Dei'ah veDibur - Information & Insight

A Window into the Chareidi World

20 Av 5765 - August 25, 2005 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








To the Graves of our Forefathers in the Galil

by Rabbi Aryeh Gefen

A journey along the path of several of our holy forefathers' resting places and other holy sites in Eretz Yisroel. Traditions, segulos and prayers.


Part One

We began our journey in Northern Israel, where we are veritably surrounded by the graves of our nation's great nevi'im, tanoim and amoroim as well as others who have illuminated the lives of Jews throughout the generations.

We passed lesser-known graves as well as the more "popular" ones; winding our way through Druse and Arab villages; marching through quarries and trails along cliffs and between rocky, wilderness boulders. We found blue domes atop almost all the graves, serving as a focal point for those in search of the site. We couldn't help but feel gratified each time anew at the physical state of the grave sites, the clearly demarcated paths leading to the tziyunim as well as their mostly-tidy condition — and the fact that sifrei Tehillim and other seforim were always available for those in need.

We were even more amazed to find well-kept matseivos in the heart of villages, on sidewalks, and in private yards. In Gush Chalav we even found one behind a school playground and in other places that are not usually used for grave sites. Obviously, areas were simply built up later than the grave sites and around them.

There are hundreds of grave sites of our illustrious forefathers scattered throughout Eretz Yisroel, with some of their locations' placement based on sources and traditions going back hundreds of years. Many have been frequented regularly throughout the years and faithfully kept up by people who refuse to let the ravages of time and weather take their toll.

An extensive crew of maintenance workers is on the alert year round to ensure physical maintenance of the tsiyunim, as befits the resting places of our nations' great men. Nature inevitably wreaks havoc on the sites, and there are local and environmental hazards as well. . . . There is a group of almost fanatical devotees to graves, meshugoim ledovor, that includes many active G-d- fearing Jews, for whom the holiness of kivrei tzaddikim is of utmost importance and they visit the grave sites day and night, helping to guard them by their mere presence.

Our fascinating outing took place over a few days. We were accompanied by our friend Rabbi Yosef Schwinger, Director of the Holy Places, and by Rabbi Yisrael Deri, who is responsible for the holy sites in the North. We traveled also with Rav Yisroel Gellis, author of Kivrei Tzaddikim B'Eretz Yisroel, published by Carta. The book led us to many out-of-the-way, interesting places, some of which can be reached only by skilled hikers with map-reading skills.

We didn't encounter any wild animals or poisonous snakes, but we found out that domesticated animals such as horses and cows that roam without restraint between mountain and rock often tend to disturb the tranquility of the tsiyunim. On more than one occasion we found that strong iron gates and high fences are the only effective barriers keeping animals from desecrating the holy sites.

During the last few years it has become more popular to frequent our holy sites, with various groups organizing trips and prayer days at specific sites. Perhaps this is an opportunity to protest the fact that the words of Chazal are often terribly distorted by modern, secular groups who often arrange such trips and even light candles for the elevation of the souls of the tzaddikim. . . on Shabbos and yom tov,. . . "this makes our heart said. . . foxes walked there. . ."

We heard that it would have technically been possible to pave more accessible routes to additional sites, and it would be no problem to connect up more places to drinking water and sanitary facilities, but resources are limited. Along our way we found hundreds of downtrodden, homeless and all kinds of other strange people living on the fringe of society who wreak havoc at any holy site offering the minimum amount of facilities, thus disturbing both the departed and the living.

As the beginning of our trip, Rabbi Yosef Schwinger notes that often there are mosques alongside many traditional burial sites, like the well-known tsiyunim of Shmuel Hanovi, kever Rachel Imeinu and Me'oras Hamachpela — as if the non-Jewish place of prayer signifies ownership of the place, as opposed to who is buried there.

But upon further reflection, I guess the mosque-builders were guided by Hashgocho.. Maybe it was Hashem's hashgocho that brought about such a situation — like the cat guarding the milk; like the fox guarding the graves: have Arabs consider these places holy too, so that they would be protected and not be wasted by the ravages of time.

In the same vein, there is a well-known section that the censor erased in the Rambam's writings (Melochim Vemilchomoseihem, chapter 11) where he writes, "Man can not fathom the thoughts of the Creator of the World, for our way is not His Way, and our thoughts are not His thoughts, and all these things concerning J. the Christian and that of the Yishmaeli who came after him are none other than paving the way for Moshiach, the king." What this means is that the fact that grave sites are found near any kind of religious framework whatsoever helps preserve them until the day when the eternal truth becomes clear in the world.

R' Yosef adds that according to the accumulated evidence, there were ancient Jewish towns in many places where there are ancient graves. The most out-of-the-way grave was never completely isolated, but was always either inside a local cemetery or on the outskirts of a Jewish village whose remains can sometimes be seen until today. Archaeologists are constantly researching such areas.

In addition, most burials during the time of the tanoim and the amoro'im were in burial caves. They are marked only on the outside; the graves themselves are either deep underneath the caves or next to them. Some of the caves are open to visitors, and there one can see the tombstone and a cover over the grave. At other sites the entrance to the cave is sealed, and all that remains on the outside is the site itself covered by a blue copula.

The Association for the Development of the Holy Places notes that in many places — especially those in Arab and Druse villages — official signs marking the holy sites are nowhere to be found, although they are constantly being replaced. Sometimes local residents are not exactly keen on hosting throngs of Jewish visitors, out of a feeling, perhaps, that their claims to ownership of the land are threatened if there is any evidence of Jews ever having living there.

The thorny, recurring question along our entire way is: How do we know that these are really tsiyunim of our past Torah giants? How was the tradition of burial of particular personages kept alive for so many years?

Rav Gellis, author of Kivrei Tzaddikim B'Eretz Yisroel, explains that there are several ways of identifying Jewish grave sites. Some have a tradition that goes back hundreds of years, often based on the writings of the Arizal and his students. Others are identified in the writings of early, well-known travelers to Eretz Yisroel and from well- known history books that clearly noted the names of tzaddikim buried in particular places.

On the other hand, there are grave sites whose locations are known only approximately or vaguely for scores or hundreds of years, and whose veracity is often doubtful, at best. Maybe there's something to them, however. In addition, some grave sites have been kept up for decades or recently discovered, and not necessarily through any kind of rules of evidence or scientific method.

A group which regularly holds prayers at kivrei tzaddikim once asked one of our Torah sages what will happen when Moshiach comes and all the tzaddikim arise from their graves as part of the resurrection of the dead. Will people still come to pray at their grave sites? The Torah sage told them not to worry: They'll be able to continue to visit and pray at many of the "kivrei tzaddikim," for not too many tzaddikim will emerge resurrected from them.

We began our journey at the Eilabun junction, a few kilometers past the Golani junction.

We ascend a dirt road within an Arab village and reach a small, deserted gate. A few narrow stairs lead us to the grave site itself. Underneath the grave site there is a low, newly-restored cave. Cautiously, we are able to go in. The Israel National Water Carrier passes through the bottom of the cave, and that's one reason why this place is marked, surrounded by a fence and well-kept up. "Rabbi Masia ben Cheresh says, `Be the first to greet each person, and be a tail to lions, not the head of foxes'" (Pirkei Ovos 4:20).

We continued along our way to the Nachal Amud-Kedarim junction and turn south. Driving down a dirt road, we reach the kevorim of Chabakuk Hanovi and Rabbenu Bachya. The place is called Khirbet Yakuk (ancient Hukok) and is clean, and beautifully kept up. Inside we find sifrei Tehillim, siddurim, and a place to sit and pray. There's running drinking water and electricity, and outside there are benches and tables. According to the local caretaker, people regularly hold festive meals and hilulot here.

Several times of the year, organized groups come; air- conditioned bus-fulls with everything one needs for camping out — food, dishes, Shabbos hotplates, seforim, mattresses and sleeping bags. And between the desolate hills and the astounding scenery overlooking the National Water Carrier they spend Shabbos in this natural, pastoral setting. Some have found the flowing brook deep in the hills nearby, and in spite of the dangers involved in reaching it - - which involves disturbing the peace of the large, nesting eagles in the area — there are those who dare to toivel in the spring-water in honor of Shabbos kodesh.

It's a bit strange. Although we are right on top of the National Water Carrier — about 700 meters above it — there is no running water here. Rav Yisrael Deri, who is in charge of the holy sites in the North, explains that near this site, a relatively desolate one, there are cattle hands who try to steal water from any possible source. So it's better that people bring their own water than have the authorities connect the site to the National Water Carrier.

An electricity generator and the minimal equipment needed to connect the site to electricity are also in place, but they were vandalized along with other valuable equipment at the site. It's a conscious decision not to fix up the place too much, so that it is not taken over day and night by the homeless.

Chabakuk Hanovi was the son of the Shunamis who helped Elisha Hanovi and was blessed by him, as explained in the Zohar Hakodosh. Elisha told her: "Next year you will hug (chovekes) a son." This is an allusion to Chabakuk.

Some have noticed a wonderful point. Children who were born as a result of some miracle were generally sent to the beis medrash or otherwise dedicated completely to pure service of Hashem. For example, Soroh was careful to separate her son Yitzchok from Yishmoel so that he would not be influenced by him, almost as soon as he was born. Shmuel Hanovi was brought by his mother to the Beis Hamikdosh as soon as he turned three. Shimshon was also dedicated as nozir to Hashem from birth.

The Shunamis' son however, went to work in the fields with his father. As it tells in Melochim (II chap. 4), when he was with the reapers he began to shout, "My head! My head!" and soon died. He needed a miracle to revive him, which Elisha performed after he was called. When the boy revived, Elisha Hanovi called his mother and said, "Lift up your son." This was a hint that she should raise him higher than other children his age. Apparently the family took the advice for he grew up to become a novi to Hashem. The story is related in Rav Michel Stern's book, Kivrei Tzaddikim.

A few meters behind the cave there's a unique building with a tsiyun surrounded by many windows. It is considered to be the resting place of Rabbenu Bachya. The book Seder Hadoros brings in the name of Gelilos Eretz Yisroel that Rabbenu Bachya is buried in the city of Hukokoh, adjacent to the grave site of Chabakuk Hanovi. Some believe that "Rabbenu Bachya" refers to a Rabbenu Bachya Ben Asher from Spain, student of the Rashba, author of well-known commentary on the Torah as well as the Kad Hakemach, Shulchan Shel Arba and a commentary on Pirkei Ovos. He was niftar around the year 5100 (1340). In one of his discourses, the Chasam Sofer writes that on every Shabbos for forty years, he studied from Rabbenu Bachya's books on the Torah, and learned something new each time. It's obvious that the books were written with ruach hakodesh, he notes.

Others say that the grave site is that of Rabbenu Bachya Hazoken, son of Rav Yosef ibn Pekuda, who lived in the year 810 (1050), and was the author of Chovos Halevovos in Arabic which was subsequently translated into Hebrew by Rabbi Yehuda ibn Tibbon and has been reprinted in countless editions throughout the years.

Tzefas: A Grave on the Sidewalk

The tsiyun of Binyomin Hatzaddik is located on the sidewalk behind a building in Tzefas. In Bovo Basra (11) we learn that Binyomin Hatzaddik supported a poor woman and her children during a drought year, and eventually merited receipt of 22 extra years of life. Our source for the location of this burial place is the book, Sha'ar Hagilgulim by HaRav Chaim Vital, who writes, "Continue on the south side [of Tzefas] where the Arab neighborhood ends. There is a very large place completely filled with small, high stones. One stone is higher than the rest: this was a very ancient synagogue, and Binyomin Hatzaddik is buried where the heichal was."

The place became well known during the last few years, and although this kever has remained on the sidewalk, the place is frequented by many visitors in the middle of Av on the tzaddik's yahrtzeit. Rav Yisrael Deri explains that thousands of people come then, and the security and emergency forces are always well-prepared for the throngs of visitors.

There's an interesting human interest story about the person who took upon himself the restoration and upkeep of this site: He started out as an Arab Muslim who married a Jewish woman from Acco. Upon hearing of the marriage, the woman's family sat shivah. Suddenly, one day, the Arab husband came to Tzefas, asking to convert to Judaism. A local rabbi, Rav Rafael Cohen, took him under his wing, taught him about Judaism, and eventually helped with his conversion. The ger tzeddek eventually became an avreich in a local kollel.

To help him with parnossoh, Rav Cohen arranged for his employment as a guard at the local holy sites. Somehow he was drawn to the tsiyun of Binyomin Hatzaddik, and took upon himself to fix up and maintain the site and the surrounding area. Enthusiastically undertaking the project, he would often devote most of his meager salary to this project. In his merit, the tsiyun is in good shape, with refrigerators and hot drinks available to all comers, as well as a synagogue with steady minyanim throughout the day.

In addition, at this tsiyun, like at many others, there is an engraved plaque citing divrei Torah of the tzaddik, for the convenience of visitors.

R' Chutspis Hameturgeman

The grave of one of the ten harugei malchus, R' Chutspis Hameturgeman (the "translator"), is located near the main entrance to Tzefas, below the large cemetery. The site isn't what you'd call easily accessible. We drove until we came to a rock-strewn path and then continued walking for another few hundred meters. It was a bit hard-going. We finally reached the side of the mountain where the grave site is located.

This tsiyun is different from many others we have seen. It's a relatively small kever covered with a dark velvet cover; only half the size of a standard grave. We are immediately reminded of the words of Chazal in Kiddushin (39b:) referring to the execution of R' Chutspis Hameturgeman, "A mouth that gave out pearls now eats dust."

R' Chutspis Hameturgeman served as interpreter for Rabban Gamliel of Yavneh, and from the Midrash (Aseres Hadibros) we learn that he was killed at the age of 130.

Some sources say that while he was being tortured to a degree that was extraordinary even by Roman standards, he asked a non-Jew to lessen the pain being inflicted, promising him a portion in Olom Habo. The non-Jew cut off his head and threw it into a pit that is now located on the outskirts of the city of Tzefas.

Rabbi Chaim Vital, student of the Arizal, writes in Sha'ar Hagilgulim that west of Tzefas beneath the cemetery there is a path lined with olive trees and a quarry, and it is here that R' Chutspis Hameturgeman is buried. This tradition dates back to the year 5332 (1572).

HaRav Y. Tsion, a student of Rabbi Chaim Ben Atar, the Ohr HaChaim, writes that he was there in 1742 (5502) with his rebbe. They came upon a deep pit that was the traditional burial place of R' Chutspis Hameturgeman. Later, in the year 5593 (1833,) Menachem Mendel of Tzefas describes, "a deep pit in which Chutspis is buried."

It's possible that the small grave covered with the velvet cover is atop the pit. Next to the tsiyun there's an additional roof that isn't attached to the grave's ceiling, upon which kohanim are allowed to stand.

Yehoyada Hakohen

Continuing down the slope of the mountain we reach a grave site considered to be that of Yehoyada Hakohen. Rabbi Chaim Vital mentions this in Sha'ar Hagilgulim. Yehoyada Hakohen was the father of Benayahu ben Yehoyada (and he was not Yehoyada Hakohen who lived at the time of King Yoash who is buried with the other kings from the House of David Hamelech, as explained in Divrei Hayomim 2:24).

Midrash Koheles explains, "But if Aharon had been alive at the time of Yehoyada, Yehoyada would have surpassed him" (1:8).

Near there is the grave of Adino Ha'etzni, whose location we also know from Sha'ar Hagilgulim. Nachal Amud flows at the foot of the mountain, and across from these graves at the bottom of a valley is a tsiyun that is considered to be that of Rabbi Yosi. From time to time the elderly mekubolim of Jerusalem come to pray and study Kabboloh here.


During the last few years, the grave of Rachel, daughter of Kalba Savua and wife of Rabbi Akiva in Tiveriah has become a popular pilgrimage site. Stalls selling oil, candles and souvenirs have sprung up around it. Large rooms surround the site, and there are special areas for candle lighting, along with tables and chairs. The site was barely known until recent years, but now it teems with life all hours of the day and night.

The site's identification is fraught with uncertainties. The Moslems ruled the city for many years, and expelled the Jews from the city. Rachmono litzlan, they had free rein over the Jewish holy places and did as they pleased to our holy places. According to Moslem sources, there is a Moslem cemetery on the mountain called "kever Rachel," and in the year 1995 (ten years ago), a representative of the Tiveriah Religious Council, R. Cohen, decided that the site must be the tsiyun of Rachel, wife of Rabbi Akiva. This caused immense political problems and was even brought up in the Knesset by Arabs representatives claiming ownership of the site.

Notwithstanding the controversy, a nonprofit organization called the "Benei Mordechai" went ahead and restored the site. While the slope of the mountain was being leveled, a bulldozer hit an ancient well. The Israel Antiquities Authority called an immediate work stoppage, but in the course of excavation by hand carried out at the site, stones engraved with a menorah and a mogen Dovid were found. The Benei Mordechai claimed that these artifacts were 1600 years old, far-predating the remains of a Muslim mosque at the site.

History books show that in 1521, itinerant traveler Moshe Basola wrote that the Yishmaelim built a mosque at this site, and that there is buried "the old woman," the daughter of Kalba Savua. The book Chibbas Yerushalayim, written 170 years ago, identifies the site as the grave site of Rachel, daughter of Kalba Savua. There is a tradition of ancient prayers to be recited there, reprinted in Rav Gellis' book, Kivrei Tzaddikim Be'Eretz Yisroel.

The tsiyun's roof was donated by a Jewish tourist from England. As the story goes, he prayed at the site on behalf of his daughter who had reached marriageable age. He later called his daughter in England and was told that she had found her life's partner at the exact time that he was praying at the site. He immediately vowed to fix up the ruined site. But as these things often go, he forgot about his vow and while he was sailing on the Kinneret, his boat tipped over and his life was in danger. He suddenly remembered his unfulfilled vow and took upon himself to fix up the place as soon as he was saved from drowning.

Indeed, after benefiting from another miracle — as he was suddenly saved by two brawny men who pulled him out of the water at the last second — he immediately arranged with workmen to renovate the site, covering all the expenses himself.

Today the site sports a sign explaining about the ancient well that was found close to the grave site, and an interesting-looking electric fountain that continuously pours water over rocks, causing tiny holes to be born, as in the well-known saying attributed to Rabbi Akiva, "water pulverized stones," and the kal vochomer he related to himself, that Torah can bore its way into his heart of flesh.

What's Mine and What's Yours is Hers

The tsiyun of the tanna Rabbi Akiva is near the top of a mountain, not far from here. The cave was identified by the Arizal through his disciple, Rav Chaim Vital. The book Kaftor Vaferach cites a tradition that the 24,000 students of Rabbi Akiva were buried on an adjacent mountain.

According to tradition, Rabbi Akiva was born in the year 3760 (the year "0" of the Common Era) and lived through the destruction of the Beis Hamikdosh and the fall of Beitar. He learned by Nachum Ish Gamzu and was the teacher of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, Rabbi Meir, Rabbi Yehuda and other Rabboseinu Shebedarom, and was one of the ten harugei malchus. He was murdered in the year 3880 (120). His tsiyun is frequented on erev Yom Kippur: "The day when Rabbi Akiva died, Rabbi was born. The sun set and the sun shone again" (Midrash Koheles).

End of Part I


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