Exploring the home of the Mishnah is worth the trip
by Peter Abelow
Imagine standing on a street that the Tannaim might have walked on 1800 years ago — talk about touching our Jewish souls with our soles! Within the last ten years, the archaeologists’ spades have revealed much of the ancient city of Tzippori, one of the most important Jewish centers in the period of the Mishnah.
In Masechet Rosh Hashanah the Talmud teaches that with the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 CE, the Sanhedrin went into exile from Jerusalem along with the Jewish people. The court moved from Jerusalem to Yavneh, and eventually in the mid 2nd century to Beit Shearim and from Beit Shearim to Tzippori and from Tzippori to Teveria. Its leading Jewish citizen at the end of the 2nd century was Yehudah Hanasi and it was here that he completed the massive project of compiling Torah she-be’al peh [the oral law] into one organized set of six volumes, the Mishnah.
The earliest reference to Tzippori seems to be in the book of Joshua (19:35). In Masechet Megillah, we learn that one of the fortified cities listed in this verse is Tzippori. “So why is it called Tzippori?” asks the Talmud and then answers, because “it sits on the mountain top like a bird (tzipor).” Every visitor to Tzippori should make sure to include a stop in the restored Crusader building on the top of the hill. Take the short flight of stairs to the observation roof: the reason the Talmud described the city in this picturesque way will be obvious.
We know from Jewish and Roman historical records that Tzippori was a Roman capital of the Galil and a major commercial center as well as a place of Jewish learning. There seem to have been two very different communities living side by side. One of the first restored areas that the modern day visitor encounters on a tour of the site is the Roman theater. The Tzippori theater is not as large or impressive as other theaters from the same time period which have been discovered and restored in Beit Shean or Caeserea. But I have often wondered as I stand in the Tzippori theater whether it wasn’t precisely this place which inspired our Sages to interpret the first verse of Psalms as prohibiting Jews from attending the Roman theaters (Masechet Avodah Zarah).
Continuing a short distance past the theater, archaeologists have uncovered what they believe to be a street of a Jewish neighborhood of Tzippori. The discovery of a number of mikvaot that can be clearly seen in the remains of houses that once lined the alley is a most convincing clue. For those of us inspired by historic speculation, it is tempting to wonder, did Yehudah HaNasi himself walk on this street? It is entirely possible that Hillel, Shammai, Rebbe Meir or Rabbi Akiva once stood on these very stones! For this alone, it is worth a visit to Tzippori.
Walk a few feet towards the top of the hill and 800 years forward in time. The building is the previously mentioned Crusader fortress, but many of its building stones were from the Mishnah/Roman period, conveniently picked up by the Crusaders on the site and incorporated into the walls. Before entering the building, pay special attention to the corner stones. They are Roman sarcophagi. There is an observation deck on the roof from which, on a clear day, you can see Tzfat to the north, and from the Golan on the east clear across Israel to the Carmel Mountains and Haifa on the west.
On the main floor of the building is a short video about Tzippori (well worth viewing) and on the second floor, a small museum. There are interactive computers that add to one’s appreciation of the site and provide a fun activity for children. Another advantage of the museum – it’s air conditioned, a welcome respite on a hot summer day.
From an archaeological point of view, one of the highlights of a visit to Tzippori is the restored 3rd to 5th century Roman villa. The mosaic floor of the triclinium (dining room) is very well preserved. It depicts the story of Dionysis, the Greek god of drinking and revelry. Was this the house of a Roman or of an assimilated Jew? One thing that is very clear, the owner was certainly well off and the Talmudic quote displayed on the wall underscores this fact. “‘Who is a rich man?’ says Rabbi Jose, ‘He who has a bathroom near his dining room.’” Indoor plumbing was a luxury of the wealthy. Here we see the signs of an ancient bathroom just a few feet from the dining room.
So far, everything we have discussed is on the hill. A visit to Tzippori would not be complete without a visit “downtown.” Do not leave Tzippori without a stroll on the Cardo, the colonnaded street, to view the “Nile Mosaic” in the large public building at the foot of the street. If your children played the mosaic game on the computers in the Crusader fortress, they will recognize patterns on the floor of the entrance hall. It is also fun to try to find the many animals in the Nile Mosaic. Ancient history savants may ponder why the people of Tzippori, so far from Egypt, chose this theme.
The Talmud says that when Yehuda HaNasi died, he was eulogized in the 18 synagogues of Tzippori. To the best of my knowledge, two have been discovered so far, but neither is open to the public yet. One of these, near the parking lot, had a magnificent mosaic floor, similar to those which have been discovered in Teveria, Bet Alpha and Jericho. In the not too distant future, the floor will be restored and the synagogue opened to the public, adding another meaningful feature to a visit to this city.
Tzippori is part of the National Parks Network. It can be reached by a short drive through Moshav Tzippori, just a few kilometers south of HaMovil junction (on the Tiberias – Haifa road). On selected evenings during the summer, the park is open for a special program in which actors, dressed in Roman attire, stroll the streets and recreate the ambiance of the Roman period.
Peter Abelow was a Jewish educator in the United States for more than 20 years before making aliyah with his family in 1990. He is now a licensed tour guide, specializing in family and group tours that make Israel come alive “Jewishly.”