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Digging the Talmud in Ancient Meiron, Eric M. Meyers and Carol L. Meyers, BAR 4:02, Jun 1978.

Digging the Talmud in Ancient Meiron, Eric M. Meyers and Carol L. MeyersAfter the Roman Emperor Hadrian suppressed the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135 A.D., Jews fled from Judea to Galilee where a rich Jewish life took root in dozens of Jewish villages. Excavations have revealed synagogues as well as the remains of daily life and industry.

The Talmud is, after the Bible itself, Judaism’s most significant and revered collection of sacred writings. Although the Talmud was in fact written and compiled between the Second and Fifth centuries A.D., rabbinic tradition holds that it was given to Moses at Mount Sinai together with the Torah. The Torah is referred to as the Written Law; the Talmud, as the Oral Law.

The Talmud contrasts with the Bible in many ways. The Bible’s focus, although in part legal, is primarily historical; it records the ongoing relationship between God and Israel. The Talmud is far more concerned with details of daily life. True, the Talmud contains much so-called aggadah, part historical and part legendary material, which is mixed with its abstruse legal discussions. But the Talmud is primarily a legal document, concerned with everyday, often mundane, problems. Even when the Talmud deals with laws relating to sacrifice, purity, and the holy sanctuary, its fastidious attention to detail provides us with abundant information about the way people actually lived.1

This contrast tends to affect the way archaeology illuminates the two collections of sacred writings. The archaeology of the Biblical period tends to focus on political history, on patterns of destruction and construction of cities. Archaeology of the Talmudic period tends to focus on the details of daily life.a

After the triple blow of the Roman destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 A.D., the re-establishment of Jerusalem in 130 A.D. as a Roman provincial capital named Aelia Capitolina, and Hadrian’s suppression of the Second Jewish Revolt in 135 A.D., most of Judea—the traditional heartland of Jewish settlement—became by Roman edict off limits to Jews. Although Roman authorities may have permitted some Jewish habitation around—but not in—Jerusalem, the Jewish leadership fled from Judea to the Galilee. And a very substantial part of the Jewish population followed.

By the end of the second century A.D., Upper Galilee was dotted with Jewish villages. The extant remains of their synagogues testify to the ethnic make-up of the population.

For the archaeologist interested as we are in the Talmudic period, the Upper Galilee has a special advantage—its geographical isolation. Its wooded hills and scarcity of fertile soils have prevented intense settlement of the area in most periods. Bronze Age tells are relatively few. Even in the Iron Age, when a rash of settlements appear, they are small hamlets rather than important centers.

Only in the Roman and Byzantine periods do we find a substantial increase in population. Yet even in this period, an urban culture never developed. The Greek name for the province of Upper Galilee during the Roman period was Tetracomia, or Four Villages.b

The famous Roman road system is in little evidence in Upper Galilee,2 so the area remained isolated despite its relatively dense population during this period.

This isolation, coupled with the density of Jewish population in the Roman-Byzantine period, makes Upper Galilee a tantalizing focus for the archaeological study of early Judaism and the Talmud, especially because the Jewish sages responsible for much of the Palestinian Talmud lived and worked in Galilee at this time.3

We have been excavating in Upper Galilee since 1970. Our first excavations were at Khirbet Shema’, which we chose for several reasons. First, it is a bit off the beaten track and might therefore contribute to our knowledge of how rural folk lived. Second, the massive tomb monument known as the mausoleum of Shammai, a sage who lived at the time of Herod the Great, is located on the site. It is venerated to this day although no one knows whether it marks the true tomb of Shammai. Whether it does or not, the mausoleum indicates an important connection between the past and present at Khirbet Shema’. Finally, the few pieces of monumental architecture which lay strewn about the site suggested the existence of a very important public building, which our excavations later identified as a synagogue.4

We did not want to rely, however, on evidence from a single site to understand ancient life in Galilee. We believed a regional approach was necessary to put the results of the Shema’ dig into context. This led to our excavation of one of the principle villages of Galilee—Meiron,5—which lies just across the wadi from Khirbet Shema’.

Meiron sits on one of the eastern foothills of Mount Meiron, the highest mountain in Israel (3600 feet above sea level). North and east of the settlement is a level plateau which provides one of the few areas for cultivation in this generally rocky and hilly terrain. In addition, the rainfall is as high as anywhere in Israel—44 inches a year.

The synagogue of Meiron—or what is left of it—has been exposed since antiquity. It is the longest ancient synagogue in all Israel, although not by much. The floor of the sanctuary is bare down to bedrock; unfortunately, there is nothing for present-day archaeologists to dig. We did, however, penetrate the accumulation of Islamic and even Crusader remains outside the synagogue in order to reach the foundations of the synagogue. The ceramic evidence proved that the synagogue was constructed in the late third century A.D. The heyday of ancient Meiron was no doubt during the third and fourth centuries, although there was a Jewish settlement here in the early Roman period and perhaps even in the late Hellenistic period.

The principal interest of the excavations, however, has been the village itself. The full extent of settlement cannot be determined, but there is no doubt that Meiron was one of the largest villages in Galilee in the Roman/Byzantine period. Because of its size (about 100 acres) and also because of its location at this critical point in the Meiron mountain chain, it is likely that Meiron was one of the four villages comprising the Tetracomia.

One further factor suggests the ancient importance of Meiron. Meiron to this day is a Jewish pilgrimage center, second in importance only to Jerusalem. Although the pilgrimage tradition arose only in late Medieval times, it is based on the sanctity of Meiron as gleaned from its association with a number of famous Talmudic sages. The supposed tombs of these sages, such as Rabbi Simeon bar Yochai (mid-second century A.D.) and his son Eliezar (late second century A.D.), are located on the slopes of the main hillside. They are the principal objects of pilgrimage, particularly on the festival of Lag B’Omer when hundreds of thousands visit the tombs. (This pilgrimage tradition has, in turn, provided the impetus for numerous Yeshivot or rabbinical seminaries which have been built on and around the ruins of the ancient settlement.)

The earliest evidence of settlement in Meiron is the scanty remains of an Early Roman house (50 B.C.–135 A.D.) found on the lower slope of the hill underneath a much more substantial villa from a later period.

As the population grew, the village spread up the hill in order to avoid the adjacent arable fields which would have provided a much more convenient building site.

To maximize the available tillable land, the early settlers of Meiron utilized a terrace system similar to that which can be seen in the area today. In one case where two broad terrace walls met at an angle, these early settlers added two narrow walls to form a small room in the corner. This room probably served as an occasional shelter for the farmers working the terrace. This field shed may be related to the purgos (a Greek word often translated tower or watch tower) referred to in the Parable of the Wicked Tenants (Mark 12-1–Matthew 21-33), as well as in various rabbinic sources.6

By the time Meiron reached its zenith, settlement had expanded to the crest of the hill where the large basilical synagogue was built. The town was laid out in carefully-defined blocks or insulae, separated by walls, paths and streets. Each block appears to have had its own water cistern. In one street we found a well-preserved drain, not dissimilar to the drains seen even today in the Old City of Jerusalem. The drain we found ran along the side of a street, with a small stone curb separating the edge of the street from the drain. The drain itself consisted of a narrow ditch (about 12 inches wide and 16–20 inches deep), lined with plaster that is still extant for much of its length.

Perhaps each block or insula was owned by a different family or perhaps each was devoted to a separate craft or occupation. The archaeological evidence is consistent with both hypotheses.

In the most extensively excavated of these blocks, which we refer to as M-I, we uncovered a residential area—perhaps for an extended family—together with an area devoted to home industry. We are tempted to call this our domestic-industrial complex were this not too grandiose a term for such a modest operation.

The walls of the building which comprise this block are remarkably well-preserved. Some walls still stand to a height of more than six feet. Now that the building has been fully excavated, one can enter the main doorway—admiring the beautifully dressed and bossed ashlar doorposts—and wander from room to room and from courtyard to courtyard. The stairways to the second floor (and to the roof) are still intact for the first four or five risers. Various installations still stand in situ.

The entrance to the building leads through a long, narrow anteroom, partitioned to create two chambers, each with benches along one side. This part of the building apparently served some public function; remnants of thick wall plaster were found only in this room. Perhaps it served as an office or waiting room.

Gradually, over years of excavation, we pieced together the clues that eventually disclosed the nature of the industrial activity which occurred here. A large stone installation in the outer courtyard contains a series of worked depressions which can best be explained as receptacles for wooden boards that were bent into curved lengths. A workbench in an interior room was found adjacent to a semi-circular stone platform, which seems to have been used for the construction of round containers. A bronze plane (or ma’asad) found nearby provides additional evidence that this was once a cooperage. It is our theory that the extended family that lived here manufactured wooden barrels.

These barrels were doubtless used in connection with the sale and transportation of Galilee’s most important commodity, olive oil. The Galilean climate with its delightful mixture of temperatures (from very hot to very cool) combined with a high water table, makes the area ideal for olive production. The hilly terrain and rocky soil also favor the cultivation of trees.

This particular part of Galilee was renowned in antiquity for the production of olives and oil. In nearby Gush Halav (Giscala), the well-known rebel leader John of Giscala, who successfully challenged Josephus’ command in the Upper Galilee, during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome (66 A.D.–70 A.D.), later became rich in the olive oil trade.7 By Talmudic times (200–500 A.D.), only Teqo’a of Galilee (probably to be identified with Khirbet Shema’) surpassed Meiron and Gush Halav in olive oil production.8 By Gaonic or early medieval times (800–1200 A.D.), the oil of this area was legendary; when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, it was said, only oil from this area could be used for ritual purposes. As the island of Rhodes was famous for its wine, Galilee was renowned for its olive oil.

The many olive presses we found in our excavations confirmed the literary evidence that the olive oil industry was central to the local economy. The olive and its derivatives were also a staple of the local diet.

The barrel-making factory we uncovered was in a building that included a residential quarter. The family’s commercial efforts were undertaken within the context of a home setting. Side by side with the industrial evidence, we found the remains of domestic activity.

The typical ovens or tannurim, used for cooking as well as for heat in the raw Galilean winters, were built into the corners of rooms near the main courtyard. Large mortars for grinding grain and stone slabs for working dough were uncovered near the ovens. Bone needles, ivory pins, and fragments of jewelry were also found scattered in the ruins of the domestic area.

Although annual rainfall in this area exceeds 40 inches, almost all of it falls in the winter. The summers are hot and rainless. Numerous cisterns were found on the site in which rainwater was collected for future use.

For the archaeologist, the excavation of a cistern is especially exciting; it is mostly in cisterns that whole ceramic vessels are found. These vessels were used to draw water from the bell-shaped cisterns, which were often 20 to 25 feet deep.

We were not disappointed in our excavation of the cistern in the barrel-manufacturing villa. Dozens of whole and restorable vessels were found there.

The cistern water itself was used for cooking and personal hygiene, and also for cleaning streets and for preparing industrial products such as the limestone plaster used in many of the indoor floors and walls of the Meiron buildings.

This villa also contained a mikveh, or bathing installation in which the inhabitants could comply with the rabbinic prescriptions for cleanliness and ritual purity. The mikveh or bath was identified by a series of seven rock-cut stairsc leading through a well-cut stone doorway into an underground chamber. While the chamber itself could not be excavated in its entirety because of danger of collapse, partial clearing revealed a rock-hewn interior covered with plaster. Its function as a ritual bath was corroborated by a visit to the site by local rabbinic authorities.

Additional confirmation was provided by the mikveh’s connection to the nearby cistern. This connection consists of a flow-channel which probably allowed water, presumably collected from ritually required rain water stored in the cistern, to drain into the mikveh. Adjacent to the mikveh was a cavity, hewn from bedrock. The cavity seems to have been a “warmer”, or chamber in which fires were lit to heat the water of the adjoining bathing chamber. This would surely have been a great comfort in the cold winters of northern Galilee.

We excavated two other major villas in Meiron. One we have dubbed the Patrician House because of the large numbers of coins and the unusually fine nature of the small finds uncovered within its walls. The second villa we call the Lintel House because of the massive lintel which sits over the main entrance.

The eastern wall of the Patrician House was not free-standing. Earth and rubble filled the space between it and the western wall of the adjacent and higher Lintel House. This earth and rubble fill provided the bedding for a terrace connecting the two buildings. Similar construction may have elicited rabbinic comments in the Jerusalem Talmud (Baba Metzia 10.1) commending the resourcefulness and creativity of town planners and construction engineers in hilly areas.

This same resourcefulness is reflected in the use of bedrock surfaces. Wherever possible, buildings were adapted to the angles of exposed bedrock. The bedrock surfaces were then cut away as necessary to accommodate the floor plans. Exposed bedrock surfaces were worked into benches or hollowed depressions, making additional use of the natural setting. The Meiron synagogue makes use of several bedrock surfaces and was apparently situated to make maximum use of these surfaces.

The most startling discovery of the entire excavation was made in one of the small rooms adjoining the courtyard of the Patrician House, a room we labeled Room F in our excavation records. Unlike all the other rooms we excavated at Meiron, Room F was found undisturbed. When the inhabitants of Meiron departed late in the fourth century, they did not remove any of the contents of this room. We uncovered there 19 large storage jars, broken but largely complete. Even more surprising than the whole jars was the fact that they were still filled with their original contents, largely intact albeit in a carbonized state. In this form, they had survived for nearly two millennia. Subsequent laboratory analysis has identified the three principal products king walnuts, barley, and Egyptian peas (also known as cowpeas or lubya).

Room F also contained a brass bell, broken and corroded but restorable; and two unusually large glass platters, approximately 14 inches in diameter. Although the platters were not intact, the fragments are large and restorable. While these vessels bear no special decoration, their quality is superb. The blue-green glass is clear and fine, and the deep rims are well-executed. These platters can hardly have been every day dishes. They must have been stored in this room and used only for special occasions.

Why was Room F—and it alone—left undisturbed? The answer became clear as we completed the excavation. Room F was an area of dead storage. There were no doorways into this room. Room F was entered either through a trap door or wooden stairs from an upper level. It could not be entered from the ground level of the house, the level at which, in other rooms, food preparation took place.

The food and fancy dinnerware found in this inaccessible room suggests that Room F may have been used as a storage facility for Passover utensils and commodities. Here harvested grains and nuts from the previous season could have been stored and safe-guarded for next Passover. Because Upper Galilee has a relatively cool climate, the first fruits of the spring harvest were not yet ready by Passover time (see Rashbam to the Babylonian Talmud, Pesahim 109a). So grains had to be set aside for next Passover.

According to rabbinic tradition, some of the Passover grain must be specially prepared for the Passover sacrifice. Some of the grain was also used to make matzah, the unleavened bread which symbolized the Passover sacrifice. The Passover grain was required to be parched in fire. While it is not clear exactly what was involved in this process, it probably derives from certain practices for preparation of cereal offerings as described in Leviticus “You shall offer for the cereal offering of your first fruits crushed new grain from fresh ears, parched with fire” (Leviticus 2-14). A sherd from one of the jars in Room F was inscribed with two Hebrew letters spelling ’esh, or “fire,” dramatically raising the possibility that the grain in the vessel was intended for the Passover sacrifice.

The excavation of a small tomb chamber west of the Meiron synagogue provides still another vivid glimpse into life in Talmudic times, refracted through burial customs and revealed in death. Nearly 100 disarticulated skeletons were found in this multi-chambered tomb.

Secondary burial was common among the Jews of Palestine in the Roman period (1st century B.C. to 4th century A.D.). About a year after initial burial, the bones of the deceased were collected in a small box called an ossuary, and re-buried. Thousands of these ossuaries have been found in Jerusalem alone.

From such sites as Meiron and Shema’ we now know that the custom of secondary burial continued well into Talmudic times. The use of the ossuary, however, was rare during this period. The bones were, for the most part, simply collected and reburied—at least this is our explanation of the many disarticulated skeletons we found at Meiron. (We considered the possibility that the ossuaries were made of wood—which would not survive in this moist atmosphere—and a number of iron hinges suggest this as a real possibility. Simple reburial, however, appears to predominate.)

A systematic study of the Talmudic documents dealing with Jewish burial indicates that the custom of collecting and reburying the bones was conceived as an act of reverence for the dead and of respect for the deceased’s mortal remains. “To be gathered to one’s family” was taken very literally and may even reflect a growing acceptance of a belief in resurrection (Genesis Rabbah 96.5). Jews have always ascribed special powers to the land of Israel and several sources suggest that the land itself atoned for the sins of the dead (see Pesikta Rabbati, Piska 1.5, 6 and Jerusalem Talmud Ketubot 12.3). To this day pious Jews in the Diaspora are buried with a clod of dirt from the Holy Land symbolic of this process and also expressive of the hope that they will be returned to Zion at the end of time for resurrection.9

Among the grave goods found in this tomb complex were glass unguentaria, several bowls, ceramic juglets and some lamps. Of special significance, however, was a ceramic inkwell clearly dated to the first century A.D. It may indicate that the deceased was a scribe. A non-canonical mishnaic tractate (Semahot) mentions the practice of burying certain items, such as reed pens, keys, and ledgers, with the dead, even though to some this may smack of heathen practice and rites relating to physical afterlife.

A large metal key was also found in the tomb. One scholar has suggested that the key might have been intended to provide access to the “gates of heaven” when the deceased left no sons to insure his admission to eternal life by prayer. Semahot 8.7 reports that when Samuel the Little died, “his key and ledger were suspended from his coffin because he had no son.”

Prior to our excavations, we were inclined to think of Upper Galilee as an isolated area largely unaffected by the encroaching Greco-Roman culture that permeated most of Syria-Palestine in late antiquity. We assumed, for example, that the language spoken in Upper Galilee was Hebrew or Aramaic, not Greek, as was the case in the more hellenized areas of Lower Galilee and the Aravah.10 But the 1977 season has thus far produced one Greek ostracon from Meiron and one from nearby Gush Halav, suggesting a bit more caution in this regard.

Moreover, substantial quantities of ceramic finewares, some of which were clearly imported, indicates that Meiron’s material culture was in the mainstream of Roman Palestine. In short, it now appears likely that Upper Galilee too was deeply hellenized despite its geographic isolation.

Meiron was abandoned—not destroyed—about 360 C.E. We are not certain why this occurred, although economic factors no doubt influenced the decision. The tremendous monetary inflation of the fourth century led the Empire to change to a policy of taxation in kind, rather than in money. Since the tax was based on population, the more populated villages were overtaxed. A large agricultural community like Meiron had to ante up huge amounts of olive oil.

For whatever reason, the inhabitants of Meiron systematically left their homes shortly after 360, taking with them nearly everything they could and establishing new homes elsewhere. Perhaps some went to the Golan Heights, to the cluster of Jewish villages which are found there from the Byzantine period. Some may simply have joined relatives or friends in nearby Gush Halav, which was occupied at least into the sixth century, or in Khirbet Shema’, which was destroyed in 419 C.E. by an earthquake.

In any event, Meiron was left to the elements—to wait for 1600 years, until twentieth century excavators would uncover it and, in a way, bring it back to life.

a. The details of everyday life that appear in the Talmud are, however, presented indirectly or as they relate to the more crucial religious issue or theoretical matter under discussion. For example, the Talmud gives no guide to building a synagogue; indeed many of the most important details of extant synagogue remains are not mentioned in the Talmud or are alluded to only obliquely. Similarly the mishnaic tractate on ritual baths (Miqvaoth) is a very detailed document; yet it focuses on proper procedures for efficacious bathing, not on the construction of the bath installation itself. Thus, the Talmud provides chiefly indirect glimpses of everyday life, but even this often clarifies excavated remains of the Talmudic period.

b. This designation itself raises problems. We know there were many more than four villages in Upper Galilee in this period. The four villages referred to were apparently the largest—the only ones more than tiny hamlets. Roman documents do not identify the settlements to which the provincial title refers and modern scholarship has not yet successfully identified them with certainty. Unfortunately, it is often difficult to determine the size of an ancient site.

1. These issues are explored in greater depth by E. M. Meyers in the N. N. Glatzer Festschrift, Texts and Responses, M. A. Fishbane and P. R. Flohr, eds. (Leiden, 1975), “The Use of Archaeology in Understanding Rabbinic Materials,” pp. 28–42.

2. For the classic treatment of the geography of this area and the Roman road system, see M. Avi-Yonah, The Holy Land (Grand Rapids, 1966), p. 112 and Map 24.

3. For the most up-to-date treatment of the broader questions facing Galilean studies, see the collection of essays published by Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary, in their winter 1977 issue of Explor entitled Galilee and Regionalism.

4. A synthetic treatment of this work appears as an annual volume, Vol. 42, of the American Schools of Oriental Research, or Ancient Synagogue Excavations at Khirbet Shema’, by E. M. Meyers, A. T. Kraabel, J. F. Strange, et al., Durham- Duke University Press, 1976.

5. The Meiron Excavation Project operates under the auspices of the American Schools of Oriental Research and the W. F. Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. For the preliminary reports of Meiron see C. Meyers, E. Meyers, and J. Strange, “Excavation at Meiron in Upper Galilee—1971, 1972- A Preliminary Report”, Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 214 (1974) pp. 2–25, and E. Meyers, C. Meyers, and J. Strange, “Excavations at Meiron in Upper Galilee—1974, 1975- Second Preliminary Report”, Annual of the American Schools of Oriental Research, Vol. 43 forthcoming.

6. On this matter see the note of Daniel Sperber, “On the Purgos as a Farm Building,” Association of Jewish Studies Review 1 (1976), pp. 359–61.

7. Josephus War II. 591–594; cf. Life 74 and Antiquities 12.120.

8. Many of these sources are collected in Vol. I of the Meiron Excavation Project series, Ancient Synagogue Excavations at Khirbet Shema’, op. cit., pp. 12–16.

9. E. M. Meyers, Jewish Ossuaries- Reburial and Rebirth (Rome, 1971), pp. 73ff.

10. For a discussion of epigraphic remains and the pattern of language usage in Galilee, see E. M. Meyers, “Galilean Regionalism as a Factor in Historical Reconstruction,” Bulletin of the American Schools of Oriental Research 221 (1976), p. 97.

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