Under Pressure From Haredim, State Reroutes Major Highway

Discovery of Roman era tombs halts intersection construction, sends plans back to be redrafted and necessitates the raising of a section of road.

Major changes have been made to Route 79 in recent years as a result of religious pressure, following the discovery of tombs dating from the Roman era under the road.

The changes included raising one section of the road, which links the Somech and Movil interchanges in the north, and splitting the lanes in another section. Construction was halted while the alternative plans were drafted.

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Route 79, which previously consisted of one lane in each direction and no crash barrier, had been the scene of numerous accidents. The Israel National Roads Company therefore promised to make it safer and wider, with two lanes in each direction, a crash barrier and a central lane for the light rail between Haifa and Nazareth.

When burial caves were found in the rock layer under the road, construction was stopped and the findings were reported to the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Antiquities Authority. The authority's archaeologists found three burial caves carved into the rock and some pottery sherds dating back to the Roman era. The archaeologists said one of the caves had a burial chamber sealed with a round stone, and the tombs appeared unopened.

They could not determine the religion of the people buried in the caves, but a Jewish village is known to have existed nearby.

One archaeologist familiar with the issue said there are simpler ways to overcome the halakhic problems that halted the road work and led to changes in the plan. "There is a talmudic procedure for moving tombs, as Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai did in Tiberias," he said. "But he was a thousand times wiser and more practical than today's rabbis."

Near the Bir al-Machsur interchange, the National Roads Company decided to split the lanes so that one would pass on either side of the tomb found there, as it was impossible to raise the road at that spot. The dome of the tomb was sprayed with concrete and surrounded by poles. The landscape architects also decided to cover the lower part of the dome with stones, to make it fit in with the environment, as required by the road's planning principles.

West of that tomb, in the section of the road between Shfaram and Bir al-Machsur, another burial cave was found. Here, the road was raised by about three meters to distance it from the tomb, as religious officials demanded.

"All these changes were made in coordination with halakhic authorities and the relevant professionals," a National Roads Company official said. "The contractor was reimbursed for the direct costs, as is customary."

He said the cost ended up being lower than the sum the company had earmarked to cover unexpected expenses. "Such incidents are taken into account, and the antiquities' discovery did not affect the project's schedule," he added.

But instead of being invested in a salvage dig, the money earmarked for unexpected expenses was spent on changing the original road plan. Haaretz could not discover whether the burial caves were even opened, and if so, what was found in them and whether the contents were removed.

Haaretz has a photograph showing a concrete frame and a pipe in the spot where the tombs were found, but it is not clear what they are for.

Religious pressure changing the course of infrastructure work is nothing new in Israel. In Acre a few years ago, work on a pedestrian tunnel under the crosstown railway line was halted due to ultra-Orthodox claims that Jewish graves had been found there, and the city eventually had to draft another plan that cost tens of millions of shekels more than the original one.

In Tiberias, ancient graves created problems as far back as 2,000 years ago. Jews refused to live in the city, founded by Herod in 20 C.E., because it was built on the town of Hamat's ancient cemetery. According to legend, Rabbi Shimon Bar-Yochai came to bathe in Tiberias' hot springs to cure a skin condition and then purified the city by making all the corpses rise to the surface so they could be reburied elsewhere. This enabled Jews to move into the city.

But since then, the halakhic problems caused by ancient graves have become harder to solve. Earlier this year, for instance, religious pressure forced Tiberias to chop down three trees, each of them decades old, so it could turn a section of Hayarden Street into a road suitable for cohanim (descendents of the Jewish priestly caste ). Under Jewish law, cohanim are barred from being in the vicinity of a corpse. Consequently, they were unable to use certain roads in Tiberias' Old City because they passed too close to cemeteries in the area.

For the same reason, the city rebuilt part of Ben-Zakai Street, which entailed digging it up completely, removing all the underground mains and uprooting all the trees along the route. As a result, building this one-kilometer stretch of road took about three years and cost NIS 18 million.