On the trail of the Sanhedrin

Michal and I had a wonderful tour in the beautiful Lower Galilee recently with friends. We had booked a two night stay at a Lake Kinneret (aka Sea of Galilee) Gomeh resort hotel, part of the large Isrotel chain. We will definitely return there, due to the beautiful lakeside location near the ancient city of Tiberias, the design and cleanliness of the hotel, and the excellent standards of the Isrotel chain. As a bonus, the hotel has one of the best fitness rooms I’ve used, which is enhanced by a beautiful view of the lake.

Our excellent guide, Anat Harrel, met us after breakfast to drive us around the Galilee region and learn about the area, its inhabitants, and the wonderful Jewish history which pervades the entire region. The first bit of knowledge that I gained corrected my misconception that the prefixes (Upper and Lower) Galilee designated their northern and southern geographical placement. Instead, it’s the Galilee mountains that the prefixes refer to: higher mountains in the Upper Galilee and lower mountains in the Lower Galilee. As Anat pointed out, the height of the mountains is the most pertinent characteristic. In Upper Galilee the peaks are separated by steep-side narrow gorges while Lower Galilee is a region of large hills. Both are popular touring and hiking areas.

Roughly 74% of Israel’s population of nearly 10 million is Jewish.  Another 21% are Muslim, including the Bedouin Arabs. The rest are Druze, Christian Arabs and “others.” Arabs and Druze represent about half of the Galilee’s population, living in towns and villages. The remainder are Jews, whose percentage has risen dramatically in the last few decades, negating the former Arab majority. 

The Bedouin are a group of nomadic tribes who migrated into the Levant (eastern Mediterranean coastal area) mostly from the Arabian Peninsula after the early 7th century Muslim conquest. Anat described how the Galilee was part of the ancient Fertile Crescent which stretched from Mesopotamia to Egypt. The Bedouin tribes remained scattered, marginal groups until the late 19th century, when Arabs from all over North Africa and Arabia were drawn to Palestine because of the the growth and development of the area under Ottoman rule and eventually under the British Mandate. 

Additionally, the burgeoning influx of Zionists from Europe drew Arab workers. Even today, a huge proportion of the Arabs’ economy is tied to Jewish medical, agricultural, commercial, and industrial development. Of course, the large population of Israeli Arabs has fostered its own economic progress as well. Unfortunately, the Bedouin population has lagged behind other Arabs in this regard due to many complexities within its society. Bedouins of the Galilee are doing much better, Bedouins of the Negev not so much. The Galilee Bedouin are no longer nomadic. Abundant water and available agricultural land has changed their lifestyle to a settled one. This is in contrast to Negev desert Bedouin, about 40% of whom have resisted living in towns developed for them by the Israeli government. In the Negev, one can see many ramshackle settlements in which Bedouin sheep and camel herders pitch their tents or construct huts. It’s very complicated, with no easy solution in sight.

Anat first took us to the archaeological dig at Usha, a site undergoing extensive exploration because of its importance as one of the several towns where the Sanhedrin was ensconced. “The Great Sanhedrin was a religious assembly of 71 sages who met in the Chamber of Hewn Stones in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Great Sanhedrin met daily during the daytime, and did not meet on the Sabbath, festivals or festival eves. It was the final authority on Jewish law. The Sanhedrin was led by a president called the nasi (lit. “prince”) and a vice president called the av bet din (lit. “father of the court”). The other 69 sages sat in a semicircle facing the leaders. It is unclear whether the leaders included the high priest.” ( With the destruction of Jerusalem’s Holy Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from the city, the Sanhedrin was forced to relocate.

2,000 years ago most Israelites lived in Judea, where the capital Jerusalem was located. Because of Israel’s position as a pathway between Europe, Asia, and Africa, it was most often occupied and ruled by large nations such as the Babylonians, Persians, Greeks, Romans (and eventually Muslims, Arab and non-Arab).  

Queen Shlomzion (aka Alexandra) was the Hasmonean monarch of Judea during a peaceful time before Rome dominated the region. After her death, Shlomzion’s two sons quarreled over who would replace her as monarch. They unwisely decided to ask the Roman General Pompeii to choose between them. No surprise: Rome soon began their conquest of Judea, taking control over the zealous Jews (there were many assimilationists who cooperated). The horrific climax came in 70 CE when the Second Temple was destroyed by General Titus, the future Roman emperor. Rebellious Jews remained in the land after the war but were expelled from Judea, dispersing throughout the Land of Israel and the outer world – the Diaspora. Most Judeans moved to the Galilee, which became the center of the Jewish world.

In the Talmud is told the story of our people. It says,  Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai, the nasi at the time of the Roman onslaught, realized that various factions among the Jewish people were tearing themselves to pieces. Thus Jerusalem would fall to the Romans, perhaps ending the Jewish people. Ben Zakkai contrived a plan to escape the doomed capital and move the Sanhedrin to Yavne. His ploy was to feign death and be carried out of the city in a coffin, and then to meet with the Roman General Vespasian. 

“Ben Zakkai entered the general’s tent and addressed Vespasian as ‘Your Majesty.’ You are deserving of death on two accounts,” said Vespasian. “First of all, I am not the emperor, only his general. Secondly, if I am indeed emperor, why did you not come to me until now?” Rabbi Yochanan answered: “You are an emperor, because otherwise the Holy Temple would not be delivered in your hands.… And as for your second question, the reckless Zealots [the most militant faction] would not allow me to leave the city.”

While they were speaking, a messenger came and told Vespasian that Emperor Nero was dead and he had been appointed the new Roman emperor. Vespasian was so impressed with Rabbi Yochanan’s wisdom that he offered to grant Rabbi Yochanan anything he wanted as a reward. Rabbi Yochanan made three requests. The primary request was that Vespasian spare Yavne – which would become the new home of the Sanhedrin – and its Torah sages. (

Ben Zakkai realized that the study of the Torah and observance of its Mitzvot, (commandments) would allow the Jewish People to continue to exist wherever they were exiled to in the world, and it would enable them to keep the memory of the Temple burning in their hearts, so that it would never be forgotten. (

His strategy allowed the sages to survive and the Great Sanhedrin to continue its religious and legal discussions and arguments. So the Great Sanhedrin continued its mission of developing Jewish law first in Yavne, then in Usha, then back to Yavne and a return to Usha (exact reason unknown), to Shefar’am, and then to Bet Shearim, Zippori, and finally to Tiberias, all in the Galilee except Yavne.

Usha, which was a work in progress and not yet officially open to the public, was quite interesting. It was a commercial town, with dozens of olive and wine presses, all with mikvehs, which are unique Jewish ritual baths. Usha was most certainly a commercial center where farmers could bring their olives or grapes to be pressed. The multiplicity of presses indicates that rentals were a mainstay of the town. 

Anat commented on the many mikvehs which were located by each press and whose use ensured that the processed oil and wine were pure and sacred. Parenthetically, she assured us that two signs ensured that a site was Jewish: the presence of mikvehs and also of menorahs, either in situ or carved symbolically on walls. Usha came to its end in the year 749 CE, when it was abandoned after its destruction by a huge earthquake. 

The Sanhedrin members at Usha were the ones who formulated the Edicts of Usha (Oral Laws) which stipulated providing food, shelter, and clothing for children; that elderly parents must be honored and cared for; that only a fifth of one’s assets could be donated – so as not to impoverish the donor; to teach your children a profession; that settling in Israel equals fulfilling all the mitzvoth (obligations); and to establish a food bank to support newcomers for a week. 

Rabbi Judah ha Nasi (the Prince) was born in Usha and is famous for his scholarship and for authoring and/or editing the Mishnah, which transcribed the Halacha (oral law) into the first major work of rabbinic literature. He was fond of saying: “I have learned much from my teachers, even more from my friends and fellow students, but most of all I learned from my pupils.” He used his great wealth to support the poor and needy. “Rabbi” established his first Torah academy at Shefar’am; later he moved to Beit She’arim, where he remained for many years. He became sickly, suffering from pain in his teeth, his eyes and finally in his intestines. When his infirmities became more severe, he was advised by his doctors to move to Zippori, built on a mountain-top, where the air was clear and healthful. Although he lived for 17 years in Zippori, he returned to Bet She’arim where he was buried. 

Bet She’arim, was our next destination. Its name indicates that it had two gates, an unusual occurrence necessitating fortifying two critical entrances. But first we stopped for lunch at one of Anat’s favorite Bedouin restaurants, Al Sultan. There we started our meal with a standard but excellent and large selection of tasty salads and humus with mushrooms and pita. I had a delicious vegetarian dish with rice and Michal had makluba, a mixture of rice, vegetables, and chicken. Naturally we were offered Arab pastries and sweet Arab coffee for dessert.

In Bet She’arim we toured the huge necropolis dating back to the first three centuries of the Common Era. This site is now a national park. The soft chalk limestone in the area was excavated as needed by wealthy families who had many ancestors buried close together. There were also smaller rock-cut tombs for less substantial families. The bodies were placed in coffins. A year later, their bones were retrieved (that was all that remained) and placed in an ossuary, which could hold many remains. The necropolis was destroyed and abandoned after a huge earthquake in 363 CE.

Our last stop was at Zippori, also known by the Roman name Sephoris. Its name is derived from the word for “bird.” Besides its importance as an impressive Roman town and a cosmopolitan city, it has always been know for its outstanding views of the surrounding countryside and its invigorating air. It was the capital of the Roman region of Galilee, a military and commercial crossroads with a mixed population of Jews and Romans. Zippori was also well known and popular for its famous mosaic, the “Mona Lisa of the Galilee,” well preserved in the home of a wealthy Roman. It’s easy to tell where the Jews lived because of the presence of the many mikvehs.

Besides the “Mona Lisa” mosaic floor, there’s another outstanding floor in a synagogue. The mosaic is in three panels portraying first the story of the Covenant; daily life and a ubiquitous zodiac in the middle panel; and items needed for the hoped-for, expected Third Temple in the last panel. This same message was portrayed  in many synagogues of that era. This synagogue is the only one remaining of the 18, which according the Talmud stood in the city.

This fascinating tour of the journey of the Sanhedrin from Jerusalem to Zippori leaves only the last location, Tiberias, to be explored. One of Judaism’s four holy cities, Tiberias is the largest in the Sea of Galilee region and a vacation spot popular with Israelis, tourist, and pilgrims. It’s currently enjoying a renewal, so we’ll be sure to get back to the area soon to learn more about the Great Sanhedrin and its impact on Judaism.

About the Author
Steve Kramer grew up in Atlantic City, graduated from Johns Hopkins in 1967, adopted the hippie lifestyle until 1973, then joined the family business for 15 years. Steve moved to Israel from Margate, NJ in 1991 with his family. He has written more than 1100 articles about Israel and Jews since making Aliyah. Steve and his wife Michal live in Kfar Saba.
Related Topics
Related Posts