Jewish Burials Across the Ages – from King David’s tomb on Mt. Zion to the Kidron Valley:
From Kings to prophets, great rabbinical leaders, and the righteous among the nations, throughout the ages, people have requested to be buried in Jerusalem. I recently took a walking tour that focused on Jewish burials from David’s tomb to the Kidron Valley.
The elephant in the room has to be mentioned. We did not walk on the Mount of Olives. We were next to it and saw it so I have to talk about it now, because that is the most important burial place in Jerusalem
The Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, sometimes also referred to as Mount Olives is an important landmark, located next to the Old City of Jerusalem. The Mount of Olives refers to the ridge located east of the Old City and gets its name from the olive groves that at one time covered the land. A significant and meaningful landmark, the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem dates back to biblical times and is important to both Jews and Christians.
History of the Mount of Olives
Today, the Mount of Olives is used as a Jewish cemetery and has been for over 3,000 years, it holds some 150,000 graves. In fact, the Mount of Olives has been used as a burial location for Jews since biblical times, including the burial location for some of the most prominent biblical kings. When the Second Temple was destroyed, the Jews used the Mount of Olives as a celebratory site for the holiday of Sukkot, and many other religious ceremonies and celebrations prior to the destruction of the temple. The mount was also a site for religious Jews making pilgrimages, as it is located above the Temple Mount, and offers one of the best views to do this day. In 1948, after the Arab-Israeli War, an agreement was signed between Jordan and Israel to establish access to the Mount of Olives. There was a 19-year annexation, where Jordan was in control of the area, and most Israelis were not permitted to enter Jordan, and therefore unable to visit the Mount of Olives. During this time, when the Jordanians ruled the area, some 38,000 graves were destroyed, and the area was developed with roads which also destroyed many burial locations.
It wasn’t until the Six-Day War in 1967 when the land went back to the Israelis and a series of efforts were made to restore the land, and the cemetery became functional for burials again. Today, the Mount of Olives offers one of the best views of Jerusalem and is visited by both locals and tourists alike.
Visitors of all religions come from around the world to visit the picturesque Mount of Olives and take in the stunning view from the top. Although it can be hard to reach the top on foot it is worth it to see the vantage point. The panoramic view showcasing the historic city of Jerusalem including the Temple Mount, the Valley of Hinnom, and in the distance, the Judean Desert.
Some of the landmarks found on the Mount of Olives include the Augusta Victoria Hospital with the Lutheran Church of the Ascension and the iconic 50-meter bell tower. There is also the Russian Orthodox Church of the Ascension with its tall and visible white bell tower, Chapel of the Ascension, the Church of the Pater Noster, as well as the Seven Arches Hotel.
The Jewish cemetery is located on the western slope of the mount, along with the Tomb of the Prophets, the Catholic Church of Dominus Flevit, and the Russian Orthodox Church of Mary Magdalene. Perhaps one of the most famous and visited points along the Mount of Olives is at the base, where the Kidron Valley connects and the Garden of Gethsemane with the Church of all Nations.
Where we did go was the Kidron Valley, the valley originating slightly northeast of the Old City of Jerusalem, which then separates the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives. It continues in a general south-easterly direction through the Judean desert in the West Bank, reaching the Dead Sea near Ovnat, and descending 4,000 feet (1,200 m) along its 20-mile (32 km) course. The ancient Mar Saba (‘Saint Sabbas’) monastery is located in the lower part of the valley.
In its upper part, the neighborhood of Wadi al-Joz bears the valley’s Arabic name. The settlement Kedar, located on a ridge above the valley, is named after the valley’s Hebrew name.
The Bible calls the upper course Emek Yehoshafat, the “Valley of Josaphat“. It appears in Jewish eschatological prophecies, which include the return of Elijah, followed by the arrival of the Messiah, and the War of Gog and Magog and Judgment Day.
The upper Kidron Valley holds Jerusalem’s most important cemetery from the First Temple period, the Silwan necropolis, assumed to have been used by the highest-ranking officials residing in the city, with rock-cut tombs dating between the 9th and 7th centuries BCE
The upper Kidron Valley segment north of the Old City was one of the main burial grounds of Jerusalem in the Second Temple period, where hundreds of tombs have survived until today, while the segment east of, and opposite the Temple Mount, boasts several excellently preserved monumental tombs from the same period. Several of the Second Temple period tombs were also used later in time, either as burial or as shelters for hermits and monks of the large monastic communities which inhabited the Kidron Valley during the Byzantine Empire period (4th-7th century). The ancient tombs in this area attracted the attention of ancient travelers, most notably Benjamin of Tudela.
A source of confusion is the fact that the modern name “Kidron Valley” (Nahal Kidron in Hebrew) applies to the entire length of a long wadi, which starts north of the Old City of Jerusalem and ends at the Dead Sea, while the biblical names Nahal Kidron, Emek Yehoshafat, King’s Valley, etc. might refer to certain parts of this valley located in the immediate vicinity of ancient Jerusalem, but not to the entire wadi, and certainly not to the long segment crossing the Judean desert. Similarly, in Arabic, every more substantial wadi has many names, each applied to a certain distinct segment of its course.
The so-called “Tomb of Absalom” or the pillar of Absalom in Kidron Valley
The three monumental tombs on the eastern side of the Kidron Valley are among the most well-known landmarks of ancient Jerusalem. These are, from north to south, the so-called “Tomb of Absalom” (Hebrew: Yad Avshalom), which rises in front of the so-called “Cave” or “Tomb of Jehoshaphat”, the (correctly named) Tomb of Benei Hezir (Benei Hezir is the Hebrew for “sons of Hezir”, meaning the Hezir priestly family ), and the so-called “Tomb of Zechariah”, which could quite likely be the nefesh of the Tomb of Benei Hezir.
Absalom’s Tomb consists of two parts. First, a lower cube was hewn out of the bedrock, decorated with engaged Ionic columns bearing a Doric frieze and crowned by an Egyptian cornice. This part of the monument contains a small chamber with an entrance and two arcosolia (arched funeral niches) and constitutes the actual tomb. The second part, built of ashlars, is placed on top of the rock-hewn cube. It consists of a square pedestal carrying a round drum, itself topped by a conical roof. The cone is slightly concave and is crowned by an Egyptian-style lotus flower. The upper part has the general shape of a tholos and is interpreted as a nefesh or monument for the tomb below, and possibly also for the adjacent “Cave of Jehoshaphat”. The “Pillar of Absalom” is dated to the 1st century CE.
Literally, the word nefesh means ‘soul’, but in a funerary context, it is the term applied to a form of the funerary monument. In descriptions of the tombs of the Jewish nobility, the pyramid shape is also emphasized as the mark of a tomb. This would imply that nefesh and pyramid were synonymous. The Jewish tombs in the Kidron Valley are the best examples of this form of nefesh. They appear as a rectangular, pyramid-capped monument. Similar forms of the nefesh decorate ossuaries, with the addition of a dome-capped column. In Jerusalem the nefesh as a tomb monument stood either above or beside the tomb; set on steps or on a base.
The Wisdom and Wit of Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis
Peters, decided to take revenge on the next test paper, but Brandeis responded brilliantly to all questions. Unhappy and frustrated, Peters asked him the following question: “Mr Brandeis, if you were walking down the street and found a package, a bag of wisdom and another bag with a lot of money, which one would you take?” Without hesitating, Brandeis responded, “The one with the money, of course.” Peters, smiling sarcastically, said, “Just like a Jew. Unlike you I would have taken the wisdom.” Brandeis shrugged indifferently and responded, “Each one takes what he doesn’t have.”
Prof. Peters hate for the Jewish student came to a finale when he scribbled on his student’s final exam the word “idiot” and handed it back to him. A few minutes later, Louis Brandeis got up, went to the professor and said to him in a dignified but sarcastically polite tone, “Prof. Peters, you autographed the exam sheet, but you did not give me a grade…”