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5 Adar 5761 - February 28, 2001 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








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Who is Buried in Queen Esther's Tomb?

by Rivka Tal

Who is buried in Queen Esther's tomb? Or, more correctly, where is the burial place of Esther Hamalka? Ruins of a megalith building, perched in the wilds of the Galilee's enchanting Bar'am forest, mysteriously assert themselves as the tsiyun of Esther Hamalka and Mordechai Hayehudi.

While various monuments in Persia have been cited as their burial place, a strong alternate tradition indicates that even though both Esther and Mordechai died in the Persian capital city of Shushan, they were brought to Eretz Israel for burial. Written tradition from the Middle Ages locates the burial place in the Galilean village of Bar'am, along Israel's northern border with Lebanon.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of kivrei tzaddikim are scattered throughout Eretz Israel, a good percentage of them in the Galil. Some of the sites are well-documented, while others count on age-old tradition to champion their claims.

Bar'am as the burial place of Queen Esther and Mordechai is first mentioned in the journeys of HaRav Shmuel ben Shimshon, in a 1211 account of his visit to Eretz Israel. Menachem Peretz Hachevroni, visiting a few years later, relates his encounter with Esther's grave: "I saw one rock and within it the grave of Queen Esther, who had commanded her son Koresh -- while she was still alive -- to bring her there." The 14th-century author of Totsaot Eretz Yisroel describes the burial place as follows, "The mouth of the cave is on top and a large rock covers its opening."

Various missives written from Jerusalem in 1454 tell of prayers held in several holy places throughout the Galilee, among them, "The house of Esther the Queen."

HaRav Moshe Basola, visiting the area in 1522 (5282), depicts the grave he saw in the village of Bar'am. In his description, the grave is under a mound of rocks: "There is Queen Esther, a mound of rocks and a rovere [oak] tree to mark it." This would seem to tally with the 1537 (5297) description of the author of Yichus Ho'ovos Vehanivi'im, who notes, "This is the shape of the monument on the grave of Queen Esther, of blessed memory. Arched on top of the building is a lone rock that looks like the hats that women in this land used to wear. And every Shushan Purim a minyan goes to her grave from Tsefas and reads the Megillah there. They eat and drink and make merry."

His book shows a drawing of the grave topped by something resembling a hat similar to an Arab tarbush. Perhaps it is some sort of raised hat topped by a knob.

Since the first Purim did, after all, take place in Persia, how can we explain the source of this tradition? Some suggest that since the grave of the tanna Pinchas ben Yair can be found near Bar'am, and Mordechai's full name is "Mordechai ben Yair," perhaps this served as an impetus to identify the graves of Mordechai and Esther in the area. Travelers in former centuries heard from Jews of nearby Safed that Esther had been born in their city.

The 15th-century traveler Suriano called Tsefas, "The City of Esther." Perhaps Tsefas wanted to claim Esther as a native daughter.

Today, unfortunately, there is no grave in the Bar'am area meeting these descriptions. The Jewish settlement in Bar'am was destroyed in 1762 (5522). The area was resettled by Maronite Christians, originally from Lebanon, in the nineteenth century. In accordance with the local tradition, they called their village "Bir'im." As opposed to many Galilee Moslem Arabs -- who faithfully retained knowledge of the locations of countless such burial places -- it is quite possible that the Maronites erased any traces of Jewish burial places in their village in order to discourage pilgrims. Nonetheless, some of the locals did retain a tradition of another burial site for Esther and Mordechai. This one, however, bears no resemblance to the descriptions from the Middle Ages.

Ruins of an ancient megalith building in the Bar'am National Forest, more than a kilometer southwest of the ruins of ancient Bar'am, are currently cited as the graves of Esther Hamalka and Mordechai Hayehudi. The road to the site begins at the Hiram-Bar'am junction (road 899-the Northern Road) about 300 meters south of its junction with the road to the Circassian village of Reichaniya. A brown sign on the right side of the road marks the turnoff to the site.

Drive in along a rocky, dirt road for about five minutes. You will see a barbed wire fence on your right, with an opening marked by an orange sign reading (in Hebrew) "Latziyun." Follow the path with the red markings placed there by the Israel Holy Sites Authority. A good ten- minute walk will take you to the "burial place."

The path leads you through the stately Bar'am forest, considered to be the most beautiful natural oak forest in Israel. The forest is pleasantly cool even on sweltering summer days. In the fall and winter you may meet mushroom- collectors from around the country. (Warning: mushrooms must be identified by experts before eating!)

Startling when first seen in the middle of the forest, the five-meter-square ruined building made of limestone slabs is marked with red paint identifying the site. Since the identification of this building as the gravesite is precarious, there has been considerable speculation concerning the possible alternative nature of this large structure. Some suggest that it was used as a fort during the Roman siege of nearby Gush Halav. But the siege only lasted two days.

Others have suggested that the building served as a watchtower for guards guarding local vineyards. This would be disputed by the fact that surely such a large building would not be needed to house one or two guards.

The tsiyun is a magnet for those praying for yeshua in the merits of Esther Hamalka and Mordechai Hayehudi. Ever since Purim in 1949, groups of Jews once more make the trip from Tsefas to read the Megillah at the site.


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