If you forced me to pick my favorite spots in Israel, Beit Shearim would be up near the top. So I am always happy to learn and relearn about the ancient hometown of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi.
The name Beit Shearim was always assumed to mean “house of many sheaves”, a place of abundance. Originally given as a gift to Bereniki, a descendent of Herod the Great, by the Roman Emperor Titus, it sits overlooking the Jezreel Valley, one of the most fertile areas of Israel. The town did not revolt against the Romans during the Great Revolt during the 1st century C.E. and so did not suffer destruction.
By the time that Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi moved the Jewish High Court, the Sanhedrin, there, the town was a thriving, wealthy Jewish center. Beit Shearim was never a large city with many different types of people, like was the case in neighboring Tzipori. Despite his upbringing in this Jewish shtetl, Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi himself was rumored to be friends with the Roman emperor Septimus Severus. The town continued to exist and thrive until it was damaged during the Gallus Revolt. A subsequent earthquake in 386 further damaged the town. From the early Islamic period, the town continued to decline until it faded into obscurity sometime before the Crusader period.
Alexander Zaid, the Jewish watchman who lived and died on the land that had once been Beit Shearim, rediscovered it in 1936. His granddaughter, Tali Zaid, who still lives on the family estate, called in archaeologist Adi Erlich in 2016 before undertaking some improvements in the yard. Erlich found in the Zaid estate the remains of a city gate from the late Roman period. Most settlements of that time did not have gates because of Pax Romanus – peace throughout the Roman Empire. Certainly, a small town like Beit Shearim would not have been walled during this time. There is no evidence of a fortress here, either. The presumed absence of gates led to the prior explanation of the Beit Shearim’s name, due to its location and affluence.
But maybe those exact qualities necessitated gates in the city. We could perhaps see the city as a “gated community”; its affluence leading to a need for security, not against foreign armies but from resident bandits. The gate is only half excavated, so keep your eyes out for what the other half will teach about life in this Jewish town!
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