Old Bones That Never Lie

It seems that anywhere a shovel hits dirt in Israel, someone's skeleton pops up and the tumult begins. Apparently the discovery of ancient graves means nobody can rest in peace.

Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira
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Ran Shapira
Ran Shapira

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi was not supposed to have had a tomb at all. According to the accepted tradition, the 3rd-century sage and head of a yeshiva moved his institution from Lod to Tiberias, not far from Tzippori, as he got on in years. Ben Levi, whose sayings are mentioned in the Mishnah, was one of 10 saintly men who, tradition says, ascended to heaven without actually dying.

However, last summer, New York-born Mitch Pilcer, who operates a bed-and-breakfast in Tzippori in the lower Galilee, was making preparations to build more rooms when he discovered a cave with an inscription at its entrance, testifying that the rabbi was buried there. He had no doubts about it.

"I knew immediately who it was," says Pilcer. "I'm a yeshiva graduate, a religious person, and the inscription was very clear: 'This is the burial place of Rabbi Yehoshua Ben Levi Hakapar.' I felt as though this was the moment I had been living for all along. The tzaddik [righteous man] had watched over me and helped me and my family succeed and now I had to watch over him."

For this reason, probably, Pilcer did not rush to call in the Israel Antiquities Authority to investigate the grave site, even though the law obligates him to do so. He did contact the ultra-Orthodox organization Atra Kadisha, however, which seeks to protect ancient graves and tries to prevent construction in their vicinity to avoid desecrating the honor of the dead.

Dror Barshad of the Antiquities Authority in the north explained that the law leaves no room for doubt: In every place where antiquities are found that might be harmed by construction, a proper excavation must be carried out. Moreover, he adds, Pilcer himself dug in the burial cave, used a coffin there as a prayer table, and damaged artifacts; therefore, he will face criminal charges. Meanwhile, the authority applied to the court, which issued a stop-work order to Pilcer and compelled him to allow the digging to be done.

"We excavated in order to get an indication about the tomb and the inscription," says Barshad, "and we did this in full cooperation with the ultra-Orthodox."

But Pilcer insists he still doesn't understand why the authority had to excavate: "I and my family live here, and we do not want to disturb the spirits of the great rabbis who have been buried here since the time of the Mishnah."

There is one thing on which Pilcer and Barshad agree: Both of their relationships with the ultra-Orthodox are excellent.

"They could have come here to demonstrate against the excavation but we have good relations," says Pilcer. "They come here and lay tefillin [phylacteries] next to the tomb."

The depth of feeling aroused by the discovery of ancient tombs is underscored by the case of another resident of Tzippori, who, at the beginning of March, found a burial cave on the site where he is building a house. Immediately after discovering the grave, he called in the Antiquities Authority, who determined it was a Jewish burial site, located in an area where the Tzippori cemetery had been in the second and third centuries. According to Barshad, they tried to find a solution that would not necessitate an excavation, but in this case the property owner insisted on one.

"On March 7 we conducted a full archaeological investigation in the tomb," Barshad explains. "While we were working Haredi men came from all over and tried to interfere. The Antiquities Authority is not prepared to work under threats and therefore police protection was needed." Three were arrested in the clashes with the police, the ultra-Orthodox say.

Several days later a rite was performed at Sabbath Square in Jerusalem - a "funeral for bones and plea for forgiveness." About 2,000 members of the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit gathered in the square, read Psalms and asked forgiveness from the bones, which had been brought there in a sack. At the end of the ceremony, the bones were buried on the Mount of Olives.

The bones came into the possession of Atra Kadisha after they had been removed from the burial cave and handed over the Religious Services Ministry.

"We are very scrupulous about informing the ministry in every case when human bones are found in an archaeological excavation," says Barshad.

He emphasizes that the authority acts in accordance with the Antiquities Law, which obligates excavations at any site where antiquities are found. He notes that the organization is obligated to excavate anywhere where remains of structures, pottery shards, items of jewelry or graves are uncovered, for purposes of documentation and preservation. In the vast majority of cases, at the end of the digging, the antiquities at a site are covered over and the contractor or the entrepreneur - who is also responsible for ensuring the excavation is carried out - can continue with the construction.

Barshad: "The attorney general ruled, years ago, that human bones are not defined as antiquities. A sarcophagus is considered an antiquity per se, as is a coffin. The bones themselves cannot be defined as such, however. If human bones are found in an excavation, we transfer them, without conducting any research, to the Religious Services Ministry. It decides how to bury the bones. We are able to say, according to our criteria, whether they belonged to Jews or not."

Whose tombs?

Even when the Antiquities Authority determines that burial sites are not Jewish, the Atra Kadisha people do not always accept its opinion. Such is the case of the emergency room at Barzilai Medical Center in Ashkelon, which has been in the headlines recently. Demonstrations and political pressure from the ultra-Orthodox at such sites interfere not only with excavation work, but also necessitate changes in building plans.

Some years ago, Acre saw a similar case, after ancient graves were found during work to build an underpass beneath railroad tracks. In excavations at the site, near Napoleon Hill, under the supervision of archaeologist Yotam Tepper in the summer of 2004, bones of Roman soldiers were found buried. Roman ritual objects were also discovered, and the burial method there was not Jewish. Among other items found was the marble tombstone of a Roman soldier named Olpius Martinus, from the Seventh Claudian Legion.

The findings, which the Antiquities Authority also showed to then-transport minister Shaul Mofaz (now a Kadima MK), did not convince the Atra Kadisha people, who claimed the ancient graveyard was Jewish. They demonstrated in Jerusalem, clashed with the police and in the end the prime minister at the time, Ariel Sharon, intervened and ordered the suspension of the excavation.

After several years of haggling and struggles, an unsatisfactory solution was found. The contractor for the project, Yefe Nof Transport, Infrastructures and Construction, agreed to cover the graves with a layer of thick concrete and make a lower tunnel under the railway line. According to Barshad, that's the reason to this day that trucks do not use the underpass and instead cross the tracks above.

This is not just a Jewish issue. The Simon Wiesenthal Center's plan to build the Museum of Tolerance in the Mamilla area of Jerusalem sent Muslim organizations scrambling. In the area designated for the construction of the museum, they explained, there was a Muslim cemetery and the work thus had to be stopped.

The protests by the Muslim groups and human rights organizations that supported them led to a court order to suspend the work on the site. The court also ordered both sides to conduct mediation proceedings. At the end of October 2008, the Supreme Court rejected a petition against building the museum, but the Wiesenthal Center decided to downsize the original building plan. Meanwhile, world-famous architect Frank Gehry withdrew from the project.