Rambam's Tomb to Get High-tech Facelift, Against the Sage's Own Wishes

$10 million renovation to include three dimensional eternal flame; the medieval scholar decried pilgrimages to rabbis' tombs and even discouraged headstones.

An elaborate high-tech face-lift is planned for the tomb of Maimonides in central Tiberias, even though the medieval scholar decried pilgrimages to rabbis' tombs and even discouraged headstones.

The renovation, according to the Tiberias municipality, will include a glass enclosure for the entire tomb area, which will house a three-dimensional eternal flame. In addition, a powerful laser beam will emerge from the tomb that will reach a height of several kilometers, making it visible from dozens of kilometers away.

Rambam tomb - Gil Eliyahu
Gil Eliyahu

The initiative is expected to cost some $10 million, much of which will come from foreign donors. Only a small part will come from the government, which recently allocated NIS 10 million to repair several tourist sites in Tiberias, of which the tomb of Maimonides - also known as the Rambam - is but one.

Rabbi Donniel Hartman, president of Jerusalem's Shalom Hartman Institute, said if the intent is to turn Maimonides' tomb into a pilgrimage site on the scale of that of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Meron, which is visited by hundreds of thousands of people every year, "the Rambam would turn over in his grave."

"The idea of sages' tombs as a bridge between man and God is foreign to the Rambam's legacy," Hartman said. "It would be worthy to try to generate a cultural discourse around the site, but to use it as a tourism gimmick is a mistake."

Hartman said Maimonides was one of the central figures in Jewish culture and demonstrated how Judaism can integrate into the modern world. "What does that have to do with a laser beam that reaches the sky?" he asked.

The initiative was apparently sparked by a visit Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu paid to the tomb in late March.

The Tiberias tomb of the Rambam.
Gil Elyahu

"His universal spirit is tremendous, and we cannot neglect his burial place," Netanyahu said, during his visit.

According to the municipality, after his visit Netanyahu agreed to help the city give the tomb a facelift, promising "to help develop it and turn it into both a tourist and educational site."

The tomb compound indeed looks neglected, with peddlers' tables greeting visitors. At one point this year the power to the site was cut because of unpaid electric bills.

Several other noted sages are buried nearby, including Rabbi Yohanan Ben Zakai, and though the site attracts visitors and worshipers, it was never a pilgrimage site on the scale of the tomb of Rabbi Meir Ba'al Haness or any of numerous other tombs of holy men scattered throughout the Galilee.

At a ministers' meeting that preceded the prime minister's visit to the grave, Netanyahu decided that schoolchildren should make field trips to Maimonides' tomb and asked Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar to include such visits in the school curriculum.

Maimonides, who was born in Spain in 1135 and died in Egypt in 1204, was an analytical thinker who dismissed mysticism. According to Hartman, it is no coincidence that his grave has not become a major pilgrimage site.

He wrote in his great halakhic work the Mishneh Tora that "For holy men, no headstones should be built on their graves because their words are their memory... and people should not visit graves."

"Graves have become places of pilgrimage, but the Rambam was the antithesis of that," said Hartman.

For Maimonides, "this was even worse than idol worship," added Hartman. "He didn't think his tomb had any magic powers, which is why for years people didn't visit and historically it was never a pilgrimage site."