Ongoing archaeological excavations at the Zippori National Park have unearthed a public bath which may have been used by famed second-third century Jewish leader and scholar, Rabbi Judah Hanasi, or Judah the Prince.
As recorded in a fascinating episode in the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Megillah, the rabbi bathed with his pupils while pronouncing halachic judgments on a fast day, the 17th of Tammuz. A large 14.5 by 21 meter (48 x 69 foot) pool recently excavated by a team of archaeologists may be this historical bath. The archaeologists, from the Israel Parks and Nature Authority and the Israel Antiquity Authority, were working on a dig made possible through a grant from the Finance Ministry’s Rakefet Foundation.
But if the connection to a great historical Jewish leader alone doesn’t impress, as the floor of the pool was cleared of a meter or two of dirt debris, archaeologists found a surprise bonus — a rare tiny bronze Roman-era figurine of a bull. This beautifully crafted artifact was intentionally placed in the bath’s plaster foundations as a token to bring rain and prosperity, archaeologists believe.
Tsvika Tsuk, director of the archaeology department of the Nature and Parks Authority, told The Times of Israel that he estimates the pool dates to the early third century. The suitable time period, as well as its connection to an ancient aqueduct, monumental size, and massive two-meter wide staircase, makes it a good candidate for the bathhouse described in the story of Rabbi Judah Hanasi. Tsuk believes the pool was built by Jews.
The pool, which is located close to the Zippori National Park visitor’s center, has been known to archaeologists for decades, said Tsuk, who began working in and around the park decades ago. The recent excavation is meant to develop the area for tourism, he said. But as the archaeologists dug in, they realized the pool may have a deeper meaning — a connection to Rabbi Judah Hanasi.
Unearthing the bath has also given the team a better picture of the pool’s use. The staircase indicates that residents would have descended into it for bathing, as well as drawing drinking water, said Tsuk.
“The pool is important for lots of reasons,” said Tsuk, who has made a comprehensive study of the city’s water systems and aqueducts, which he described in a 2000 Biblical Archaeology Review article.
In this once-central Jewish city, there was no nearby natural water source. The fact that the residents were able to obtain enough water for such a massive public bathhouse is impressive. Even today, he said, the thick ancient plaster — 18 centimeter (7 inches) deep on the bottom — doesn’t allow the recent downpour of rain water to escape.
An idol, and that’s no bull
If Rabbi Judah’s pool was constructed by Jews, however, why is there a pagan idol under its foundations?
“The bull appears often in the Jewish religion,” said Tsuk. He added, however, that it was likely a foundational offering harking back to a pagan belief in the symbol of fertility and rain (a la Ba’al in the Canaanite religion, or the Egyptian Apis). The pool’s builders embedded the 5 centimeter (2-inch) bronze figurine in the floor’s thick plaster foundation during construction.
The bull is typical of Roman-era craftsmanship and was discovered by chance through the use of a metal detector during excavations of the pool’s floor. After careful excavation of the embedded plaster, it was discovered that the bull’s back legs were disconnected from its body. They were subsequently reattached by conservator Orna Cohen.
Tsuk pointed to other idolatrous finds in Zippori’s Jewish buildings, such as the image of the god Dionysus in a home that is connected to Rabbi Judah. There are also several mosaics at the site which depict bulls. He said the city was “pluralistic” during this era, and still held echoes of the Roman pantheon. At the same time, he doesn’t rule out the possibility that the Romans themselves built the pool.
The bull figurine, he said, is of exceptional quality and on par with a few rare examples that are found today in the British Museum in London.
“We didn’t expect to find such a thing,” he marveled. “The architecture is more important, but the bull is more exciting.”
The Talmudic story behind the bath, however, is potentially even more provocative than the use of an idolatrous bull.
The bath’s Talmudic back story
The wealthy Rabbi Judah is credited with redacting the Mishnah, the early core of the Talmud. Following the failed Bar Kochba revolt, Jewish refugees fled to the Galilee. Several decades later, Rabbi Judah, the head of the Sanhedrin (a council of 23 or 71 leading rabbis), settled in the pluralistic Jewish city of Sepphoris, or Zippori. It became the heart of Jewish settlement in the region until after his death, after which the Sanhedrin eventually moved to Tiberias.
The Babylonian Talmud story recounting the Zippori bath — the “Karona Shel Zippori” — is unique for several reasons, including the telling of it. According to a scholar at the Academy of the Hebrew Language, the word karona appears in the Talmud only once — in the telling of this story. Aramaic experts disagree on its meaning, but most feel it can be traced to the Greek word for a spring of water. (In what perhaps shores up the archaeologists’ identification, if this pool is indeed the pool in question, Tsuk describes that it is connected by an ancient aqueduct to a natural spring.)
The short, but startling, Talmudic account depicts the rabbi performing a strange activity: bathing in a public bath house on a fast day, the 17th of Tammuz, which commemorates the beginning of the fall of the Second Temple.
In the story, Rabbi Judah, while bathing, appears to ask his pupils whether it isn’t time to “uproot” or negate the holiday of Tisha B’av, a most solemn day of fasting and mourning for the fall of the Temple.
According to an essay written by Talmudic-period historian Prof. Aharon Oppenheimer, due to the peaceful relations between the ruling Roman empire and the semi-independent Jews, the leader of the Sanhedrin was bent on canceling the observance of these two fast days — commemorations of those relations’ nadir.
According to Oppenheimer, the great rabbi’s public bath on this day was an arguably forbidden activity, and his pronouncement was meant to serve as a personal example of the fast day’s renunciation in this time of peace and prosperity for the Jews and cause his pupils to join their master.
According to the essay, however, a call for the cancellation of Tisha B’av was almost heretical. Rabbi Judah’s own father, Rabban Shimon Ben Gamliel, Oppenheimer writes, once said, “He who eats on Tisha B’av, it is as if he had eaten on Yom Kippur” — the Jewish Day of Atonement.
Judah’s pupils strongly objected to their leader’s radical idea, the rabbi appears to go back on his suggestion, and — spoiler — the pair of fast days are still observed by religious Jews today. (Later generations pinned the event to Judah’s desire to delay the fast day, which fell that year, they say, on Shabbat.)
Currently, Tsuk said, there are plans to turn the historic bathhouse back into a viable swimming pool. But even now, visitors to Zippori who are interested in viewing this impressive font of failed radical reform can already do so.