Cliff Churgin

Zippori – Out and About with Cliff

The period between 70 CE and 220 CE were among the most crucial in Jewish history. In this period, between the destruction of the Temple and the compilation of the Mishnah Jewish leaders had to answer the question, “How do we remain Jews without a Temple?” There are a number of sites in Israel associated with this period, but maybe the most exciting is Zippori.

Zippori lies perched on the top of hill 300 meters above sea level, and perched is the correct word since the Talmud says that Zippori gets its name from its mountaintop location – Zippor meaning bird in Hebrew. This area has traditionally been one of the most fertile in the Galilee and so Zippori became one of the most important cities in the Galilee during the Roman period.

In 4 BCE after the death of Herod the Great, Zippori’s inhabitants revolted against the Romans and the city was sacked. However it was rebuilt and when the Great Revolt broke out some 70 years later the inhabitants decided that they had had enough and surrendered to the Roman general Vespasian who spared the city. This led to the city ending the war unscathed, as capital of the Galilee. During this period Roman influence predominated and the town was renamed Diocasarea, however it still remained a mixed city where Jews and pagans mingled.  It was also a prosperous city whose wealth can still be seen today on the numerous rich mosaics that have been uncovered by archeologists.

This prosperity survived another Jewish revolt against the Romans, The Bar Kochva revolt, an uprising that was brutally crushed by the Romans in 135 CE and after which series of harsh anti-Jewish decrees were issued by the Roman government.  It was during this period leaders realized there was a serious danger of the Jewish people completely losing the oral traditions that had been handed down from generation to generation.  By 200 CE the most influential rabbi of the generation, Yehuda HaNasi (Judah the Prince) made the pivotal decision to commit this tradition to writing in a work that has come down to us as the Mishna.

At the same time Yehuda HaNasi, know as Rabbi, moved to Zippori, bringing with him the Sanhedrin and in one fell swoop making the city the center of Jewish life.   Rabbi, came to Zippori for rather prosaic reasons.  According to Jewish tradition, years before, he was walking through the market when a calf, which was being led to slaughter, broke away and tried to hide behind Rabbi.  He responded “Go, for this is why you were created.”  In Heaven it was decreed that since Rabbi could not find compassion for the calf, no compassion would be found for him.  For many years after Rabbi suffered from illness and so moved to Zippori in hopes that the clean mountain air would alleviate the symptoms.

Thus Zippori became the place where the Mishna was brought together and where a vibrant Jewish community arose, the Talmud records that the city hosted 18 synagogues and many study houses – although only one synagogue has been found so far.  Excavations have shown, however, that Tzippori contained a rich, culturally diverse population.  Most of the exquisite mosaic work has to do with themes like the Roman gods or the celebrations surrounding the annual flooding of the Nile. In one mansion there is evidence that a mosaic of the Roman god of wine Dionysius was overlayed leading to speculation that perhaps a new (Jewish) owner did not wish to see this in his house.

Today Zippori is one of the Galilee’s most well preserved sites including the famous “Mona Lisa of the Galilee” mosaic and, during certain times, actors portraying historical figures bringing the history of the city to life.  Meanwhile excavations continue especially in the lower city, with hopes of uncovering the Jewish quarter and casting a brighter light on this vital era.

About the Author
Cliff Churgin is a technical writer living in Jerusalem. He made Aliyah in 1983 and is married with four children.