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Steve Kramer
Steve Kramer

The Kinneret, aka the Sea of Galilee, beckons  

Like in many countries, Israel’s tourism business has dropped dramatically. In fact, currently (12/12/21) all tourism traffic is restricted because of fear of the latest COVID variant. A brighter spot is internal tourism, which has caused Israel’s Red Sea Resort, Eilat, to boom. While Tel Aviv and Jerusalem have suffered the most, tourism to the city of Tiberias is somewhere in the middle between Eilat and Israel’s two largest cities. 

Recently, we took an overnight trip to Tiberias to visit a few sites of interest. With about 45,000 residents, Tiberias is a relatively small town located on the western side of Lake Kinneret. The lake is one of Israel’s most popular holiday destinations, for tourists and Israelis alike. Named for the Roman Emperor Tiberius, the city is famed for the legendary rabbis who resided there, for its hot springs, for the graves of famous rabbis, and for Tiberias’ colorful lakeside promenade.

We stayed the night at the venerable Shirat Hayam boutique hotel (just 10 rooms/suites), located on the lake at the end of the city’s promenade. The town was almost empty of tourists; we and our friends seemed to be the only guests that evening. 

The 19th century hotel is composed of the ubiquitous, dark grey basalt stone found in the formerly volcanic area surrounding the city. Built in 1850, Shirat Hayam is one of Tiberias’ first hotels. Though small, it was perfectly located for us, with reasonable rates and the tasty breakfast found in nearly all Israeli hotels. The historic building style is enhanced by its decorative tile work, artwork, and old photos.  

For dinner, we walked a short distance to the Pagoda/Decks Restaurant, which has been popular for at least as long as we’ve lived in Israel (since 1990). Situated with spectacular views of the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights, it features an authentic, beautiful pagoda at the entrance. There is an airy pavilion extending over the water with stunning views and authentic porcelain roof tiles. While the Pagoda serves excellent Asian cuisine, we ordered from the Decks’ menu, which features fresh fish and meat.

The restaurant is kosher and has an outdoor kitchen, where grilling is done over charcoal from olive, citrus, and nut trees.We enjoyed an excellent, non-dairy dessert to finish the meal.

In the morning, we visited the Tomb of Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, better known as Maimonides (in Greek) or the Rambam (a Hebrew acronym), who lived in 12th century CE Egypt where he was a great religious authority. Maimonides, “…was born in Cordova, Spain in 1135. Later his family fled from there to Morocco and eventually to Egypt. He was a scholar, philosopher, doctor, writer and one of the greatest minds ever produced by the Jewish people. In Egypt, the Rambam served as the royal physician to the Sultan. The Rambam died in Fustat, Egypt in 1204. Rambam’s grave is in Tiberias. His most comprehensive work on Jewish law was the 14-volume Mishneh Torah [and his Guide to the Perplexed is a great work of religion and philosophy]. The earliest source that identifies Rambam’s grave in Tiberias dates back to 1258, only 54 years after he died.” There were other famous rabbis located in the large grave site, which is a pilgrimage site and an attraction for tourists. The following legend appears by the Rambam’s grave: 

“According to one legend when the Rambam felt that he would soon pass away, he called his students to gather by his bedside. He asked them to put his dead body on a camel and let it walk wherever it wanted. The students were supposed to follow the camel and bury the dead body of the Rambam wherever the camel stopped. When the Rambam passed away, the students put his dead body onto the back of a camel and the camel started walking. Somehow it walked all the way to Tiberias and only stopped walking near the grave of Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai.” (http://www.israelandyou.com/rambams-grave/)

Michal and I have both recently read the The Orchard, by the famous Israeli writer Yochi Brandes, published by Gefen Publishing house, which was founded in Israel in 1981 by our nonagenarian friend Murray Greenfield. (www.gefenpublishing.com/) This is a fascinating piece of historical fiction, describing some of Judaism’s most famous rabbis of the Sanhedrin in the1st century CE, after the Roman sack of Jerusalem. Although the book is fictional, it gives the reader a lot of insight into the lives of famous rabbis, who were actual flesh and blood creatures. The book prompted trip to the Yigal Allon Center at Kibbutz Ginossar, on the Kinneret near Tiberias. 

Our first visit to the museum several years ago was to see the ancient Galilee boat, also known as the “Jesus boat” because of its provenance, which dates back 2,000 years to the beginning of the Common Era. It’s a fascinating story, from discovering the remains when the lake was suffering from drought, to the public’s involvement and excitement in the spectacular find, to the technical aspects of preserving the ancient, waterlogged wood. We examined the boat again and enjoyed the film about the incredible steps necessary to bring it to the surface for restoration.

But our goal on this visit to the museum was to see the special exhibit featuring the new “Sanhedrin Trail, ” most especially the artifacts and displays. We also learned about the eponymous hiking trail, one of Israel’s many special trails (which include the Jesus Trail, Sea to Sea Trail, Israel Trail, Golan Trail, etc.). It traverses about 45 miles in the Galilee region in five segments, interfacing with an innovative augmented reality-based app to bring the Sanhedrin’s history alive for hikers.

The Sanhedrin, the ancient Jewish court system, was located in Jerusalem until the Romans sacked Jerusalem in 70 CE. “After the Temple was destroyed, so was the Great Sanhedrin. A Sanhedrin in Yavneh took over many of its functions, under the authority of Rabban Gamliel. [Rabban was generally the title given to the head of the Sanhedrin.] The rabbis in the Sanhedrin served as judges and attracted students who came to learn their oral traditions and scriptural interpretations. From Yavneh, the Sanhedrin moved to different cities in the Galilee, eventually ending up in Tiberias.

Local Sanhedrins consisted of different numbers of sages, depending on the nature of the offenses it dealt with. For example, only a Sanhedrin of 71 sages, which included the Rabban, could judge a whole tribe, a false prophet or the high priest. There were Sanhedrins of 23 for capital cases, and of three scholars to deal with civil or lesser criminal cases.” (https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/the-sanhedrin)

From the Yigal Allon exhibit: “Located in the central part of the Land of Israel, according to Jewish tradition, ‘Yavne and his Sages’ was the reward requested by Rabbi Yochanan Ben Zakkai from the Roman general Vespasian after Ben Zakkai correctly predicted that Vespasian would become the new emperor. (Note: “Rabban Yochanan greets Vespasian with a ‘Hail Caesar’ and Vespasian is about to punish him for treason before a messenger arrives saying Vespasian had just been elected Rome’s new emperor. The impressed Vespasian then decides to grant Rabban Yochanan one wish. The wish is to spare Yavne, for this is where the Sanhedrin had escaped to and convened.” (https://www.mayimachronim.com/an-eye-opening-history-of-the-sanhedrin/)

‘And from Yavne [the Sanhedrin relocated] to Usha; and from Usha it returned to Yavne; and from Yavne it returned to Usha; and from Usha to Shefaram; and from Shefaram to Beit Shearim; and from Beit Shearim to Sepphoris; and from there to Tiberias,’ the passage continues.

“Artifacts on display include an oil lamp, inscriptions with the words ‘shalom’ and ‘shabbat,’ names of sages such as Yaakov and Shimon in Hebrew and Aramaic, and a treasure trove of silver and bronze coins from the time of the Revolt against the Romans led by Shimon Bar Kokhba (132-135 CE), which was found in the middle of a burned building, suggesting the high price the conflict took even in Galilee. [Also] the original Magdala Stone, which was found in 2009 in Magdala, a large Jewish settlement during the early Roman period located on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee.” Michal and I visited the nearby remains of Mandala shortly after the first lockdown during the pandemic. (https://alhemyarianews.com/2021/10/20/what-was-jewish-life-like-in-israel-at-the-time-of-the-mishna-the-talmud/)

While our whirlwind trip north was accomplished in about 24 hours, it was full of interesting experiences, just an hour and a half away from our home in central Israel. On your next (or first!) trip to Israel, there are many sites to enjoy like these.

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.
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