated men were being killed, taking their knowledge and leadership skills to the grave with them. What could the Jews do about this? Surely something must have been done to preserve everything our ancestors had worked so hard to pass on!

The answer came in the form of Oral Law. This new form of spoken and interpreted law allowed the people to find relevance in old ways and rules. Oral law was eventually compiled and codified in 200 C.E. During this time we were introduced to the six books of Mishna, whose topics ranged from views on agriculture to laws governing family life. The codification of the Mishna made life sustainable for the Jews and transformed Oral Law for the better.

So back to my original question… Why did we find ourselves learning about the Mishna in Beit Shearim? Soon we learned that we stood on an ancient burial ground, which once housed many Jews from the time of the Mishna and San Hedrin (judicial court). Walking through the tunnels that once served as burial caves, I was a little confused. Some of the coffins had strange markings and carvings on their surfaces. Many these tombs did not seem to fit into what was supposed to be a Jewish cemetery. The arched entries and animalistic designs suggested that these coffins were influenced by Roman culture. This made sense during the time period we are studying because the Jews had begun to assimilate to Roman society. Apparently they had even gone so far as to adopt their burial customs and designs.

Roman influenced design followed us to our next stop Beit Alpha, where we entered an ancient synagogue compiled of an original mosaic on its’ floor. The mosaic depicted Isaac’s sacrifice, a zodiac, and the Torah at the Temple Mount. Let’s play a little game of which design did not fit here… The Zodiac was a Roman and Christian symbol which was put into the temple as a sign of the Jewish conformation to their current society. Did they do this to ensure safety, or due to peer pressure? What do you think? The zodiac symbol on the mosaic left me feeling a little unsure about the strength of ancient Judaism. I wonder why our ancestors were not strong enough to resist the influence of the Romans. Are we strong enough today to resist other influences? Have we assimilated into American culture so much so that we have lost parts of our Jewish identity, both individually and as a whole?

Personally, I believe that just as our ancestors conformed to Roman life, our assimilation to secular society is inevitable. It is the degree to which we follow these western customs and beliefs that begins to be a problem. For me playing sports or doing homework on weekends has always been a “green line” or something that is O.K to let into my life. Celebrating Halloween, wearing green on St. Patrick’s Day, giving valentines and attending holiday parties are things that we have ALL done at one time or another. How do we validate these acts as being “green lines”? Is it O.K to celebrate non-Jewish holidays just to fit in with the “social norm”? To what extent? Let me know what you guys think!

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