Mitch Pilcer at the grave of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi. 'I felt we had an obligation to protect him,'
Mitch Pilcer at the grave of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi. 'I felt we had an obligation to protect him,' Photo by Gil Eliyahu
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An American-born resident of the Galilee is on trial for damaging antiquities in a burial cave on his property, even though he says he has been working to preserve the site.

The trial of Mitch Pilcer, 54, a resident of Tzippori, opened on Sunday in Nazareth Magistrate's Court. He says he discovered the grave of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi, an amora (rabbi quoted in the Talmud ) who lived in the early third century, while working three years ago to add a bungalow to his property, where he has been running a bed-and-breakfast since 1997.

Knowing his property was located in a sensitive area, he requested and received a permit from the Israel Antiquities Authority to proceed with his construction work. During the work he chanced upon the burial cave.

According to Pilcer, he dug by hand for 20 minutes until he uncovered a stone with the inscription, "This is the burial place of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi Hakapar." "I'm a New York yeshiva graduate, I knew exactly who Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi was," Pilcer said. "I was shocked."

He was afraid at first that the IAA might expropriate all of his property after his discovery, but he was also concerned about what excavations would do to the holy site.

"Since we moved here, everything has been going so well for us; we have a livelihood, health. It's been like the Garden of Eden here," said Pilcer.

"So I felt that just as [Rabbi Yehoshua] had been protecting us, we had an obligation to protect him. Besides, he was a good friend of Elijah the Prophet; this wasn't anyone I wanted to start up with," he said.

This is probably why Pilcer did not immediately call the IAA about his find, although the law obligated him to do so. But word got around, and when the authority did learn about it, it took him to court.

In a compromise ruling, the two sides agreed to allow the authority to do a proper excavation of the area, which took place in August 2009. For its part the IAA argues that during its excavation, it said Pilcer had dug into the burial cave and damaged artifacts - which are the charges facing him now.

Since Pilcer's discovery, the grave has become a pilgrimage site, with several dozen believers making their way there every week.

But archaeologists and members of the ultra-Orthodox Atra Kadisha, which protects ancient graves, are not convinced that this in the tomb of the amora Yehoshua Ben Levi. In an article in the journal Cathedra, archaeologists Mordechai Aviam and Aharoni Amitai argue that Yehoshua Ben Levi was a man of means and would not have been buried in a simple, unadorned cave.

Pilcer, meanwhile, has created a nonprofit association dedicated to preserving the tomb. He is demanding that the IAA return the stone with the inscription that covered the grave's entrance, and claims that his frequent requests to this effect are what prompted the authority to file charges against him, although by law they are supposed to return the stone.

Pilcer is also charged with illegal possession of antiquities, but claims that every family in Tzippori has accumulated fragments and other artifacts and that he is being unfairly singled out.

The IAA said it could not respond to a matter that is being debated in court.