Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

12 Tishrei 5764 - October 8, 2003 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








The Ancient Cemetery of York

by Rav Dov Eliach

The train station in York, located at the main rail junction, served as the starting point for an interesting chain of events that took place 20 years ago. A story filled with revelations of siyata deShmaya from start to finish.

An avreich talmid chochom from Gateshead wanted to accompany his parents on the first leg of their journey home following a visit to him. They lived in Copenhagen and the return trip included a train ride of several hours from Gateshead to Manchester before boarding a boat for Denmark. The son wanted to accompany them all the way to Manchester, but his parents did not want him to travel such a long distance. The son was adamant. "It's bein hazmanim," he said, "and the mitzvah of kibbud av vo'eim does not come my way every day."

Eventually they reached a compromise. He would join them halfway to Manchester, getting off the train at York.

The son, Rav Yisroel Chaim Levine, has since passed away, but before his untimely death he described the scene to us.

"I got off the train and went to the information counter to inquire about a return train. It turned out I would have a four-hour wait. I recalled that York had a history of Jewish settlement, persecution and murder. I knew that holy Jews such as the authors of the Tosafos and other greats had lived in the city.

"So I went to the tourist information booth, the type found in every corner of Great Britain, and asked whether there was a Jewish cemetery in the city. No more than this could be expected after 800 years. I figured I would make use of my free time by visiting the cemetery. Perhaps some of the authors of the Tosafos were buried there.

"The kindly clerk answered me in a whisper, like someone who had recently discovered something. He said that several months earlier digging had taken place at a certain location in the city and an ancient Jewish cemetery had been discovered. `Hundreds of skeletons extracted from the depths of the earth are now in the basements of York's large university,' the man added. He even directed me to the right address, the archaeologists in possession of all the `spoils.' I felt I had chanced upon a very valuable and important piece of information. I went straight to the address I had been given.

"At the site I didn't find a thing. The ground where the deep digging took place was now empty. The adjoining area had not yet been touched. `Who knows what lies within?' I thought. A large sign announced that a major construction company was making preparations to build a multi-story parking structure."

Rav Yisroel refused to miss the opportunity that had come his way and went straight to the university. There he presented himself to the archaeologists as "a researcher of Jewish law" who wanted to look into possible discoveries in the excavations that could assist him in his research. As an avreich delving into the gemora Rav Yisroel was clearly "researching Jewish law."

Jewbury Street

The archaeologists began to tell him about the excavations and discoveries. The phone rang, interrupting their conversation. On the other end of the line was the professor in charge of excavations and research. Hearing about the visitor, he said he would be glad to meet with him right away. Within a short time, Rav Yisroel realized why he was so quick to respond.

British law requires every organization digging in a cemetery to obtain permission from the owner or the spiritual authority associated with it for every bit of digging and scratching. (Meanwhile Israel's policy is not as considerate.) The company that wanted to build the parking lot did contact the Chief Rabbi of London and request permission to dig, since researchers believed an ancient Jewish cemetery was located on the site. Among the evidence supporting their conjecture: one of the adjacent streets had been called Jewbury Street for years and years.

Officials at the London Rabbinate found this determination highly doubtful and did not bother to investigate the matter. Instead the Rabbinate absolved itself by simply demanding that any skeletons removed from the ground be reburied immediately.

The archaeologist speaking with Rav Yisroel had already written an entire study based on thorough research and indications found at the site. In his opinion, the cemetery was Jewish beyond any doubt. Therefore, it was very important to him for an "authentic Jewish researcher" to concord with his thesis, particularly since the officials at the London Rabbinate had not backed his theory.

For him the discovery was of utmost importance because this was the only Jewish cemetery discovered from that period and human skeletons had been found there. There are rumors that a similar cemetery lies underneath Oxford University's botanical gardens, but this has never been confirmed by researchers.

In London, an ancient Jewish cemetery from before the famous expulsion over 700 years ago was found recently. Strangely, no bones were found--all the graves were totally empty. According to the accepted hypothesis of HaRav Eliyohu Falk of Gateshead, at the time of the expulsion the Jews disinterred their relatives' bodies from the graves and took the remains with them into exile because they were afraid to leave them in a land totally devoid of Jews.

This was not the case in York. Here the researchers found a surprisingly orderly cemetery with hundreds of human skeletons. Many of them were completely intact.

In general the period of Jewish settlement in York has been of keen interest to researchers. However, twenty years ago events were arranged from Above such that a professor of archaeology who was guilty -- albeit unwittingly and without malicious intent -- of removing hundreds of Jewish skeletons from their graves, sat and shared the whole account with a chareidi Jew who was deeply distraught at the very thought of the suffering the dead underwent when their bodies were desecrated. The professor even went into great detail in presenting his proofs and evidence that the bodies found undoubtedly belonged to Jews.

His proofs were indeed convincing. R' Yisroel agreed with the archaeologist's conclusion and upon his return to Gateshead he immediately began to work feverishly on the matter, just as Moshe Rabbenu dedicated himself to the task of safeguarding Yosef's remains (Shemos 13:19). According to a verse in Mishlei (10:8), "The wise of heart will take mitzvos." Says the Medrash, "All of Am Yisroel was busy with the gold and silver while Moshe was busy with Yosef's bones" (Shemos Rabboh 20:19).

He called HaRav Chanoch Ehrentreu, today ravad of London's official beis din, who began to work on the matter within the British Chief Rabbinate. He also contacted well-known morei horo'oh and rabbonim, asking them to give their opinion on the identity of the cemetery. Several pieces of evidence were evaluated one by one and, following consultations and discussions, it was decided to accept the professor's claim and act accordingly.

The Grave of the Maharam of Rotenberg as Proof

In a conversation with HaRav Eliyohu Falk, one of Europe's leading morei horo'oh, he described to us the findings and various means at their disposal in determining whether the cemetery in York was indeed Jewish. HaRav Falk, who was involved in all stages of the clarification process and later took part in the reburial of the skeletons himself, pointed to a series of signs, some clear and others not particularly conclusive.

First, HaRav Falk asked us to mention a matter that could have practical implications for anyone Jewish traveling to Eastern Europe or anywhere else where ancient Jewish cemeteries are found.

One of the indications is that generally, in those periods, the goyim, who adhered closely to their religion, would place their cemeteries adjacent to a church or cathedral to allow the dead to lie close to the place of worship. Even in places where the church had been destroyed, its foundations are to be found in the ground alongside the cemetery. In York, no such remains were found.

Also, the non-Jews always buried their dead lying from east to west, with the engraved side of the gravestone facing towards the rising sun. Their places of worship also face east to catch the morning light. In the cemetery in York, however, the graves were positioned from north to south.

Some were skeptical of this piece of evidence, claiming it proved the cemetery was not Jewish at all since today in most of the world Jews are buried facing east, i.e. toward Jerusalem, to hint at techiyas hameisim and gilgul hamechilos--the awakening of the dead and their subsequent tunneling toward Eretz Yisroel. They argued that these were not necessarily Jewish graves, although they were clearly not Christian graves.

In this matter askonim saw siyata deShmaya when Dr. Shlomo Rotenberg, a physician from Gateshead, provided a picture of the grave of the Maharam of Rotenberg in Worms, Germany. He, too, was buried from north to south.

Dr. Rotenberg is a direct descendent of the Maharam, tracing himself all the way back from son to father. Examining a photo taken during a previous visit to the Maharam's grave in Worms, he recalled the time of day it was taken and, based on the shadows clearly visible in the picture, the direction of the grave could be determined without a doubt--further proof that the Jewish practice during that period was to bury the dead from north to south. Perhaps this custom was intended to distinguish Jewish graves from those of the non- Jews, by burying Jewish dead in a different direction.

The way the graves were arranged provided additional evidence. In non-Jewish cemeteries the graves are laid haphazardly, sometimes one on top of another or at an angle, retaining only a general direction. Jewish graves, on the other hand, were always laid with great care, one next to another. At the cemetery in York, the graves were placed at a distance of six tefochim with straight rows lined up evenly in both directions.

The way bodies are laid in the grave is also telling. Upon laying the body in the grave, Christians fold the person's arms to form a cross on his chest. In some cases hands were pressed between the legs. At the cemetery in York the arms were laid straight at the person's side.

"Archaeologists are Bound to Disturb the Jews' Eternal Rest"

The work done by Professor Dobson, a historian from York University, was also very helpful. A few years before the excavations he had concluded there must be a Jewish cemetery at the site, based on an ancient writ of sale, in Latin that he found in the York Library.

From this document, Dobson determined that a field adjacent to the land in question had been sold by several Jews to the Jewish community of York. The bottom of the shtar bears clearly visible signatures written in loshon hakodesh. Dobson's writings on the subject include a sentence of particular interest: "One day the archaeologists are bound to disturb the eternal rest of the Jews, who were rarely at rest in the course of their lives."

In England, for many years, Jews were not permitted to bury their dead near their place of residence, which meant having to travel to London for a Jewish burial. Only around the year 1170 did the king permit Jews to purchase land for burial places outside city walls. Dobson's document is from 1230 and apparently the field was purchased in order to expand the cemetery. However, the land was not put to use, since the Jews were expelled from the British Isles in 1290 and when they eventually returned they did not settle in York.

That cemetery discovered in York is the only one of its kind in the whole area even since then. Thus York is the most likely place to find the graves of the chachomim who passed away after 1170, including the authors of the Tosafos who lived in the city.

Another interesting side-note: one of the conclusions the university researchers came to was that an epidemic broke out among Jewish children during this period, as evidenced by dozens of children's graves laid with remarkable order along the edges of the cemetery. However, according to HaRav Falk this conclusion is incorrect-- assuming it is indeed a Jewish cemetery--since the ancient Jewish custom was to generally bury children alongside the cemetery wall.

Eventually the late Chief Rabbi of England, Lord Immanuel Jakobovits, brought the matter to the attention of officials at the British Ministry of the Interior, which immediately issued orders to stop the digging and to return all of the bones to Jewish graves.

As soon as it was decided to bury the skeletal remains near the large parking structure, the construction company allotted a sum of ten thousand pounds to cover all of the burial expenses. The rabbonim and askonim attended to the matter themselves, burying the hundreds of skeletons in several dozen coffins arranged in three layers.

On the 5th of Tammuz 5744 the holy remains were returned to their eternal rest in an impressive, integrated operation. Later a memorial stone was installed in the wall of the parking lot, as well. An illuminated sign explains that the site was once a Jewish cemetery and warns kohanim not to enter the parking structure itself. Throughout the course of events, the construction company fully cooperated in efforts to find an amenable solution and apologized effusively for the distress the project unintentionally caused the Jewish community.

Recently, however, some visitors have complained that the sign is no longer visible both because of the soot and dirt covering it, and because plant growth has concealed it from view.

Lightning on a Clear Summer Night

The discovery of the graves by an avreich who happened to be delayed in York also concluded with an amazing episode that demonstrated yad Hashem and His ways.

The night after the skeletons were buried, the weather was clear with not a cloud in the sky. Suddenly out of nowhere a cloud appeared and a bolt of lightning burst down upon the ancient cathedral of York. The southern wing of the building, which had stood for 800 years, suffered major fire damage to its roof, estimated at one million pounds, while the newer wings remained unscathed.

The ancient cathedral, one of the biggest Gothic cathedrals in all of Europe, is considered one of the world's most beautiful buildings and of great importance to every British subject. The fire shocked all of England at the time and an image of the burning cathedral, taken by a quick photographer was widely distributed on postcards.

The score has now been settled with the medieval cathedral, which sent forth many churchgoers in those days--the unsavory fruit of the priests' vicious exhortations--in pursuit of the Jews of York. Hashem's hand came down on it right after the disruption of their bones came to an end.

In all likelihood among those buried there are geonim and tzaddikim, perhaps even the authors of the Tosafos. Rav Yom Tov of Yoani, who studied under Rabbenu Tam, is thought to have died al kiddush Hashem in Clifford Tower and may have been buried with the rest of the kedoshim.

This cemetery was the only remnant from that period of glory and suffering mixed together. Not even a single beis knesses or beis medrash remains to serve as a reminder--only the Torah learning of the kedoshim, which lights botei medrash everywhere on the globe with its brilliant light.

No Shopping Center Near Clifford Tower

John Prescott, Deputy Prime Minister and policy supreme for environmental issues, recently rejected plans for a shopping and leisure center 25 meters from Clifford's Tower, the site of a massacre of Jews in 1190.

The decision followed a public inquiry into the proposed 60- million British pounds scheme by property-developers Land Securities. Land Securities was reluctant to accept the decision as final. The Jewish communities' Board of Deputies said it was "pleased" at the outcome.


All material on this site is copyrighted and its use is restricted.
Click here for conditions of use.