One day in the year 1570, Rabbi Haim Vital walked from Safed to the cave where Abbaye and Rava — Babylonian sages — were buried. Stopping along the way to practice the meditative prayer he wanted to deliver at the gravesite, Rabbi Vital suddenly began shaking and words like “Torah” and “wisdom” poured involuntarily from his mouth.
When he returned to Safed, he was greeted by famous mystic and teacher Rabbi Yitzak Luria (Ha’ari) with great honor. “Why do you speak to me with such respect?” asked Rabbi Vital humbly.
“I am not addressing you, but the Righteous One, Benaiah ben Yehoyada. His spirit has entered your soul,” replied Ha’ari.
Three months later, the two rabbis were strolling together along the road to the Abbaye and Rava cave when the Ha’ari stopped abruptly and pointed. “This is where Benaiah ben Yehoyada lies buried!” he declared. “You have indicated the exact spot where I sat to practice my prayer!” breathed Rabbi Vital.
Worship at a holy site is implied in the Scriptures. Caleb ben Yefune, one of the 12 spies sent by Moses to check out the Promised Land, returned with an attitude entirely different than that of the other spies. While the rest were filled with doubts, Caleb “silenced the people . . . and said, ‘we should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.’” Numbers 13:30. According to rabbinical interpretations of the passages in Numbers, his change of heart occurred after he stopped in Hebron to pray at the graves of the patriarchs and matriarchs.
The story of Caleb ben Yefune is the earliest indication we have that prayer at a holy graveside is part of Jewish tradition. Talmudic sages instructed Jews to visit a grave when faced with a national calamity — especially a drought or plague.
It didn’t matter to whom the grave belonged, for stopping there would cause the worshiper to dwell on death and contemplate repentance. A 16th century mystic wrote that Jews who failed to repent would soon find themselves in the grave.
Generally, however, people make their pilgrimages to the graveside of a saintly Jew, a Righteous One. Such visits are immensely popular probably because it may be easier to pour out fears, despair, hopes, and gratitude next to a tombstone than to pray more abstractly to God.
It is no accident that many Graves of the Righteous (kivray hatsadikim) are sprinkled all over Safed and its environs. After all, Safed is one of Israel’s Four Holy Cities — together with Hebron, Tiberias, and Jerusalem. This title dates back to the Ottoman conquest of the Land of Israel in the 16th century, when these were the four main centers of Jewish life.
If you are in Israel, a trip to a few of these sites can be a delightful and, perhaps, uplifting excursion suitable for what we call, in this country, “HaHagim” — The Holidays (Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, and Sukkoth). You will undoubtedly run into pious Jews praying at several of the gravesides. Traffic is especially heavy at the tomb of Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel in Amuka, where singles plead for assistance in finding a lifelong companion.
Buried in a cave on Mount Yavnit inside Biriya Forest and just outside Safed, Rabbi Abbaye and Rabbi Rava are generally mentioned together. Their famous debates contributed immensely to the Talmud during the third and fourth centuries C.E. From the path by the graves there is a breathtaking view of the Hula Valley, the Golan Heights hovering just over its settlements, and the Hermon mountain range.
Benaiah ben Yehoyada was Solomon’s “hit man” who would do away with an enemy whenever the King gave the order. Why this makes him so Righteous is a mystery, although mystics make an issue of the biblical description of Benaiah as a valiant fighter who killed a lion on a snowy day.
Safed mystics felt the story symbolized the conquest of natural human urges and believed that Benaiah was deeply concerned with Jewish law. Jews have prayed at his graveside — marked only by a pile of stones until the mid-20th century — ever since it was “revealed” half a millennia ago.
The tombs of countless Righteous Ones have been revealed only by guesswork or spiritual inspiration. Sometimes, however, archaeological finds lend credence to tradition — as in the case of Yonatan ben Uziel, whose grave is marked by a large, impressive building near Amuka in Biriya Forest.
This particular burial site is mentioned in early Jewish sources. A book from the middle ages found in storage in Cairo, for example, notes renovations taking place at the grave of Rabbi Yonatan ben Uziel in Amuka.
Not only is there written evidence of a gravesite here, but archaeological proof has been uncovered as well. When the floor of the structure above the tomb collapsed, a few years ago, a sarcophagus was discovered below. While the identity of the body that once lay in the sarcophagus is unknown, it is a fact that during the time that Rabbi Yonatan lived and studied in the valley, Jews were buried in sarcophagi.
Considered by Talmudic sages to have been the greatest of all Rabbi Hillel’s 80 students, Yonatan ben Uziel could concentrate on his studies of Jewish law with such terrible intensity that a “chicken flying over his head would burn up.” According to Talmudic tradition, after he had translated the Five Books and the Prophets into Aramaic, a heavenly voice shook the world and boomed out “Who has dared reveal my secrets to mankind?”
“I did, Lord,” said the Rabbi. “But not in my honor, rather to keep disputes in Israel to the minimum.” And the Lord accepted his explanation.
However, Rabbi Yonatan didn’t stop there. He decided to translate the Writings, especially the book of Daniel, with its secrets about the coming of the Messiah. At this point, God put his foot down and said, “Stop! Divulge my secrets no more!”
Righteous Rabbi Binyamin of Safed was in charge of the community’s charity box in the Talmudic period. Legend holds that one year, during a terrible drought, he emptied out the box so that people would have enough money to survive.
A widow with seven children appeared before him and pleaded for some cash. Since there was nothing left to give out, and the woman and her children were wholly destitute, he financed them with his own money.
When the time came for Rabbi Binyamin to meet his Maker, the angels complained to God that the man was too saintly to die. God added 22 years to his life, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet.
Quite possibly Nahum Ish Gamzu (Nahum man of Gamzu) got his name from the village of Gamzu, near Lod, where he was born. But the name is also symbolic, for gamzu is a combination of the first two words of the famous Yiddish and Hebrew expression gam zu letova or “it’s all for the best.”
His grave is in Safed, where he lived and taught during the difficult years of the Roman era. One day, or so they say, he was sent by the Jewish community to bribe the Romans into abolishing an anti‑Jewish decree. Taking a bag full of money, he started off on his journey, stopping overnight at an inn. While he was asleep the innkeeper removed the gold and filled the sack with dirt and stones, instead. Thus when Nahum reached the Roman Caesar and opened the bag with the “present,” there was nothing inside but dirt. The Romans were furious.
Just in time, God sent Elijah the prophet in the guise of a Roman advisor. “This is not an ordinary bag of dirt,” he told the Romans. “Throw the dirt in battle and it will turn into spears and arrows which destroy your enemy.”
The Romans went to battle, the dirt turned to arrows, and the Romans were victorious. Not only was the decree abolished but Nahum was sent home with a bag of precious stones.
Upon Nahum’s return to the inn overnight, the owner was so surprised to see him alive that he asked what had taken place during the audience with the Caesar. Nahum replied, “I gave them a bag of dirt and stones and they gave me back a bag of jewels,” he replied.
So the innkeeper took a bag of dirt and went to visit the emperor. “This is the same dirt that Nahum Ish Gamzu gave you,” he told the ruler. But this time the dirt remained dirt. And the innkeeper was put to death. . .
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Aviva Bar-Am is the author of seven English-language guides to Israel.
Shmuel Bar-Am is a licensed tour guide who provides private, customized tours in Israel for individuals, families and small groups.